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Extraordinary stories from Berlin's past

Few cities have been so marked by recent history. A visit to Berlin has to include taking in some of the 20th century troubles.

Posted: Aug 25, 2018 10:53 AM
Updated: Aug 25, 2018 10:59 AM

It's difficult to find a destination that has had more wild swings in fortune and history than Berlin.

The capital of Germany has played host to years of unfettered creativity and to some of humanity's darkest times.

Its current state of prosperous reunification provides an excellent travel window to see for yourself all that Berlin was and is -- and maybe get a glimpse of what it will be.

In no particular order, here's a sampling of some of Berlin's top attractions:

Pergamon Museum

You might be surprised to learn that building on the Pergamon, one of the top museums of Europe, was only started in 1910. Construction continued until 1930. But within its walls are impressive exhibits that date back thousands of years.

Among the museum's highlights:

-- The Market Gate of Miletus, a remarkable example of Roman architecture that dates to around 100 A.D.

-- Part of the reconstructed Throne Room facade from the royal palace in Babylon at the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II's reign (605-562 B.C.)

-- The namesake Great Altar of Pergamon, from around 170 B.C. Pergamon, located in modern Turkey, was a major cultural center of the Greek world.

You can also see outstanding examples of Middle Eastern and Islamic art.

Pergamon Museum: Bodestrasse 1-3, 10178 Berlin, Germany; +49 30 266424242

Museum Island

The Pergamon is so good it get its own section in this roundup, but it's part of a set on Berlin's "Museum Island" in the Spree River. You may want to make some time for the other four. Here's a quick take on each:

-- Bode-Museum: On the northern tip of Museum Island, highlights include sculpture from the medieval period to the late 18th century as well as Byzantine art.

-- Neues Museum (New Museum): Head here if you love all things Egyptian. Its bust of Queen Nefertiti is the showpiece exhibit.

-- Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery): Opened in 1876, it shows paintings and sculptures from the neoclassical period through early modernist art. See works by Caspar David Friedrich, Edouard Manet, Adolphe Menzel and many others.

-- Altes Museum (Old Museum): As the name might imply, it was the first entry on Museum Island, opened in 1830. It has works from classical antiquity, including a renowned collection of Etruscan art.

Museum Island: Am Lustgarten 10117 Berlin

Reichstag

Germany is often found at the epicenter of world history, and the Reichstag is often at the epicenter of recent German history.

It was completed in 1894. It's reputed that Kaiser Wilhelm II regarded it as "the pinnacle of bad taste." It was the home of the German parliament until 1933 when fire badly damaged the building. The fire gave Hitler the pretext he sought to suppress dissent. After reunification of East and West Germany, it again became the nation's governing center in 1999.

Along with a storied history, it's a wonder for the eyes. A fairly new addition, its glass dome above the debating chamber is a marvel. If you really want to soak this place in, it's suggested you come for a midweek visit when fewer tourists are around.

Reichstag: Platz der Republik 1, 11011 Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg Gate

It's one of Berlin's most quintessential structures and a symbol of the ebb and flow of history.

Frederick William II commissioned the gate as an entrance to Unter den Linden, which led to the Prussian palace. It was started in 1788 and finished in 1791. The neoclassical gate with 12 Doric columns was still relatively new when Napoleon's French army overtook Berlin in 1804 and he took its crowning statue away as a spoil of war. (It was later returned).

It was part of the scenery for Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s. In the Cold War years of the 20th century, it was the ultimate symbol of a divided city, with the Berlin Wall shutting off access for East and West Berliners. It was the backdrop for President Ronald Reagan's memorable challenge to the Soviets to "tear down this wall."

Today, it's a potential wall of tourists you'll face, but it's worth it to be on ground where so much history has been made.

Brandenburg Gate: Pariser Platz, 10117 Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall

You can find numerous places throughout Berlin with remnants and reminders of the Wall. They include the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz, to name just three.

Gleeful Berliners started rapidly knocking down the bulk of the hated wall back in 1989 in the wave of revolution that swept throughout Eastern Europe. But at the largest remaining intact portion, you'll find the East Side Gallery.

It's an open-air gallery where you'll find many dozens of inspiring murals painted on the wall.

East Side Gallery: Mühlenstrasse 3-100, 10243 Berlin, Germany; +49 30 2517159

Tiergarten

Tiergaren is to Berlin what Central Park is to New York: the city's lungs, the central green gathering place.

The park was once royal hunting grounds until Friedrich III, Duke of Prussia, turned the area into a "park for the pleasure of the general population" in the late 17th century.

World War II took a serious toll on the park, but it has since bounced back. You'll now find locals and tourists jogging, skating and cycling along tree-lined paths.

Tiergarten contains or is very close to numerous tourist attractions, including Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz.

Tiergarten is just below the Spree in the Mitte borough of central Berlin.

Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum

Why not travel the world while you're in Berlin?

You can take such a "trip" at the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum, where you'll see climate-controlled rainforests and meadows.

Greenhouses hold everything from orchids to carnivorous plants. And with a scent and tactile garden in the mix, more than your sense of sight will be engaged. The museum holds fascinating fossils and plant models.

Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum: Königin-Luise-Strasse 6-8, 14195 Berlin, Germany; +49 30 83850100

Jewish Museum Berlin and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

It's difficult to come to Berlin without examining one of the darkest pages in humanity's history.

At the Jewish Museum, which opened in 2001, you can follow the harrowing journey that was the Holocaust.

But you'll find there's more here. With its emphasis on educational work and exhibits, you'll also learn about the contributions of Jewish people to culture and society through hundreds of years. The complex's fascinating architecture weaving the old with the new is symbolic of the flow of history here.

You can also visit an immersive, emotionally moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that opened in 2005. The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights and is open day and night.

Jewish Museum Berlin: Lindenstrasse 9-14, 10969 Berlin, Germany; +49 30 25993300

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: Cora-Berliner-Strasse 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany

Monsterkabinett

If you've had your fill of Berlin's historical and high-art destinations and you're ready for the city's funky, creative side, make your way to Monsterkabinett.

It's something of a rundown, indoor amusement park, populated with strange, metallic beasts and dressed-up humans. And they happen to enjoy putting on song-and-dance numbers for their guests.

Anyone with an appreciation for the surreal might enjoy this offbeat attraction.

Monsterkabinett: Rosenthaler Str. 39, 10178 Berlin, Germany; +49 176 96042630

Fernsehturm (TV tower)

The Fernsehturm was built in the 1960s by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) as a very tall testimony to socialist progress.

It's one of Berlin's signature structures with its slender body supporting a sphere to remind people of a satellite. It also happens to be a fantastic place to get an incredible panorama of the city below. You can also enjoy a bar and revolving restaurant at the tower.

Fernsehturm: Panoramastrasse 1A, 10178 Berlin, Germany

Badeschiff (outdoor swimming pool)

This is the closest way to get to swimming in the Spree River without actually getting in it. (Its waters don't exactly have the reputation for being the cleanest in Europe).

But at Badeschiif, a barge serves as a floating swimming pool right in the river. At the pool, you can get great views of the Spree, the Oberbaumbrücke bridge and the TV tower.

The beach area around the Badeschiff is also a gathering point for recreation and entertainment for many Berliners.


Badeschiff: Eichenstrasse 4, 12435 Berlin, Germany; +49 162 5451374 (check the website for opening and closing times from May to September)

Computerspielemuseum (Computer Games Museum)

Berlin continues to add layers to its history, and the Computerspielemuseum delightfully captures the past few decades of video games.

You'll find more than 300 exhibits, including rare original games and classics you can play (such as Space Invaders and Frogger). You can also enjoy various 3-D simulators.

Computerspielemuseum: Karl-Marx-Allee 93A, 10243 Berlin, Germany; +49 30 60988577

Gendarmenmarkt

This square dates back to the late 1600s and is one of Berlin's top tourist draws. Visit here and you'll see why.

For one thing, it's graced by impressive statues and buildings. In the middle of the square, you'll find the statue dedicated to German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller.

The German Church and the French Church are major structures you'll find on the square. There are also plenty of cafes, shops and hotels here.

It's also home to special events throughout the year -- from summer concerts to a beloved Christmas market in December.

Gendarmenmarkt, 10117 Berlin, Germany

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