Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, no city in Europe has seen more development and change. Two Berlins that had been separated for almost 30 years struggled to meld into one, and in the scar of barren borderland between them sprang government and commercial centers that have become the glossy spreads of travel guides and architecture journals. After successfully uniting its own east and west, Berlin, as the German capital and one of the continent’s great cities, now plays a pivotal role in a European Union that has undertaken the same task.
But even as the capital thinks and moves forward, history is always tugging at its sleeve. Between the wealth of neoclassical and 21st-century buildings there are constant reminders, both subtle and stark, of the events of the 20th century. For every new embassy and relocated corporate headquarters, a church stands half-ruined, a synagogue is under 24-hour guard, and an empty lot remains where a building either crumbled in World War II or went up in dynamite as East Germany cleared a path for its Wall. In the chillier months, the scent of coal wafts through the trendy neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, where young residents who fuel the cultural scene heat their unmodernized apartments with coal stoves.
Compared to other German cities, Berlin is quite young and, ironically, began as two separate entities in 1237. The Spree River divided the slightly older Cölln on Museum Island from the fishing village Berlin. By the 1300s Berlin was prospering, thanks to its location at the intersection of important trade routes. After the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War, Berlin rose to power as the seat of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, in the almost 50 years of his reign (1640-88), touched off a renaissance by supporting such institutions as the Academy of Arts and the Academy of Sciences. Later, Frederick the Great (1712-86) made Berlin and Potsdam his glorious centers of the enlightened yet autocratic Prussian monarchy.
In 1871 Prussia, ruled by the “Iron Chancellor” Count Otto von Bismarck, unified the many independent German states into the German Empire. Berlin maintained its status as capital for the duration of that Second Reich (1871-1918), through the post-World War I Weimar Republic (1919-33), and also through Hitler’s so-called Third Reich (1933-45). The city’s golden years were the Roaring ’20s, when Berlin, the energetic, modern, and sinful counterpart to Paris, became a center for the cultural avant-garde. World-famous writers, painters, and artists met here while the impoverished bulk of its 4 million inhabitants lived in heavily overpopulated quarters. This “dance on the volcano,” as those years of political and economic upheaval have been called, came to a grisly and bloody end after January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor. The Nazis made Berlin their capital but ultimately failed to remodel the city into a silent monument to their power. By World War II’s end, 70% of the city lay in ruins, with more rubble than in all other German cities combined.
Along with the division of Germany after World War II, Berlin was partitioned into American, British, and French zones in the west and a Soviet zone in the east. By 1947 Berlin had become one of the Cold War’s first testing grounds. The three western-occupied zones gradually merged, becoming West Berlin, while the Soviet-controlled eastern zone defiantly remained separate. Peace conferences repeatedly failed to resolve the question of Germany’s division, and in 1949 the Soviet Union established East Berlin as the capital of its new puppet state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The division of the city was cruelly finalized in concrete in August 1961, when the East German government erected the Berlin Wall, the only border fortification in history built to keep people from leaving rather than to protect them.
For nearly 30 years Berlin suffered under one of the greatest geographic and political anomalies of all time, a city split in two by a concrete wall—its larger western half an island of capitalist democracy surrounded by an East Germany run by hard-line Communists. With the Wall relegated to the pile of history (most of it was recycled as street gravel), visitors can now appreciate the qualities that mark the city as a whole. Its particular charm has always lain in its spaciousness, its trees and greenery, and its anything-goes atmosphere. Moreover, the really stunning parts of the prewar capital are in the historic eastern part of town, which has grand avenues, monumental architecture, and museums that house world treasures.
The new Berlin embraces a culturally promising but financially uncertain future. “Poor, but sexy,” a line coined by Klaus Wowereit, the flamboyant Governing Mayor, is the city’s current state of mind. While unresolved problems such as high unemployment rates and overstretched city budgets are still worrying many, the city embraces its future as an international center for avant-garde fashion, culture, art, and media, with a zeal rarely found in better-off cities.
Berlin is a large city with several downtown centers that evolved during the 30 years of separation. Of Berlin’s 12 boroughs, the 5 of most interest to visitors are Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf in the west; Tiergarten (a district of the Mitte borough) and Kreuzberg-Friedrichhain in the center; Mitte, the historic core of the city in the eastern part of town; and Prenzlauer Berg in the northeast. Southwest Berlin has lovely escapes in the secluded forests and lakes of the Grunewald area.
Berlin Restaurant Reviews
Neighborhood stalwarts serve residents from morning to night with a mix of German and international cuisine. Berlin is known for curt or slow service, except at very high-end restaurants. Note that many of the top restaurants are closed on Sunday.
The most common food for meals on the go are Wursts (sausages). Currywurst, a pork sausage served with a mildly curried ketchup, is local to Berlin. Even more popular are Turkish Döner shops that sell pressed lamb or chicken in flat-bread pockets.
Berlin Hotel Reviews
Tourism is on the upswing in Berlin. Though prices in mid-range to luxury hotels have increased, Berlin’s first-class hotels still tend to be cheaper than their counterparts in Paris, London, or Rome. And compared to other European cities, most hotel rooms in Berlin are large, though many are part of chains that allow for less individual character. Dorint and Mercure are reliable European chains with several central locations.
Internet services like Expedia can sometimes book a room at a five-star hotel in Berlin for half the normal price, even in summer. Hotels listed here as $$$$ often come down to a $$ level on weekends or when there is low demand. You often have the option to decline the inclusion of breakfast, which can save you anywhere from EUR 8 to EUR 30 per person per day.
The least expensive accommodations are in pensions, mostly in western districts such as Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, and Wilmersdorf; hostels with attractive double rooms, mostly in Mitte and Friedrichshain; or those available through private room agencies. German and European travelers often use rooming agents, and Americans on a budget should consider this as well (apartments start at EUR 300 per month). In Berlin, double rooms with shared bathrooms in private apartments begin around EUR 33. Wohn-Agentur Freiraum (Wiener Str., Kreuzberg. 030/618-2008. 030/618-2006. www.freiraum-berlin.com) is an English-speaking agency that has its own guesthouse with rooms and apartments. All of its private-room listings are in the Kreuzberg district.
Today’s Berlin has a tough time living up to the reputation it gained from the film Cabaret. In the 1920s it was said that in Berlin, if you wanted to make a scandal in the theater, you had to have a mother committing incest with two sons; one wasn’t enough. Political gaffes are now the prime comic material for Berlin’s cabarets. Even if nightlife has toned down since the 1920s and ’30s, the arts and the avant-garde still flourish. Detailed information about events is covered in the Berlin Programm, a monthly tourist guide to Berlin arts, museums, and theaters. The magazines Tip and Zitty, which appear every two weeks, provide full arts listings (in German), while the free (030) is the best source for club and music events. For listings in English, consult the monthly Ex-Berliner.
What’s fashionable in Berlin is creative, bohemian style, so designer labels have less appeal here than in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, or Munich. Young people seem to spend more money on cell-phone cards than clothing.