Ten years ago, when I was last in Berlin, it actually had this poor but sexy appeal, as the famous quote from Berlin’s former mayor Klaus Wowereit goes. Everything was on the move, the city as a whole was a huge construction site, and cost of living and rents were still affordable, even for the less well-off Berliners. Berlin was exciting, for sure, but I wouldn’t have called it beautiful at the time.
Now, ten years later, Berlin is beautiful. Historic buildings and whole neighborhoods got a makeover, and the city looks as impressive as any other western european capital.
And the massive influx of German and foreign professionals has taken its toll. Low-income locals, especially in the eastern parts of the city, have been displaced by gentrification.
Maybe it was naive to think that Berlin would keep its start-up atmosphere, but the extent of the transformation has angered many native-born Berliners and is still a major source of conflict.
I had the opportunity to visit a friend in Berlin for 5 days in March this year. We were laying low, but I did get around to some traditional sightseeing. And strolling around the city, I could only marvel at what a difference ten years make.
PART I: Berlin has two large rivers, Spree and Havel. While the Havel crosses the western part of Berlin, the Spree flows directly through the city centre, and passes some of the most prominent sights. That’s why a river cruise on the Spree is a good idea to get a first impression of the city.
There are a lot of shipping companies to choose from, the most known are BWSG (Berliner Wassersport und Service GmbH) and Reederei Riedel. They all offer different tours on the Berlin waterways, varying in duration, route and themes. For first-timers, I’ll recommend a City Centre Tour on the Spree, which takes about 1 hour and costs 12-15 € per person (kids pay less).
I chose a City Centre Tour by the Reederei Riedel, of which the starting point was the Ludwig-Erhard-Ufer opposite the Berlin Central Station (Hauptbahnhof).
Here’s what you’re going to see while cruising on the Spree: These are the Paul Löbe building (Paul-Löbe-Haus) on the left, and the Marie Elisabeth Lüders building (Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus) on the right.
They house assembly halls and offices for the members of the German Parliament, and are part of the so-called ‘Band of Federal Buildings’ (Band des Bundes) in the Government District. Both were built between 1997 and 2003 (architect: Stephan Braunfels).
The Berlin Wall used to separate these two banks of the Spree, and the bridge connecting the buildings symbolizes the togetherness of the eastern and western parts of Germany.
The Federal Chancellery, which houses Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office, and the Reichstag building, the seat of the German Parliament since 1999, are part of the government district.
While some ships pass the Federal Chancellery, only the back side of the Reichstag can be seen from the river. The German Parliament and the Reichstag’s walkable glass cupola (architect: Norman Foster) can be visited.
Then we were approaching Museum Island.
The Museum Island (Museumsinsel) is the northern part of an island in the Spree (Spreeinsel), which is located right in the city centre.
The Museum Island, originally a residential area, was dedicated to art and science by king Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1841. It is home to five of the most renowned museums of Berlin, and was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1999.
The Museum Island was part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the Cold War. After the German Reunification in 1990, the idea began to take shape to get the buildings on the Museum Island restored and modernized. Since then, the Museum Island has been more or less a building site, and the different collections have been slowly finding their final location.
If you are interested in the Masterplan Museumsinsel, go here.
And here’s a list of the museums on Museum Island:
Altes Museum (Old Museum): Completed in 1830 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the style of Neoclassicism. It houses exhibits from the classical antiquity (Greek, Roman, Etruscan).
Neues Museum (New Museum): Completed in 1859, designed by Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Schinkel. The museum was severely damaged in World War II, then left as an abandoned site for decades, and finally rebuilt under the direction of architect David Chipperfield in 2009. It exhibits Egyptian art (amongst others the famous bust of Nefertiti), prehistoric objects, and classical antiquities.
Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery): The museum was designed by F. A. Stüler as well, and was completed in 1876. It houses a collection of 19th century art.
Bode Museum: It’s located on the island’s northern tip, and opened in 1904. It houses the Sculpture Collection and the Museum of Byzantine Art.
Pergamon Museum: The building was constructed in 1930, and actually contains three museums: A Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art. Amongst the most famous exhibits is the Pergamon Altar.
The Pergamon Museum is under reconstruction, and parts of it are closed to the public until 2019. Currently, the Pergamon Altar can’t be visited. I advise a thorough research on what part of the museum is open to the public at the time of your visit.
If you want to listen to a podcast about Museum Island, go here.
We were passing the Colonnade Courtyard (Kolonnadenhof), which leads to the Friedrich Bridge in front of Berlin Cathedral.
Berlin Cathedral, which is located on the Museum Island as well, comes as a surprise for two reasons.
First, although it looks like an Italian Renaissance building, it’s quite new. The church was completed in 1905, and built in the historicist architectural style of Neo-Renaissance (architects: Julius and Otto Raschdorff). And the second surprise – at least to me – was that it is a Protestant Church. I have never seen a Protestant house of worship that looks so glamorous.
Visiting Berlin Cathedral: One can climb up to the dome (270 steps), the view from the dome’s outer walkway is worth the ordeal.
The cathedral’s crypt contains the mortal remains of the rulers of Brandenburg/Prussia (the house of Hohenzollern) from 1536 to 1916 (except those who were German emperors, and Friedrich II the Great and his father Friedrich Wilhelm I who are buried in Potsdam).
After passing the Liebknecht Bridge, another notorious Berlin building site will catch your eye: the soon-to-be Humboldt-Forum.
The Humboldt Forum is not a building site like any other.
No other construction project in Berlin has given rise to so much discussion about whether or not it should be built as the Humboldt Forum, since this building is supposed to be a replica of the historical Berlin Palace in its original place, the Schlossplatz.
Soon after the German reunification in 1990, plans came up to re-erect the Berlin Palace, which had been the royal residence of the kings of Prussia and later the German emperors for more than 500 years. The original Berlin Palace had been severely damaged in World War II, and the ruins were finally demolished by the GDR (German Democratic Republic).
The ensuing debate was about the costs, but more importantly about the historical implications: Should post-reunification Germany not rather keep a low-profile instead of re-enacting a period of national grandeur?
In the end, a compromise was found: three of the Baroque facades will be replicated, the eastern facade overlooking the Spree and the interior of the building get a modern architecture. The Humboldt Forum will be dedicated to the dialogue between the cultures, including a permanent exhibition of non-European art, and a scientific library.
As the construction costs have (unsurprisingly) skyrocketed, donations are always welcome. 🙂
In the meantime, the construction site fence along the Spree has become an open air gallery for 20th century photography, the so-called Spree Side Gallery. The exhibitions change every year.
Here’s a computer visualisation of the future Humboldt Forum, seen from the Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden).
Diagonally opposite the Humboldt Forum, on the other side of the Spree, you’ll find the Nikolai Quarter (Nikolai Viertel)
The Nikolai Quarter was first mentioned in records in the 13th century. Along with the southern part of the Spree Island, it was the place where Berlin came into being. The quarter consisted mostly of medieval houses and narrow alleys – until the whole neighbourhood was destroyed through bombardment and fights in World War II.
After the war, and now being part of the GDR, the area remained a wasteland until 1987, as it was reconstructed from scratch in order to attract tourists. Thus the Nikolai Quarter has become an eclectic blend of different architectural styles, with colourful houses and lots of restaurants serving traditional Berliner dishes.
Being on the ship, I only caught a glimpse of the quarter, and I can’t really say if it’s worth visiting. It seems to be popular with tourists, but a trustworthy Berlin insider told me Nikolai Quarter was just a fake tourist rip-off. I think that, as it is with many places frequented by mass tourism, everyone has to make up their own minds about it.
After passing Nikolai Quarter, the ship made a U-turn, and we went all the way back to the starting point at Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
My next post about my trip to Berlin will come soon, so stay tuned 🙂
And in the end, as usual, I’ll show you some leftover shots:
Would you like to know more about my trip to Berlin? Check out Part 2.
This post is my entry to this week’s Photo Challenge with the theme Afloat.
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