Germany is a federal republic divided into 16 states. These states are called Bundesland(pl. Bundesländer) and each one of them has their fair share of places to visit and things to do. This series of posts titled “States of Germany” seeks to explore each state one by one and tell you a little bit about them. Feel free to post about things I have missed out on.
After what seems to be a very long time, I am doing one of these posts again. Last time, I posted about the state of Brandenburg, which completely envelops Berlin. Berlin, which is my favorite state, also holds the distinction of being one of only three German city states: the other two being Hamburg and Bremen. It is also Germany’s largest city with a population of more than 3.5 million. Of course, Berlin is also Germany’s capital. The coat of arms of the city state is a bear with a five leaf crown on top.
The city of Berlin has a very rich and checkered history. It became the capital of the newly formed German Empire in 1871 under Kaiser Wilhelm I. As the capital, the city experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity. After World War I and the end of the German Empire, the city of Berlin was home to the enlightened German class. The city has always been very open-minded and accepting of diversity of all kinds. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, Berlin was divided into the American, British, French and Soviet sectors. The former three later united to form West Berlin which became a territory of West Germany and the latter became East Berlin and the capital of the German Democratic Republic aka East Germany/DDR/GDR.
Through much of the Cold War, East and West Berlin were divided by the Berlin Wall (1961 – 1989) – called the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” funnily enough by the GDR authorities. It was possible to cross from the western to the eastern side and vice versa through checkpoints, among which Checkpoint Charlie is by far the most famous one. But the wall was eventually torn down single-handedly by David Hasselhoff in 1989*. In fact, Berlin celebrated 25 years of this event just last year. German Reunification soon followed and Berlin was once again a united city.
Berlin is divided into twelve Stadtteile (boroughs or districts in English). The one in the middle is unimaginatively called Mitte and is so damn full of history, it’s not even funny. In this borough alone there is the Museum Island, Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag building which houses the lower house of German parliament and Unter den Linden which is Germany’s answer to Paris’s Champs-Elysees. To the north-west of Mitte lies the Reinickendorf borough which is home to Berlin’s main international hub: Tegel Airport as well as awesome Soviet era housing complexes which never end. To the east of Reinickendorf is Pankow which is a relatively quiet part of the city.
To the south of Pankow is the Friederichshain-Kreuzberg district which has a large multicultural population. The picturesque Oberbaum bridge over the Spree River is in this district. This bridge was made famous by the German movie Run Lola Run. To the east of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg is the Lichtenberg borough where the Berlin Zoo is located. The borough also used to have a former East German Secret Police (Stasi) prison which is now a museum. The Marzahn-Hellersdorf borough lies further eastwards and is also called home by a large multicultural population of the city.
As with every city, Berlin’s center is more crowded and lively and the suburbs are quieter. The southernmost borough of Treptow-Köpenick is one such part of the city which is mainly residential in nature. The Neukölln district is located to the west of Treptow-Köpenick and is a known hipster as well as immigrant hotspot. The Tempelhof-Schöneberg district is located westwards. The former Tempelhof Airport is in this district. The airport is now a park for everyone to enjoy and is a great place to spend summer afternoons.
Moving ever westwards, we come upon the Steglitz-Zehlendorf borough which is full of nature and lakes such as the Wannsee Lake where the infamous Wannsee Conference was held. This event is featured in the Hollywood movie Conspiracy. To the north of Steglitz-Zehlendorf is the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district, which is more or less a run of the mill city part with housing and shopping centers. Nothing special going on here. Berlin’s westernmost district is Spandau where the Havel and Spree rivers meet. Because of this, there’s lots of riverside fun to be had here. Spandauer Forest is also located within this borough and has great nature for hiking and for those Instagram pictures of trees with heavy captions you always wanted to take.
So, now that you are all informed about Berlin’s history and geography, let’s have that list of stuff to do, shall we?
Visit and walk through the Brandenburg Gate. Walking through this historical landmark is something Berliners were denied for decades because of the Cold War.
- Go inside the Reichstag building and up to the famous glass dome.
- Take some time to go to the KaDeWe departmental store and pretend to buy expensive and exotic things.
- Tour the Spree river via a boat cruise.
A section of the Berlin Wall is preserved as a permanent work of art called the East Side Gallery. It is definitely a place you want to go.
- Be the typical tourist and go to Checkpoint Charlie. While there, have your photo taken with mock American and Soviet soldiers.
- Visit the Museum Island, and specially the Pergamon Museum.
- Take the elevator up to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) on Alexanderplatz and enjoy awesome panoramas of the city.
East Germany’s socialist car was the Trabant aka Trabi. You absolutely must take the Trabi Safari through the city.
- If you are in Berlin during the Festival of Lights, go out at night and enjoy the stunning light shows.
Sit and take in the cool atmosphere of the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz. If you want to take photos of the iconic blue roof, cross the road and go to the Panorama Punkt which incidentally has the fastest elevator in all of Europe.
- If you, like me, love everything USSR, walk along the Karl-Marx Allee while listening to patriotic Soviet music on your iPod/MP3 Player.
- Take a tour of the famous Charlottenburg Palace.
*The Germans will claim something about an erroneous announcement on the telly by GDR government officials. Feel free to ignore that.