Wednesday , February 28 2024
From Frederick the Great's palaces in Potsdam to Checkpoint Charlie in the heart of the city, a visit to Berlin is a tour through history.

Berlin: A Journey into Modern History, Part 3

Continued from Part 2

Construction continues all over Berlin, but many grand and beautiful buildings look almost as if there had never been a disturbance in town. The huge church called the Berliner Dom may be the most magnificent example of this – badly damaged during the war, now restored to majesty:

To the right of that church in the photo above, you can also see the Fernsehturm (TV tower). fernsehturm Taking photos around Berlin, you have to make an effort not to have this huge GDR relic (now a kitschy tourist attraction on a very large scale) appear in every image – it’s that tall and that iconic, forming part of local businesses’ logos like the Empire State Building does in New York or the Transamerica Pyramid does in San Francisco.


In the inset photo, the TV tower is to the right, with the green tower of the Marienkirche contrasting with it to the left. The latter is one of the numerous churches we couldn’t enter because our timing was off (or its visiting hours didn’t match what our guidebook said).

While our attempts to see the interiors of famous churches were mostly stymied, such was not the case at the Neue Synagogue, a very large former house of worship partially reconstructed after the war and turned into a museum of Berlin’s thriving prewar (mostly Reform) Jewish community. Today is also serves as a hub for the small present-day Jewish population.

Near the synagogue is the site of Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery, dating from 1672. Moses Mendelssohn is said to have been buried here. The Gestapo tore up the cemetery and its contents in 1943, so a memorial sculpture has been erected on the street outside it.
In another part of town, at either end of the large plaza called the Gendarmenmarkt, flanking the great Konzerthaus Berlin are the matching churches known as the Französischer Dom and (pictured below) the Deutscher Dom, which contains a rather dry museum of Germany’s democratic history (placards are in German only).
Climbing to the top of these churches, including the Französischer Dom’s bell tower, provided us with views of the Gendarmenmarkt (first image below). Look closely at the second image below and you can see the raucous inline-skating race that seemed to follow us around the city for the whole afternoon.




When spending a number of days in one city, it’s always good to get away for a day to somewhere else interesting. From Berlin, Potsdam is perfect for that purpose. Just a subway ride away, the town is home to the huge Park Sanssouci, the 18th century home of Frederick the Great’s palaces (and grave), lovely gardens, and other beautiful sites across a vast stretch of sculpted parkland.




The stepped gardens behind Schloss Sanssouci itself suggest a small Versailles:



Elsewhere on the grounds Frederick built the Neues Palais in the 1760s to proclaim Prussian power after the Seven Years’ War. The following photo isn’t the main palace; believe it or not, it housed servants’ quarters.


Here’s the real castle. Part of it, anyway:


Back in the city, we went much further back in history, to the Pergamon Museum, home of the huge Pergamon Altar, a Greek structure around 2250 years old dug up in western Turkey and taken to Berlin in 1903.


More spectacular still, at least visually, is the even older Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon…


…and the museum contains many more treasures of ancient civilizations. The Pergamon’s collection is the kind that could have been gathered only during the age of colonialism and Western European hegemony, when vast treasures could be uprooted from their native lands and transported to Western capitals for popular viewing. If you’ve seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, you have the idea, but it’s on a larger scale here.

A “gate” of a very different kind is the site of Checkpoint Charlie, where visitors could cross between East and West Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall. Today it’s just a busy tourist site.


A big section of the Wall itself is preserved at a site now called, weirdly, the Topography of Terror. From the street, it’s just a drab wall with graffiti on it:


On the inside is a fascinating history of the Nazi era…


…adjacent to an indoor museum with much more detail.

Speaking of museums, we also visited the Deutsches Historisches Museum (Museum of German History) which has a vast and, to me, surprisingly interesting collection of art and artifacts from German history through the ages. And we visited the very popular Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, which has a dense collection describing Jewish history in Germany. Isolated in its own space, a work called the Memory Void strikes a modernistic and disturbing note, with thousands of metal faces on which visitors can walk, making lonely clattering sounds.


Lush with beautiful architecture, Berlin buzzes with artistic creativity and cultural energy, and everything is resonant with history.


The Philharmonie

I can’t fit everything we saw and did into this travelogue, and beyond that there’s much else we’d have added to our itinerary given more time. It’s a big, spread-out city; when you visit, count on doing a fair amount of walking, and on getting to know the subway system too. A very good, very reasonably priced place to stay that I can recommend is the Circus Hotel in the Spandauer Vorstadt neighborhood. It’s an easy walk to the busy market area that includes the Hackesche Höfe, a network of connected courtyards full of interesting shops laid out in a fashion I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But more than anything else, get your hands on a good guidebook (we used the Rough Guide) and get out and explore with your eyes and your mind open.


About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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