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The Unexpected Appeal of Berlin’s Libraries

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AFAR Ambassador and Passion Passport founder Zach Houghton is just back from a whirlwind European adventure, engineered by Lufthansa. The airline made his experience seamless from one capital city to the next. Here, Zach explains why Berlin’s libraries speak volumes.

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With a thriving literary past and present, the German capital shines bright through its quietest destinations: libraries. But you’ll likely find, as I did, that that simply sitting down and reading may not be as easy as planned. With bold architecture and museum-worthy collections, these libraries are just as appealing to the eye as to the mind. Wander the shelves and peruse the spines of old tomes in Berlin’s most beautiful fortresses of knowledge.

On a rainy September morning, I sought refuge within the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center, a fascinating place to start any Berlin day. Centrally located in the Mitte district, the library is a quick trip from most neighborhoods in the Grey City. It’s named after the renowned brothers behind all those German fairy tales and features some of their personal collection. The main reading room is a geometric masterpiece, with a wooden grid circumscribing the bookshelves around you and the desks down below. Descending into a pit, the reading room comes alive as light enters through the glass panels in the ceiling.

The Berlin State Library (known informally as the Stabi) counts more than 23 million individual pieces of media. It’s a collection that satisfies every type of academic itch; you can find a Gutenberg bible, the world’s largest bound atlas, manuscripts by Bach and Mozart, and the original score for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The main reading room—largely destroyed during World War II—was rebuilt by German architect HG Merz, who took the library in a decidedly contemporary direction.
The glass-paneled spherical exterior of the Free University of Berlin’s Philological Library makes a striking first impression. The inside is no less impressive and earned the building the nickname “the Berlin Brain” for its division into two sides. Curved study spaces provide an inviting privacy while allowing natural light to pour in. Architect Norman Foster (perhaps most famous for London’s Gherkin) also incorporated energy-saving technologies. The outer structure is composed of three parts: an external shell, a supporting steel frame painted yellow, and an inner membrane. These parts are equipped to essentially allow the building to use only sunlight during the day and rely on natural ventilation systems for 60% of the year.
German and American architects collaborated on The American Memorial Library (also co-financed by the U.S.), which opened in 1954. It’s worth a stop as you explore the trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood and also notable for its children’s collection and community offerings.
Within West Berlin’s Zoofenster skyscraper, towering over the nearby zoo and aquarium, the Waldorf Astoria has a glamorous art deco design that includes plenty of marble, leather, and warm hues. It was a great base for my trip and just happens to feature a cozy library lounge, offering up sweeping city views along with afternoon tea.

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