With this year marking 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s been a lot of buzz in the city. Germany is pulling out all they’ve got and, as most things in this country, the focus is (perhaps, not surprisingly) on Berlin.
Berlin’s unique history in the world has led to its unique culture (and “vibe”) today. But what makes it special today, made it a slightly surreal and strange place during the Cold War. The Berlin wall famously rose in a single night though it actually took much longer to build completely and also saw several updates and revisions over the years. Stretching for over 140 kilometers, the wall was for a long time a symbol of the city. These days, Berlin has arisen out of a rocky past and is working hard to recreate itself — never forgetting its history, but also simultaneously looking forward.
It’s all part of what makes Berlin special. And with the historical anniversary coming up (this November will see several large-scale commemoration events), I spent a weekend with Visit Berlin exploring the history of the Berlin Wall. Part of the weekend included a photo challenge where we were each given an historical photo of the Berlin Wall and then had to find its present day location. My photo led me to a spot near the Hauptbahnhof where the second victim of the Wall fell. Günter Litfin had tried to escape shortly after the Wall had gone up, swimming across the river. Near the place where he was shot is now a memorial commemorating all victims of the Wall.
Berlin is full of hidden memorials. From the Stolpersteine marking victims of the Holocaust to the brick track that outlines the path of the former Berlin Wall. It’s something I’ve always loved about this city. The fact that the history is constantly there, under your feet, and yet people move freely amongst the memorials. They’re always there, yet you might not notice them without knowing about them.
It’s the same with memorials for the Berlin Wall. The brick track cuts through streets and crosses intersections. It always looks funny from afar, when you realize the strange and peculiar path the Wall took. Former checkpoints along the Wall are also marked with some of their own memorials. For example, along the former Chausseestrasse border crossing in Wedding, there are small silver plates in the shape of life-size bunny rabbits inlaid into the street and sidewalk. They were placed there in the ’90s to remember the rabbits that once inhabited the “No Man’s Land” in front of the Berlin Wall. For decades they were the only living creates to inhabit the space.
Berlin’s history is ever-present throughout the city, but with such a long and expansive (and often dramatic) history, it can help to know what to see and where to go. It’s a big city with a big history, so if you’ve got just a weekend and you’re looking for the best things to do to learn more about the Berlin Wall, try my tips below.
Travel Tips for Visiting the Berlin Wall
1. Visit the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse
Near the u-bahn station Bernauer Strasse you’ll find a large and informative memorial to the Berlin Wall. There’s an interactive exhibit, large photos in an outdoor exhibition, a memorial at the site of a former church (the Chapel of Reconciliation) and a recreation of the No Man’s Land. It’s 100% the best Berlin Wall memorial in the city, and well worth a wander.
More information: berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de
2. Take a Bike Tour Along the Former Wall
One of my favorite recommendations for Berlin tourists is to take a bike tour and the company, Berlin on Bike, offers themed tours. Their “Berlin Wall Tour” takes in sites along the former Wall, visiting checkpoints and some of the memorials. It’s a great way to experience not just the city but also the history. If you’re lucky, your guide might even take you to some relatively hidden spots where pieces of the Berlin Wall are still standing today.
More information: berlinonbike.de
3. Visit the East Side Gallery
Okay, the East Side Gallery is arguably the most famous spot of the former Berlin Wall, yet in its current state, it’s a bit run down. Too many people have added too much graffiti, tourists scribbling their names or others spray-painting over famous murals. In fact, one of the more famous murals along the East Side Gallery (Vrubel’s “My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love”) is regularly defaced with graffiti. Thankfully there are some in the city who take such serious offense to the defacement, that some of it is cleaned on occasion.
More information: eastsidegallery.com
4. Spend an Hour at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum
While most locals loathe the heavily touristic area surrounding Checkpoint Charlie, there’s a museum located there that’s still one of the more interesting museums in Berlin. It’s not a perfect museum. And for the hefty entrance price, you should probably expect more. But there’s no denying it: the Checkpoint Charlie Museum is a powerhouse of information about the Berlin Wall. It’s extremely disorganized, and often stiflingly hot inside, but some of the first-hand accounts and information on the inside is hard to pass up. It’s sad, strong, powerful and can be intense — all exacerbated by the awkwardness of the museum’s interior. There are also changing exhibitions about human rights issues around the world, making it a place worth repeat visits.
More information: mauermuseum.de
Looking for more? There are also sites such as the Topography of Terrors (free!), the Stasi Museum and the Allied Museum which all provide further information on additional topics related to the history of the Wall and East/West Germany.
Ashamedly despite having family from East Germany, I have never been to Berlin (I have made it to Dresden though). I really want to go to find out the history behind it although it is harrowing, sad and no doubt, hard to comprehend.
It can be hard to comprehend, but it’s so important to do so! Hope you can make a trip out to Berlin at some point to see a bit of the history first-hand as well…
Great tips! Hopefully we’ll have the possibility to visit Berlin soon…
Hope you can make it to Berlin soon, Stefania!
Great post, Adam! Couldn’t agree more about #1. I kind of let my frustration with the East Side Gallery get to me when I wrote about Bernauer Str. =P -> http://jetsliketaxis.com/berlin-wall-memorial/
I know a lot of people who are frustrated with the ESG so no surprise to read your story :)
Definitely agree that the Bernauer Strasse memorial is a great one. More and more people are hearing about it these days, though.
I love your comment about the memorials being all around you. It is so true, I feel like I discover a new memorial every week – mostly in spots i have been past a million times – I only noticed the Günter Litfin memorial a few weeks ago! I will have to go and check out the rabbits! sounds great!
These subtle memorials feel so much more poignant, than the big flashy ones. I went to a Stolpersteinverlegung last week near where I live. It was quite an experience, having been fascinated by the project for a number of years – if you get a chance to attend one I’d highly recommend it.
Hey Charlie, Thanks for the excellent comment. Definitely check out the rabbits – there aren’t as many as when they first set up the memorial but several are still there.
Also really interested to learn more about the Stolpersteinverlegung. Definitely would love to attend one of those!
That’s so curious and great those reminders of the rabbits have been placed there, even if just to draw attention to the absurdity that was the huge clearing that separated families for decades.
I find the rabbit memorial really interesting. Considering all the other memorials, it’s a bit more unique without (hopefully) taking away from the seriousness of the other memorials.
Oh Adam, this your post made me miss Berlin so much. From the apt I’ve lived in to Bernauer Strasse Memorial I had 3 minutes walking. I hope to have an opportunity to walk all those streets and visit the history sites I missed as soon as possible again.
I really must make it to Berlin one day. An excellent post, thank you :)
Totally agree about the Checkpoint Charlie Museum – it’s disorganized and hot and set up weird, but it’s also absolutely fascinating!
I LOVED learning some much history while I was in Berlin.
What a great post! I love the photo challenge and the tips on visiting the wall! Thank you! Seems like you enjoyed the trip! CHEERS!
I love Berlin, I was there last month for a weekend. East Side Gallery is the spot I always recommend to people, mostly because of the art but it’s also a nice walk along the river in the right weather. (And, all the best restaurants are near there!)
There are some beautiful pieces of the wall that have been placed in galleries as well, I am thinking of one at the Potsdamer Platz but can’t remember the name!