As Germany’s capital and the country’s largest city, Berlin is not only the political center of Germany, but it has also grown to be one of the most-visited destinations of Central Europe and it has become the epicenter of a large, creative and versatile cultural scene. Berlin has evolved from being an isolated island into an energetic, confident capital that lives up to large expectations. As the city has joined the ranks of Paris and London among Europe’s metropolises, it has become more and more fascinating to visit and a Berlin experience can easily go far beyond seeing the sights.
Berlin has a population of almost 3.5 million, nearly twice as much as Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg. It is also, after London, number two in the list of the most populous cities of the European Union and number five on the continent. With a size of almost 900 sq km it also is the German city occupying the largest area. At the same time, Berlin is one of the sixteen German states, while the metropolitan area clearly expands beyond the state’s borders into neighboring Brandenburg. The city is subdivided into twelve districts, each of which has a distinct atmosphere based on history and in no small part on the structure of its population.
Germany’s capital is a very international and multicultural city, hosting a large number of international enterprises and no less than 147 foreign embassies and there are individuals from 190 countries living in the city. While the more exotic of these cannot be easily spotted, visitors will quickly grasp a strong influence of Middle Eastern immigrants, mostly Turks, of which there are a quarter million in Berlin alone. Also, as a result of the strong immigration waves in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, today a large number of Germans have a migrant family background.
In Berlin, some 30% of Germans registered in the city have their family history rooted in another country than Germany. Next to Turks and Arabs, Berlin is home to large numbers of people from former Soviet Union countries as well as sizable communities of people from Eastern and Southeastern European countries. In addition, the city has been a magnet for young professionals from other European Union countries lately, many of whom estimate their career chances to be higher here than in their native countries.
First settled late in the 12th century, Berlin has historically been the capital of Germany. It has been so from 1871 to 1918 and again from 1919 to 1945, the last twelve years of the latter playing the infamous role of capital of the Third Reich. After WWII, the city was divided into an Eastern part, which became capital of the GDR and the Western part, which belonged to West Germany but was completely surrounded by the communist East Germany. The wall running through the city, sometimes dividing streets and even houses into a Western and an Eastern part was finally torn down in 1989, its remnants becoming major tourist attractions bearing nothing of the menacing threat the Berlin Wall once stood for. Upon reunification of Germany, Berlin once again became capital.
Among Berlin’s sights, visitors will find a former royal palace, the damaged remainder of a church, exclusive shopping, the historic Reichstag building today housing the German parliament, several world-class museums and a completely new city center, built after the Wall came down. Also since that time, the economy of the city once stricken by its isolation, has rebounded somewhat, although Berlin still has a comparatively high unemployment rate. Many people work in creative industries and tourism has also become an important economic factor. The new Berlin airport which is supposed to become a major air hub, is scheduled to open in a few years. Within the city, a network of buses and subways covering wide areas of the town is available.
The Fernsehturm (TV tower) at Alexanderplatz in Mitte is among the tallest structures in the European Union at 368 m (1,207 ft). Built in 1969, it is visible throughout most of the central districts of Berlin. The city can be viewed from its 204 m (669 ft) high observation floor. Starting here the Karl-Marx-Allee heads east, an avenue lined by monumental residential buildings, designed in the Socialist Classicism style. Adjacent to this area is the Rotes Rathaus (City Hall), with its distinctive red-brick architecture. In front of it is the Neptunbrunnen, a fountain featuring a mythological group of Tritons, personifications of the four main Prussian rivers and Neptune on top of it.
The Brandenburg Gate is an iconic landmark of Berlin and Germany, it stands as a symbol of eventful European history and of unity and peace. The Reichstag building is the traditional seat of the German Parliament. It was remodeled by British architect Norman Foster in the 1990s and features a glass dome over the session area, which allows free public access to the parliamentary proceedings and magnificent views of the city.
The East Side Gallery is an open-air exhibition of art painted directly on the last existing portions of the Berlin Wall. It is the largest remaining evidence of the city’s historical division.
The Gendarmenmarkt is a neoclassical square in Berlin, the name of which derives from the headquarters of the famous Gens d’armes regiment located here in the 18th century. It is bordered by two similarly designed cathedrals, the Französischer Dom with its observation platform and the Deutscher Dom. The Konzerthaus (Concert Hall), home of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, stands between the two cathedrals.
The Museum Island in the River Spree houses five museums built from 1830 to 1930 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Restoration and construction of a main entrance to all museums, as well as reconstruction of the Stadtschloss continues. Also located on the island and adjacent to the Lustgarten and palace is Berlin Cathedral, emperor William II’s ambitious attempt to create a Protestant counterpart to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A large crypt houses the remains of some of the earlier Prussian royal family. St. Hedwig’s Cathedral is Berlin’s Roman Catholic cathedral.
Unter den Linden is a tree-lined east–west avenue from the Brandenburg Gate to the site of the former Berliner Stadtschloss, and was once Berlin’s premier promenade. Many Classical buildings line the street and part of Humboldt University is located there. Friedrichstraße was Berlin’s legendary street during the Golden Twenties. It combines 20th-century traditions with the modern architecture of today’s Berlin.
Potsdamer Platz is an entire quarter built from scratch after 1995 after the Wall came down. To the west of Potsdamer Platz is the Kulturforum, which houses the Gemäldegalerie, and is flanked by the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Berliner Philharmonie. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a Holocaust memorial, is situated to the north.
The area around Hackescher Markt is home to fashionable culture, with countless clothing outlets, clubs, bars, and galleries. This includes the Hackesche Höfe, a conglomeration of buildings around several courtyards, reconstructed around 1996. The nearby New Synagogue is the center of Jewish culture.
The Kurfürstendamm is home to some of Berlin’s luxurious stores with the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at its eastern end on Breitscheidplatz. The church was destroyed in the Second World War and left in ruins. Nearby on Tauentzienstraße is KaDeWe, claimed to be continental Europe’s largest department store. The Rathaus Schöneberg, where John F. Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech, is situated in Tempelhof-Schöneberg.
West of the center, Bellevue Palace is the residence of the German President. Charlottenburg Palace, which was burnt out in the Second World War, is the largest historical palace in Berlin.
The Funkturm Berlin is a 150 m (490 ft) tall lattice radio tower in the fairground area, built between 1924 and 1926. It is the only observation tower which stands on insulators and has a restaurant 55 m (180 ft) and an observation deck 126 m (413 ft) above ground, which is reachable by a windowed elevator.
The Oberbaumbrücke is Berlin’s most iconic bridge, crossing the River Spree. It was a former East-West border crossing and connects the boroughs of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. It was completed in a brick Gothic style in 1896. The center portion has been reconstructed with a steel frame after having been destroyed in 1945. The bridge has an upper deck for the Berlin U-Bahn line U1.
The cityscape of Berlin displays large quantities of urban street art. It has become a significant part of the city’s cultural heritage and has its roots in the graffiti scene of Kreuzberg of the 1980s. The Berlin Wall itself has become one of the largest open-air canvasses in the world. The leftover stretch along the Spree river in Friedrichshain remains as the East Side Gallery. Berlin today is consistently rated as an important world city for street art culture.