No visit to Berlin could possibly be contemplated without a comprehensive pre-planned itinerary of Berlin Wall-related sightseeing activities…or at least that’s the proposition I pitched to my wife in a tone full of enthusiasm before our weekend visit to Germany’s capital city. Needless to say she didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for the packed schedule I had devised; strangely all that was on her ‘to-do’ list was beer, currywurst, and Christmas markets.
Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that most tourists to Berlin will at least want to learn a little something about the 140km physical and ideological barrier that divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. It’s a major part of Berlin’s somewhat tragic history and a topic I actually think you’d struggle to avoid contemplating if you’re visiting. Although the demolition of the Berlin Wall was officially completed in 1992 evidence of its physical remains and accompanying social scars are littered on nearly every street corner; from remnants of the wall and its defenses (such as the horrifying and accurately titled ‘death strips’) to memorials and museums.
In this article I’ll highlight the sights that best helped me get a better understanding of the wall’s harrowing history…
A Brief Historical Synopsis of the Berlin Wall (delivered with child-like simplicity – as is my nature and ability)
Before I roll straight into the sightseeing element of this article I thought it might be useful to provide a quick overview and some context to the wall’s history; something I very quickly realised I had shockingly scant knowledge of when I arrived in Berlin, and would have benefitted from having in advance…
At the end of World War II the Allied Forces of the US, UK, France and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four occupied zones under the Potsdam Agreement. Each of the Allies assumed control of one of the four zones. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet controlled territory in East Germany and, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was itself also divided into four sectors; each controlled by a single Allied Force….basically you had a divided pie within a divided pie.
What with the Soviets favouring communism and all, political divisions between the parties were a fairly obvious result. The Soviets didn’t much like US, UK and French plans for German reconstruction and instead favoured a plan to undermine the other Allied forces and create a unified communist East Germany. In 1948 Soviet discontent with the proposed reconstruction plans culminated in the Berlin Blockade; whereby the Soviets prevented supplies from reaching West Berlin (the blockade was eventually lifted after the Berlin Airlift).
Under Soviet Communist rule conditions in East Germany (renamed the German Democratic Republic from 1949) continued to deteriorate rapidly whilst conditions in West Germany (now renamed the Federal Republic of Germany) continued to improve under Capitalism (that’s a major understatement!). As a result the early 1950’s saw a huge rise in emigration from East Germany to the West and this was twinned with Stalin wanting to stop West German ‘fascists’ and ‘agitators’ from crossing into East Germany and disrupting their ‘idealist’ communist regime. In 1952 the main border between East and West Germany was closed but in the microcosm of Berlin travel between the sectors was still largely possible…..until construction on the Berlin Wall began in 1961. Berlin went from being the easiest place to cross the border from East to West to the hardest…. until the wall came down in 1989.
Stories of the separation of families on either side of the wall and the murder of defectors attempting escape to West Berlin remain synonymous with the wall’s history and the Cold War to this day.
As you can probably imagine, that was a ridiculously whistle-stop tour for an incredibly complex piece of European history. So if you want to learn more then you might find this an interesting read.
The Top Berlin Wall Sights
The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer)
The Berlin Wall Memorial comprises of a 1.4km stretch of the border strip and includes a preserved section of what was horrifically known as the ‘death strip’ behind remaining sections of the fortified wall. As a ‘visual’ person I found that the memorial was the best way to get a comprehensive understanding of what people risked when trying to defect across the border. It wasn’t just a single wall they had to contend with, it was two walls with space between that was manned from guard towers by Soviet soldiers with orders to ‘shoot-to-kill’. It makes the stories you can read about at the memorial (and other museums and information points across the city) all that more real. The memorial is accompanied by a multitude of information points and a highly informative visitor center that has an elevated viewing balcony over the death strip. Nearby at the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station you can also visit the “Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin” exhibition
Address: Bernauer Straße 111, 13355
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is part memorial and part international art gallery, all in the open air along a fairly formidable 1.4km stretch of the Berlin Wall on Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. The length of exhibition makes it (if sources are to be believed) the largest open-air art gallery in the world. It consists of 105 paintings from international artists all painted in 1990 on the east side of the wall. If there’s one painting that you’ll be likely to recognise its painting number 25 of former Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev and former East Germany President, Erich Honecker kissing (painted by Dmitri Vrubel). You won’t miss it because there’ll be a large crowd gathered around all trying to get selfies for their Instagram feed in various poses (it took me 5 minutes of waiting to get this one shot of the painting without some amorous couple kissing directly in front of it)…
Address: Mühlenstraße 3-100, 10243
Topography of Terror
The Topography of Terror is actually a ridiculously informative (and free) museum that focuses on the central institutions of the Nazi terror regime and sits on the former site of the Secret State Police Office and the Reich Security Main Office. So in and of itself the museum doesn’t actually focus on the Berlin Wall. However, right outside the museum is a 200m stretch of the wall along Niederkirchnerstraße. Across the opposite side of the road to the museum is an interesting information board which outlines the daring escape (from that particular section of the wall) by a couple from East to West Germany by zipline from the House of Ministries Building….the stuff of movies!
Address: Niederkirchnerstraße 8, 10963
Checkpoint Charlie is probably one of the most famous Berlin Wall sights (it was certainly one that I knew of before we arrived and, as I said before, my knowledge was sorely lacking!). Its notoriety is probably two-fold. From a historical perspective it was the most famous border crossing between East and West Germany and became a microcosm for the Cold War being played out between the US and the Soviets. It was the third checkpoint opened by the Allies (Charlie coming third in the NATO phonetic alphabet behind Alpha and Bravo) and was the main crossing for Allied troops (and the scene of an infamous and intense Cold War Tank Standoff between US and Soviet troops in 1961 – It was also the scene of whole raft of escape attempts that are commemorated in an outdoor exhibition on the intersection of Schützenstraße and Zimmerstraße). However, Checkpoint Charilie’s other claim to fame comes from its inclusion in a number of movies including ‘Octopussy’ and ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’. Today the sight is marked by a checkpoint booth outside which you’ll find people clamoring for photos with the onsite ‘troops’ (for which you’ll have to pay). You can also get stamps put in your passport (although I’d be wary as I know of someone who had real problems with a souvenir passport stamp when they tried to enter China one time). All-in-all it’s an important sight that you’ll want to see, but the whole area has become a bit commercial and ‘tacky’. If you want something more informative then visit the three nearby exhibition spaces; ‘Mauer Museum – Haus am Checkpoint Charlie’, ‘Cold War Black Box’ and ‘Asisi Panorama Berlin’.
Address: Friedrichstraße 43-45, 10969
The Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast)
The morbidly named ‘Palace of Tears’ is probably the place I’d heard least about before we arrived in Berlin. In fact, we only really happened to stumble across it because our hotel was right around corner. However, we found this free little exhibition to be one of the most informative places we visited when it came to best describing the heart-wrenching impact the Berlin Wall had on individual Berliners. The ‘Palace’ is actually little more than a former check-in hall for the Friedrichstraße railway station and when described like that it sounds a fairly mundane proposition. But when you consider that this is the spot where families were forced to say goodbye to each other, not knowing when (or even if) they would be permitted to see each other again the small but strangely cavernous space becomes a whole lot more poignant. Today the former border-post houses the “Border Experiences. Everyday Living in Partitioned Germany” exhibition which documents interviews and biographies of witnesses and families that passed through the hall. It’s well worth an hour of your time!
Address: Tränenpalast, Reichstagufer 17, 10117
The Berlin Wall Trail (The Mauerweg)
If all of the above hasn’t quenched your Berlin Wall thirst then why not opt for a hike around the entire ‘Berlin Wall Trail’ which follows the former path of border fortifications around West Berlin….after all, it’s only 160km!! In seriousness though, you might enjoy walking sections of the trail and get to see a number of other sights on the way (and probably continually getting confused as to which side is East vs. West as I did). Check out the Wall Trail website below and you’ll find ways to plan on walking specific sections of the trail. You might also find this Guardian Article informative. Enjoy!
Address: There are 160km-worth of addresses!