48 Hours in Berlin
Berlin is living history, torn apart by war and now commemorating the dark years of the 20th century while getting on with the business of being the coolest city in Europe. Whether it’s a city break of 24-hour partying, visiting edgy galleries, trawling the war-related sites or discovering artistic treasures in the museums, Berlin is a year-around vacation destination. Where to start? The iconic Brandenburg Gate. Erected 1791 and topped with Johann Gottfried Schadow’s statue depicting the Goddess of Victory driving a four-horse chariot, the gate was shipped off to Paris by Napoleon but was returned in 1814. Over 150 years later, it was trapped on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989; today it is the city’s best-loved monument and meeting place. Next up, book in advance for a tour of the Reichstag, the HQ of German Parliament. Burnt down by Hitler, wrapped in paper by artist Christo, and redesigned, it is one of the biggest crowd-pullers in the city, topped by a glittering glass dome by architect Norman Foster. Head for its spectacular roof-garden restaurant for lunch with a bird’s-eye view of central Berlin. Take time out in the Tiergarten, a grand city park dotted with monuments and covering more than 500 acres. A stone’s throw away is the Gemäldegalerie, which holds one of the world’s great collections of 13th-18th-century European art. It is a treasure trove of Titians, Raphaels, Botticellis, and Caravaggios plus exceptional Dutch Old Masters including nearly 20 showstoppers by Rembrandt. The Gemäldegalerie forms part of the Kulturforum, a cultural center built in the 1950s and offering galleries, museums and concert halls. Book in advance for concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic or wander up to Unter den Linden, a showy shopping boulevard lined with grand Prussian mansions that is a mecca of bars and restaurants. For a day submerged in Berlin’s 20th-century history, start at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — 2,711 faceless, stark concrete pillars created by US architect Peter Eisenman. From this powerful memorial, head for the Topography of Terror, located at the former HQ of the Nazi Secret Police; this free exhibit chronicles the horrors of the Holocaust. Detour to Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known border crossing and scene of outlandish attempt to escape from east to west — despite dogs, searchlights and armed guards. Within walking distance is Berlin’s Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind and opened in 2001. The building resembles a broken Star of David and the Holocaust is symbolized by an echoing concrete tower approached by underground tunnel; collections highlight the importance of the Jews to Berlin’s cultural life before the rise of Fascism. Next stop is the Berlin Wall Memorial; take the U Bahn from Hallesches Tor to Bernauerstrasse to see the longest remaining stretch of the sinister wall that went up virtually overnight, brutally dividing communities; it immortalizes the Cold War period between 1961 and 1989 when Berlin was torn between capitalism and Communism. Grab a snack from street stalls nearby. Cherry pick among the five fabulous offshoots of UNESCO-listed Museum Island (entry free with the Berlin Welcome Card) in the River Spree: Byzantine art in the Bodes; 19th-century art in the Alte Nationalgalerie; classical antiquities in the Altes and Neues museums; and eastern antiquities in the Pergamon — Berlin’s most popular museum. Head along Mühlenstrasse to the East Side Gallery; this famous section of the Berlin Wall is the world’s largest outdoor art gallery, covered in cartoons and political comment. Spend the evening in cute Nikolaiviertel, a mock-medieval quarter built in the 1980s full of tiny gabled houses and a great choice of restaurants. By: Sasha Heseltine
Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)
Berlin’s most iconic landmark, the neo-classical Brandenburg Gate has stood at the very center of German history for over two centuries. Erected as a triumphal-cum-city gateway in 1791 and topped with Johann Gottfried Schadow’s statue Quadriga depicting the Goddess of Victory driving a four-horse chariot, the gate was dismantled by Napoleon and shipped off in pieces to Paris before being returned in triumph in 1814. The Prussian eagle was then added to the Goddess of Victory’s staff and the gateway became a symbol of the strength of the German nation. Over 150 years later, the gate became the symbol of a divided nation when it stood trapped on the eastern side of the infamous Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989. Today, more than 20 years after unification, it has reclaimed its position as the city’s most beloved monument. The gate once more forms the imposing entrance to the lime-tree-lined boulevard of Unter den Linden, one of the city’s major shopping streets. Indulge in some window-shopping and then retire to the Adlon Hotel Kempinski for champagne cocktails in the Moët Ice Impérial Lounge and views of the famous gate.
Reichstag (German Parliament Building)
Hitler burned it, Christo wrapped it in paper, and it has long swerved from power to obscurity and back. The Reichstag celebrates the German people ("Dem Deutschen Volke," reads the inscription on the facade) and remains one of the biggest crowd-pullers in the city. Visitors can ascend into the glass dome for a bird’s eye view of central Berlin.
Tours of the Reichstag are offered daily four times a day when Parliament is not in session, and architecture tours are offered on the weekends and public holidays. The spectacular dome and roof garden restaurant are worth a visit for the views of the government quarter and the cuisine. Admission is free for the roof terrace and the dome of the Reichstag.
Thu: 10 AM to 8 PM
Containing arguably the world’s greatest collection of 13th-18th-century European art, the Gemäldegalerie forms part of the Kulturforum, the cultural center that was brainchild of West Berlin civic planners in the 1950s. Consisting of the Berlin Philharmonic and top-notch museums of music, arts and crafts, and etchings, Kulturforum was largely built in the years before Berlin was united, by luminary architects such as Mies van der Rohe, but the present incarnation of the Gemäldegalerie was not completed until 1998 and is the work of German firm Hilmer and Sattler. The pristine, low-lying gallery houses a treasure trove of Titians, Rembrandts, Watteaus, Cranachs, Murillos, Dürers, and Caravaggios jostling for pride of place in 72 rooms. The exceptional collection of Dutch old masters includes the action-packed Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel, the winsome Glass of Wine by Jan Vermeer and Mad Babette by Frans Hals. Corregio’s incomparable Leda with the Swan and an early version of Botticelli’s Venus Rising compete with Raphael’s luminous Madonna, but the stars of the show here are the 16 or so Rembrandts displayed in the octagonal room at the heart of the gallery – the world’s largest collection of Rembrandts includes the peerless Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels.
Topography of Terror
Located in the very spot where the Secret State Police Office and the Reich Security Main Office once stood is the Topography of Terror Documentation Center; close to one million people visit each year to remember the atrocities suffered during World War II and the communist regime. A very somber yet, enlightening experience.
Tue to Sun: 10 AM to 8 PM
Berlin’s long-awaited Jewish Museum opened to great fanfare in 2001; it boasts an innovative design by Polish-born Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind (also creator of the Jewish Museum in Copenhagen), who designed the building to resemble a silver, shattered Star of David. Inside it has dark corners and irregular, shifting lines and is uneasily grafted onto the Baroque mansion that originally housed the collection. The Holocaust is represented by an empty, chilling, echoing concrete tower approached by underground tunnel; it’s 24m tall and lit through a slit in the roof, which symbolises the unbearable loss at the heart of the German nation. Although the events of WW2 understandably dominate in the museum, there are also exhibits tracing Jewish settlement in Germany since the ninth century; Hanukkah lamps; paintings representing scenes from the Old Testament; photos dating from the early 1930s showing the level of Jewish integration into German society; and a fine collection of German-Jewish arts and crafts. Libeskind added a glass courtyard to the rear of the museum in 2005; this is used for temporary exhibitions and private functions.
Berlin Wall Memorial
While it’s been more than 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, the Cold War still remains a gripping period in our consciousness. The Berlin Wall memorial – 1.4 kilometers of the wall left standing on the Bernauer Strasse - immortalizes that period in German history – 1961 to 1989 – when citizens became imprisoned to a life of communism, dramatically separating family and friends. Guided tours are offered on Sundays, check the wesbite for details. Group tours available on request.
Thu: 10 AM to 8 PM
Grand exhibitions deserve grand backdrops. The building itself could have popped right off the Acropolis and crash-landed on Berlin’s museum island. Indulge in ancient architectural gems such as the Market Gate of Miletus and the Pergamon Altar, a second-century B.C. masterpiece of battling gods and giants. On sunny days, a stroll around the outside alone is worth a visit. Serious scholars and history aficionados should consider a €15 three-day pass to the national museums (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).