A friend once remarked that their visit to Berlin had been unremarkable, referring to its modern look and acute lack of visible historical character. So it was with some trepidation that I departed by train for the 5.5-hour trip this summer.
But after three days of exploring this magnificent city, my experience could not have been better. Berlin’s fantastic mix of architecture, wide streets and storied history, told through its many memorials, museums and landscapes, made it more than worth the trip.
Estimates put the devastation of Berlin from World War II at about 70 percent destroyed, with more than 95 percent at least partially damaged. Even today in the fully renovated Reichstag, the center of government in Germany, pock marks, which tell the tale of the more than 1,500 Nazi soldiers who made their last stand here in 1945, can be seen in the upper structures.
Many of the Third Reich sites were destroyed in the war and have intentionally not been resurrected, so a guide for what remains or is hidden is essential and informative.
The Reichstag building is a great place to get your bearings and begin your exploration of the city. Take the time to climb the glass cupola and explore the four sides of the rooftop, looking for the main city landmarks described along the rail. Arrive before 9 a.m. or make a reservation at the rooftop restaurant to beat the crowds, and be sure to pick up the English guide at the information booth.
The huge park sprawling out from the entrance of the Reichstag building is called the Tiergarten, where a memorial to politicians who opposed Hitler is located. The slate tabs show the names, party, date and location of death of the democratic politicians who became Hitler’s first victims. Those who died in the concentration camps are indicated by a KZ, which stands for “Konzentrationslager,” or concentration camp, on the top of the stones.
Another point of interest is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is the first German-government-sponsored Holocaust memorial ever built. It was designed by Peter Eisenman and intentionally made abstract to encourage individual reflection. It is located just a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. Take the time to wander through the more than 2,700 randomly shaped pillars for a powerful experience and to explore the small but thoughtful memorial center below.
There is also much to see outside the core tourist areas near the gate. There is an excellent subway and bus system in the city that will take you almost anywhere you want to go.
As you ride, look for the ghost train stations of East Berlin, which went unused for nearly 30 years as west-side trains passed through them on the way to their stops. They are notable for their original signage and colorful tiles.
The former location of the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 to stop the migration westward, is marked throughout Berlin by a narrow cobblestone path built from its remains. Take the time to follow the path and imagine the very different perspectives of the people on either side.
There are several free-standing sections of the 100-mile wall remaining, and the best full section, including the death strip, is located at the Berlin Wall Documentation Center.
There, as you climb the stairs to the lookout, look for the famous photo of a defecting East German policeman leaping the wire and casting his weapon aside in a successful dash for freedom. Only a few of the more than 300 original sentry towers, at one time equipped with motion-activated machine guns, remain in the city.
Keep an eye out for the “Stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones, which are small brass plaques on the sidewalks, honoring the Jews who were murdered during World War II.
The wall museum at Checkpoint Charlie is located on the east side of the wall. It does an outstanding job of recounting the history of the wall, its impact on life in Berlin, and some of the most daring escapes, both successful and unsuccessful. It features actual escape apparatuses, including ingeniously modified vehicles, hot air balloons, rocket packs and human cannons. An amateur video of a successful two-plane night flight, shot from the cockpit of one of the planes, can also be seen.
Finally, don’t miss the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. This spectacular and powerful monument was opened in 1949 to honor the more than 80,000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Berlin. It houses 16 sarcophagi containing the remains of 5,000 Soviet soldiers, Soviet flags fashioned from marble, which were taken from Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, and a huge statue of a Soviet soldier rescuing a German child.
This memorial is as symbolic and powerful as any you’ll find in Europe, and reminds us of the sacrifices made by other nations in the war.