Berlin: The Heart of Modern Germany

By Shannon Berg.


Berlin is a fast paced modern city that has a lively nightlife and a love of art and culture.  It is one of the sixteen states within the Federal Republic of Germany, and is also the capitol of the Republic.   With a population of 3.4 million people within the city limits, Berlin is the largest city in Germany and lies on the Spree River Valley where both the Spree and Havel Rivers pass through.  Located in Northeastern Germany in the heart of the Brandenburg Region, Berlin is only 70 km from the Polish border. It is easy to get here by plane, with three different airports in the city, or by train, bus, car or even ferry.  Once in the city one can enjoy the great public transportation system made up of the underground, urban railway, buses and trams.


Berlin was born as a trading town in the 13th century, but most of its history is dominated by politics.  By 1701 it was the capitol of the Prussian State, and then from 1871-1918 it was the capitol of the German Empire.  In 1919 it became the capitol of the Weimar Republic, and in 1933 Hitler declared it the capitol of his Third Reich.  Most recently in history the long time capitol was divided after World War II into Eastern and Western Berlin, with the famous Berlin Wall literally bisecting the city.  Eastern Berlin did remain the capitol of the German Democratic Republic, but the whole city was dominated at this time by the Cold War and occupying forces.  When in 1989 the Berlin Wall finally came down, and the country was reunified in 1990, Berlin once again became the capitol of the entire reunified German State, the Federal Republic of Germany.  Now Berlin continues to be the political center of Germany, as well as a center for the arts, culture, and history.  This vital city enjoys an active nightlife, many festivals, universities, the Berlin Zoo, over 170 museums of every sort and an avante garde approach to everything.


Main Attractions


Brandenburg Gate

This only remaining city gate is the true symbol of the city of Berlin, but for years was also a symbol of its division.  Built of sandstone by C. G. Langhaus from 1788-1791, with 12 Doric columns, the design was based upon the Acropolis in Athens.  Crowning it is the quad Riga and the goddess of victory by Schadow added in 1794.  All the nearby buildings that once surrounded the gate were destroyed in World War II.  It then stood isolated and unreachable in what was defined as no man’s land during the cold war.  Only after the Berlin Wall fell was the gate again made accessible to the people of Berlin on December 22, 1989.   The monument is at the hearts of the people and is symbolic of the history of the last century.



Built from 1884-1894 by Paul Wallot, this is the seat of the Federal Republic of Germany.  It was remodeled and extended from 1994-1999 by architect Sir Norman Forster, adding the new glass dome which has become another major landmark in Berlin.  The Reichstag has been of historical importance for centuries.  It was here that a fire broke out in 1933 providing an excuse for the Nazi to persecute their opponents, and lead to their eventual take over.  Since 1999, the federal government has resumed meeting here.


Eastside Gallery

Stretching 1,316 meters long, this is the largest open air gallery in the world.  Made of the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, the gallery was opened on September 28, 1990.  The wall art has contributions from over 118 international artists from 21 different countries.  Of note are, “Brotherly Kiss” by Dimitri Vrubel, “Fatherland” by Gunthe Schaefer and “Berlin? New York,” by Genhard Lahr.


Museum Island

On this island are five major museums, each with unique collections.  The Alte Museum was built in 1830 by Schinkel and has a domed rotunda which is ideal for displaying its collection of ancient artworks and sculpture.  The Neue Museum, built from 1843-1859 by Freidrich August Stüler, was designed to display the ever growing collection of the Alte Museum.  It was heavily damaged during air raids during World War II, and is scheduled to be restored in 2008.  The Alte Nationalgalerie was built from 1867-1876 based on designs by Stüler but completed by Johann Heinrich Strack.  It displays a great collection of what was contemporary art at the museums construction, 19th century paintings and sculptures by such artists as Adolph Von Menzel, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Rodin and Paul Cézanne.  The Bodemuseum has a collection of Byzantine art, a large coin collection and gems.  The Pergamonmuseum was built in 1930 to house the Altar of Zeus taken from the Pergamon, and also has the Processional Avenue and Gate of Ishtar from Babylon and a Roman gate from Milet.


Stiftung Jüdisches Museum

This Jewish Museum is dedicated to the history and life of the German Jews.  Dedicated in 1999, the structure is the most significant example of contemporary architecture you will find in Berlin and the steel windowless building is symbolic of the Star of David.  Inside one finds among the many exhibits the Holocaust Tower and outside is the Garden of Exile.



Berlin’s most famous square was once the livestock market place, then the wool market and finally a parade ground.  It was renamed in 1805 when the Czar Alexander II visited there.  The construction of a train station there in 1882 ended the market use of the area, but this too was destroyed during World War II.  From 1966 to 1971 the square became the city center of East Berlin, with the construction of hotels, a department store and a TV tower.  Today you find the Fountain of International Friendship and the World Time Clock there along with shops and restaurants.



Originally built in 1881 by Martin Gropius and Heino Schmieden in the Italian Renaissance Style, it was intended as a crafts museum, but ended up housing prehistoric and East Asian collections.  Bombed during World War II, it was rebuilt in 1978 and now is considered the most important exhibition hall in Berlin.  Check to see what is on exhibit while you are there.


Hamburger Bahnhof

This former train station that was built in 1846 became a major exhibition site in the 1980s.  In 1996 it was reopened as the Museum for the Present displaying a collection of art from the second half of the 20th century to the present in its over 10,000 square meters.  The collection includes pieces by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Joseph Benys and Robert Rauschenberg.  There is also a collection of Italian Transvanguardia and minimalist art.  In the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection one finds 2000 works by 150 artists from the last decades of the 20th century.



Checkpoint Charlie

For history buffs, this is a must see.  Located on Friedrichstraße, once one the most fashionable streets in Berlin, filled with theatres and cafés, this was the former border crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, and the only way past the Berlin Wall within the city.  It was here that Soviet and American tanks faced off from 1966-1990.  The monument includes the cabinet where the soldiers sat and the nearby Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie which focuses on the history of the Berlin Wall.


Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas

This is the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by internationally known architect Peter Eisenman of New York.  The German Parliament voted to build Eisenman’s design in 1999 as a central place for remembering and warning.  It is located in the center of Berlin, not far from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Tor.  The monument is a sort of Field of Stelae made up of 2,711 concrete blocks of differing heights which seem to move in waves as visitors walk among them.  They are laid out in a grid pattern that covers 19,000 square meters on a gently sloping hill.  Underground below is an 800 square meter visitors center with an exhibition on the history of the victims and information on other memorial sites.



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