I was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down. While I was counting the minutes to the next break, my history teacher went on about “big changes” and “huge impacts”!
28 years later, I find myself at the the Brandenburg Gate, ready to explore the most famous Cold War locations in Berlin. Are you joining me?
Right next to the Berlin Friedrichstrasse railway station lies what was one of the main border crossings from the GDR into West Berlin: the Tränenpalast or “Palace of Tears”. This modern steel and glass construction was the scene of hope, yearning and tears. It was the place where people said goodbye to relatives and friends, not knowing when they’ll see each other again, even if they were only a few miles away… An original passport control booth shows the claustrophobic border controls while various objects document the impact of the division on the daily life of the Berliners. Very moving!
2. Brandenburger Tor
Nowadays a symbol of reunification and the backdrop for festivals and major events, the Brandenburg Gate was once trapped behind the Berlin wall and was THE symbol of the division between East and West.
It can be quite tricky to reminisce about the historical importance the gate has played over all these years with the huge crowds gathering all day long on the Pariser Platz, but it’s still worth taking a look! If you need some peace and quiet, there is a “Room of Silence” in the northern wing to get away from the madness.
3. Ghost train stations
The Cold War didn’t just mess up people’s lives, it also caused chaos to Berlin’s transport system. The underground connected East to West Berlin, but once the Berlin Wall was erected, trains from the West were no longer allowed to stop in East Berlin.
The stations became deserted and known as “ghost stations”. The Nordbahnhof station, which is now fully operational again, has a small exhibition on what it looked like back then. To be perfectly honest, there’s still a very eerie feeling to the place…
4. Gedenkstätte Mauer
Coming out of Nordbahnhof, you will find yourself face-to-face with an outdoor memorial that was once the scene of the death strip, border fortifications and escape tunnels. Multimedia panels explain the history along the Bernauer Strasse while the museum opposite provides you with a further insight of life along the border strip. You can easily spend a few hours here!
5. Stasi museum
If you’re into espionage, you’ll love the Stasi museum! The old Stasi headquarters have been transformed into a museum that gives an overview of the various methods used by the former Ministry for State Security. Spying, intimidation techniques,… Really fascinating, but not to be recommended if you suffer from paranoia!
6. East Side Gallery
Probably the most famous stretch of the former Berlin Wall, it’s 1.3km long and is possibly the world’s largest open-air gallery. 105 paintings describe the euphoria and joy that reigned across the city back in November 1989, when the demolition of the Wall hit the newslines!
Not the grandest of monuments, but of great historical importance are the watchtowers scattered around the city. The easiest one to find is situated at the end of Erna Berger Strasse, close to Potsdamer Platz. Guards had to climb up the cramped towers, ready to stop anybody making an attempt to seek a better future in the West.
A few minutes walk from the watchtower on Erna Berger Strasse looms a 200m long section of the outer Berlin Wall. It is slightly overshadowed by the “Topography of Terror” exhibition, which deals with another dark passage in German history (WWII).
9.Walk the wall
Why not discover the city by following the Berlin Wall as your guide? he trail is built along the path of the former patrol roads used by East Germany’s border guards and is signposted all along. The whole trail covers 155km, so you might not want to walk all of it though. Even if you are only doing a small part of it, it’s a great way to take in key sites and lesser known parts of the city.
I saved this one for last. The most famous border crossing between the former East and West has unfortunately turned into a big tourist trap. The old border control booth is now a replica in which a poor soul, dressed up as an American soldier, poses for pictures with the hordes of tourists wandering about the place. Well, he’s probably not that poor, since he is expecting a tip for that privilege!
Do go there to snap the obligatory “you are now leaving the American sector” sign, but venture further away to discover much more interesting and authentic places that will take you back to the times of the Cold War.
Have you visited any of the Cold War locations in Berlin? Or maybe a few other ones that didn’t make the list? I’m all ears!