For many Berliners the events of the 20th century are within living memory, and many of the most famous Berlin sights and attractions are saturated with historical significance. Every nook and grand vista has its ghosts and stories, adding to the city's unique atmosphere.
There are a number of different historical nexus points: Unter den Linden and the glorious Brandenburger Tor speak of the city's Prussian heritage, the Topography of Terror is a chilling reminder of its brutal Nazi years, and the East Side Gallery is a colourful tribute to a once divided city (and the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall still standing). Berlin has over 200 museums, from world-class collections of Classical art at the beautifully restored Neues Museum, to the striking Liebeskind-designed Jewish Museum and plenty more irreverent affairs (even the humble Currywurst, a staple of Berlin cuisine, has its own museum). Berlin's sights take many forms, and whether famous landmarks, functioning offices, postmodern memorials or epic museums, they are all part of the life of the place.
Designed by Werner March, the Olympiastadion is a testimony to the ideals of fascist architecture. At the end of a straight stretch of road running directly from Brandenburger Tor through Tuergarten and on, this is a graceful oval structure in pale stone, rich with classical motifs and combining simplicity of line with regular proportions. Although intended to be the central stage for Aryan prowess in the 1936 Olympics, this stadium was instead, famously, the site for black athlete Jesse Owens’ four-gold-medal triumph. It has since survived World War II bombs and threats of demolition to get a complete refurbishment for the 2006 World Cup, including a floating roof that leaves the central area open to the elements. Come to see Berlin’s beloved underdog football team Hertha BSC, the German Cup Final or the occasional pop star.
From Potsdamer Platz, it is a short walk to the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). This field of concrete slabs takes up the entire area of a city block, arranged in rows but rising to various heights on uneven ground – echoing the crowded headstones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. Conceived in 1993, the controversial project was not opened until 2005, and just as there is no one single way of marking shared memory, nor is there any single view point to Peter Eisenmann’s winning design; to engage with the memorial you need to walk into it and experience its shifts in perspective, and the shifting effects of light, distance, isolation and claustrophobia.
The Berlin Wall, put up in a single night in 1961, introduced a new and cruel reality: anyone trying to flee to the West risked being shot. The concrete part of the 160-kilometre Berlin Wall ran to 112 kilometres, of which the East Side Gallery is a 1.3-kilometre-long section on the Friedrichshain side of the River Spree. Over 100 artists from all over the world painted images on the Wall in the wake of its declassification, and in a city bursting with graffiti, this stretch is an oddity, being officially sanctioned. A colourful memorial to freedom and the outburst of jubilation of that period, it is fading fast, facing the effects of anything from weather to vandalism, and controversy reigns as to its restoration, with certain artists objecting to copies being painted over their originals. This memorial is a focus for the new tensions that have emerged in the post-Wall era, between ideas of ownership, officialdom and memory.
The Federal German Parliament was welcomed back from Bonn in 1999 with a new glass dome, a potent symbol of political aspiration, designed by British ‘starchitect’ Norman Foster. The Reichstag was built in 1894 to house the united German parliament; the terrible fire that was started there on 27 February 1933 not only gutted the building, but was used by the Nazis as a catalyst for withdrawing basic freedoms. Foster’s renovations aim to establish a ‘dialogue between old and new’. The glass cupola materialises aims for political transparency and is open to the public for tours to the heart of government. The dome, rising like a phoenix from the flames, sheds light on the governmental workings below, thanks to energy-efficient mirrors.
The rebuilding of the east in the 1960s happened along totalitarian lines – and rising up out of Alexanderplatz, the 368 metre-high Fernsehturm (‘Television Tower’) marked the centre of a new capital. As the fourth highest freestanding structure in Europe, on a clear day you can see as far as 42 kilometres from its top, while from the ground the ball-on-spike makes an excellent, if bizarre, compass point. It started life as a symbol of Communist ideals, looming high above the wall into the West – an icon straight out of the pages of science fiction novel. But political statement was marred by iffy engineering: only after construction was completed did it transpire that the sun was reflected in a cross-shape across the stainless-steel dome, earning it the nickname ‘the Pope’s revenge’. For a truly high-end experience, dine in the rotating restaurant at the top of the ball, which turns a complete revolution every half an hour.
A counterpoint to the gritty end of Berlin’s gallery scene, the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station, is a spectacular repository of contemporary art, featuring some of the biggest names from the latter part of the 20th century. 100,000 square metres are devoted to works from the collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin), alongside pieces from the renowned collector, Erich Marx, whose impressive stash counts Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Anselm Kiefer. The ground floor of the western side of the building is entirely given over to the eccentric genius Joseph Beuys, showing rare works and related ephemera.
The Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) in Kreuzberg offers an immersive experience of Jewish history, culture and belief, with thanks to the architecture of the museum building. Controversial architect Daniel Libeskind’s vast structure aims to evoke the confusion and despair of persecution. The effect of the jagged, clashing lines of the main building can leave visitors disorientated and discombobulated. But the museum extends beyond the Holocaust – here, we find the story of Jews in Europe over the last few thousand years, told through art, film, documentation and numerous interactive exhibits. With such a colossal amount of information to take in, it's best tackled over a couple of visits. Prepare for security checks upon arrival.
Finally reopened in 2009 after extensive remodelling by the British architect David Chipperfield, this stunning building now houses the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and various artefacts from the Collection of Classical Antiquities. The museum’s most famous object is the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, which Germany refuses to return to Egypt despite repeated requests, and the skull of the Neanderthal from Le Moustier. The Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Prehistory & Early History), which traces the evolution of homo sapiens from 1,000,000 BC to the Bronze Age, has among its highlights reproductions (and some originals) of Heinrich Schliemann’s famous treasure of ancient Troy, including works of ceramics and gold, as well as weaponry. Keep an eye out also for the sixth-century BC grave of a girl buried with a gold coin in her mouth. Information is available in English. The Neues Museum has become such a hit that the museum authorities have had to limit visitor numbers by issuing timed tickets – book in advance if you can, and turn up within a half hour of the time you are given. You can sometimes buy tickets at the counter, but don’t count on it.
One of the world's major archaeological museums, the Pergamon should not be missed. Its treasures, comprising some of the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities; the rest is in the Altes Museum) and the Vorderasiastisches Museum (Museum of Near Eastern Antiquities), contain three major draws. The first is the Hellenistic Pergamon Altar, dating from 170-159 BC; huge as it is, the museum's partial re-creation represents only one third of its original size. In an adjoining room, and even more architecturally impressive, is the towering two-storey Roman Market Gate of Miletus (29m/95ft wide and almost 17m/56ft high), erected in AD 120. This leads through to the third of the big attractions - the extraordinary blue and ochre tiled Gate of Ishtar and the Babylonian Processional Street, dating from the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC). There are plenty of other gems in the museum that are also worth seeking out, including some stunning Assyrian reliefs. The museum is also now home to the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art), which takes up some 14 rooms in the southern wing. The collection is wide ranging, including applied arts, crafts, books and architectural details from the eighth to the 19th centuries. Entrance is included in the overall admission price, as is an excellent audio guide. There are temporary exhibitions too. Check website for details.
Ask five German film enthusiasts about the state of contemporary German cinema and be prepared for five different responses. Local buffs agree, however, that the Deutsche Kinemathek gives a consistent account of the story of German cinema. Thirteen rooms contain over 1,000 films, scripts, documentation, props, costumes and other memorabilia – the exhibition takes us from cinema’s earliest, flickering manifestations to the industry's Weimar-era heyday and through veering ideological extremes (via didactic Nazi and DDR-era propagandist productions) to the present day, with substantial coverage of Marlene Dietrich to boot. Situated in the unlovely neon and concrete environs of Potsdamer Platz, this expansive museum is an absorbing and entertaining experience.