Berlin is the capital city of Germany and has around 3.5 million inhabitants. It is the biggest city in Germany but also a cosmopolitan city. There are so many sights to see, museums to visit, clubs to party at, and restaurants to feed your belly and events to feed your soul.
Yes, an all-inclusive vacation definitely has its perks, BUT let me tell you, visiting a city is something else. You get to experience the culture, the people and everyday life, which you don’t get to do when you’re just switching between your resort’s pool and the beach all day, and don’t you lie to me, we all do it.
With Berlin, it’s even more than that. The city itself has a rich history, but you also get to learn so much about the history of the whole country as well. It is most definitely worth a visit.
History of Berlin
Berlin is a city with a long and complicated past. There have been deep, dark times, but also some small rays of light. The history of the city of Berlin is also a great representation of German history in general, since some of the most important events either took place, or the consequences were felt here. Since Berlin’s history is divided into different parts, it’s easiest to go over everything following this structure.
17th to 19th Century
The 30 Years’ War left deep scars on the city of Berlin. Many houses were destroyed and over half of its inhabitants lost their lives. Frederick William, who was elector of Brandenburg from 1640 to 1688, and made it one of his missions to help Berlin regain its old shine. He promoted immigration and religious tolerance, and with the Edict of Potsdam of 1685, French Huguenots were granted asylum. Only 15 years later, by 1700, nearly one-third of Berlin’s population was French.
He crowned himself king Frederick I in Prussia and Berlin became the capital of the new kingdom. Berlin was created as a merge of four cities: Cölln, Friedrichswerder, Friedrichstadt and Dorotheenstadt.
Once Frederick the Great (Frederick II) came to power in 1740, Berlin became the center of a new intellectual and cultural movement: the Enlightenment, which, among other things, included many ideas concerning the pursuit of happiness. During this time, it was also occupied by the Russians. Also, in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte marched into Berlin, but did not rule over it, and Berlin remained self-governed.
With the beginning of the 19th Century and the spread of industrial evolution, Berlin began to grow. The economy and population exploded, and it became the economic center of Germany, and in 1871, Berlin became the capital of the new German Empire.
World War I and II
In the midst of the First World War, Berlin and its inhabitants were a mess. It wasn’t so much destruction by bombs or the war itself, but more so the consequences of this war. The euphoria of winning this battle was great, and the military was betting on a fast and easy win. Since they did not have any strategies for anything else, they did not have nearly enough food supplies and people were starving. During the First World War in Berlin, more people died of hunger than died of bombs in the Second World War.
During the Weimar era, Berlin was divided. There was a lot of political unrest because of the uncertainties of the consequences of Germany’s loss, but at the same time, Berlin was the center of the Roaring Twenties. Berlin became more and more known for its superior role in technology, science, film, the arts, and many more.
Once Hitler and the Nazi Party took over the government, much of the Jewish population in Germany, but particularly in Berlin, was wiped out. Many were brought into concentration camps. “Berlin is the most heavily bombed city in history”, and was mainly destroyed by the Allied air raids from 1943-45.
In 1945, after World War II was over and Germany lost, many Eastern refugees sought shelter in Berlin, which is when the first form of separation started. The Western Allies ruled over West Berlin and the Soviets over East Berlin. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in West Germany in 1949 and included all American, British and French zones of Germany, but not those of Berlin. The Marxist-Leninist German Democratic Republic was founded in East Germany.
In 1961, the government of East Germany started building the Berlin Wall, making West Berlin a part of West Germany and East Berlin of East Germany. Citizens of West Berlin were allowed to visit East Berlin, but not the other way around. The wall fell in 1989 with the end of the Cold War and on 3 October 1990 the two parts were reunited. This day marks the Day of German Unity.
Today, Berlin is very unlike any other city. It combines history with modern. It is political, progressive, and maybe not what you would expect it to be like. To be completely honest, it may not look as aesthetically pleasing as, let’s say London, but somehow, that’s its charm.
Berlin is extremely diverse, in its architecture and fashion, but also in terms of the people and cultures. It is tolerating to all races, religions, genders, sexualities, and so much more. It even becomes visible in food diversity. There’s nearly no way you can feel like you’re out of place.
It is possible to experience parts of the world combined in this city. Berlin is known for its cultural flair and diverse art scene. You can find hundreds of galleries, museums and events for (and from) different cultures.
Places to visit
Since you now already know about the city Berlin, I bet you really want to see it for yourself. Which is why I decided to grant you a favor and put together a list of places to visit while in Berlin. Some of them include the obvious ones, but hey, the obvious isn’t always bad! And, as a special treat for you, my friend, some are more under the radar spots.
The first one is obviously the landmark of the city. But what is now a tourist attraction was originally a sign of the separation of the German nation. During the Cold War, it was an obvious reminder of the dividing into West and East Berlin (and Germany in general).
The Brandenburg Gate was also the backdrop for Ronald Reagan’s famous speech to Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down this wall. Tiny tip: during film premiers and big international events, some A-List celebrities stay at the Adlon Kempinski Hotel next to the Brandenburg Gate, and you might be able to take a glimpse.
The Reichstag was originally built in 1894 and home to the Empire’s Imperial Diet until the Reichstagsbrand (burning of the Reichstag) in 1933. Measures to rebuild the building started after the reunion in 1989 and finished in 1999. It is possible to go up the glass dome and catch a perfect view of the whole city.
East Side Gallery
This memorial of the Berlin Wall is a permanent open-air (and free) gallery in Berlin-Friedrichshain. It is on the longest section of the Berlin Wall along the Spree. The gallery stretches for over one kilometer and consists of several murals directly on the Wall.
After the fall and the destruction of most of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this section was opened to be painted by 118 artists from 21 countries.
The Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery e.V. describes it as “a monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people”.
Checkpoint Charlie was once the best-known and most-used crossing between West and East Berlin. The museum next to the actual checkpoint displays several items on Berlin history, but also on human rights in general. Although it might not look too extraordinary, the history behind it will make you very thoughtful.
The Gendarmenmarkt is one of Berlin’s biggest squares. The Konzerthaus, the French Cathedral, and the German Cathedral are located in this 17th-century square. Since it is already one of Berlin’s most visited tourist spots, many events every year, including the famous Christmas Market. Moreover, the Konzerthaus is well known for its first-rate performances of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, which is one of Germany’s most famous.
The Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is one of Berlin’s most striking spots. The distinctive zinc-paneled exterior makes it outstanding. It hosts historical artifacts, collections, illustrations, and even art installations on the dark history of Jewish Germans.
The Holocaust Memorial is one of the most famous testaments to the rebellion against the ignorance of atrocities against any human being. Below the 2,711 concrete rectangles is an information center in which you can find letters, diaries and photographs of victims.
The Berlin Cathedral was greatly destroyed during World War II and the repairs took decades. Some of the highlights include the Imperial Staircase and the Imperial Gallery. Again, it is possible to climb up the dome to get a wonderful view of Museum Island and the city’s skyline.
The Kranhaus Café is to be found in an old brick building with a large crane on its roof. Although the exterior might not look very inviting since it is very inspired by the surrounding underdeveloped area, the interior is very cozy and inviting. This is a real secret tip that will allow you a deeper insight into everyday life in Berlin, without looking and feeling too much like a tourist.
Du Beast Poetry
Du Beast is a small bar in Neukölln and each week Berlin Spoken Word hosts a night of spoken word performances. The variety is wide, from comedy to romantic, there’s something for everyone. It takes place every Thursday night and is open to visitors and locals. Anyone who wants to visit is welcome.
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants are plenty to be found in Berlin, but Cookies Cream might just be the most extraordinary one. It has a very mysterious feeling to it since it is located in a service alley and not very easy to find. But once you get there, you will be seeing and tasting some of the finest meat-free foods in all of Berlin.
The Strausee, about 30 kilometers northeast of Berlin, is yet another perfect escape from city life. It feels very homely and the nearby town and forest make the perfect spot for tourists, hikers, but also Berliners. Sitting by this lake doesn’t feel like there’s such a metropolitan city nearby, it gives you a calm and relaxing feeling, an opportunity to take a break.
Stand by Me tree
In the middle of Berlin’s Tiergarten are two very interesting trees. They have the opening lyrics and the chorus to Stand By Me by Ben E. Kings carved into them. Nobody knows who decided to do this, but it’s still very sweet and sentimental to let your imagination run free and invent your own story.
The small Peacock Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, hosts a white castle, lush parklands, and roaming peacocks. Going on one of the many beautiful walks is a perfect way of escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.
This former industrial area was of no use after the end of World War II. It has ever since become one of the more unknown spots in Berlin. It is a strange mix of nature, technology, and abandonment. You can find old water towers, trains, and railways within a jungle of nature.
Berlin in a nutshell
“Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” – David Bowie
As mentioned before, visiting Berlin is such a diverse experience. You don’t only get to learn about German culture, but about all the different cultures that you can find in the city, which is practically all the cultures you can imagine. Its diversity definitely is what makes Berlin such an interesting place to visit, even though it might not look like the prettiest city in the world, the feeling you get roaming its streets is out of this world.
“The best thing about Berlin was that I got to be surrounded by people who pursue their ideas for themselves.” – Agnes Obel
You can also take a visit to Berlin as a chance to get to know yourself better. It is inspiring to see so many people fulfilling their wishes, creating their own ideas and truly becoming who they want to be instead of who they think they have to be. I hope you get to find this for yourself.
“Berlin is more a part of the world than a city.” – Jean Paul
Feature image credit: Levin / Unsplash