25 Things You Should Know About Berlin
Even with its deep-rooted history, Berlin still feels like a city coming of age. Classic emblems, like gates and bridges, dance alongside colorful walls of graffiti and modern architecture, packing the German capital, population 3.6 million, with surprises. Below, a few facts to file away about the European metropolis.
1. The first recorded mention of Berlin was in 1237—although technically, the town named was Old Berlin's sister city, Cölln. The first mention of Berlin itself followed in 1244. After they merged, Cölln became Berlin’s borough of Mitte. But in 2008, archaeologists discovered an oak beam in Petriplatz—the center of medieval Cölln—dating back to 1183, suggesting that the city might be older than originally thought.
2. Venice may have the reputation, but Berlin, where the Havel and Spree rivers meet, has more than 960 bridges within its borders—more than twice the number the Italian city has.
3. Berlin's town seal, adopted in 1280, features two bears on it. The bears still pop up around town today, thanks to artists Klaus and Eva Herlitz. Launched in 2001, the Buddy Bears street art program includes sculptures that have been decorated individually by different artists and integrated into Berlin’s city scene. In 2002, the duo started the United Buddy Bears—made up of 140 of the bears, representing every United Nations-recognized country. Since their Berlin debut, they’ve toured cities as diverse as Istanbul in 2004, South Korea in 2005, Sydney in 2006, Cairo in 2007, Jerusalem in 2007, Pyongyang in 2008, Buenos Aires in 2009, New Delhi in 2012, and Havana in 2015.
The Berlin Philharmonic, or Berliner Philharmoniker, was founded May 1, 1882, and gave its first concert, Stern’schen Gesangsverein (directed by Ernst Rudorff), four days later.
5. The Berlin Wall, which circled West Berlin from August 13, 1961, to November 9, 1989, was 96 miles long with 302 observation towers. The last piece of the wall with preserved grounds behind it is located at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Also on site are an open-air exhibition and visitor center.
6. For a different perspective on the wall, head to the East Side Gallery. The 4317-foot long section in Friedrichshain is the longest contiguous segment still standing today, and has been decorated by 118 artists from 21 countries.
7. Built in 1961 on Friedrichstrasse street, Checkpoint Charlie was perhaps the most well-known crossing between East and West Berlin; only foreigners were allowed to use it. In 1990, it was removed in a ceremony where then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker declared that, “For 29 years, Checkpoint Charlie embodied the Cold War. We meet here today to dismantle it and to bury the conflict that created it.” A replica now stands in its place, while the original is at the city’s Allied Museum. Current plans to open a Hard Rock Cafe in the area in 2020 are being met with vehement opposition.
8. The Brandenburg Gate, which Prussian architect Carl Langhans built from 1788 to 1791, was modeled after a Greek propylaea. Set on a dozen Doric columns, the structure measures 66 feet high, 213 feet wide, and 36 feet deep. The two small buildings on the side were built in the 1990s, replacing those destroyed in World War II. During the Cold War, access to the Gate was cut off entirely for both East and West Germans—but it went from being the symbol of a divided city to a united one when President Ronald Reagan spoke the famous words, “Mr. Gorbachov—tear down this wall!" in front of the gate on June 12, 1987.
The 1207-foot Berlin TV Tower, or Berliner Fernsehturm, designed by East German architect Hermann Henselmann, rises above the city. The sphere at the tower's 656-foot mark was supposed to resemble a Soviet sputnik satellite and be lit red, the color of socialism. As it turned out, when the sun shines on the sphere, a perfect cross is reflected back at East Berlin—lending it the Cold War-era nickname, "the Pope’s Revenge."
10. Trees have always been important to Berliners, but during World War II, the city went from about 411,000 trees in 1938 to approximately 161,000 in 1946. The Cold War didn't help matters, effectively cutting off West Berlin from access to the countryside—one 1996 Baltimore Sun article cites this as the impetus for the creation of numerous city parks and its "tree bureaucracy." In 1994, bureaucrats implemented a methodical tagging and tracking system, assigning each tree an 18-digit code and entering it into a database that allows officials to monitor its well-being. Today, there are around 439,000 carefully documented street trees.
11. When it opened on Rosh Hashanah in 1866, the 3200-seat New Synagogue, Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin—Centrum Judaicum, was the only one in town. Although it survived the 1938 Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht, when the Nazis targeted German Jews, the building was damaged by Allied bombings during World War II. Reopened in 1995, visitors can climb the dome from April to September as well as tour the museum’s exhibits.
12. One of the most spectacular views in Berlin is the dome and rooftop terrace of the Reichstag legislature building. Entrance is free, but you must book a slot ahead of time. Designed by Paul Wallot and finished in 1894, a fire at the site on February 27, 1933, set off a chain of events that allowed Adolf Hitler to seize power. Additional damage from World War II Allied bombings further left it shambles. It underwent a somewhat modest restoration effort in the early '70s, but the majority of the rebuilding happened after reunification. By 1999, the trademark dome had been reconstructed and the building was reopened—allowing visitors access to the lookout, made from 32,292 square meters of glass and 800 tons of steel.
In 1995, the Reichstag building was completely covered for a fortnight with 1,076,390 square feet of woven polypropylene fabric topped with an aluminum surface, by environmental artists Christo and Jean-Claude. It took 90 professional climbers and 120 installation workers to complete the ambitious project, which used 9.7 miles of 1.26-inch blue polypropylene rope.
14. Right next to the Reichstag building are 96 slate slabs, each honoring a politician murdered for opposing Hitler. On each plate is the individual's name, party, and date and location of death, which, for the most part, were in concentration camps.
15. Just through the Brandenburg Gate is the Hotel Adlon, which, through the years, has hosted a number of prominent visitors, including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Brad Pitt, and Barack Obama. Unfortunately, it's perhaps even better known as the spot where Michael Jackson dangled 9-month-old Blanket over the balcony on the fourth floor in 2002 (a move he later called a “terrible mistake.”
16. Between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, honoring about 6 million Holocaust victims. Opened in 2005, the 4.7-acre site on uneven ground is made of 2711 concrete columns, arranged in a grid pattern. No two columns are exactly the same.
Beneath a glass plate at Babelplatz is an underground room with enough empty bookshelvesto hold 20,000 books. On May 10, 1933, about that many were burned by the Nazis, who destroyed any works they perceived as a threat to their beliefs, including ones by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. At the site of the Book Burning Memorial, which opened in 1995, is a plaque with a powerful quote by Heinrich Heine: “That was only a prelude, there where they burn books, they burn in the end people.”
18. Berlin's most popular street food is currywurst, or curried sausage, which has been called the city’s “culinary emblem.” About 70 million servings are consumed a year in Berlin. There’s even a 11,840-square foot Deutsches Currywurst Museum dedicated to the snack [PDF].
19. In front of the oldest museum on Museum Island is the Lustgarten, which translates to Pleasure Garden. The space started out as a fruit and vegetable garden to provide food for the City Palace. In the 17th century, it was landscaped into a royal garden, complete with statues and fountains. The next decade, the greenery was tamed and it was transformed into a military square, and then in the 1930s, a parade square. Now, it looks the way it did in the 19th century and serves as a public park where locals and tourists hang out.
. The 374-foot tall Berlin Cathedral, or Berliner Dom, was completed on February 27, 1905 and cost 11.5 million German marks to construct. The church was hit by a 1940 air raid and then a 1944 bomb, which destroyed the dome and crypt. It wasn’t until 1975 that reconstruction began, and it wasn't completed until 2002.
21. The double-decker Oberbaum Bridge linking the Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts over the River Spree has become a Berlin icon (the structure was even featured in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy). Traffic runs on the lower level, while the U-Bahn train travels on top.
22. Director Mike Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin on November 6, 1931. When he immigrated to the United States at age 7, the only sentences he knew in English were, “I don’t speak English,” and, “Please don’t kiss me.” He went on direct 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and 1967’s The Graduate, and is one of few to have won an Emmy, Oscar and Tony. He died in 2014.
23. A star on the streets of Berlin? Ampelmännchen, or the Little Traffic Light Men. The symbols were created by East German psychologist Karl Peglau in 1961 as a strategy for reducing road accidents. Both the "stop" and "go" men wear hats—which at the time, Peglau feared officials would write off as too capitalist. Today, they're a beloved cult symbol (you can buy Ampelmann watches, skateboards, postcards, and more). Some Berliners joke about the unfortunate alignment of the green man's arm, which makes him seem very, um, excited to be crossing the street.
Who needs Harrods? Berlin has its own ginormous department store, KaDeWe, short for Kaufhaus des Westens, right on Wittenberg square. Its 14.8 acres of retail space are served by 2000 employees, and as many as 180,000 shoppers visit every day.
25. A common sight winding around Berlin are pink pipes. They're part of a system that twists all over town—sometimes even over busy intersections. Because Berlin is naturally swampy, groundwater must be pumped and routed to canals, which is where the pipes come in. So why pink? Years ago, a psychologist said the color was preferred by children, as well as those who stay young at heart.