Tag Archives: Berlin

Germany 14: Lovely Berlin, Part 3

Museum Island, the DDR Museum, and Some Platzes

If you have any interest in 20th-Century European history and you are in Berlin, you will be richly rewarded by a visit to the DDR Museum. (“DDR” stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or German Democratic Republic [GDR].) We spent several hours there on our last full day in Germany, and every moment was fascinating.

Museum Island

In the middle of the Spree River in Berlin there is an island where five world-class museums are located: the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Museum and the Pergamon. The Pergamon, the most popular, includes “The Collection of Classical Antiquities,” “The Museum of the Ancient Near East,” and “The Museum of Islamic Art.” Other museums are close by, across the river from the island.

After nearly three weeks of sightseeing, unfortunately we’d had enough of world-class museums and art galleries. We did, however, wander past a few of the acclaimed buildings on our final day in Berlin – our subway stop for the DDR Museum was at Museum Island. Next time I’m there, I intend to start my sightseeing at one of the museums on the island. I was sorry that we didn’t have the perseverance this time.

The DDR Museum

The DDR Museum is located across the eastern arm of the Spree from the magnificent Berlin Cathedral. We were fortunate to visit it when we did, as two months later a huge Aquadom in the Radisson Collection Hotel, right next door to the Museum, exploded, spewing a million litres of water and 1500 fish into the lobby and the street. The DDR Museum will be closed for several months as a result of the damage from that catastrophe.

The description of the DDR Museum in my Lonely Planet guide is what attracted our interest. “This touchy-feely museum does an insightful and entertaining job of pulling back the iron curtain on daily life in socialist East Germany. You’ll learn how kids were put through collective potty training, engineers earned little more than farmers, and everyone, it seems, went on nudist holidays. A perennial crowd-pleaser among the historic objects on display is a Trabi, the tinny East German standard car – sit in it to take a virtual spin around an East Berlin neighbourhood. The more sinister sides of daily life, including the chronic supply shortages and surveillance by the Stasi (secret police), are also addressed.”

(Rather than transcribing the information from the signs that were posted near the displays and installations, I am posting photographs of some of the signs themselves – which were often as interesting as the visuals. I’ve added comments here and there where I think they may be helpful.)


As the Lonely Planet Guide said, the Trabant, the East-German-made automobile (called “Cardboard on Wheels” in the display), was of great interest to visitors. Apparently, the East Germans were dismayed at the success of the Volkswagen that was being manufactured on the far side of the Wall, and had hoped this would compete. It did not. Most East Germans had no alternative but to purchase the “Trabi,” but they invested a good deal of time and energy on do-it-yourself repairs, and the cobbling together of home-made parts.

Daily Life




An East German Apartment

A completely outfitted East German Apartment is displayed in the DDR Museum. It was very spacious, but just about everything in it was shoddily made and apparently everything broke down all the time. The East Germans became adept at repairing everything.

Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz and Gendarmenmarkt

After we left Museum Island we went to Alexanderplatz to look around and enjoy some currywurst (tasty!).

Then we took the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz, where we visited a beautiful new shopping mall and admired a lot of buildings.

For our final evening meal in Berlin (and Germany), we took the U-Bahn up to lovely Gendarmenmarkt, where we had a lovely dinner and saw some unexpected sights that made us very glad we hadn’t just gone back to the same restaurant we’d enjoyed twice before near our hotel, as our tired feet had strongly suggested we should do.

Germany 13: Lovely Berlin, Part 2

The Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and a Word or Two on Transit in Berlin

Getting around Berlin without a vehicle is incredibly easy. All of the major German cities that we visited had excellent transportation networks, but Berlin’s was outstanding. We were able to buy a pass each day and travel all over the central part of the city, and the only thing we needed to remember was to get our tickets stamped in a machine in the station after we bought them. With your validated ticket in hand, you don’t need to go through admission gates or anything – you can just hop on and off the trains (U-Bahn), streetcars (S-Bahn) and buses, which will take you anywhere you want to go. (With the stamped ticket, you are ready to provide evidence that you are a paying customer if asked by a transit authority person: fines for not having a ticket are steep.)

The underground networks almost always have elevators and escalators that actually work (unlike what often happens in Toronto), and some of the escalators are so smart that they don’t start moving until you (or someone) steps onto them. I recently read that Berlin’s mask mandate on public transportation will be lifted in February, 2023, but it was still in effect when we were there so we felt safe.

I was also impressed with the proliferation of bike paths throughout Berlin, and at nearly every major intersection there are bikes and scooters available to rent. If you lived there, you would hardly ever need to use a car. I’m sure most people don’t.

Walking home late one night, we also saw a chauffeur service that appealed to me for the compactness of the vehicle on offer.

The Reichstag

On our second day in Berlin, we visited the Reichstag, which houses the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament.

The original building, built in 1894, was burned by arsonists on February 27, 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Hitler blamed the fire on “communists” and used it as a lever to induce Paul von Hindenburg, the German president at the time, to suspend civil liberties. The Reichstag Fire was therefore seminal in the rise of Nazism in Germany. The building was also bombed by the Russians during World War II.

“The ruined building was made safe against the elements and partially refurbished in the 1960s, but no attempt at full restoration was made until after German reunification in 1990, when it underwent a reconstruction led by architect Norman Foster. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the contemporary Bundestag” (Wikipedia). (Where would I be without Wikipedia?? I support it annually with a small donation, and encourage you to do so too.)

The Reichstag’s Dome is seamlessly melded into the reconstructed original structure to create a breathtaking architectural work. Here are a few cool things about this fabulous blend of old and new:

  • “The steel and glass structure allows viewers to look directly into the chamber of the Bundestag. The passage of natural light highlights the transparency of government and its openness to its citizens” (Waagner Biro Reichstag Dome). The metaphor reinforces the idea that the people are above the government and not the other way around, as they were under the Nazis.
  • “The glass dome was designed by Foster to be environmentally friendly and energy efficient; in allowing daylight to shine through the mirrored cone, the use of artificial lighting is significantly reduced, and thus so are carbon emissions. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but also dazzle those below.” Wikipedia
  • “The dome is open at the top, allowing waste air from the chamber below to escape and bringing fresh air into the building.” Rainy Day Traveller
  • The Reichstag Dome allows a 360° view of the city. It is just south of the Spree and just north of the Brandenburg Gate so you get a nice view of a whole lot of interesting stuff. (On the day we visited, flags all over the city were lowered to half mast to honour Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, who had just died.) The audio guide available as you enter the Dome is worth getting: you can listen to it as you stroll up and down the helix-like ramp structure inside.

It is essential to book a ticket ahead of time to tour the Reichstag. On the recommendation of our nephew Paul, I booked our visit even before we left Canada, and I was glad I did. If you want tickets, which are free, here’s the link.

Checkpoint Charlie

That afternoon (September 3), we visited Checkpoint Charlie. Obviously, one must do that when one is in Berlin for the first time – although we had heard there was nothing much to see at the site aside from tourist-magnet stores (containing actual magnets and other things that can help you to prove to your friends and family that you were at a certain place when you were away. I have a fridge covered in those kinds of magnets, and I love them. But I didn’t get one for Checkpoint Charlie).

Germany was divided into East and West in 1952, with the Soviets controlling the East and the Allies the West. Berlin was right on the border, so one side of it was in the more prosperous western sector and the other side in the more disadvantaged (Soviet) eastern section. Families and friends were separated by this division, and for that and numerous other reasons, millions of people wanted to get out of East Germany. It was easier to get across the border in Berlin than in most other parts of the divided country, because the city was being administered by the Western Allies. By 1961, 3.5 million people, or nearly 20% of the population of East Germany, had escaped to the West. Many of these people were young and well educated, and most of them had jobs, so their defections had a significant effect on the already-depressed East German economy. The Soviets grew increasingly determined to stop the flood of escapes.

The Berlin Wall started out as a barbed-wire fence in about 1961. Soon after it was erected, East Germany began construction of a concrete barrier – not only in Berlin but in other parts of Germany as well. “Along with the wall, the 830-mile (1336 km) zonal border became 3.5 miles (5.6 km) wide on its East German side in some parts of Germany with a tall steel-mesh fence running along a ‘death strip’ bordered by mines, as well as channels of ploughed earth, to slow escapees and more easily reveal their footprints” (Wikipedia). The Berlin Wall itself, “Erected in haste and torn down in protest, […] was almost 27 miles long and was protected with barbed wire, attack dogs, and 55,000 landmines” (National Geographic).

Checkpoint Charlie (named from the Allies’ designation of it as “Checkpoint C”; the Soviets called it “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point”) was the only place in Berlin where “foreigners and Allied Forces” were allowed to cross the border. “During its 28-year active life, the infrastructure on the Eastern side was expanded to include not only the wall, watchtower and zig-zag barriers, but a multi-lane shed where cars and their occupants were checked. However, the Allied authority never erected any permanent buildings. A wooden shed was replaced during the 1980s by a larger metal structure, now displayed at the Allied Museum in western Berlin. Their reasoning was that they did not consider the inner Berlin sector boundary an international border and did not treat it as such” (Wikipedia).

Following the erection of the wall, many additional escapes took place (some of which are listed and described in gory detail at the Wikipedia link I’ve cited above) and these led to more and more refinements to keep East Germans out of West Berlin.

The original Checkpoint Charlie crossing booth is displayed in the open-air museum on the northeast corner near the checkpoint location, along with displays of photos and texts describing the history of the crossing and depicting several escape attempts. These displays were very informative. We did not tour the actual “Mauermuseum” (Wall Museum) as we felt we had a pretty good idea of what it was all about from the locations that were accessible for free. The next day, when we visited the DDR Museum, we got a really fascinating look at what life had been like on the East side of the Wall. Stay tuned for more on that next time.

Germany 12: Lovely Berlin, Part 1

A Boat Tour, The Brandenburg Gate and The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Berlin is a city in which I can easily imagine living – or, more accurately, where I imagine that I would have liked to have lived at one time: not so much now, when my days are filled with people here in Canada (including a lovely bunch of grandchildren) and places of which I am so fond. But when I was just starting out, if I had known about Berlin as anything more than a city in Germany that was frequently mentioned in my history classes, I might well have considered it.

From what I’ve read and seen in movies, I know that Berlin would have been an interesting place to live before World War II, especially during the “Golden Twenties.” Of course, I hadn’t been born at that point. I think I’d also have liked to have lived there in the 1980s, during the period when Nick Cave made Berlin his home. (Although Nick Cave himself did issue a warning about the dire fate that befell young women who wasted their youths hanging out in Berlin nightclubs.*) At that time, of course, the city was divided into East and West Berlin, so it would not have been the same as the reunified Berlin of today. So my fantasies regarding a life in Berlin are complicated and impossible. However, I am very happy that we had three days to enjoy some of its sights, sounds and flavours (if not its bars and music halls) in 2022. If there weren’t so many other places I still want to see, I’d put it back on the list for a more extended visit.

Our first day in the city, September 2, began with a stroll from our hotel (the Best Western am Spittlemarkt) to a dock on the Spree, where we would board a tour boat. On our way, we passed some scenic things and some interesting things.

Landwehr Canal

The boarding area for the tour boat was at one end of the Landwehrkanal, which runs parallel to the Spree River and is 10.7 km long. “It was built between 1845 and 1850 …. [and] connects the upper part of the Spree at the eastern harbour in [the district of] Friedrichshain with its lower part in Charlottenburg, flowing through Kreuzberg and Tiergarten.” (Wikipedia) Today the canal is primarily the domain of tour boats – and the approximately two-hour trips are a lovely way to begin to learn about the city. The boat passes through the famous Tiergarten, a park that was originally a hunting ground for nobility who stocked it with exotic animals, and which was badly damaged during World War II. It also goes past Museum Island, which we would visit another day.

One problem with taking photos when you’re seated at a table on a boat is that the same stranger appears right in front of you in almost all of them. I cropped him out of a lot of photos but the image below in which I covered over his face will give you a sense of how difficult it was at times to capture what I wanted without capturing him as well. The advantages of sitting at a table on a boat, on the other hand, include getting to know a bit about people from other places, such as an interesting young family that had just moved to Berlin from India via the USA.

The architecture and the scenery we passed on the tour were fabulous but since I didn’t take notes, I can’t remember what several of the buildings were. Maybe you know. If not, just enjoy the view, as we did. (Click on any of the photos to get a better view.)

Brandenburg Gate

After the tour, we walked a couple of kilometres to the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor), stopping along the way for an ice cream cone. We passed a remnant of the Berlin Wall and a lovely statue of Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), a famous German illustrator and photographer of whom I had never heard until the statue caught my eye. On Unter den Linden (Under the Lindens. I love the name of that long avenue) which leads from Schlossbrucke (Castle Bridge) on the Spree to the Gate itself, we came across signs and installations protesting Russia’s war, and honouring Ukraine.

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

Before returning to have dinner in a restaurant near our hotel (German food this time!), we spent an hour or so at the beautiful and very moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

“Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold, [the Memorial] consists of a 19,000-square-metre (200,000 sq ft) site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs or ‘stelae,’ arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. [….] The stelae are 2.38 m (7 ft 9 1/2 in) long, 0.95 m (3 ft 1 1/2 in) wide and vary in height from 0.2 to 4.7 metres (8 in to 15 ft 5 in). They are organized in rows, 54 of them going north-south, and 87 heading east-west at right angles but set slightly askew. An attached underground ‘Place of Information’ holds the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem.” Wikipedia (The history of how the site was designed and developed, which can be found at that Wikipedia link, is very interesting. So is the museum’s website, which tells us that “Following an amendment on 3 July 2009, the Federal Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is now also responsible for the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime and the Memorial to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe.” Only a block or so from the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial is definitely worth a visit, for artistic as well as historical reasons.

And that was Berlin, Day 1!


* To hear Nick Cave’s comments about the young women who have wasted the best part of their lives in Berlin’s nightclubs, check out this video (it’s at about minute 28). If you want a more accessible, albeit almost equally ancient (1990), documentary about Nick Cave, try this one instead.