Berlin, Germany travel guide: Falling in love at second sight with this captivating capital

Although the wall dividing East and West Germany fell nearly 25 years ago, visitors to Berlin can't help but be affected by the sight of the remains of the structure that tore the city apart, writes Louise Southerden.

I first went to Berlin in the summer of '89, as a backpacker hostel-hopping across Europe. On June 13, three friends and I drove our battered old Renault across communist East Germany (with transit visas) to the Allied "island" of West Berlin, which was as charming and lively as Paris. The next morning, we walked through Checkpoint Charlie to spend the day in East Berlin.

I wasn't even an aspiring travel writer then. Just a curious tourist recording random thoughts and facts for no one but me: that at the border between West and East we had to go through four electric-locked doors, surrender our passports for the day, pay five Deutschmarks (about €2 or $2.90) for a visa and change 25 Deutschmarks into East German marks as spending money. "Deserted streets. Old cars. Barbed wire," I wrote in my travel diary that night, back in West Berlin.

My friends and I had lunch in a tourist restaurant where we were entertained, oddly, by a string quartet and didn't leave any tips – they were strictly forbidden in the GDR (East Germany). Then we went our separate ways for a few hours. I wandered into the national museum and got talking to the young guide there; he'd never been to West Berlin, he said, even though his girlfriend lived there. He also said his grandfather had been a Nazi.

What I remember most about that day 25 years ago, however, is something I didn't write down. The Tiananmen Square massacre had happened the week before in Beijing and the museum guide told me that he and his friends felt incredibly affected by it, and inspired by the Chinese students' defiance.

"Tiananmen Square made people in the GDR see what was possible," Dr Marion Detjen, Associate Professor for Modern and Contemporary History at Berlin's Humboldt University, told me last month when she came to Sydney to give a talk called Understanding the Berlin Wall. "But they were also afraid. The mood in East Berlin was that the massacre has happened, the freedom movement has been crushed and people were very, very afraid of what would happen if they demonstrated."

The turning point came on October 9 in Leipzig, 180 kilometres south of Berlin, where more than 70,000 East Germans took to the streets to demonstrate against the GDR, chanting, "We are the people". To their undoubted relief, neither the secret police (the Stasi) nor the army stopped them.

It was the beginning of the end for the GDR. On November 4, half a million East Berliners gathered at Alexanderplatz for another peaceful protest and on November 9, the East German government ordered its guards to open the border. It would take another year for the wall to be officially demolished, but the barrier that had divided a city for 28 years had already come down.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014 and I'm back in Berlin. It's love at second sight. The divided city I met in 1989 is now lively, creative, diverse and ever-changing. It has three World Heritage sites, 14 Michelin-starred restaurants, 180 museums, events such as Berlin Fashion Week (in July) and the Berlinale Film Festival (in February), green areas like Tiergarten and Tempelhof (a former Allied airfield that's now an enormous public park), pop-up stores and modern art spaces in old industrial sites.

East has been reunited with West (Germany will celebrate 25 years of reunification in October next year), Checkpoint Charlie is gone (a replica is in its place) and, except for a few remnant sections, the wall is no more – yet the "Berlin Wall" still has a very real presence in the city, and not just this year, the 25th anniversary of its fall.

Pick up any tourist map of Berlin and you'll see where the wall once ran. At some point during your visit you're sure to step over the double line of cobblestones marking the entire 43-kilometre course of the wall between East and West Berlin. With interactive apps such as Berlin Cold War and, new this year, Time Traveler The Berlin Wall, you can hold up your phone or tablet at GPS-located sites and see actual footage of what happened there. You can even buy a piece of the Berlin Wall for as little as €3.95.

It doesn't end there. More than a few museums offer various views of this 28-year moment in time, including the "Spymuseum" (which opened this year), the Berlin War Memorial (with a new exhibition this year), the Stasi Museum, The Kennedys Museum, the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie and the Allied Museum (where a new exhibition tells the story of the airlift that saved West Berlin from starvation when the Soviet Union cut off land routes from the rest of Western Europe in 1948).

There's a Berlin Wall Trail for hikers and mountain bikers that follows the 160-kilometre former GDR border patrol road that encircled West Berlin. And a 360-degree, 16-metre-high painting of daily life in the GDR that has had 5 million visitors since 2003: Asisi Panorama by Persian artist Yadegar Asisi, who lived in East Berlin in the '80s. (See breakout for more Berlin Wall experiences.)

And because this is a European city, there's a Berlin Wall bike tour through the former East Berlin – which I do on my first morning, to get my bearings geographically and historically. "Take care not to ride in the tram tracks," says our guide, Thomas, as we set off. This is how you can tell if you're East or West of the wall, he adds. If you see a tram, you're probably in East Berlin. (West Berlin, which had more money for infrastructure after the war, replaced most of its tram lines with subways in 1954.)

For 2½ hours, we ride with the wind in our hair – "like real Berliners!" says one of my fellow tourists (no one wears a helmet in Berlin) – along wide avenues I remember from 1989. Only now, neighbourhoods like Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Mitte are enclaves of boho-chic with organic cafes and farmers' markets, vintage clothing boutiques and record stores, quirky galleries and street art – lots of street art. Much of Berlin's creativity, in fact, owes its existence to the Wall, Thomas tells us: after 1989, many artists moved into East Berlin's cheap, formerly state-owned apartments until their pre-wall owners could be located, which sometimes took years.

We ride out of 1945 and into 1961, stopping at landmarks along the way: a building pockmarked with bullet holes in the Battle of Berlin in April 1945, a warehouse emptied by the Soviets post-war as payback for Nazi brutalities in Eastern Europe, an apartment block with a cabin on top where guards could look over the wall, which was built in the early hours of Sunday August 13, 1961, to stop the flood of East Germans fleeing to the West (2½ million people left East Germany through Berlin between 1949 and 1961).

At first, the wall was a line of barbed wire low enough to jump over – as 19-year-old East German border guard Conrad Schumann did on August 15, 1961 (Thomas shows us the famous photo), after realising that he was guarding the border not to stop the capitalist West from invading, but to stop his own people from escaping.

What must it have been like to wake up that mid-summer Sunday morning to find your city suddenly divided? Jackhammers tearing up the street? Phone lines, train services and roads crossing the city cut? People couldn't contact family members or friends on the other side. More than 50,000 East Berliners couldn't return to their jobs in West Berlin on Monday morning (Berlin now has the largest Turkish population of any city outside Turkey, after thousands of Turks moved into West Berlin to fill those vacancies).

At Bernauerstrasse, towards the end of the tour, we get off our bikes to have a closer look at a reconstructed part of the later version of the wall, which actually comprised two concrete walls separated by a 30-metre "death strip" patrolled by dogs and armed guards. I don't remember noticing this in 1989, but the east-facing wall was only 2 metres high, lower than the wall facing West Berlin (which was about 3.5 metres high), to give East Berliners the impression it was there to protect them.

Without meaning to, I end up spending most of my three-day visit east of the wall. I stay in a new "bio hotel" (see my review of the Almodovar Hotel on in Friedrichshain. Do a green walking tour of East Berlin's community gardens, upcycling shops, organic supermarkets and vegan cafes. From the revolving observation deck of the city's highest structure, the 207-metre TV tower – built in Alexanderplatz by the East German government in 1969 and modelled on Sputnik, the first Soviet satellite – I get an eagle's view of Berlin's landmarks.

At sunset, back at street level, I stand in front of one landmark that's synonymous with the fall of the wall, the Brandenburg Gate. Built by a Prussian king in the 18th century as a Peace Gate, used by Napoleon for his victory procession in 1806 and as a symbol by the Nazis, this grand neo-Classical arch stood on the East Berlin side of the wall for 28 years and has become the heart of Berlin.

It's where a million Berliners celebrate New Year's Eve every year at one of Europe's biggest street parties, and was the epicentre of this year's 25th anniversary, which culminated in a 12-kilometre light installation marking the path of the wall through Berlin's city centre on the weekend of November 8 and 9.

On my last morning, 1989 rushes back to me when I visit the East Side Gallery. Unlike the colourful expressions of anti-wall sentiment that adorned West Berlin's side of the wall for 28 years, the east side remained bleakly blank, graffiti banned in the GDR. Now the east side of the longest remaining section of the wall is a 1.3-kilometre mural along the east bank of the river Spree, created by 118 artists from 21 countries.

Some of the artworks are famous, such as Fraternal Kiss – officially titled "My God, help me to survive this deadly love" – by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel, which depicts Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a passionate embrace. Others are painted poems, like this one from Italian Fulvio Pinna: "Inferno ruled for many years until the people chose the light. I put my faith in you, Berlin, and give to you my colours bright."

For old time's sake, I get a Checkpoint Charlie stamp in my passport for €1 at one end of the East Side Gallery. The man behind the counter tells me he lived in East Berlin, so I ask how he feels about the wall's anniversary coming up. "Always it is a difficult time," he tells me. "We didn't make plans, we didn't know what tomorrow would bring."

Visiting Berlin this year, or any year, you can't help but be affected. The city reels you in, fascinates and includes you, makes you feel like a citizen of the world – in fact, US President John Kennedy's famous words seem as apt today as when he said them to a million West Berliners on June 26, 1963: "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner'".

Postcard from the '50s

A few days after my trip to Berlin this year, I found a small red notebook at home, my late mum's travel diary, in which she'd written about visiting Berlin in October 1956, five years before the wall went up. She was 23, a year younger than I was in 1989.

Berlin was still recovering from the Second World War back then, particularly the Battle of Berlin in April 1945. Although mum describes it as a "most beautiful city … with wide, tree-lined streets, autumn colours glorious, very modern new buildings [and] pucker cafes", she saw plenty of still-ruined buildings and heard "many stories of how people had to live for weeks underground during bombardment".

After the war, the country was divided into British, American, French and Soviet zones; in 1949 the Allied zones became the new Federal Republic of Germany, while the Soviets created the communist German Democratic Republic. Berlin was divided too, into British, American, French and Soviet zones, but people could move freely between them then.

Mum (her name was Elaine Preston) writes of driving through the Brandenburg Gate on a bus tour of the Eastern Sector, as East Berlin was called. "What a contrast [to West Berlin]. People very few and so sad and sober-looking, very pitiful. Women in uniform, only one main show street, called Stalinallee [which became Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961] with regimental state department stores and blocks of flats." She saw the headquarters of the Third Reich, the home of Dr Goebbels (who wasn't a medical doctor but had a PhD in 19th century literature from Heidelberg University) and Hitler's air-raid shelter (the "Fuhrerbunker", which was destroyed in 1989 to prevent it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazis).

The next day, she caught the U-bahn (Berlin's underground train line, which would be cut in 1961) back into the Eastern Zone to go shopping for film and take advantage of the favourable exchange rate between East and West marks at the state-run department store in Alexanderplatz (where the TV Tower hadn't yet been built).

Two days later, she hitch-hiked out of Berlin through American, British, German and Russian border controls, back to Hanover in West Germany, and had a picnic with some "very nice" truck drivers: "One spoke English quite well, as he had been a POW in Canada for seven years, after serving under Rommel and driving a tank." Halfway between the war and the wall, Berlin in 1956 was still looking back, innocent of its future. Reunification was still 34 years away.

The writer travelled as a guest of VisitBerlin, RailPlus and Etihad Airways.



Get behind the wheel of a leopard-print Trabant, East Germany's most famous export, on a one- or two-hour self-drive tour of Berlin, with commentary on the radio. See

BACK IN THE GDR If you visit only one museum in Berlin, make it the DDR Museum (DDR is German for GDR), which offers an intriguing, interactive look at daily life in East Germany between 1961 and 1989. See

GO UNDERGROUND Berlin Underworlds Association runs underground tours, including one focusing on the tunnels dug under the wall and other subterranean escape routes used by East Germans. See

WALK THE LINE Do a self-guided walk along the border between the two Berlins using an interactive smartphone app called The Berlin Wall. See

THE WALL, THE MUSICAL Hinterm Horizont (Beyond the Horizon) tells the story of East and West Berlin through a rock concert-like theatrical production. See




Etihad Airways flies from Sydney to Berlin via Abu Dhabi, and from Melbourne to Berlin via Abu Dhabi and Munich. See or call 1300 532 215. 


Pick up a Berlin Welcome Card (from €18.50) for unlimited use of public transport and museum discounts. See Berlin on Bike runs Berlin Wall bike tours on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (€19 including bike hire). See


Almodovar Hotel, 83 Boxhagener Strasse, in the former East Berlin neighbourhood of Friedrichshain, is one of Berlin's newest "bio hotels" and has an organic, vegetarian restaurant. Rooms from €98 a night. See


Louise Southerden is an award-winning Australian travel writer and regular Traveller contributor. Her recent three-month trip to Europe ended on a high: her first visit to Berlin in 25 years, an experience that moved her deeply, particularly when she discovered her late mother's travel diary of her 1956 visit to Berlin.