Berlin has been on my list of cities to visit for a long time and a couple of weeks ago I finally got the chance to go there. As the plane touched down at Tegel I was excited to see what the city had to offer, I wasn’t disappointed.
After checking in to the hotel I quickly freshened up wanting to get out and start exploring. I headed straight over to Alexanderplatz to one of Berlin’s most well known squares and transport hubs. Alex as the locals call it is not the most glamorous square in the city, most of it being destroyed during the war, but there are a few attractions here worth a look.
Berlin’s tallest building the Fernsehturm Television Tower sits in the square, it was built in 1969 and stands 368 m (1,207 ft) tall. Inside is a viewing platform and a revolving restaurant giving excellent views of the city. When I arrived the queues were huge so I decided it wasn’t worth the wait and viewed it from the ground.
Also near Alexanderplatz is St Mary’s Church or the Marienkirche. It was first established as a parish church in the second half of the 13th century with its construction starting in 1280. At one time the church was hemmed in by buildings but now stands alone in the shadow of the Fernsehturm Tower.
The Rotes Rathaus (The Red Town Hall) is Berlin’s main town hall designed by Hermann Friedrich Waesemann and built between 1861 and 1869. He took inspiration from Italian Renaissance municipal buildings but the tower has similarities to Laon cathedral in France. The building was badly damaged during WWII and following its reconstruction in 1951 – 58 it became the seat of power for the East Berlin authorities. It now houses the offices of the mayor, the magistrates and state rooms.
The next day started early, I had tickets to visit the Reichstag Building and after a good breakfast I set off to see it. The Reichstag was built to house the German parliament and was intended to symbolise national unity and the aspirations of the new German Empire, declared in 1871. After a turbulent history, on the 2nd December 1990 it once again became the meeting place of a newly elected Bundestag following German reunification.
My visit was to see the dome and the viewing terrace, something that no visitor to Berlin should miss. I intend to write a separate more in-depth post on the Reichstag building and my dome visit soon.
The area around the Reichstag is filled with many attractions the most famous being the Brandenburg Gate standing proudly at the top of Unter Den Linden. The Brandenburg Gate is the quintessential symbol of Berlin, it is a magnificent Neo-Classical structure that was completed in 1795. It was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans and is modelled on the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. Sitting at either side of the gate are two pavilions once used by guards and customs officers. Reliefs depict scenes from Greek mythology whilst the structure is crowned by a sculpture of Quadriga.
The Brandenburg Gate has been witness to many of Berlin’s most important events, from military parades, celebrations marking the birth of the Third Reich and the raising of the Russian flag in 1945. The gate, which sat in East Berlin, was restored from 1956 to 1958, after suffering extensive damage in WWII. A symbol of a divided city until 1989, it was restored again between 2000 and 2002.
Next to the Brandenburg Gate is the Holocaust Memorial. This huge memorial for the Jews killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 was inaugurated in 2005. There are 19,000 sq meters of undulating concrete slabs that you can walk through whilst underneath is an information centre telling the history of the genocide.
Having spent some time at the Holocaust Memorial I wandered back up to one of Berlin’s most famous streets, Unter den Linden. It was once the route to the royal hunting grounds in what is now the Tiergarten getting its name from the lime trees that line it. In the 18th century it was filled with prestigious buildings, today many of those buildings have been restored to their pre-war splendour.
At the far end of Unter den Linden away from the Brandenburg Gate lies one of the most attractive parts of the city. One of the first grand buildings you come to is the Staatsbibliothek, a Neo-Baroque building designed by Ernst von Ihne and built between 1903 and 1914. It houses a collection of over 3 million books and periodicals.
A little further down is the Humboldt Universitat. This building was constructed in 1753 for Prince Heinrich of Prussia, the brother of Frederick the Great. The university was founded in 1810 as the Berlin University but was renamed in honour of the founding brothers in 1949.
In the centre lane of Unter den Linden sits one of Berlin’s most famous monuments, the Equestrian Statue of Frederick the Great. This huge monument features a massive bronze statue of Frederick the Great on horseback wearing a uniform and a royal cloak. During the division the monument was removed to Potsdam where it stayed until 1980 as it did not fit with the GDR’s ideology.
Next to the Humboldt University is the Neue Wache war memorial in what is considered to be one of the finest examples of Neo-Classical architecture in Berlin. The building was originally used as a royal guardhouse but in 1930/31 it was turned into a monument to the soldiers killed in WWI. In 1960 following its restoration it became the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, in 1993 it was rededicated again, this time to the memory of all victims of war and dictatorship.
Inside the building is a granite slab over the ashes of an unknown soldier, a resistance fighter and a concentration camp prisoner. Under the circular opening in the roof is a copy of the 20th century sculpture Mother with her Dead Son, by Berlin artist Kath Kollwitz.
There was a lot of building and restoration work going on around this area when I was visiting so some of the buildings like the opera house were covered in scaffolding making it difficult to see them. My next stop was St Hedwigs-Kathedrale. This huge church is the Catholic Cathedral of the Roman Archdiocese of Berlin. Construction began in 1747 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1773, after being damaged during WWII it was rebuilt between 1952 and 1963.
The Gendarmenmarkt is one of Berlin’s most beautiful squares and was created at the end of the 17th century as a market square. It was named after the Regiment Gens d’Armes who had their stables here. In 1950 it was renamed Platz der Akademie but after reunification it reverted to its original name.
The square is dominated by two churches that look identical but are in fact very different. The French Cathedral (Franzosischer Dom) was built for the Huguenot community after their expulsion from France while at the southern end of the square is the German Cathedral (Deutscher Dom) an old German Protestant Reformed church. After being burned down in 1945 this church was only rebuilt in 1993 and now houses an exhibition about Germany’s parliamentary democracy.
In the middle of the square sits the Concert Hall (Konzerthaus). Built between 1818 and 1821 it replaced the Langhan’s National Theatre that was destroyed by fire in 1817. It’s a beautiful example of late Neo-Classical architecture.
Museum Island is home to some of Berlin’s most important museums and also to the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). I could have spent days here looking around all the museums but time wasn’t on my side so a walk around the island was all I got but it was still very impressive.
My favourite part of Museum Island was the Berliner Dom, this Neo-Baroque structure dates from 1894 and is the work of Julius Raschdorff. Although it has been restored after suffering damage during WWII I found it to be one of the most impressive buildings in the city.
That was the end of my first full day in Berlin, exhausted I headed back to the hotel but somehow got distracted on the way by a small German beer keller, the perfect end to a long day of sightseeing. More to follow…