First set up in August 1961 when communist East Germany put up the Berlin Wall to prevent its citizens from fleeing to the democratic West, the famed Allied sentry post named Checkpoint Charlie acted as a way station for officials traveling from one side of the wall to the other.
For close to thirty years before the fall of the wall came in 1989, it was the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector. Dan’s parents have recollections of passing through Checkpoint Charlie in 1972 when visiting Berlin while Dan’s father was serving with the U.S. Army in Stuttgart.
Now a tourist attraction, a McDonalds occupies a nearby building and friendly, comically dressed up “soldiers” stand “guard” to take pictures with tourists and stamp passports at a replica version of the guardhouse. The original is on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin.
The Berlin Wall
Along Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly known as Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, lies the longest section of the outer wall that once separated the two halves of Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Double rows of inlaid cobblestones along the ground now mark over 5.7 kilometers of the former location of the wall along with metal plaques inscribed “Berliner Mauer 1961–1989” (meaning Berlin Wall 1961–1989 in English).
Adjacent to the wall remains along Niederkirchnerstrasse lies the Topography of Terror museum constructed upon the site of the now demolished buildings that once housed the Gestapo and SS Headquarters during the Nazi regime of 1933-1945. Inside the museum is a fantastic, though overwhelmingly dense, exhibit documenting the history of the institutions of terror within the headquarters buildings.
One of the best-known landmarks of Germany, the 18th century triumphal arch and only remaining city gate of Berlin once separated the city between East and West Berlin post-World War II. Since the fall of the wall in 1989, the Brandenburg Gate has now come to symbolise German unity.
Prior to the wall coming down, visitors on the West Berlin side could get a glimpse of the world behind the Iron Curtain from an observation platform atop the arch. This important landmark was also where Ronald Reagan famously commanded on June 12, 1987 : “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall!”.
Empty Library Memorial
Known as the site of one of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremonies held on the evening of May 10, 1933 where over 20,000 books were torched by members of the Nazi German Student Association, within the square of Bebelplatz lies a sunken glass plate between the cobblestones of Unter der Linden offering pedestrians a view down into a white room lined with empty floor to ceiling bookcases. The memorial by Israeli artist Micha Ullman is big enough to hold the total of the 20, 000 burnt books which included works by Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and other authors deemed a threat to Nazi ideology.
Nearby is a plaque inset in the square engraved with the unsettling foreboding line from the 1821 play Almansor by Heinrich Heine (English translation):
That was only a prelude,
where they burn books,
they will in the end also burn people.
Students at nearby Humboldt University hold an annual book sale in the square every May 10th to mark the anniversary of the book burnings.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Berlin’s controversial Holocaust Memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold is made up of 2,711 concrete pillars of varying heights creating a grid-like field of steles over an undulating 1,900 square meter patch of land that can be walked through from all sides. Some critics say the tilting, featureless plinths are too abstract of a design for a fitting memorial, however, a visitors’ center below the stones was constructed to offer information and context.
Located on Museum Island, Berlin’s Cathedral is the city’s largest and most important Protestant church. First built in 1465, successive architectural renovations over the centuries were only completed in 1905 under the last German Kaiser. Damaged in World War II and abandoned during the GDR years its doors were only reopened again in 1993. For views over the surrounding Mitte neighborhood, you can climb to the top of the dome.
Home to Germany’s Parliament off and on from as early as 1894 as well as being the site of the pivotal arson fire in February 1933 in which the Nazi Party claimed that communists were plotting against the German government. This led to the mass arrests of Communist Party parliamentary delegates and allowed the Nazis to now rule unopposed as a majority party.
Admission to the Norman Foster designed glass dome atop the building is free but advanced registration is required (click here to do so!). We couldn’t get a slot for our preferred visiting time of sunset so opted for a morning slot to start off our day’s itinerary instead of ending it and brrrrr was it cold! The dome is open at the top unbeknownst to us so it was a cold visit given that it began snowing shortly after we left the building. One thing to be mindful of when booking a morning slot in the winter time is that there may be condensation obscuring your views.
A free, helpful audio guide offered in ten different languages talks you through important facts about the Reichstag Building, the work of Parliament, and the views you see as you walk the 230 meter spiraling ascent and descent of the dome. There is also a rooftop restaurant you can grab a bite at after your visit but reservations are a must!