Get steeped in Berlin’s stunning history of magnificent and terrible events


WE are here for the history.

My son declares his mission at the hotel reception. He is in the right place. Berlin is full-to-bursting with the stuff.

Benny by graffiti on the Berlin wall at East Side Gallery

Yes, we have history in Britain but ours is largely a past of peace. Not many invaders or usurpers, not many dead.

In Berlin, magnificent and terrible things happened. You can tell from the bullet holes. That’s the history that excites a 13-year-old boy — and his 57-year-old father.

As we emerge from the U-Bahn at Friedrichstrasse, the Brandenburger Tor gleams, floodlit, in the February gloom.

Benny runs to put his hand on the stone. “It’s the best history I’ve touched!” he beams before launching into selfies.

With the iconic Brandenburg Gate in the background

The Brandenburg Gate, built in 1791, it exudes a cool magnificence.

On top is the Quadriga — four horses pulling a chariot carrying Victoria, goddess of victory. It was pinched by Napoleon in 1806 and taken to Paris. Eight years later the Prussians got it back.

Nazis, Soviets and US presidents have since claimed the gate for various causes.

Berlin’s military past feels buried, memorialised, museumed, reconciliations made. But its most recent trauma as the crucible of the Cold War lingers vividly.

This November sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the remains of which meander through the city like a slowly healing scar.

In some places this is livid, such as at the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, a 1,400-metre museum and memorial.

Soviet War Memorial to Red Army ‘liberators’ at Treptower Park

At the visitors’ centre, a pavement plate marks the line of the wall. Benny stands astride it, one foot in freedom, one in tyranny. The Window of Remembrance commemorates 140 people who died trying to get to the West. Close by, graffitied sections of the wall jut out from scrub. We gaze at preserved watchtowers, wire, concrete and gravel — a no man’s land of oblivion.

At the 368-metre tall Fernsehturm TV tower built in 1969 in Alexanderplatz, a huge square and focal point for the old East, menace blinks down.

From an oddly unsettling wood-panelled entrance hall we are whisked 200 metres to the observation platform. A bar and restaurant rotates 360 degrees⁰ every hour and 60 windows give superb views.

Slightly east is Karl Marx Allee, a 2,000-metre boulevard of mansion blocks from which Soviet leaders would salute parades of military hardware.

The 368-metre tall Fernsehturm TV tower in Alexanderplatz


GETTING THERE: Flights from various UK airports to Berlin are from £22.99. See

STAYING THERE: The stylish Hampton By Hilton Berlin City East Side Gallery has twin rooms for £120 a night.

GETTING AROUND: The Berlin Pass gives free entry to more than 50 attractions, free public transport and a sightseeing bus tour. Three-day passes from 99 euros.

Further east is the Stasi Museum, former HQ of the dreaded secret police. For 32 years one of the most extensive spy networks the world has seen was run from inside this nondescript eight-storey building. Families informed on each other and the 250,000 people who did got better jobs, pay, healthcare, housing. “It’s like 1984”, said Benny. The rooms, of finest 1960s Soviet interior design, remain as they were in 1989.

Some reminders of the East are less sinister. Ampelmännchen, an illuminated figure in a hat on pedestrian traffic lights, was due to be replaced before an outcry saved him — and now he is on almost every souvenir.

Regeneration is everywhere in Berlin, as cranes loom — our new hotel, Hampton by Hilton in Friedrichshain, is typical.

Nearby is the giant Mercedes-Benz Arena concert venue. Across the tracks, around Grünberger Strasse, bars and businesses thrive. After dark there is an edgy, anything-goes feel, with cannabis in the air.

The Siegessäule column honours 19th-century military victories

Public transport is stunning — directed by the BVG app, we travel by underground, overground, bus and tram. There are few barriers, a fare dodger’s paradise where everyone appears to buy a ticket. White-collar workers sip bottles of beer on their way home or chat on corners while sharing a drink. In supermarkets, the excellent Berliner Kindl is a ridiculous 49 cents a bottle.

The longest continuous remains of the wall runs by our hotel on the banks of the River Spree. The East Side Gallery is a 1,300-metre stretch painted by artists in 1990. Now a bit rough around the edges, it is crowded with visitors.

Don’t miss three monuments to past conflicts. The Siegessäule, a column amid the trees of Tiergarten park, honours 19th-century military victories. Climb the 282 steps to the Goldelse — an eight-metre-high angel, Golden Lizzy to her friends. And nearby is a shrine to Otto von Bismarck, creator of modern Germany.

Take a bus to the massive Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park, one of three in the city to 80,000 Red Army “liberators” killed in 1945.

Ampelmännchen in a hat on pedestrian traffic lights

Five thousand are buried here in brooding grounds. Its endpiece is a 12-metre statue of a German child carried by a Russian soldier smashing a swastika with his sword.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, opened in 2005, comprises 2,700 dark concrete slabs resembling coffins. On sloping ground, you feel engulfed — powerless amid evil.

They say Berlin is great for clubbing, dining and art. In our few days we had eyes only for the past — there was so much we didn’t see. So for us, Berlin is not history — it’s unfinished business.



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