The Berlin Wall divided one of Germany’s largest cities for nearly 30 years. Three decades after its fall in November 1989, these three sites are the most powerful to explore what remains of the Iron Curtain.
For nearly 30 years, the Berlin Wall divided one of Germany’s largest cities. Nearly overnight, the oppressive barrier was erected, separating families and friends with 27 miles (43 km) of concrete, barbed wire, and guard towers.
While I was fortunate to not be one of the roughly 1.2 million people trapped behind the Berlin Wall in East Berlin in the 1980s, the concrete barrier did prevent my family from traveling too far east during the time we lived in Europe. When the wall fell, I was a young college student. It took several decades after that for me to finally have my chance to visit Berlin, but it was worth the wait.
To fully experience what the Berlin Wall was like in its infamous heyday, I recommend these three experiences:
- Berlin Wall Memorial
- Checkpoint Charlie
- East Side Gallery
Fact: Between the end of World War II and the construction of the Berlin Wall, East Germany lost one-sixth of its population as people migrated to the west.
Pro Tip: It’s easy to travel to all three sites using public transportation. Download this app for schedules at your fingertips.
1. Berlin Wall Memorial
Start your Berlin Wall tour by walking north along Bernauer Straße through the Berlin Wall Memorial Grounds. Tall, steel poles to the right will likely be the first thing that catches your eye. These red markers indicate where the Berlin Wall once stood and lead you to the last remaining section of the wall.
The remaining 200 ft (80 m) portion of the Berlin Wall illustrates that it was not a single wall but rather two walls with a stretch of booby traps in between. The death strip was a wide stretch of space that included anti-vehicle trenches, ferocious guard dogs, bright floodlights, and hundreds of watchtowers manned by armed guards with “shoot to kill” orders.
Throughout the Memorial Grounds, signs detail the construction of the wall and how it changed the lives of the people locked behind the Iron Curtain. Watch for ground markers with street addresses that indicate the outline of former buildings. The residents of these homes and the owners of these businesses were forced to evacuate so the buildings could be demolished to build the Wall.
There are also signs and markers detailing every known escape attempt. There was the man who drove his VW Beetle through an early barbed wire version of the wall in 1961 and several residents who scaled the wall or leaped over it from a window into West Berlin. It was along Bernauer Straße that some of the most famous and successful escape tunnels were dug beneath the wall. While some heroic escape attempts were successful, many were fatal.
Pro Tip: If your schedule allows, cross Bernauer Straße to visit the Documentation Center and/or the Visitor Center on your way to the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station.
The Nordbahnhof S-Bahn Station, a Former “Ghost” Station
The Berlin Wall didn’t just divide families, friends, and other loved ones. It also divided Berlin’s public transportation system. To ensure that no one escaped from East Berlin, underground rail stations located in East Berlin were sealed off from the West with shuttered doors, walled-up walkways, and trip wires. Metro cars carrying passengers from West Berlin rolled straight through these ghost stations while armed guards ensured no one got on or off the train.
Before heading to Checkpoint Charlie, explore the “Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin” exhibit inside the Nordbahnhof station. Like the Berlin Wall Memorial, there is no charge for this exhibit.
Fact: While the Berlin Wall sealed off East Berlin from West Berlin, there were stark differences in the metro maps on each side of the Wall. West Berlin subway maps showed the ghost stations with a note that the train didn’t stop at these stations. But in East Berlin, the metro maps did not show the Western lines or the ghost stations at all.
2. Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie makes regular appearances in spy movies set during the Cold War, perhaps because it was the most notable checkpoint along the Berlin Wall. Today this symbol of the Cold War is nothing more than a tourist attraction. Or as the Independent described it, “a tacky tourist trap.” Even so, I still feel it is one of three important sites to visit in order to fully experience the Berlin Wall.
At the site of the iconic, former border crossing stands a replica of the old guard house with mock American, British, or French guards in period uniforms. For a fee, you can take your picture with them and get your passport stamped. The morning we were there, one of the actors looked hung over. All in all, it was awfully cheesy, but simply standing in that spot and experiencing how different it is today is still quite memorable.
Pro Tip: Instead of wasting your money on the Checkpoint Charlie Museum or a passport stamp, take a self-guided walking tour that includes Cafe Adler, the “Leaving the American Sector” sign, and a Checkpoint Charlie street display.
When you visit Checkpoint Charlie, don’t miss Cafe Adler (the Eagle Cafe). While there’s nothing more to see than a famous facade, Cafe Adler was full of military officials and other patrons smoking, drinking, dining, and gazing into forbidden East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
Pro Tip: Take two minutes to read this excellent article by Francine Mathews that describes what Cafe Adler in a past life.
Leaving the American Sector Sign
Immortalized in John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, you won’t want to miss the Leaving the American Sector sign. An American advertising executive, Alan Wolan, claims that this sign is a replica. He reportedly stole the original sign back in 1990 when he was living in Berlin and has kept it in his Los Angeles garage for decades. However, a curator from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum disputes his claim. You can decide for yourself after reading this article in The Local DE.
Fact: The Berlin Wall fell by a mistake when East German politician Günter Schabowski announced that travel visa restrictions would be lifted immediately. (He was supposed to announce that the details would be announced the following day, and the new policy would still require a long, tedious process.) Upon hearing this news, growing crowds of East Germans appeared at the border crossings requesting access into West Germany. At the Bornholmer Street checkpoint, the officer on duty was unable to get answers from his superiors, so he opened the border crossing on his own and other checkpoints soon followed suit.
Today, crossing into what was once East Germany is as easy as stepping over a double cobblestone marker in the street.
Continuing to walk further down Friedrichstraße to the intersection of Zimmerstraße, you’ll see a large street display with photos and stories about Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. This free open-air “museum” rounded out Checkpoint Charlie for me.
The photo above was taken from the former East Berlin looking back at Checkpoint Charlie and Cafe Adler. The double cobblestone marker in the foreground indicates where the Berlin Wall once stood. From this spot in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s I would have only been allowed back into West Berlin if I were an Allied diplomat, military personnel, or a foreign tourist.
Pro Tip: See these three Berlin Wall sites with a €7 all-day public transportation ticket that’s good for the bus or underground railway (U-Bahn).
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3. East Side Gallery
With more than 100, large format murals painted on a 0.8 mile (1.3 km) portion of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery is the world’s longest open-air art gallery. In addition to the Berlin Wall Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie, the East Side Gallery rounds out the “must see” sites to fully experience the Berlin Wall in a reunified Germany.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, hundreds of artists from around the world gathered to transform this section of the wall into an uplifting work of art.
Each mural depicts the struggle to break free of the Iron Curtain or celebrates the excitement of ultimately achieving that reality. It is a beacon of hope in a world where other walls still stand.
Did you know that the mural of Brezhnev and Honecker kissing is not a joke? Rather, it’s based upon a historical photograph.
Read more about it (and see the photograph) in my contribution to this article: Art from the Streets: Contemporary Street Art from Around the World
When calculating the fatalities of people fleeing East Berlin, reports vary. The Berlin Wall Memorial remembers these 140 people who died at the Berlin Wall. At the East Side Gallery, this mural displays a circle for each of the 136 lives lost.
What about you? Have you visited any of these sites in Berlin? What do you think about these three recommendations? Anything you’d change or add? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Please note: photos without my watermark re courtesy of the community of talented photographers at Pixabay