Berlin Travel Guide


Brandenburger Tor
One of Berlin's most photographed locations, Brandenburger Tor(Brandenburg Gate) once marked the impenetrable boundary between East and West Berlin. Built in 1791, Brandenburger Tor has often been a centre stage for Berlin's militant political rallies, including the memorable celebrations in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down.

This imposing 18th-century structure has endured several symbolic reincarnations. Intended by its architect Carl Gotthard Langhans to be a symbol of peace, the gate was crowned by the Quadriga (a four-horse chariot driven by the winged goddess of victory) a couple of years later, turning it into a monument to Prussian militarism.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, political groups from all ideological walks hijacked the pliable Brandenburger Tor as the backdrop for their rallies and processions. All this triumphalism ended abruptly in 1961 when the Wall was built and the gate sealed off in no-man's-land.

In 1989, after the dissolution of the border, the area was reopened to the public. Today, traffic passes freely under the gate and enterprising scammers have long been selling chunks of Berlin Wall concrete, mostly of dubious authenticity. If the Wall was ever reconstructed from the fragments sold to tourists it could probably enclose the whole of Germany.

Checkpoint Charlie Museum
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum is all that remains of the famed tower that symbolised East-West tension during the Cold War. The tower itself was unceremoniously craned away a few months after the border reopened. In 2001, a replica guardhouse was returned to the site (the original is in the Allierten Museum in Zehlendorf).

The museum is interesting (if overpriced), with its display of ingenious devices employed in escape attempts from the former East Germany. It doesn't make it any easier to comprehend that this nondescript urban landscape was one of the critical pressure points in the global stand-off between East and West, and the scene of 80 deaths.

To the west of the museum is the East Side Gallery, a surviving chunk of the real Wall, preserved by the city authorities and decorated by local artists.

Berliners call the blasted remains of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche the 'hollow tooth'. It's a poignant reminder of the devastation wrought upon the city by World War II. The church was bombed by the British in late 1943 in a fierce raid that left only the broken west tower standing.

Engulfed by the commercialism of West Berlin, this is another of the historical anomalies that pop up all over the city. The reconstructed church is dominated by blue stained glass and features some beautiful work by Chagall.

For more culture than you can poke a stick at, head to this cluster of museums and concert venues west of Potsdamer Platz. Kick off with the Berliner Philharmonie, a concert hall with otherworldly acoustics, before ambling over to the Kammer musikaal(Chamber Music Hall) and the neo-Romanesque confection of Matthäuskirche.

The must-see of the complex is the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery), which boasts a wealth of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Other highlights include the Kupfer Stichkobinett (Museum of Prints & Drawings) and the Escher-like Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Applied Arts).

Off the Beaten Track

Southwest of Berlin's CBD, Kreuzberg is a dynamic neighbourhood that has been settled by trendy anarchists and Turkish immigrants. All the stories you've heard about Berlin's smacked-out leather-wrapped punks and squatters have their origins here.

Today the area is still lively, although it's a bit self-consciously alternative. If cliché were a disease, this joint would be quarantined. Nevertheless, there are great Turkish cafés and markets, interesting bookshops and a cliquey underground art and music scene.

Being Germany, the rebellious spirit of the area's inhabitants used to overwhelm them annually on 1 May in a ritual riot, and the punks are immortalised by a bronze statue sneering at middle Berlin from a prominent street corner.

On the Havel River just beyond the southwestern tip of Greater Berlin, Potsdam was the address of German bigwigs from the 17th century onward. They all left behind palaces, both awe-inspiring and nauseating, as testament to their egos. Schloss Sanssouci (No Worries Castle) was commissioned by Friedrich the Great in the mid-18th century and emulates the French grandeur and stateliness of which he was enamoured. Unfortunately, Friedrich's take on Gallic palatial chic was about as authentic as the execrable French poetry he quilled. Also here is Wilhelm II's mock-Tudor mansion, which was used by the Allies in July 1945 at the famous Potsdam Conference to determine the fate of a defeated Germany.

Stasi HQ
The old headquarters of the German Democratic Republic's secret police force (the notorious Stasi) are in the graceless suburbs of East Berlin. Through a huge network of full-time staff, aided by part-time informers numbering in the millions, the Stasi infiltrated East Germany with neurotic overkill, creating and fuelling an atmosphere of fear and mistrust to the extent that family dinner table conversations were curtailed. The Stasi's power resided in its insidious thoroughness rather than explicit violence, although beatings were not unknown. The Stasi headquarters can be visited today, and are interesting not for what can be seen, but because of what went on there. Here you can sense a lingering empty resonance of a perverted commitment to soullessness and utter lack of personality.

Other Germany Attractions

Frankfurt is often seen only as a transit hub or a business centre, but it's so much more. It boasts Germany's most spectacular skyline, mirrored in the Main River, and Europe's tallest office building. It's also the country's most international town; more than a quarter of its citizens are foreign.

Flâneurs get the best view of Frankfurt. Luckily most of its obvious attractions are located around the city centre. Invest in a 'Museumsufer' ticket (available at museums) and spend a couple of days cruising Frankfurt's galleries and museums at a fraction of their individual prices.

Lübeck is a glorious medieval town that's earned its place on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Although it's easily accessible from Hamburg, Lübeck is off the main tourist trails and can be a quiet alternative to the more spectacular attractions further south. The altstadt (old town) was heavily bombed in WWII but has been sensitively rebuilt and the town's stately charm is apparent today.

Munich, rivalled only by Berlin as Germany's most popular destination, is a city that enjoys contradicting itself. Don an ironic Lederhosen and head down to the capital of Bavaria, where cutesy folk traditions rub shoulders with BMWs, haute cuisine and high-minded sophistication.

Munich is a compact city, but you could easily spend several weeks exploring its museums, architectural treasures and idyllic surrounds. The Altstadt (old town) is a pleasure to stroll around, with its grand avenues and spacious squares that recall the glory of Bavaria's monarchy.

Rhine Valley
Here are dramatic landscapes with fertile vineyards clinging to steep hills, numerous imposing castles and dreamy wine villages. Every village has at least one wine festival per year, with the most famous being the Rhine in Flames series of festivals, when water, lighting and fireworks are combined to spectacular effect.

Best known abroad as the birthplace of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, this small city is a cultural pilgrimage site for Germans. It was the epicentre of the country's Age of Enlightenment and home to such intellectual and creative giants as Goethe, Bach, Schiller, Liszt, Nietzsche, Kandinsky and Klee, to name a few.

There's more to Füssen than its famous trio of Ludwig II castles. Its compact centre, with its tangle of lanes, is full of historical buildings; check out the Hohe Schloss. There are excellent views from the top of Tegelbergbahn, reached by cable car, and nearby are the Bavarian Alps.

King Ludwig Wilhelm II would have got along like a castle on fire with Walt Disney, but he didn't get along with his ministers and relatives, who had him diagnosed as unfit to rule Bavaria; soon after, he was found mysteriously drowned. Ludwig II's legacy consists of the three fantastical castles he had built near Füssen: Neuschwanstein (which inspired Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle), Herrenchiemsee and Linderhof.

Harz Mountains
The Harz Mountains rise picturesquely from the North German plain, a quick train ride from the tourist centres in the south. They don't have the peaks and valleys of the Alps, but they offer a great all-seasons sports getaway without some of the Alpine tackiness and tourism.

In Goethe's Faust a character named Frosch calls Leipzig 'a little Paris.' He was wrong - Leipzig is more fun. Street-side cafes pour out onto the streets, and underground music clubs thud throughout the night; the town also has some of the finest classical music and opera in the country - it was once home to Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn.

North Frisian Islands
The North Frisian Islands reward those who make the trek with sunshine, sand dunes, sea and pure air - much of this area is a national park. Paths and boardwalks are provided for strolling. One island, Helgoland, was used as a submarine base in WWII and you can tour the strong bunkers and underground tunnels.

This gentle, picturesque university town, just 35km (22mi) south of Stuttgart, is a place to wander winding cobbled alleys past half-timbered houses and old stone walls. From the heights of the Renaissance Hohentübingen Castle (now part of the university) there are fine views over the steep, red-tiled rooftops of the altstadt (old town). Today's students are the proud custodians of a rigorous liberal intellectual tradition, and can be seen in every cafe plotting earnestly to save the world. The market here is a treasure, filled with fruit and vegetables, and this is one town where some of this crisp and fresh produce might actually turn up on your plate. Also check out the nearby Rathaus and its delightful clock.

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