Berlin: Capital of Cool and Culture

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Berlin: Capital of Cool and Culture
With sights that reveal scars of war and division, troves of ancient and modern art, and reminders of the royal past, Berlin is an endlessly fascinating and surprising city for anyone looking for a stimulating mix of history and contemporary culture.


By Paul Sullivan, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of visitBerlin
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    Exploring the Scars of World War II
    The horrors of World War II still cast a shadow over contemporary Berlin; but to its credit, the city—and Germany in general—has been unflinching in confronting this deeply unsettling aspect of its past, whether this is through dedicated, large-scale memorials such as the disorienting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or the bullet holes and Russian graffiti that have been left at major sites such as the Reichstag and the Neues Museum. The city's architecturally striking Jewish Museum Berlin is an excellent place to get a broader overview of Jewish-German relations as well as see poignant exhibits and installations relating to the Holocaust, while at the German Resistance Memorial Center you can learn about the variety of brave souls who resisted the Nazis right up until the bitter end.
    Photo courtesy of visitBerlin
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    Berlin’s Royal History
    Before it was the capital of Germany, Berlin was the capital of Prussia, ruled by the House of Hohenzollern for several centuries. Prussia’s royal family left behind several palaces and other legacies of their rule, including the handsome Schloss Charlottenburg with its pretty gardens. On the edge of the city, close to Wannsee, lies the former royal island called Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island); it makes a lovely summer trip and contains many historic sights, including a Disneyesque castle built for a real princess. A stroll along Unter den Linden also reveals many 18th- and 19th-century sights, including the iconic Brandenburg Gate, a statue of Frederick the Great (erected in 1851), and lavishly restored buildings such as the Neue Wache (a war memorial) and the Staatsoper (State Opera).
    Photo by Paul Sullivan
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    A Tale of Two Cities: Divided Berlin
    While many former inner-city East Berlin districts (Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain) have become heavily gentrified since 1990, you can still get plenty of insights into the former Communist era throughout Berlin. There are the regime's architectural remnants—most notably the famous prefabricated buildings known as Plattenbauten—and the still-standing section of the wall informally known as the East Side Gallery, but perhaps the most revealing site to visit is the official Berlin Wall Memorial. Running almost the entire length of Bernauer Strasse, it contains large-scale photos, memorials, and an exhibition. The memorial forms part of the Berlin Wall Trail, a walking and cycling route that follows the entire 100-mile path of the wall. For something a little more lighthearted, visit the modern Spy Museum Berlin.
    Photo by Paul Sullivan
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    Major Museums and Contemporary Art
    Both historical and contemporary art are a major deal in Berlin, a fact reflected in the dizzying number of excellent museums and galleries scattered throughout the city. A visit isn't complete without seeing at least some of the vast ancient treasures of the Museumsinsel | Museum Island, especially the Neues Museum and Pergamonmuseum; the museums' collections from ancient Egypt and the Middle East, respectively, could easily take up an entire day each. Mix up your museum-going with visits to the city's world-class collections of contemporary art, some of which are displayed in unique venues such as the Berlin Museum of Contemporary Art (a former train station) and Sammlung Boros Art Bunker (a transformed World War II bunker). Also well worth seeing, the Bauhaus Archive & Museum of Design contains Bauhaus-designed objects and art from masters such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy.



    Photo by Paul Sullivan
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    Postwar Architecture
    Berlin’s postwar architecture, perhaps most politely described as a stylistic hodgepodge, includes some fascinating modern buildings by noted architects among the swaths of affordable housing and functional office complexes. You can get spectacular city panoramas as you explore the dramatic glass dome on top of the Reichstag, the work of Sir Norman Foster, or from the observation platform of the Berlin TV Tower, a GDR-era transmitter that has become a city icon. Built in the 1960s, the wonderful Berliner Philharmonie by Hans Scharoun is a yellow, tent-shaped structure with superb acoustics. Shiny Potsdamer Platz, redeveloped in the 1990s with new office buildings and attractions, features soaring buildings by Renzo Piano, Hans Kollhoff, and Richard Rogers.
    Photo courtesy of visitBerlin
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    International Berlin
    Before the fall of the wall, Berlin was a fairly monocultural city. While West Berlin hosted a smattering of postwar immigrants, mainly from Turkey, who were officially brought over as guest-workers, East Berlin was isolated from most of the world except for Soviet Bloc and fellow communist countries. Today's Berlin couldn't be more different. While it's not quite a London or Paris (it has a smaller population, for a start), the city has welcomed a vast range of nationalities since reunification—from Poles, Russians, Croats, and Turks to Western Europeans, Asians, and North Americans—all of whom now call the city home. Many of these communities are visible around the city, especially in terms of food. Kreuzberg is still famed for the food it created: the döner kebab; West Berlin's Kantstrasse is dotted with Thai, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and other Asian eateries; and Neukölln is home to many Middle Eastern (including Israeli) spots.