Berlin: An Exciting 21st Century City Steeped in History

GNT/Christopher Nehls

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

Usually before arriving in a large European city, I obtain a map of the main “ring” area and study it for hours.

A city map tells me where the Bahnhof (train station) is, the major tourist attractions such as museums, monuments, parks and buildings, as well as major streets and rivers or lakes. What I’m trying to obtain is a general impression of the size of the city and its environs, and the general layout of the city center.

When I first looked at the map of Berlin–the capital of Germany–after a few minutes I realized we were talking about a very large city, the square mileage of which is 552.

It wasn’t until I got to Berlin and starting walking around that I was able to piece together the whole Berlin attractions scene, and after two days there, started to get the picture. Berlin is big (it’s eight times the area of Paris), with 3.4 million people; nearly 140 million visit this northern Deutsche city each year.

Berlin is German’s greenest city, with more space devoted to woods, parks and cultivated areas than any other: there’s the very large English-style Tiergarten (originally a royal hunting reserve), the Botanical Gardens and the Zoological Gardens (the largest zoo in Europe with 13,000 animals representing 1,400 species). In walking the Tiergarten area, I was glad I had on comfortable shoes. In fact, in any larger city, be sure to take along comfortable shoes!


With the fall of the infamous 13-foot, 99.4-mile-long Berlin Wall (erected August 3, 1961 by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany) in November of 1989, Berlin has come together to preserve its history, and celebrate the future with new, modern buildings of note. Europe by Rail, a Thomas Cook publication, says Berlin “now oozes cosmopolitan chic.”

Founded by traveling merchants as the twin settlements of Berlin and Coelin in the last quarter of the 12th century, the first mention in documents was in 1237 for Coelin and 1244 for Berlin.

Around 1650, and after nearly complete destruction of the city during the Thirty Years’ War, Berlin experienced an unprecedented cultural and economic boom, thanks to Elector Friedrich Wilhelm. He invited immigrants to settle the city, notably Jews and Hugenots, and by 1700 one of every five Berliners was a Hugenot.

In recent history, Berlin proper was divided up between the U.S., Britain, France and the USSR after World War II, with the Soviets instituting the People’s Democratic Republic. In June of 1991, the Bundestag decided by vote that Berlin should become the capital of the unified Germany.

If you go to Berlin for the first time, I suggest you take at least three full days to tour the city. Less than that, you won’t be able to spend much time at any one attraction. You will have gotten a quick overview only. Lines for some of the attractions such as the museums and the Reichstag Parliament Building can be very long, even in the “non-tourist” months.

GNT/Jochen Reute

GNT/Jochen Keute


Some of the top sights in Berlin on your travel agenda should be:

–The impressive neo-Renaissance style Reichstag, which features a glass dome by Sir Norman Foster and offers a good overall view of the city. The building was opened in 1999 after restoration. It houses the Bundestag, the Lower House of the German Parliament. It’s open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, with the last entry at 10 p.m.

–Brandenburg Gate (Tor)—This is Berlin’s most famous landmark and a symbol of the city’s reunification. It’s almost always crowded with people, but it encompasses a large area, and the area which it’s located can accommodate a large number of people. The gate was incorporated into the Wall at one time. Six Doric columns which are incorporated into the stonework support an antique entablature. It was built in 1789.

–Charlottenburg Palace is one of the oldest palaces in Berlin, built for Prussian Empress Sophie Charlotte. It’s said to be Berlin’s answer to Versailles, housing a great collection of German Romantic art. The castle offers guided tours only. Be sure to note the Porcelain Room, which contains beautiful vases, figurines and plates, mostly from China. Also note the White Room, which served as a banquet hall and throne room. Next to the castle is the Berggruen Museum which displays a 20th century collection of art, especially Picasso and Matisse. Both the castle and museum are closed on Mondays.

–Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) is the largest 19th century Protestant church with a beautiful Sauer church organ and the Hohenzollern family crypt, part of which is open to the public. The church seats 1,500.

Berlin church
GNT/Andrew Cowin

–The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, built at the end of the 19th century, was destroyed in 1943 during WWII and another new church built next to the ruins. It’s an interesting study in old and new.

–Topography of Terror is an outdoor exhibition on Nazi terror and crimes in the Third Reich, visited by thousands of people every day on Niederkirchnerstrasse. This exhibit is always well attended.

–Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenberg Gate is comprised of 2,700 concrete blocks which represent an “uneasy and confusing” atmosphere in an otherwise orderly society. Each concrete slab is between 8” and 15′ 9” tall.

–Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse 43-45 in a busy shopping district is a museum that gives the history of the Berlin Wall, tells incidents that happened there, and displays original objects from successful escapes. The several-story museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

–New National Gallery at Potsdamer Strasse 50 features 20th century art, the ground floor of the Altes Museum (the first museum in Berlin in 1830) displays a collection of Classical Roman and Greek art and sculpture while the upper floor is devoted to an Egyptian Museum. The Bode-Museum features a sculpture collection and a museum of Byzantine Arts and a coin collection. The German Historical Museum on Unter den Linden is a permanent German history exhibition while the Gemaldegalerie Art Collection is ranked among the most important collections of 13th-to-18th-century European paintings in the world.

Three more museums of special note are the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Jewish Museum Berlin with an exhibition of on every aspect of German-Jewish history from the end of the Roman area to today, and the Pergamon Museum with its collection of classical antiquities, Museum of Islamic art, and Museum of ancient near-Eastern antiquities.

GNT/Eric Eichberger


Berlin has more than 170 museums, more than enough to keep you interested; you can see why you’ll need extra time in Berlin.

Even the city squares in Berlin evoke interest, such as Alexanderplatz (named after Tsar Alexander’s visit to Berlin in 1805). This important public transportation junction is a focal point of city life in the eastern part of Berlin. The Gendarmenmarkt Square, named after Kind-Sergeant Frederick Wilhelm I’s “Gens d’Armes” regiment, is another location to see.

All sorts of other diversions are available in Berlin as well. There are eight major symphony orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, three opera houses, cabaret, variety and revue theaters, musicals and comedy. The Konzerthaus Berlin at Gendarmenmarkt- Mitte was built in 1818-1821 by the renowned Berlin architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

Numerous exclusive designer boutiques, international brand name outlet shops and more await shoppers in the Mitte district on Friedrichstrasse. Then there are the flagship stores, malls and the giant KaDeWe, a nearly 200,000-square-foot department store packed with attractive foods, clothing and all kinds of products and goods. It’s like a giant Harrods or the old Chicago Marshall Field’s store, with glitzy displays, helpful sales people and a do-it-right attitude.

Berlin hotels provide upwards of 11,000 beds in the luxury hotel category alone and a total of 88,000 beds overall. A click on will offer you more information and also offer 350 choices of where to stay. A list of youth hostels are also available at

GNT/Hans Peter Merten


To see the city without all the walking necessary to cover the main attractions, try one of the several tour bus companies. You have a choice of BBS Berliner Baren Stadrundfahrt ( and that offers tours in eight languages; Berlin City Tour, a 1 3/4-hour English and German tour on double-decker buses (, and Berliner City Tour-Eick’s Rundfahrten Berlin with open-topped buses ( Each tour line allows patrons to hop on and off the bus along the route.

Or, if you take city bus No. 100, which runs between the Zoo station, past the Tiergarten, Brandenberg Gate and along Unter den Linden (the main east-west thoroughfare), you’ll get to see a number of sites. Buses also run in the evening.

You can rent a bike for a city tour from 5 euros a day, with guided bike tours from 10 Euros a day ( There are also walking tours and boat tours provided by other companies.

Berlin has a new Hauptbahnhof that opened in 2006; it’s a clean railway station and easy to navigate, but the older European railway stations have more character. It’s also said the station lacks enough public toilets and seating for passengers. Shops and cafes are abundant in the station, and they are open seven days a week.

Berlin offers a good system of buses, trams, underground and surface trains (there are 24 different lines), and free maps showing these routes are available at tourist offices and hotel lobbies. A Berlin Welcome Card (valid 48 or 72 hours for 16 euros or 12 euros) allows unlimited travel on all public transportation and also a 50% reduction on city tours, museums, theaters and other attractions in Berlin and Potsdam (

There are numerous hotels to choose from in Berlin, with the more up-scale ones located in the center of the city; less expensive hotels and hostels are grouped around the Mitte district in the eastern part of central Berlin.

The #1 rated hotel out of a total of 552 Berlin hotels is the Ritz-Carlton, priced on average at $319 a night, with the Mercure Hotel rated #2 at $304 (average) a night. The Swissotel Berlin rated #3 is $144 a night and the Movenpick at #4 is $277 a night.

Berlin is certainly one of the more interesting cities in Germany, and I’m glad I went. From my visit, I only see Berlin as growing and becoming more popular in the future: it has a lot going for it!

For more information about Berlin, go to:

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