Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Guide | A tumultuous 20th century left Berlin filled with powerful sights — from evocative memorials, to surviving bits of its communist and fascist days, to its glass-domed Reichstag. We enjoy its now-trendy east side, its people-friendly riverfront, and its vibrant social scene. Visit http://www.ricksteves.com for more information about this destination and other destinations in Europe. Check out more Rick Steves’ Europe travel resources: “Rick Steves’ Europe” public television series: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/tv-show “Travel with Rick Steves” public radio program: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/radio European Tours: https://www.ricksteves.com/tours Guidebooks: https://store.ricksteves.com/shop/guidebooks Travel Gear: https://store.ricksteves.com/shop/ Trip Consulting: https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-help/plan-your-trip-with-our-expert-consultants Travel Classes: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/travel-talks Rick Steves Audio Europe App: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/audio-europe Rick Steves, America’s most respected authority on European travel, writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves,
back with more of
the best of Europe.
This time we’re in
the fastest-changing
big city in Europe.
It’s young, it’s vibrant,
it’s Berlin.
Thanks for joining us.
“Zum Wohl!”
After a tumultuous
20th century —
bombed flat in World War II,
divided first by
the victorious Allies
and later by
its notorious wall —
reunited Berlin
has resumed its place
as the capital of Germany,
and Berlin has emerged as one of
Europe’s top destinations.
We’ll climb the Reichstag dome
and add color to
the once deadly Berlin Wall
before joining
a giant karaoke party.
We’ll ponder
a Holocaust memorial,
then we’ll marvel at
the astounding
transformation of
once gloomy East Berlin.
And we’ll take a cruise
through the heart of the city
on the Spree River.
Berliners have
a remarkable ability
to embrace the present
while surrounded by remnants
of their tumultuous past,
and for visitors,
the city offers
the delight of enjoying
and learning from both.
Sightseeing through its
turbulent 20th century
is an enriching experience.
It’s especially rewarding
when you have
a little historical context
and an appreciation that many
of the people on the streets
actually lived this story.
Berlin, Hitler’s capital
during World War II,
was essentially
destroyed in 1945.
It then became the front line
of the Cold War,
when the infamous
Iron Curtain was drawn
and both Berlin and Germany
were divided —
and half-capitalist.
After the wall fell in 1989,
the two Germanies
and the two Berlins
officially became one,
and since then,
this once
thoroughly divided city
has tackled the challenge
of reunification,
and, after a massive
and costly rebuild,
has effectively woven itself
back together.
The Brandenburg Gate
is a glorious reminder
that long before the birth of
modern Germany in 1871,
the country of Prussia was
the leading German state
and a European power.
Its capital was Berlin.
While it’s seen plenty of war,
the Brandenburg Gate
was designed as
an arch of peace,
crowned by a majestic
four-horse chariot
with the Goddess of Peace
at the reins.
Berlin is built around
a historic axis.
500 years ago, this boulevard
was just a carriageway
connecting the Prussian
emperor’s palace
in the city center
with his hunting grounds,
today’s sprawling park —
the Tiergarten.
The home stretch of that axis
leading to the palace
was Unter den Linden.
This leafy boulevard,
named for its Linden trees,
was, in its day,
the Champs-Elysées
of Central Europe.
With the reign of Prussian
emperor Frederick the Great
in the 1700s,
Berlin became
a world-class capital.
Frederick was part of a dynasty
which ruled Prussia
and then Germany until
the end of World War I.
In order to compete
with Austria,
France, and Russia,
all of which had
lots more people,
Prussia became a virtual
military boot camp.
It raised Europe’s
largest army,
Berlin was
a military metropolis,
and goose-stepping was in.
Voltaire said,
“Some countries have an army,
and in Prussia,
the army has a country.”
Today, Frederick the Great
looks out intently
over grand buildings
which symbolized his reign.
A man of the Enlightenment,
his vision was to create
not just a military power
but a land of high culture —
a new Rome.
Under Frederick,
Humboldt University
was instituted as
the leading German center
of higher learning,
where Marx and Lenin would study
and Albert Einstein would teach.
To underline
the focus on culture,
an impressive ensemble
of purpose-built museums
filled Berlin’s Museum Island.
Galleries here feature
art through the ages,
from Egypt and Ancient Greece
to Romantic Age art
that celebrates
German nationalism.
Before 1871,
Germany was fragmented,
a disorganized collection of
little German-speaking
dukedoms and kingdoms,
but a unification movement
was growing and artists
and intellectuals here
were all about
legitimizing the notion
that Germany should be a single,
independent nation.
The old National Gallery
is filled with paintings from
the Romantic 19th century
which made that case powerfully.
Dreamy castles harken back to
Germany’s misty medieval roots.
Heroic struggles were waged
for the Fatherland.
German cities were idealistic,
God-fearing centers
of high culture.
And Romantic patriots
dreamed of a land
where German-speaking people
could raise their
beautiful children
true to their heritage.
The Berlin Cathedral,
built in
the exuberant generation
after the creation of Germany,
towers over those museums.
Stepping inside,
you can see how
the first German emperor,
Kaiser Wilhelm,
ordered up bombastic decor
which seems to declare,
“We’re here to stay.”
But like Berlin,
it’s definitively Protestant.
Under its inspiring dome,
heroes of the Reformation —
like Calvin and Luther —
stand vigilant,
fingers pointing to
the scripture
as if to guard
their theology.
The square in front
of the cathedral
functions as
a military parade ground
or a people’s park,
depending upon
the tenor of the times.
The tenor of the times
these days,
with the city rebuilt
and thoroughly reunified,
is peaceful,
and that’s the feeling here
on a lazy summer afternoon.
Berlin is young, hip,
and famously affordable.
Just strolling through
delightful parks
and neighborhoods gives
a fun glimpse into
today’s good times.
Life here, especially in
what was dreary East Berlin,
is a poignant,
even jarring mix
of tragic history,
and a now-thriving economy.
On this street,
a venerable synagogue,
once destroyed
and now rebuilt,
stands as a memorial
to the Holocaust
while police stand guard.
And on either side
a trendy strip
of restaurants and bars
is jam-packed.
Just around the corner,
a still-ramshackle courtyard
that’s changed little physically
since communist times
creates a Bohemian-chic vibe
as an in-the-know crowd
dines al fresco.
Enjoying the moment
they’re seemingly oblivious
to how dramatically
this neighborhood has changed
since the wall came down.
Getting to and from
Berlin is easy.
The Hauptbahnhof,
the city’s huge
and thundering
main train station,
is one of Europe’s mightiest,
with several levels of tracks
serving over
a thousand trains a day
all encased in a vast shopping
mall of commercial activity.
While a massive public expense,
Germans consider this
a smart investment
for both business
and the people.
And the city’s subway
is also highly developed.
As in any big European city,
when you commit to
using public transit,
you get around
quicker and cheaper.
The underground takes us to
Berlin’s governmental quarter.
Germany dominates
the European Union
in part because of
its effective government.
The grandiose Chancellery is
the official residence of
the prime minister.
It faces Germany’s
parliament building,
or Reichstag.
With its motto,
“To the German People,”
it’s the symbolic heart
of German democracy.
The Reichstag has a short
yet dramatic history.
When inaugurated in the 1890s,
the emperor dismissed
the new parliament building
as a “house for chatting.”
But after World War I,
the German Republic
was proclaimed
from right here.
Then, in 1933, a mysterious fire
gutted the building,
giving Hitler
a convenient opportunity
to blame the communists
for the blaze
in order to consolidate
his hold on power.
As World War II
drew to a close,
the Nazis made
their last stand here.
Imagine, Germans fighting
Russians on its rooftop.
After 1945,
the bombed-out building
stood like a ghost
through the Cold War.
Then, with reunification,
the parliament
moved back to Berlin.
This historic ruin was rebuilt
with a modern element,
this striking glass dome.
A walkway winds
all the way to the top
and a cone of mirrors
reflects natural light
into the legislative chamber
far below.
As you spiral up,
survey the city.
The views are marvelous.
But for Germans,
with their dark recent history,
the view that
matters most is inward,
looking down literally
over the shoulders
of their legislators.
The architecture comes with
a message —
the people are determined
to keep a wary eye
on their government.
Berlin is dotted with
memorials and reminders
of its troubled
20th century history.
For a man with such
megalomaniac ambitions,
it’s striking
how little survives
of the world Hitler created.
The former headquarters of
the Nazi air force,
or Luftwaffe,
now houses the German
Finance Ministry.
It’s the only major
Hitler-era building
that somehow survived
the war’s bombs.
Notice how
the Fascist architecture
is monumental,
making the average person
feel small and powerless.
Just down the street,
an exhibition called
“The Topography of Terror
” is built upon
the bombed-out remains
of the notorious SS
and Gestapo buildings.
This spot, once the most feared
address in Berlin,
documents the methods
and evils of the Nazi regime.
Nearby is a site
with nothing to see:
a parking lot, vacant,
yet thought-provoking.
It’s the site of Hitler’s
vast underground bunker.
In early 1945,
as Allied armies
advanced on Berlin
and Nazi Germany lay in ruins,
Hitler and his inner circle
retreated here.
It was right here,
deep in his underground bunker,
that Hitler committed suicide
April 30, 1945.
A week later,
the war in Europe was over.
In their attempt to exterminate
the Jewish race,
the Nazis killed
six million Jews.
Berlin’s Holocaust memorial
is a touching
and evocative field of
gravestone-like pillars.
Called the “Memorial to
the Murdered Jews of Europe,”
it was the first formal
German government-sponsored
Holocaust memorial.
When Germany called this
a memorial to the murdered Jews,
it was a big step.
They admitted to a crime.
They did it.
The design of this memorial
has no explicit meaning.
It’s hoped that each visitor
will find their own.
There’s no central
gathering point.
It’s for individuals,
like death.
Once you enter the memorial,
people seem to appear
and then disappear.
Is it a labyrinth?
A symbolic cemetery?
Intentionally disorienting?
It’s entirely up to you
to derive the meaning
while pondering
this horrible chapter
in human history.
A couple blocks away is
another poignant memorial.
Marking the Tombs
of the Unknown Soldier
and the Unknown
Concentration Camp Victim,
it’s dedicated to all victims
of war and tyranny.
The statue of a pietà,
“Mother with her Dead Son,”
is by Käthe Kollwitz,
a Berlin artist
who lived through
both World Wars.
With the end of World War II,
Berlin was divided
between the victorious Allies.
Eventually the French,
and American sectors
became West Berlin
and the Soviet sector
became communist East Berlin.
For the next four decades,
the people of East Berlin
were subjected to
lots of propaganda,
and that included art.
Socialist Realism,
the art of the communist era,
actually went
beyond censorship.
Art was legitimate only if
it actively promoted the state.
This mural,
“Building the Republic,”
dates from 1952.
It’s a classic example
of Socialist Realism,
showing the entire society
delighted to work together
toward the Marxist utopia.
Industrial workers,
farm laborers,
women and children,
all singing the same
patriotic song.
The communists
also built Berlin’s
1,200-foot-tall TV Tower,
quite an impressive erection
back in the 1960s.
Its purpose,
along with better TV reception,
to show the power
of the atheistic state
at a time when East German
leaders were having
the crosses removed
from churches.
But when the sun
beamed on their tower,
a huge cross reflected
on the mirrored ball,
high on the grandest spire
in East Berlin.
Cynics called it
the “Pope’s Revenge.”
This boulevard has
long been a main drag.
Destroyed during World War II,
Stalin decided
this street should become
a showcase for
communist East Berlin.
In the 1950s,
he had it rebuilt
with lavish Soviet aid
and named it Stalin Boulevard.
Today, this street,
built in the bold
Stalin Gothic style so common
in Moscow back then,
has been restored and renamed
for Karl Marx.
It’s actually becoming en vogue
and gives us yet another glimpse
at what was communist Berlin.
But even with massive
housing projects
and lots of clever propaganda,
it took a wall to keep
the people of East Berlin
from leaving.
“The Anti-Fascist
Protective Rampart.”
That’s what the East German
government called this Wall.
They built it
almost overnight in 1961
to stop their people from
fleeing to freedom in the West.
Over two million
East Germans escaped
before this Wall was built.
The Berlin Wall Memorial
is a stark reminder of
the millions trapped behind
this Wall before it came down.
Within its park-like grounds
which were once a no-man’s land
are information posts
and photos of people who died
trying to cross the Wall.
The Wall was actually
a complex of two walls.
The outer one was
a 12-foot-high concrete barrier.
The round top was designed
to discourage grappling hooks.
Sandwiched between
the outer wall and an inner wall
was a no-man’s land,
or “death strip.”
The complex circled
what was West Berlin,
stretching about
a hundred miles
it effectively made the
Western sector of the city
an island in the middle
of communist East Germany.
And always vigilant
were many look-out towers.
East German guards manned
about 300 towers like this
to stop anyone
attempting to escape.
Only a couple of these
still stand.
Checkpoint Charlie,
the most famous border crossing
between the East and West,
stood about here.
Once a tense
and foreboding place,
its now a garish,
commercial free-for-all.
Where serious military guards
once stood,
today actors pose
playfully with tourists.
Symbolizing the nerve-wracking
standoff of the Cold War,
a young American soldier
faces East,
and on the flip side,
his Soviet counterpart
faces West.
The adjacent museum,
the House at Checkpoint Charlie,
shows how desperation drove
East Berliners to all kinds
of creative
escape attempts over,
and through the Wall.
Escapees would hide,
crammed into tiny cars.
This one drove
six people to freedom
before finally
being discovered.
In another car,
a person was actually hidden
in a false gas tank.
And this vehicle,
armored with concrete
and iron plates,
simply blasted through
under a hail of bullets.
Exhibits show how tunnels
were used for transporting
people to freedom.
Rooms recall the artful
diplomacy of the age,
including President Reagan’s
famous speech.
REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev,
open this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev,
tear down this wall.
STEVES: And the last room
celebrates the happy ending,
the euphoric days in 1989
when people-power
literally tore down the Wall.
With the Wall gone,
the two Berlins
were mended together
and the scars of the Cold War
began to fade.
Potsdamer Platz is a symbol
of Berlin’s rebirth.
Before World War II,
it was the Times Square
of Berlin,
famously one of the busiest
squares in Europe.
It’s hard to believe,
but during the Cold War,
as recent as the 1980s,
this entire area was a desolate
and deadly no-man’s land.
This line marks where
the infamous
Berlin Wall once stood.
That was East, that was West,
and back then,
standing here,
I’d be dead.
Now big business
has moved back in,
turning this area into
a towering office park
and shopping mall.
Eastern Berlin has become
a bustling part of the city.
This huge square,
was a commercial center
of East Berlin
in the communist days.
Today it’s an explosion
of capitalism,
with a relaxed
and fun-loving atmosphere.
But to really feel the vibrancy
of the new Berlin,
I enjoy exploring
residential neighborhoods
deeper into the former
Eastern Zone.
Young, in-the-know locals agree
that Prenzlauer Berg
is one of Berlin’s most
colorful neighborhoods.
It’s a classic case of
an old workers’ quarter
becoming trendy.
Prenzlauer Berg was bordered
by the Berlin Wall.
Today, what was once
a former death strip
along the Wall
is a fun-loving park.
The remains of the hated wall
are now a showcase
for counter-culture
graffiti artists,
a canvas for free-spirited
The Mauerpark,
or Wall Park,
hosts a parade of
alternative lifestyles.
It’s a youthful
culture of people
with no living memory
of communism.
There’s plenty of picnicking
and lots of entertainment.
And each summer Sunday,
the park hosts a giant karaoke
♪ Let’s do the Time Warp again ♪
♪ Let’s do
the Time Warp again ♪
To better understand
this dynamic city,
I’m joined by
my fellow tour guide
and local journalist,
Holger Zimmer.
this is Prenzlauer Berg.
This is my neighborhood,
really, you know?
And I’ve been living here
since the end of communism
and I’ve seen
a lot of changes here.
It’s a fine example
of how Berlin developed.
Back in the 1850s, ’70s,
Industrial Revolution
comes along,
the population of Berlin doubled
within the space of 30 years,
from one to two million,
so people needed apartments,
people needed space to live,
so that’s why all these
buildings were built.
STEVES: A huge building project.
Look at this, lots of workers’
ZIMMER: And we were lucky
that we can still see it,
because they haven’t
been destroyed
in the Second World War.
So that’s pretty much
survived here.
And then after ’45,
this is East Berlin here,
this is communism,
so people don’t pay rent,
so the buildings
actually collapse.
STEVES: So it got really
run-down during communism.
ZIMMER: But that means
when ’89 comes along,
the Wall falls,
people move in,
young people, students,
creative people move in here,
and they basically take
these old buildings
that no one else wanted
to live there anymore,
with coal heating,
with like a toilet
that’s just kind of
like half a floor down,
and they come and live there,
you know,
and they doll it up
and they change
the place completely.
STEVES: Must have been
a very creative time.
ZIMMER: Absolutely,
lots and lots of vibe,
lots of people out on
the rooftops playing guitar,
playing music,
just meeting on the street,
and, I mean, the artists,
let’s face it,
they have gone, but —
STEVES: So that’s
It’s cool,
people come in with money,
the creative people move out,
and now you’ve got comfortable,
desirable apartments.
ZIMMER: And like me, like,
I came here as a student.
Now I have kids
and I enjoy living here.
STEVES: So you don’t have to go
downstairs for the toilet.
ZIMMER: Absolutely, yes.
And I don’t need to bring up
my bucket of coal anymore.
I love these happy little
crossing signals.
– They’re so jaunty.
– Yeah, that’s one thing
people here really kept
from the communist times,
and they really
fought for them.
It’s a popular demand.
And we call them
“- Ampelmännchen.”
– Little light man.
ZIMMER: So here’s a place where
the old spirit still survives.
STEVES: Let’s take a peek in.
So this was
originally squatters.
ZIMMER: This was
a squatter place, yes.
STEVES: And today,
today they’re paying rent?
they’re paying rent
and they still care
for their house,
they still do something.
They don’t have much money,
but they still keep it up.
Former squatters now
have a place to stay.
STEVES: The Spree River,
which cuts through
the heart of the city,
has taken on new life.
A relaxing hour-long boat tour
which comes with
an interesting narration
is both time and money
well spent.
It’s a poignant cruise,
because this river
was once a symbol of division.
But today, Berlin is
incorporating the river
into a people-friendly
Cruising along a delightful
riverside path,
you’ll pass the impressive
new buildings
housing the German government,
fine bridges symbolizing the new
connection of East and West,
and inviting beach cafes.
Berlin. Visitors here are
understandably fascinated by the
Nazi sites,
communism, and the Wall.
But for today’s young Berliners,
that’s history.
In their city,
former military parade grounds
are where you go for a tan
and the Wall is
simply a backdrop
for a party
For any Berliner under 30,
their world has always
been capitalistic,
democratic, free,
and peaceful.
Reflecting on its past while
energized by a promising future,
Berlin’s an old city
with a new spirit.
I’m Rick Steves.
Until next time,
keep on travelin’.
“Auf Wiedersehen.”
[Woman speaking German]
To stop their people from
freeing to fleedom in the West.
Freeing to fleedom.
Fleeing to
freedom in the West.
Berlin’s an old city
with a young past.
Until next time…
Keep on travelin’.
[Woman speaking German]