ShareThis Page

Berlin reclaims the bohemian allure of its prewar past

| Sunday, June 1, 2003

Paris in the spring• Cliche.

Try East Berlin.

Germany's resurrected capital is well on its way to reclaiming the bustle and bohemian allure of its prewar past. And believe it or not, most of the best parts sit on what for decades was the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, in the formerly communist east.

The skyline in the city's eastern half is filled with cranes as capitalists continue to develop promising new locations in the city's historic center.

The wall is a distant memory. You have to look hard to find even fragments of it still left standing. Its former course is marked by cobblestones and bronze strips that are easily overlooked.

Begin your tour at the Brandenburg Gate, which stands astride Berlin's grandest boulevard, Unter den Linden.

For decades, the gate marked the far western edge of East Berlin, right at the wall. People who got closer than a stone's throw to it were liable to be shot by a border guard.

Berlin's landmark houses a peace chapel for silent reflection, and traffic flows through the gate once again.

Immediately east is Pariser Platz. The communist regime bulldozed the area to provide a clear field of view -- or fire -- around the gate. New buildings arose after the wall fell, including the U.S. and French embassies, a bank headquarters and Berlin's swankiest hotel, the Adlon, where Michael Jackson recently dangled his baby over the balcony.

Unter den Linden is only about a mile long, but it is magnificent. The tree-lined thoroughfare is lined with impressive baroque and neoclassical edifices, many of which have undergone major reconstruction after Allied bombs and shells wrecked them. Cafes sprinkled along the way allow for relaxing and people-watching.

There are several museums here, along with the state opera house, the national library, Germany's memorial to victims of war, two massive cathedrals and the campus of Humboldt University. The opera house overlooks a grand square, known as Bebelplatz, where the Nazis held their book-burning rallies.

A few blocks to the south is Gendarmenmarkt. The city's most beautiful classical square was badly damaged in World War II and was left that way until the 1970s. It features two more cathedrals bookending a theater designed by Berlin's master architect of the 19th century, Karl Schinkel.

Nearby is Checkpoint Charlie, once the only way Americans could walk or drive into East Berlin. A gatehouse still sits in the middle of the street, but the traffic no longer has to stop, except when it's blocked by the fleet of tour buses continually parked in front of the Berlin Wall Museum here.

Another reminder of Berlin's sinister past is in the vicinity. On the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, in the shadow of a rare remaining stretch of the wall, is Topographie des Terrors. The outdoor exhibits showcase the brutal crimes of Hitler's secret police.

Unter den Linden ends at Museum Island in the Spree River. The boulevard used to connect the Brandenburg Gate to a massive city palace on the island. For centuries it was the seat of the great Prussian dynasty, the Hohenzollerns. The East German government, amid protests, razed the palace in 1950.

In 1976 they replaced it with the Palace of the Republic, housing the East German parliament. But shortly after the wall fell, building inspectors discovered asbestos inside, and the structure has stood abandoned ever since.

Now West Berliners want the old palace rebuilt, while East Berliners think tearing down the new palace is rubbing their noses in the dirt. The conflict hasn't been resolved yet.

The island also features a cluster of five great museums -- hence its name. Two are still closed for repairs because of war damage.

But tourists are welcome in Germany's most famous, the Pergamonmuseum. It takes its name from the Pergamon Altar, a massive ancient Greek structure covered with dramatic friezes, that German archaeologists brought stone by stone from Asia Minor and rebuilt in the main hall.

On the other side of the Spree is the Nikolai Quarter, a reconstructed medieval neighborhood the East Germans unveiled in 1987. Its narrow alleys are crammed with touristy cafes and souvenir shops.

Close by looms a TV tower that is one of Europe's tallest structures. A revolving cafe affords a view that can extend 25 miles on a clear day. From here you can get an idea of just how much there still is to see.

But the best way to finish your tour of the old center of the German "workers' state" is in the park the tower overlooks. In the center are two oddly chunky statues of the two Germans who made it all possible, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

If You Go

Getting there

Thanks to Berlin's history of division, the city has three airports. The western side's main one, Tegel, was built during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 to take over for the smaller Tempelhof, which now handles regional flights. Schoenefeld, in former East Germany, handles flights from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. There are direct flights from the United States, but more common are stopovers at the bigger airports in Frankfurt, Munich, London or Paris.

Getting around

The city is served by an extensive, and characteristically efficient, subway, train and bus system. Ongoing renovations to the main trunk subway line can force detours, so ask at the hotel. The city is served by a fleet of double-decker buses too. Number 100, which boards at Zoo Station, offers the city's cheapest do-it-yourself sightseeing tour as it passes several attractions.


There are several luxury hotels close to Unter den Linden, including the Four Seasons , Westin Grand and the famous Adlon . If you avoid major conventions, when rooms fill up, even four-star hotels can be had for less than $150 a night.


German food is famously hearty, the beer is famously delicious, and the country's pastry chefs are rightly esteemed. But it's easy to spend a week in Berlin without seeing a wienerschnitzel. There are quite a few good Asian restaurants, for example. And at least one lunch should be a "doner kebab", a gyro-like fast food favorite brought here by the country's large Turkish immigrant population.


Drop in at a Kneipe, or pub, to have a traditional Berliner Weisse mit Schuss. It's a watery wheat beer fancied up with a shot of raspberry (red) or woodruff (green) liqueur.

East German excursion

Potsdam , Germany's answer to Versailles, is in former East Germany just west of the city limits, a half hour by train from central Berlin. The massive grounds of the Prussian royals' summer home are dotted with spectacular buildings and not one, but two, palaces. Entry to the ornate chambers of Sanssouci , the centerpiece, is strictly regulated, so call ahead. Even if you can't get inside, the grounds are still a magnificent place for a nature walk.

Online research

A terrific site by the Berlin tourism board is . Besides the standard bells and whistles such as hotel reservations and an event calendar, there's a "sightseeing" section with hundreds of photos and descriptions arranged by neighborhood. It also shows where to find remnants of the infamous wall, which 239 Germans died trying to cross from 1961-89.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me