Kevin Lewis

Berlin: The Self-Guided Tour

When I lived in London, I had a very specific walk that I did with friends who were in town that maximized the number of key landmarks seen within a day. Recently, I created the same concept for Berlin — a self-guided walking tour with minimal public transport that shows off much of what Berlin has to offer.

It doesn’t cover everything, but has the best time:payoff I can think of. You could realistically do this in one long day, or a couple of lighter days and is designed to be done in order. I’ve included some interesting facts from around the web along with sources.

Alexanderplatz

We’re starting at Alexanderplatz - a public square and one of the key transport hubs in Mitte. Alexanderplatz has a history that goes back as far as the 13th century, when the double-town Cölln-Berlin existed. Lovingly referred to as ‘Alex’ by locals, its first train station was created 1882. Following the separation of Germany, Alexanderplatz became the center of East Berlin. The redevelopment began in the 1960s, and the area was reconstructed into a pedestrian zone, while the buildings that would be built at Alexanderplatz had token on the DDR’s typical architecture —grey, dull structures which belonged to an architecture style called Plattenbau.

The World Clock was designed presented to the public in 1969 after 9 months of construction. It consists of a cylinder with 24 corners representing 24 hours, and the most important cities from each timezone are displayed on each side. An hour ring rotates in the cylinder, so that the current times in the respective time zones can be read from the outside. On top of the clock is a simplified model of the solar system. In a room below the clock, a converted Trabant gearbox from GDR times still serves as the motor for the hour ring. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or 'East Berlin') on 7 October 1989, opposition political groups formed a demonstration which began at the clock. The state responded by arresting over 1,200 of the protesters. Thirty-three days later, the Berlin Wall fell.

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Red City Hall

The Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall) was originally finished in 1869 and the first municipal council meeting was held in the town hall just four years after the foundation stone was laid. The town hall was built on a square floor plan and has four wings that enclose three open courtyards.

After being damaged by bombing raids in World War II, the town hall was reconstructed. Following the division of Berlin, the East Berlin municipal council met in the Red Town Hall and the West Berlin Senate in the Schöneberg Town Hall. Since 1991, the Red Town Hall has once again served as the joint seat of government.

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TV Tower

The Fernsehturm (TV Tower) was opened in 1969 by the GDR as both a functional broadcasting facility and a symbol of Communist power. Walter Ulbricht, the socialist leader of East Germany hired three architects to create a Sputnik satellite like building to show off technological advancement and power of the East Berliners.

With its height to 368 metres (1,207 ft) (including antenna) it is the tallest structure in Germany, and the third-tallest structure in the European Union. There is a very slowly spinning viewing tower with an an observation deck at a height of 203 metres. It takes 30 minutes to complete a full rotation.

The tower has become one of the most prominent symbols of the country and is often in the establishing shot of films set in Berlin. It is owned by Deutsche Telekom and still continues to work as a broadcasting tower.

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Hackescher Höfe

A short walk takes you to Hackescher Markt - a shopping district with some hidden gems. The Hackesche Höfe (courtyard) is quite famous and is comprised of a labyrinth of eight courtyards, accessible through Rosenthalerstraße 40’s main arched entrance. The courtyard complex was opened on 23 September 1906 after several years of construction. There's some cute little cafés, bars and restaurants are favorite places for relaxed shopping breaks.

Next to Hackescher Höfe, at Rosenthalerstraße 39, is Dead Chicken Alley covered in art and graffiti. The alley was bought by some guys during the Nazi regime, when there was no freedom of expression. They decided to buy the alley so that they could paint whatever they wanted. And from that, it became a place dedicated to self-expression. Here you'll find the Anne Frank Museum and Monsterkabinett - a kind of horror house wonderland of massive robotic creatures.

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New Synagogue

On the night of November 9th 1938, Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), synagogues burned all over Germany including the New Synagogue (Neue Synagoge). But the district chief referred to the preservation of historical monuments, called the fire brigade and had the fire extinguished. He was one of the few people who stood up to protect their Jewish neighbours and against the destruction and persecution during this night.

Today, the golden dome of the synagogue shines far above central Berlin. The building with the permanent exhibition is one of the city's most outstanding buildingsL it is the center of Jewish culture and at the same time an important place of remembrance. The building was finished in 1866 and can accomodate 3000 people, succeeding the Old Synagogue which the community outgrew.

During World War II, bombs almost completely destroyed the building and in 1958, the authorities had the main synagogue room blown up, citing the danger of collapsem leaving only the facade up as a memorial against war and fascism. On the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the New Synagogue Berlin - Centrum Judaicum Foundation was founded to rebuild the synagogue. In 1995, after reunification, the repaired and modernized building was opened.

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Berlin Cathedral

A 15 minute walk will get you to the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). The history of the Cathedral dates back to the 1451, and former buildings were originally part of the Berlin City Palace. Constructed between 1894 and 1905, the cathedral contains the Hohenzollern royal crypt which is the final resting place of, amongst around a hundred others, Prussian King Frederick William I.

It's undergone multiple transfomations and, like many buildings in the area, was severely damaged during the World War II. After the division of Germany, the cathedral was in East Berlin. The work on restoring the building began there in 1975, although in a simplified form. The full restoration was only completed in 1993, four years after the Berlin Wall fell.

The building is on Museum Island, which contains five famous and notable museums - the Altes Museum (Greek and Roman artifacts), the Neues Museum (Bust of Nefertiti and collections from the Stone Age to the Iron Age), the Alte Nationalgalerie (19th-century artworks), Bode Museum (Byzantine art, sculptures, and a notable collection of coins and medals), and the Pergamon Museum (Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon). Berlin has over 175 museums.

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Bebelplatz

“That was only a prelude, there where they burn books, they burn in the end people.” reads a translated quote from Heinrich Heine on the plaques on wither side of the memorial.

On May 15th, 1933, a call to students to take nationwide action against “The Un-German Spirit” and purge the universities of “Jewish intellectualism” rang out from the Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Union. Students in several university towns answered the call, and in an act of solidarity that would foreshadow the very dark days ahead, close to 25,000 books were destroyed.

In Bebelplatz, a pane of thick glass replacing the pavement acts as a window into a subterranean room. In this room is lined with enough empty bookcases to store 20,000 books. Israeli artist Micha Ullman created the installation, and called it “Library.” Students at Humboldt University hold a book sale in the square every year to mark the anniversary.

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Brandenburg Gate

Walking down the beautiful Unter den Linden will land you at Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburg Tor). The gate was commissioned by the Prussian Emperor Frederick William II in the late 1700s. During the thirty years war, over 100 years before the gate’s construction, Berlin was a small walled city within a bastion fort. There were originally several gates providing access to the city. As its status as the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia grew, the city spilt out into the fort, so the Berlin Customs Wall was erected. This featured 18 gates, all erected in the 1730s. Brandenburg Gate is the only one still standing.

In 1806 when Napoleon invaded Berlin, he took the bronze sculpture of a horse and chariot just above the Brandenburg Gate. After he was defeated, the statue was returned from Paris and an Iron Cross was added in place of a previous olive branch to signify victory. The statue was also given a new name - Victoria - the goddess of victory.

In 1946, with the post-war division of Germany and Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate was in the Soviet sector. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the Gate stood in an exclusion zone in an arc of the Wall, inaccessible for locals and visitors alike. When the Wall fell, 100,000 people gathered here for the Brandenburg Gate’s official opening on 22 December 1989

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Reichstag Building

The Reichstag is the home of the German parliament. The Reichstag is completed in 1894 although it doesn’t acquire its iconic dedication to “the German People” until 1916 when the words Dem Deutschen Volke are inscribed on its façade.

The Reichstag serves as the home of the German parliament until 1933 when the building is badly damaged in a fire. This event marks the end of the Weimar Republic and provides a convenient pretext for Hitler to suppress dissent. Under Nazi dictatorship, the building falls into neglect and is severely damaged during the Second World War. In 1945 it becomes one of the primary targets for the Red Army due to its perceived propaganda value.

After the war, West Germany’s parliament is relocated to the city of Bonn, and the building remains a virtual ruin until 1961 when a partial renovation is undertaken in the shadow of the newly erected Wall. Completed in 1964 this controversial restoration sees the building’s interior and exterior stripped of the majority of its statuary.

In 1990 the Reichstag is the site of the official reunification ceremony. After another year of intense debate, it is decided that it will once again be the home of the German national parliament, with the restoration completing in 1999. The large glass dome at the very top of the Reichstag has a 360° view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape.

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Holocaust Memorial

In 1999 the German parliament decided to establish a central memorial site, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial was ceremonially opened in 2005 in Mitte on a stretch of the former “death strip” where the Wall once stood near Brandenburg Gate.

The memorial comprises of 2711 concrete slabs of different heights that stand on a site covering 19,000 square metres on uneven ground to help create a confusing, disorientating and claustrophobic ambience which was the creator, Peter Eisenman’s, intention.

The memorial is supplemented by the underground information centre. In a space covering 800 square metres you can find information on the victims and the locations.

While not part of this tour, the opening of this memorial led to further discussions about memorials for other victims of the Nazis. Berlin also has a Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Sociali sm, and a Memorial to the Persecuted Homosexuals under National Socialism.

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Postdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz began as a diminutive five-cornered crossroads outside Potsdamer Tor (or Potsdam Gate), one of Berlin’s 18 city gates. Europe’s first electric traffic lights were introduced here in 1924 to regulate the tangle of buses, trams, cars and horse-drawn carriages that hurtled past anxious pedestrians. A replica of the famous five-way green traffic tower stands in the square today.

After the Berlin Wall was built, Potsdamer Platz was given up by the city authorities. Any surviving buildings and ruins were demolished. Even the Vox-Haus, which hosted Germany’s first ever radio station, was demolished in 1971 because no tenants could be found. The wall divided the square, which became a no man’s land until Berlin was reunited. In the 1990s, however, some of the world’s most famous architects were commissioned to reconstruct Potsdamer Platz.

Check out The Playce and Mall of Berlin as two malls with good shopping and food options.

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DDR Watch Tower

One of the last relics from the GDR era can be found in a small side street on Potsdamer Platz – the type “BT 6” watchtower erected in 1971.

It was used for monitoring the border strip as well as the ministries close by. The shooting range stretched from the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate. The tower was manned at all times by two border patrol soldiers working eight-hour watches in cramped conditions.

Checkpoint Charlie

Established in 1961 after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie was one of the three crossing points along the Berlin Wall controlled by Allied forces. It was named "Charlie" after the third letter in the NATO phonetic alphabet, following Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo.

In October 1961, Checkpoint Charlie was the site of a notable confrontation where American and Soviet tanks faced off at the border, marking one of the tensest moments of the Cold War, reflecting the high stakes of the geopolitical struggle between the superpowers.

Numerous daring escape attempts occurred at Checkpoint Charlie, with some East Berliners managing to flee to the West using various creative means, such as hiding in car trunks, tunneling, and even flying in a hot air balloon.

The pictures of the soldier at the site of Checkpoint Charlie today is the former US army tuba player Jeff Harper. His picture is part of a series of photographs, taken to commemorate the last Allied soldiers in Berlin in 1994.

James Bond (played by Roger Moore) passed through Checkpoint Charlie in the film Octopussy (1983) from West to East.

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Wittenbergplatz

Let's pop over to West Berlin. Jump on the M29 bus (note that you'll need a ticket via the Jelbi or BVG Ticket app, or a physical ticket but don't forget to validate it on the bus) and head to Wittenbergplatz.

Laid out between 1889 and 1892, Wittenbergplatz is a square in the western part of Berlin. It is lined by restaurants, offices and shops, one of the most famous being Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe).

During WWII, most of the store was destroyed both by bombings and an actual American bomber in 1943, which physically crashed into the place after being shot down. Because of this, most of the store had to be gutted and rebuilt, and this happened in the 1950s. In the 1970s, it grew from 24,000 to 44,000 square feet and, finally in 1996, it took on the full 66,000 square feet size it is today. On it's sixth and seventh floor is a fantastic food hall.

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Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche) is the symbolic center of West Berlin and one of the city's most popular sights. The construction of the church was ordered by Emperor Wilhelm II, who wanted to create a religious memorial in honor of his grandfather. The church was consecrated on September 1 1895.

In November 1943, the Kaiser Wilhelm Church was largely destroyed in a bombing raid. During the post-war years, the church's ruins became a symbol of Berlin rising from the ashes of the war. The church has been undergoing extensive renovation for several years. From 2009 to 2015 the old spire was hidden under thick tarpaulins. The new spire and chapel are next in line.

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Berlin Zoo

Berlin Zoo (Zoologischer Garten Berlin) opened on 1 August 1844 as the first zoo in Germany. This makes it the oldest public limited company in the city, with the Aquarium was opening in 1913.

During the Second World War, Berlin Zoo is almost completely destroyed; only 91 of over 4,000 animals survive the war.

With about 1400 species (including the aquarium), the Zoo is one of the most species-rich and interesting animal parks in the world. More than 18,600 animals cavort on an area of over 80 acres.

Nearby the Zoo is Bikini Berlin, a cute concept mall with some nice shops and food market - Kantini. Enjoy the loggia with panoramic windows to the zoo, a spacious sofa area, various sitting steps and swings overlooking the ground floor.

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Berlin Central Train Station

Head from Zoologischer Garten to Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) after being sure you have a valid ticket.The story of Berlin’s Main Station starts back in 1871 with the opening of gorgeous palace-like Lehrter Bahnhof. Following heavy damage during World War II Lehrter Bahnhof was demolished, but the smaller interchange next to it - Lehrter Stadtbahnhof - survived.

After German reunification it was decided to improve Berlin’s railway network and in 1992, because of its location, Lehrter Stadtbahnhof was demolished to make way for the new central station. It was completed after 11 years just in time for the Football World Cup of 2006.

The station has been featured in several movies and TV shows due to its modern architecture and impressive interior, including The Bourne Supremacy.

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Berlin Wall Memorial

Take the M10 tram towards Warschauer Straße where we will make a few stops to Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (ticket validity check!) The memorial features the only section of the Berlin Wall to be preserved in its full depth over a 1.4km stretch.

An outdoor exhibition on the history of the division, using the example of Bernauer Strasse, is located in the former border strip in East Berlin. On the other side of the street, which belonged to West Berlin, are the Visitor Center and the Documentation Center, including a viewing platform. The memorial was inaugurated on August 13, 1998.

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Mauerpark (Sundays)

This is only a worthwhile stop if doing it on a Sunday, where the park is host to a flea market and open air karaoke.

The market stalls are primarily run by private dealers rather than professional sellers. You won’t find well-ordered displays of antiques here, instead the neighbourhood comes together to browse through old records and sell household items, clothes, musical instruments and bicycles.

Joe Hatchiban has been bringing his battery-powered karaoke system to the Mauerpark every Sunday since 2009. Providing the weather is good, he’ll be there from 15:00. Then it’s your chance to perform your favourite song in front of a couple of hundred people in the amphitheatre.

At the time Berlin was divided, the site of the park was the border strip of the Berlin Wall and the area was off limits from 1961 to 1989. After reunification the no-man’s-land become a public park.

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Eberswalder Straße

You can walk to here from Mauerpark, though I would take a tram if coming straight from the Berlin Wall Memorial.

This junction has a couple of spots I really enjoy, including Jones Ice Cream, Rüyam Gemüse Kebab, and amazing boardgame store Brettspielgeschäft. Fancy a burger? This is a great time to try Burgermeister. Fancy a delicious baked good? Pop into Zeit Für Brot (Time for Bread).

Kollwitzplatz (Saturday)

Nowhere else in Berlin is there such a concentrated range of restaurants and bars as in the Prenzlauer Berg district - the former neighborhood of the common people has blossomed into a chic, trendy district.

It's a very pretty walk around the surrounding roads where you can get food coffee and snacks. While beautiful, this really is a stop to make on a Saturday where there is a market with food and handmade items.

A short walk will take you to Town Mouse Coffee, which I hae on good authority is some of the best coffee you can get in Berlin. It's a lovely chill place where you can sit outside and feel a cool breeze.

Oberbaum Bridge

Head back up to Danzinger Staße and get the M10 again towards Warschauer Straße, but this time see it through to the end. Optionally, break at Grünberger Straße/Warshauer Straße and head to Shakespeare & Sons for excellent bagels or Brammibal's Donuts a couple of doors down for a lovely (vegan) dessert.

Once you make it to the end of the M10 line, you will see Oberbaum Bridge (Oberbaumbrücke). Since 1896, it has connected the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg across the Spree River. The bridge was once home to the so-called Oberbaum, where customs duties were collected.

The bridge was a symbol of division between between East and West Germany during the Cold War. Armed guards patrolled the border area on the banks of the Spree River as a border area and the Oberbaum Bridge was one of the few crossover checkpoints from West to East.

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The East Side Gallery extends along more than 1.3 kilometers between Oberbaum Bridge and Ostbahnof. More than 118 artists from 21 countries worked on the world’s longest open-air gallery.

In more than a hundred paintings on what was the east side of the wall, the artists comment on the political changes in 1989/90. The East Side Gallery opened on September 28, 1990.

Some of the works at the East Side Gallery are particularly popular, such as Dmitri Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss (full name "My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love"), which shows Soviet leader Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker exchanging a “brotherly kiss” at the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the GDR in 1979. The irony in the image lies in the affectionate gesture of the kiss, typically a symbol of love and unity, juxtaposed with the oppressive political context.

In 1996, Kani Alavi founded East Side Gallery e. V., an artists’ initiative to preserve and restore the works. By 2000, a 300-metre stretch of the wall had already been restored and 33 pictures repainted, and in 2009 the whole East Side Gallery was restored. 87 artists took part and 100 paintings were restored.

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That's the List

Obviously there's only so much you can cram into a list, and this doesn't include some historical beauty like the Charlottenburg Palace or other notable points like the Olympic Stadium.

While we're wrapping up, a note that spas and pools here are really good and pretty cheap. Check out Vabali (potential warning: nude, mixed gender).

Let me know how you find this guide through Berlin!