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The Berlin Wall: 7 Ways to Learn Its History (and Explore Its Current State)

The Berlin Wall - 3 Ways to Learn Its History (and Explore Its Current State)

The Berlin Wall divided one of Germany’s largest cities for nearly 30 years. And now it’s been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. These seven sites are incredibly powerful and moving ways to explore what remains of the Iron Curtain that divided a country and separated families for three decades.

At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four sections, each managed by a different group:  the Soviets, Americans, British, and French. Although the city of Berlin was in the Soviet zone, it was also quartered, and the USSR took control of the eastern part of the city. As the residents in the Soviet sector found themselves increasingly cut off from the rest of Berlin, they fled to areas of town occupied by the Americans, British, and French.

It is estimated that as many as three million Germans fled to Western sections of Berlin since the end of World War II. So in order to stop the exodus, Soviet soldiers stretched coils of barbed wire along the 100 mile long perimeter of their sector. After nightfall on August 12, 1961, they began constructing a six-foot-tall concrete block wall. And when the city woke up the next morning, they discovered an oppressive barrier of cold concrete, menacing barbed wire, and towers manned by armed guards that separated them from loved ones in other sectors of Berlin.

The largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is an outdoor art museum known as the East Side Gallery.
The largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is an outdoor art museum known as the East Side Gallery.

What caused the Berlin Wall to fall three decades later? As it turns out, it was all a mistake!

The Iron Curtain parted 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.)

This is one of the murals in the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall that remains in place as an art museum.
This is one of the murals in the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall that remains in place as an art museum.

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 direction from his superiors. So, he opened the border crossing on his own merit and other checkpoints soon followed suit. Almost immediately, on foot and in their Trabant cars, East Germans began pouring across the border into West Berlin.

The murals on the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery share the history of the wall and celebrate its fall.
The murals on the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery share the history of the wall and celebrate its fall.

Sage Advice:  In addition to experiencing the Berlin Wall, here’s what else you should see and do when you explore Berlin.

To fully experience what the Berlin Wall was like in its infamous heyday, I recommend these experiences.

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.

Sage Advice: It’s easy to travel to all of these sites using public transportation. Download this app for schedules at your fingertips.

At the Berlin Wall Memorial, red steel rods mark where the Berlin Wall stood from 1961 to 1989.
At the Berlin Wall Memorial, red steel rods mark where the Berlin Wall stood from 1961 to 1989.

The remaining 200 ft 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 center section was known as the death strip. Sandwiched between two sections of barbed-wire topped concrete wall, the death strip included anti-vehicle trenches, ferocious guard dogs, bright floodlights, and hundreds of watchtowers manned by armed guards with “shoot to kill” orders.

Peeking through a hole at the "death strip" between the two concrete walls of the Berlin Wall
Peeking through a hole at the “death strip” between the two concrete walls of the Berlin Wall

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.

Embedded in the cobblestone walkway are markers for Fluchttunnels (flight tunnels)
Embedded in the cobblestone walkway, this marker indicates a Fluchttunnel (flight tunnel). These tunnels allowed East Germans to escape the Soviet occupied portion of Berlin.

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.

This ground marker indicates a successful escape from East Berlin.
This ground marker indicates that Dieter H. successfully fled East Berlin on November 19, 1986.

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.

This marker indicates the spot where three people successfully fled East Berlin on September 17, 1961.
This marker indicates the spot where three people successfully fled East Berlin on September 17, 1961.

In 1977, artist Josefina de Vasconcellos was inspired to create her statue, Reunion, featuring a man and woman embracing after she read about a woman who searched post-World War II Europe on foot in search of her husband. In 1995, an updated version of the sculpture titled Reconciliation was cast and placed in the ruins of the Coventry Cathedral in England and in the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan in honor of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. In 1999, this cast of the statue was placed at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Germany.

Sage Advice: Not sure when to visit Berlin? Here’s why you should visit Berlin in November. And, if you visit the city during the holidays, don’t miss the best Berlin Christmas markets.

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.

2 – The Nordbahnhof S-Bahn Station, a Former “Ghost” Station

Nordbahnhof S-Bahn Station, a Former "Ghost" Station, in Berlin, Germany
Steel markers indicating where the Berlin Wall used to be make it easy to imagine how the Nordbahnhof station became a 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.

Explore the "Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin" exhibit inside the Nordbahnhof station
Pro Tip:  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.

While the Berlin Wall sealed off East Berlin from West Berlin, there were stark differences in the metro maps available to residents 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 rail lines or the ghost stations. It was as if they didn’t even exist!

Pro Tip:  Explore Berlin further by visiting these photo-worthy spots, from the Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island.

3 – 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.” (And they’re not wrong…)

Even so, I still feel it is one of three important sites to visit in order to fully experience the Berlin Wall.

For a fee, you can get your passport stamped at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
For a fee, you can get your passport stamped and a photo snapped with period actors (usually Eastern Europeans posing as American, British, or French soldiers) at Checkpoint Charlie.

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.


4 – Cafe Adler

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.

Cafe Adler, or the Eagle Cafe, was one of the most famous spots near Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War.
All that remains of Cafe Adler at 206 Friedrichstraße is the eagle on the exterior of the building.

Related Article:  Go Undercover for an Afternoon at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC

5 – 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.

Checkpoint Charlie's famous sign.
Checkpoint Charlie’s famous sign.

6 – Street Displays

Today a double row of cobblestones marks the nearly 100 mile perimeter where the Berlin Wall once stood. And crossing into what was once East Germany is as easy as stepping over a line in the street.

So easily cross into what used to be East Berlin by walking 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.

Looking back at West Berlin and the Adler Cafe, I had to chuckle. Nothing screams “American Sector” quite like a photo of a soldier in uniform and a McDonald’s.

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, member of the military, 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).

Related ArticleFestival of Lights in Berlin, Germany

 

7 – East Side Gallery

Exploring the East Side Gallery was one of my favorite Berlin Wall experiences.
Exploring the East Side Gallery was one of my favorite Berlin Wall experiences.

With more than 100, large format murals painted on a 0.8 mile portion of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery is the world’s longest open-air art gallery.  It rounds out the “must see” sites to fully experience the Berlin Wall in a reunified Germany. Although covered with bright, uplifting art, strolling along this length of the Berlin Wall reinforces how isolating it must have been to be separated from the rest of the world by this cold, concrete wall for three decades.

This mural kicked off our visit to the East Side Gallery.
This mural kicked off our visit to the East Side Gallery.

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, whether they are designed to keep citizens in or non-citizens out.

The translation of this piece is “there are still many walls to be taken down.”
The translation of this piece is “there are still many walls to be taken down.”
The Trabant car bursting through the Berlin Wall to freedom is one of the most famous murals at the East Side Gallery.
The Trabant car bursting through the Berlin Wall to freedom is one of the most famous murals at the East Side Gallery. It’s such a shame that it has been defaced!
This is one of the most photographed sections of the East Side Gallery.
This mural featuring Leonid Brezhnev (the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982) and Erich Honecker (the leader of East Germany from 1971 until the fall of the Berlin Wall) kissing is one of the more photographed sections of the East Side Gallery.

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.

This mural at the East Side Gallery shows one circle for each life lost fleeing East Berlin.
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.

Pro Tip:  Before you go, get all the details you need from Reflections Enroute. Their Germany travel blog will help you pick the best time of year to visit, explain visa requirements, and more!

To Visit What Remains of the Berlin Wall

Here are a few options to further explore what remains of the Iron Curtain in Berlin, Germany:

  • Discover Berlin’s past and present with this half-day walking tour of Germany’s capital city. Or, focus exclusively on Cold War Germany with this walking tour.
  • If you’d rather explore Berlin by bicycle, then check out this Berlin bike tour that covers a variety of Berlin Wall and Cold War sites.
  • You can also explore Berlin via a different set of wheels with a Segway tour, or rickshaw. Or, if you want to take your Cold War tour to a whole new level, explore Berlin by Trabi, the iconic East German car.

Have You Visited What Remains of the Berlin Wall?

What about you? Have you visited any of these sites in Berlin? Is there anything you’d add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Explore the Berlin Wall in Berlin Germany   Visit the Berlin Wall Memorial to learn about the Berlin Wall in Berlin Germany   Visit the East Side Gallery in Berlin Germany to learn about the fall of the Berlin Wall

Please note:  photos without my watermark are courtesy of the community of talented photographers at Pixabay

Thank you for sharing!

28 thoughts on “The Berlin Wall: 7 Ways to Learn Its History (and Explore Its Current State)”

  1. I can only wonder how others experience the Berlin Wall. I was born in Berlin (West) and grew up with the wall, saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and still experience the growing together of the city today. For me there is – and I know it sounds strange – still the East. I drive from Spandau to Friedichshain in the east and it always lasts forever (at least 40 minutes by S-Bahn).
    If I then see the tourists on the pitiful remains of the wall, I often think, if you had experienced it. I swam in the summer in a lake that could only be used to the middle. The other side was DDR. Those who swam across the border ran the risk of being interrogated by border officials for the rest of the day. I sat for hours at the border crossing in the car and waited for us to pass.
    I think a look at the wall is not enough to feel what we have experienced every day in the enclosed city.
    But the tourists at the wall or Checkpoint Charlie do not see that.

    1. Susanne, thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences. Your comments took me back to what it felt like to stand next to the remnants of the wall years after it fell, and how haunting that was, even if it was only a small fraction of what you experienced. I’m so grateful for your perspective!

  2. Such an interesting read. I’ve been to Berlin only once on a girlie weekend and I don’t think we have been to anything cultural or historical. With the 30 years celebration still fresh, it’s probably a good time to visit again with a focus on the historical places. I will make sure to refer to this post then.

  3. Well, I’m located about 90 minutes by train from Berlin so to me, this is not only history but was just normal for the longest time. I’m sometimes rather irritated that for instance for my daughter who was born a couple of years after the wall came down those ‘two Germanys’ are pure history. However, as the political development shows, there still is a wall….at least in the heads.

    1. The other day, I read an in-depth report of what life is like in Germany today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Focusing largely on the economy, jobs, education, and social issues, the report suggested that there was still a bit of a divide between the east and the west. However, I was amazed at the incredible progress that’s been made. While 30 years is a long time by some perspectives, it’s still a short time to bring two distinct regions together after as many (or more years) apart. Germany may have some work ahead of her (ALL countries do), but I also think Germans should be very proud of how far they’ve come these past 30 years!

  4. I went on such a fleeting visit to Berlin on a stop over that I didn’t get to spend any decent amount of time near the Berlin Wall. It was so busy when I visited, so all I got to see was the wall from a distance behind so many tourists – it was mid August!. I love the street art painted on it, especially the provocative politiical kiss! I need to go back and spend a decent amount of time there.

  5. This is such an interesting read, Sage. Although we did not visit Berlin on our trip to Germany, I did have the opportunity to see a portion of the wall on display in the Newsuseum in Washington, DC. It was fascinating.

  6. What an amazing history lesson! Your tips on how to visit the infamous Berlin wall were all very helpful. I was unaware of the statute, “The Reunion”. Seeing it made me feel the sorrow and yet relief to find their loved one alive!

  7. Can’t believe its 30 years already. I remembering hearing about it as a teenager although it seemed so far removed and I knew nothing of its significance. So one of these days we must go visit. kx

  8. My young co-worker was just in Berlin for the anniversary, she went to visit her high school exchange student friend who she has known for 7 years or so. She went to a family dinner and they toasted their friendship noting that when they were the same age, her parents were behind the wall and would have never been able to have a friendship like her daughter did with an American. It reminded me that the 30 years is not a long time and there are still manny people alive who remember life before the fall!

  9. Appreciate this information. We are planning on traveling to Berlin next year. AND I’m reading Forty Autumns by Nina Willner for my book group!

  10. We recently saw a portion of the Berlin Wall in Budapest. I will be following your lead when we visit Berlin. Thank you.

    1. I am not sure how bit the portion of the wall was that you saw in Budapest, but if it’s like the sections I’ve seen elsewhere — outside the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati or in the Museum for Peace in Caen, France — it’s SUCH a different experience to stand next to a nearly mile-long stretch of it, like at the East Side Gallery. I hope you get to experience it in Berlin. It’s a very chilling (but important) piece of history!

  11. Very interesting post, a great resource for history lovers!

    I used to live in Berlin, near Nordbahnhof, and that was my favourite Wall Memorial place. I find the divided ubahn system one of the most fascinating part of the history of the divided city, and Nordbahnhof is such a secret place to learn about it.

  12. I spent a day in Berlin when I was in high school, but really didn’t see anything as I didn’t know where to go and look for things. Thanks for providing such good pictures and insights! I will pin this for later so when we make it to Germany in a year or two I will have this information handy. Iceland will be our next stop in September!

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