Overview

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the city, Berlin, Germany, has restlessly reinvented itself as a political, business and entertainment center. But even before its roller-coaster ride through the 20th century, 19th-century author Karl Scheffler remarked that the city was constantly on the verge of becoming, never in a state of being. Thus, Berlin is often heralded as "the ever-changing city."

The glass dome of the Reichstag crowns the government quarter, with its straight band of office buildings and the sleek, curving glass hall of the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station. South of the Brandenburg Gate, a cluster of skyscrapers and an eye-catching tentlike structure, modeled after Japan's Mount Fuji, define the rebuilt Potsdamer Platz—a center of activity in the storied Berlin of the 1920s and now a bustling development built next to the formerly divided city's no-man's land, which sat as an empty sandlot for many years.

A rediscovery of the waterfront is in full swing, as restaurants, nightclubs and cafes position themselves along the Spree River and the city's many canals. Architecture, much of it in glass and steel, is definitely the calling card of the New Berlin, but the city's many parks, canals and forest-rimmed lakes are still its loveliest real estate. One of Berlin's newest attractions is the Jewish Museum, a massive architectural thunderbolt housing two millennia of German Jewish history.

The city is full of history and charm, but with a rebellious attitude. Generally less expensive than its European counterparts, Berlin is a lot more spacious, and its mix of cultural and countercultural extravaganzas is unrivaled. History, politics and social preferences collide there, which is precisely what gives Berlin its unique and diverse character.

Geography

Berlin lies in northeastern Germany. The Spree River snakes through the city, and the Havel River runs near its western border. Forests and lakes are predominant features of the landscape, making up close to 25% of the city's total area.

The city is divided into districts called bezirke. The oldest district is called Mitte, and it stretches from the Brandenburg Gate to Alexanderplatz. Unter den Linden, Friedrichstrasse, Museumsinsel and other historical sites are located there. Encircling Mitte, in clockwise fashion, are the districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Tiergarten and Wedding. Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf and Schoneberg, to the west of Mitte, are also considered part of central Berlin.

The city doesn't have just one center where its attractions and entertainment can be found. Breitscheidplatz, with the Memorial Church, is generally thought of as the main western center. The zoo and Zoologischer Garten station (referred to simply as Zoo), the boulevard Kurfurstendamm (often called Ku'damm) and the Europa Center are all nearby. Alexanderplatz (or simply Alex) in Berlin Mitte is an important transportation hub and the main eastern center. Potsdamer Platz, where the Wall once divided east and west, is the city's high-profile entertainment, retail and office center.

History

Berlin actually began as two trading settlements, Colln and Berlin, located on both sides of the Spree River, in the mid-1200s, though current archaeological findings date the city as far back as 1183. It took almost 500 years before the two towns were officially merged into one city, which retained the name Berlin. However, Berlin's rise to prominence began in the mid-1400s when Hohenzollern princes, the rulers of the Kingdom of Prussia (present-day Brandenburg), named it their official residence. Its importance and size grew, and in 1701, it became the Kingdom of Prussia's capital.

Prussia's power and Berlin's prestige grew significantly during the reign of Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) in the mid-1700s. Many of the prominent buildings on the eastern end of Unter den Linden were built during that time. Although Prussia gained much of its strength and prestige through military might, Berlin, meanwhile, became a center for the Enlightenment.

As citizens' movements swept Europe in 1848, a revolt by the middle class took place in Berlin in March of that year, but the monarchy was able to quash the uprising and hold on to power. In 1871, following Prussia's triumph in the Franco-Prussian war, the various German principalities united to form imperial Germany under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I, who then ruled a unified nation. Spurred on by massive industrialization, Berlin went through one of its biggest boom periods. Its population and area doubled repeatedly, reaching 2 million around 1900, and 4 million by 1920.

The Weimar Republic was proclaimed after Germany's defeat in World War I. The war caused little physical damage to the city but left the whole country reeling. The new powers were unable to pay for reparations, and hyperinflation soon followed. Berlin saw dramatic political and social change, and there was much social disorder in the city, where followers of the left and right staged bloody battles in the streets. Despite the city's problems, the 1920s saw Berlin develop into a vibrant cultural and intellectual center where art, theater and the vaudevilles flourished. The era became known as the "Golden Twenties." However, the unstable Weimar Republic faltered with the depression as the stock market crash of 1929 left hundreds of thousands unemployed.

The brief period of democracy came to an end in 1933, when Hitler was named chancellor and granted emergency powers. He dismantled the republic, and the Nazi party established a dictatorship. Jews became the scapegoat of the economic and social ills. On the night of 9 November 1938, synagogues and other Jewish properties were burned.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939, setting off World War II. The mass deportation of Berlin's Jewish population began in October 1941, followed a few months later by the Wannsee conference, at which Nazi officials committed themselves to the "final solution" for Jews. This dark period of history, now known as the Holocaust, led to the extermination of millions of Jews and other "enemies of the state."

By the end of World War II, one-third of Berlin's buildings had been destroyed, its overall population had decreased by more than 1 million, and its Jewish population had fallen by more than 150,000 as a result of emigration and extermination in death camps.

After World War II, Berlin was split into four occupation sectors divided among Great Britain, France, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union blockaded the three western sectors for 11 months in 1948 and 1949, which sparked a massive airlift by the Western powers. The German Democratic Republic was proclaimed in East Berlin, its capital, in October 1949. The three western sectors, although officially under occupation by the Western allies, became a city-state linked to the Federal Republic of Germany, which had its capital at Bonn. The Berlin Wall went up in August 1961 and sealed the division of the city into east and west for three decades.

On 9 November 1989, the Wall surrounding the western sector was opened, setting the stage for the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990. In June 1991, the united German Parliament voted to move itself and parts of the federal government from Bonn to Berlin, which occurred gradually through the end of the 1990s. Since the fall of the Wall and reunification, Berlin has experienced dramatic physical and social change as the reborn capital and cultural center of Germany.

Following reunification, the anticipated economic boom didn't happen, and many company headquarters left the city. However, as former Mayor Klaus Wowereit stated in 2004, "Berlin is poor but sexy." What the virtually bankrupt city lacks in capital and industry, it makes up for in cultural and educational charm. The city is a magnet for young people, artists, intellectuals, students and musicians. With the arrival of a younger crowd, the old center Berlin Mitte (formerly in the eastern sector) is now bursting at the seams with eccentric shopping havens and a glittering nightlife.

Sightseeing

Berlin has been capital and showcase for various rulers and regimes, each one leaving its mark (or scar). The city's long list of monuments and museums will appeal to those interested in ancient, classical and modern art; the Nazi period and World War II; the Cold War and communism; or recent examples of architecture and urban design.

For an introductory tour of the city, take Bus 100 or 200 between Bahnhof Zoo and Alexanderplatz—you'll pass many of the city's most famous sites. Return on the elevated S-Bahn for a different view. Walking tours are also an excellent way to gain insider knowledge about the city.

The Reichstag, with its glass dome, is one of the city's biggest tourist attractions. The dome itself merits up-close inspection, but the views it affords of the government quarter to the north and west, as well as Potsdamer Platz to the south, make a stop there really worthwhile.

From the Reichstag, it's a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate and the historical boulevard Unter den Linden, which gets it name from the Linden trees that line the streets. From the Linden, take a detour down Friedrichstrasse, a shopping hub, and explore the area around neoclassical Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's loveliest plaza. Leipziger Strasse will take you back to Potsdamer Platz, a major commercial and entertainment center.

If the weather is good, head to the Tiergarten, a lake or one of the many outdoor cafes by the Spree River. But if the weather isn't to your liking, Berlin's many museums will offer you refuge. Rain or shine, you shouldn't miss the classical antiquities showcased on Museumsinsel, an ensemble of five museums on an island in the Spree River. Start with the Pergamon Museum, which houses the famous Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, and then visit the Neues Museum (where you can see the bust of Queen Nefertiti) and Alte Nationalgalerie.

A good deal for tourists is the Berlin WelcomeCard, which ranges 18.50 euros-31.50 euros (valid two to five days). It entitles the buyer to free public transport (city zones A and B) plus discounted entrance fees at various museums, sites and shows. Even better is the Berlin WelcomeCard Museumsinsel, which costs 34 euros for three days and grants public transport (city zones A and B) as well as free entry (without waiting in line) to all museums on the Museumsinsel plus 50% discounts at other major attractions. For only two euros more, you can add city zone C to your card, which covers Potsdam and Airport Schonefeld. You can purchase these cards at tourist-information offices, public-transportation offices and many hotels. Phone 2500-2333. http://www.visitberlin.de/en/welcomecard.

Nightlife

Berliners relish nightlife, so save time and energy for sightseeing after dark. Finding a bar shouldn't be a problem: According to local legend, there's a kneipe (pub) on every corner. The best and trendiest spots are concentrated in Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Schoneberg.

All tastes and budgets are catered to, from the popular Harry's New York Bar on the high end to SO36 with its alternative, eclectic mix. Gay and lesbian nightlife also thrives—clusters of bars can be found on and around Motzstrasse in Schoneberg and along Oranien Strasse in Kreuzberg.

Nightlife kicks off rather late in Berlin. The cafe scene starts off in the early evening, followed by the bar scene after 11 pm. Dance clubs and nightclubs generally get going after midnight and are open to 4 am or later. Certain after-hours clubs are known to start up again on Sunday morning, and specially organized parties occasionally run from Friday afternoon until Monday morning.

Dining

Berlin has seen dramatic changes—for the better—in its dining scene. Good restaurants are sprouting up all the time, particularly in the districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

Old-style German cooking varies greatly by region. It is very good but often heavy, usually centered on roasted meat (braten) with potatoes and a vegetable on the side. Make sure to try some of the regional specialties: White asparagus is a great local favorite when it is in season in spring—you will invariably see signs everywhere for spargelzeit (asparagus time). Eisbein, a tangy pig knuckle, is another classic that tastes better than it sounds.

Nouvelle German cuisine serves up smaller portions of more delicately prepared dishes. Vegetarian and health-conscious dishes are also appearing on menus with greater frequency. Note that many upmarket restaurants offer an affordable set menu for lunch, at the same quality as dinner.

With its large foreign-born population and the cosmopolitan tastes of Berliners of all backgrounds, Berlin also has a wide range of dining options. In summer, many restaurants set up tables outside on sidewalks or in gardens. There are also several moored canal boats and barges where you can dine or enjoy a drink alfresco. In most cases, it's customary to seat yourself in a restaurant—you don't have to wait to be seated.

Generally speaking, breakfast is served 7-11 am, lunch noon-4 pm and dinner 6 pm-midnight. At many restaurants, you can linger well past midnight. One of the great treats of any visit to Berlin is Saturday or Sunday brunch. Cafes outdo one another—and often their own previous spreads—with all-you-can-eat treats. Berliners often spend entire weekend days at brunch. Cafes around Kollwitz Platz in Prenzlauerberg offer some of the most attractive options. Wander around the plaza and surrounding streets—or pop into local favorite Cafe November.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks or tip: $ = less than 10 euros; $$ = 10 euros-20 euros; $$$ = 21 euros-40 euros; and $$$$ = more than 40 euros. Many smaller restaurants do not accept credit cards.

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