When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, an energetic, vibrant city emerged from what had been 28 years of fear and tyranny.
Today, Berlin is one unified city, stronger and better than ever, in large part because of that wall.
It may be home to more than 180 museums, dozens of art galleries, global cuisine and a rocking night life, but Berlin is immediately and perhaps will always be remembered because of that incredulous wall that divided the city into East and West for nearly three decades.
Even today, when movie premieres, dining, music and other art forms are energizing the city’s 3.5 million residents and elevating its charisma to just behind London and Paris for European cities most visited by global travelers, Berlin for many, is still all about the wall.
Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie
Nearly five million tourists come to see those remnants, to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and, hopefully, appreciate their freedom that allows them to do so without fear or restraint.
Checkpoint Charlie is a beginning point for exploring the Berlin Wall. This was the entrance and exit to Berlin guarded by the U.S. military. The original building is in the Allied Museum in Berlin (a must see as well) but the authentic re-creation is guarded by actors in appropriate uniforms who make a living by posing for pictures.
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum here is worth every Euro and minute of your time. Started in a two-room apartment by Ranier Hildebrandt, just a guy who lived there and was horrified by the wall going up just outside his windows, the museum has now expanded to multiple rooms and stories of the building. The format is not what could be considered the most logical and professional presentation, but its authentic, there’s no denying that.
Located on the Fredrichstaße, Checkpoint Charlie is certainly a tourist trap, but the fact that it is a commercial enterprise and that it is such a fun, cheerful place in such contrast to what it was, is a remarkable part of the story. Here you can buy all sorts of kitschy East German souvenirs from street vendors and eat at McDonald’s, which surely has Stalin, Lenin and Brezhnev rolling in their graves.
Today, a traveler’s greatest risk here are the Romanian women beggars who approach English speaking visitors with a piece of paper explaining their desperate plight. Don’t fall for it.
Exploring the Berlin Wall Memorial
Head west just two blocks to find another section of the wall. This one is the official Berlin Wall Memorial and it is located, ironically, adjacent to a museum that opened in August 2010 called The Topographie of Terror. Located on the grounds of the former Third Reich headquarters and where the East German police or “stazi” held and interrogated prisoners, this is one of the most chilling museums you’ll ever visit. It simply documents the actions of the Third Reich in a very straight forward, linear and modern presentation, and it leaves you sick at your stomach.
A more uplifting section of the wall is known as the East Side Gallery. Here, 106 artists from throughout Germany and around the world were commissioned to cover 1.3 kilometers or about .8 miles of the ugly concrete barrier with art that makes a statement about freedom. Some of it is serious, some of it is hysterically light-hearted, but the point is, the artists were ‘free’ to create as they like.
With all of the emotional upheaval of the day exploring the Berlin Wall, finish off with a stout German beer in the trendy nightspot Potsdamer Platz. The wall had run through Potsdamer Platz and the area was basically a no-man’s land of barbed wire, guard dog runs and all things ugly.