No other European capital city saw more hostility and rancor in the past century than Berlin, Germany. But the infamous hardships and resulting resiliency is what makes it an extraordinary tour destination, renowned as one of the most celebrated cultural epicenters in Europe.

Associate Editor Cortney Erndt, Brandenburg Gate

In many ways, Berlin has been given a chance to start from scratch — to implement new urban planning strategies with a focus on aesthetics and modernization. So much of Berlin was destroyed in World War II that the city had to rebuild from the ground up.

As for the structures that miraculously remained standing, the vestiges of war can be seen (and eerily felt) in the bullet wounds that sporadically dot historic walls. This devastation gave Berlin its beloved juxtaposition of history and a modernity that today’s visitors can relate to.

Becoming one

Brandenburg Gate
(Brandenburger Tor)

An excellent place to begin a tour is often characterized as the symbol of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate. During WWII, the remarkable piece of architecture was damaged, but not destroyed by allied bombing.

It was built in 1788–91 by Carl G. Langhans after the model of Propylaea in Athens’ Acropolis, as demonstrated by its neoclassical architecture. It was commissioned by Frederick William II as an entrance to Unter den Linden, which led to the Prussian palace.  

Since then, many different political parties have utilized the gate for their own agendas. Napoleon used it for a triumphant march, whereas the Nazis used the gate as a party symbol in propaganda. From 1961 to 1989, the gate symbolized a divided Germany while the Berlin Wall separated families, kept people from jobs and denied opportunities in the west.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the gate reinvented itself as a symbol of European peace and unity. It’s now flanked by two small buildings, Haus Liebermann and Haus Sommer, which were built in the 1990s to replace pavilions destroyed in WWII.

Reflecting tribulation

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
(Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas)

Just a five-minute walk from Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s Holocaust memorial solemnly rests, encompassing 2,711 grey concrete slabs. Each slab is identical in horizontal dimensions, reminiscent of caskets. However, the slabs differ in vertical dimensions, from 8 inches to more than 15 feet tall.

But what do the stelae mean? Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the abstract installment leaves room for a group’s own interpretation and a theoretical discussion with a guide. At their own pace, visitors can roam the memorial and reflect on the deliberate death of about 6 million people.

The site evokes a feeling of isolation, triggered by the massive blocks barricading visitors from noises of traffic and the other noteworthy sights of Berlin. An attached underground “Place of Information” (Ort der Information) includes the names of about 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims, acquired from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem.

Themed rooms, like the Room of Dimensions, the Room of Families, the Room of Names and the Room of Sites, focus on the fates of individual victims. Short biographies take victims out of their anonymity, and historical photographs and films show the sites of persecution and extermination.

Documenting history

Topography of Terror
Topography of Terror
(Topographie des Terrors)

Between 1933 and 1945, the central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror were the Secret State Police Office, which encompassed its own “house prison,” and during WWII, the Reich Security Main Office. These institutions were located on the present-day grounds of the Topography of Terror, a documentation center that presents exhibitions to visiting groups.

Inside the facility, “Topography of Terror: Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on Wilhelm- and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße” is a permanent exhibit focused on the central institutions of the SS and police in the Third Reich, as well as the crimes they perpetrated throughout Europe.

From spring to fall, visitors can explore the outdoor exhibition trench along exposed cellar wall remnants of Niederkirchnerstraße (formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Straße). The exhibition “Berlin 1933–1945: Between Propaganda and Terror” is presented here, which addresses national socialist policy in Berlin, and its consequences for the city’s population.

Groups may participate in a public or private guided site tour that covers Topography of Terror’s entire grounds. Last year, more than 1.3 million people visited the documentation center.

Shaking borders

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

A three-minute walk from Topography of Terror, visitors will find Checkpoint Charlie on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße — a reminder of a former border crossing, the Cold War and the partition of Berlin. A barrier, checkpoint booth, flag and sandbags are all based on the original site — a popular subject for group photo ops.

The checkpoint was first set up in August 1961, when communist East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. The name Checkpoint Charlie is derived from the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie). After the border crossings at Helmstedt-Marienborn (Alpha) and Dreilinden-Drewitz (Bravo), Checkpoint Charlie was the third checkpoint opened by the Allies in and around Berlin.

The Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie had humble beginnings in October 1962; it was a two-and-a-half-room display about the newly erected Berlin Wall. The museum has evolved into a 21,528-square-foot exhibition that explores not only the history of the Berlin Wall, but also challenges that face current and future generations. One-hour guided tours are available to groups in English, German or French. The museum is a testament to the past, yet also a living and evolving reminder of the present. Throughout Berlin, groups are bound to discuss the struggle for worldwide recognition of human rights, freedom and democracy — and perhaps leave with concerns and inspiring ideas that spark change in their home countries and the world.

Ask: visitBerlin
Contact visitBerlin for more information and to arrange guides.
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