Berlin is Germany’s capital and largest city in area and population. It is both a city and one of Germany’s 16 states (Bundesländer). Home to about 3.4 million residents (4.4 million in the Berlin/Brandenburg metro area), Berlin has a history of upheaval and rebirth like no other European capital city. Most recently, following 40 years as a divided city (28 of them with the Wall), Berlin has been undergoing yet another major transformation since German reunification in 1990.
Berlin is spread out across a vast area of some 344 square miles (892 km2). Although the city has an excellent public transit system, it can take an hour or more to go from one end of Berlin to another. It is best to divide and conquer by concentrating on certain zones or districts. (See below.)
As you travel around the city, you may be surprised by how green Berlin is — as in parks, forest, and other green zones. About 40 percent of the city’s total area is Grünfläche (“green space”) and water (rivers, lakes, canals). Two rivers, the Havel and the Spree (pron. “shpray”) flow through Berlin. In addition, two major canals, the Teltowkanal and the Landwehrkanal, help Berlin function as a port while offering scenic and recreational opportunities.
The German capital often feels more like a series of villages or towns than a huge metropolis. Yet, here you will find one of Europe’s most sophisticated, cosmopolitan cities — vibrant with art, history, and night-life. After so many years of isolation as a land island in the middle of East Germany, Berlin is now making up for lost time.
Brief Berlin History: Cölln
Among most European and German cities, Berlin is a youngster. The city only had 29,000 residents in 1700 (with one in five being of French origin). By 1850 the population of the Prussian capital had risen to only 428,000, at a time when Paris had 1.5 million and London 2.7 million residents.
Although Berlin and Cölln, the two tiny settlements that would later become Berlin, existed earlier, the first documented mention of Cölln is dated in the year 1237. Located roughly near today’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) in the center of Berlin, the two towns on each side of the Spree merged in 1307 to become Berlin-Cölln and later just plain Berlin (1432). After 1701, as the royal capital of Brandenburg-Prussia, Berlin gradually grew to become a major political, financial, and cultural center. In 1660, nearby Potsdam had been chosen as the site for a royal hunting residence. In 1745, Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große, 1712-1786) had a new Rococo-style summer palace built there. Completed in 1747, today Sanssouci Palace and its surrounding park are a major tourist attraction.
With the construction of railways and canals in the 19th century, Berlin’s importance as an industrial and financial center grew. (To be continued...)
What to See in Berlin and Potsdam
Berlin has a lot to offer its visitors — so much in fact that it is best to plan ahead and focus on what you really want to see and experience in the German capital. Whether you have just a day or several weeks, “Berlin ist eine Reise wert!” (“Berlin is worth a trip!”)
Selected Berlin Attractions (Grouped by district)
Also see: Berlin at a Glance
MITTE | Between Tiergarten Park and Alexanderplatz
- der Tiergarten | Literally, the “animal garden,” Berlin’s “Central Park” lies like a huge green patch right in the middle of the city. The park began as a hunting ground for Brandenburg’s royals. Landscaped as a park in 1830, Tiergarten Park is a nice place to stroll, relax and take a break from sightseeing. The park lends its name to the surrounding Tiergarten (TEER-gahr-ten) district of Berlin. (See photo.) There are several notable attractions in or near the park, including the Siegessäule (victory column) that offers a nice view of the city (if you’re willing to climb stairs; no elevater) and the Soviet War Memorial (located in what was the British Zone; the Soviet memorial in Treptower Park is bigger).
- Brandenburg Gate | The number one icon and landmark of Berlin is das Brandenburger Tor. Designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans for King Friedrich Wilhelm II and completed in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate and the Quadriga horse-and-chariot sculpture atop it have shared the fate of the city it stands in — in good times and bad. Napoleon took the Quadriga to Paris after his 1806 defeat of the Prussians, but it was returned in 1814 after Prussian forces marched into Paris. Badly scarred, the Gate survived the Second World War, only to be cut off by the Berlin Wall in 1961. Now open again, the oft restored Brandenburg Gate stands at the historic Pariser Platz site next to the brand new US Embassy that opened in July 2008. (See photo.)
- Also see: Berlin Wall Timeline (1945-2011)
- The Reichstag | It is difficult to find a more historic building in Berlin than the German parliament — or one that better reflects today’s Germany. Originally completed in 1894, the Reichstag building was damaged by fire in 1933 and almost destroyed in World War II. Because of the division of Germany and Berlin, it did not become the seat of government for the German Bundestag until 1999. In 1993 Sir Norman Foster was commissioned to design a complete renovation that included a new glass dome, a modern version of the original cupola. Before construction began, the building became a huge art project by being wrapped in fabric by Christo. Since its opening in 1999, the Reichstag dome and its panoramic views of the city have been one of Berlin’s top attractions. Admission is free, but you have to make advance reservations (open 8:00 a.m.-midnight, last entry at 10:00 p.m.). (See photo.) More...
- Travel guides | There’s much more to see and do! See our Bookstore for travel guides for Berlin and Potsdam.
Berlin City Guide continued on the next page...
NEXT > Berlin Sights - Part 2
MORE > Berlin Photo Gallery
- Berlin at a Glance
- Berlin Wall Timeline
- Book Review: The Berlin Wall Today
- Berlin Airlift - 1948-1949
- Potsdam and Babelsberg
- The Reichstag in Berlin
- Berlin Photo Gallery
- Berlin Links - Berlin on the web
- City Guides - Germany
- Driving Tips for Germany
- Air Travel - Getting to Berlin
Berlin on the Web
- Berlinica.com - Books about Berlin! Berlinica is an American publishing house offering books, movies, music, and more from Berlin.
- Berlin.de - Official website, in English, German, and other languages
- Berlin International - Berlin.de in English
- Berlin Airports - Arrivals/departures, info, etc.
- Also see the Berlin links found in the City Guide descriptions.
- More > Berlin Links