Berlin | Highlights of Berlin by Foot

While most people who think of Germany still have a stereotype picture of a Lederhosen wearing, beer drinking fella, Berlin, the nation´s capital, will teach you differently. No other German city is as multi-cultural, straight-forward and pulsating as this melting pot for arts, architecture, politics and culture. For the hipsters, it is the driving force in creativity and style. No other German city brings up so many start-ups and new projects than Berlin. No more trends are set than here.

But the shiny facade also has a few drawbacks. The city council is always broke, the unemployment rate is tremendous, criminality is amongst the highest in Germany and some people return with shattered dreams of love as Berlin has the highest percentage of permanent singles within Germany.

So nothing to worry about when planning a visit as long as you don´t plan to live here, lol. But let´s get serious! It is an exciting spot to visit and during my recent duty call, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in Berlin after a long time again. And I found the capital as ever-changing as always. So join me on this four-hour power walk to some of the city´s most popular sites while getting the fresh air that my body deserved after a day in the plane.

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The Chinese Gate of Zoologischer Garten

A great place to stay at is close to Zoologischer Garten, which is located conveniently to explore Berlin by foot or by public transportation. The zoo has apparently the largest variation of animals on showcase in the world including two brand new panda bear babies from China.

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Zoo Palast and Gedächtniskirche in the background

Just around the corner you will find Germany´s premiere movie theatre Zoo Palast. It is one of the oldest movie theaters in the country (built in 1915) and it lies in close proximity to the famous Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church).

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The church was destroyed during World War II and has been redesigned as a cenotaph for peace in 1959. The shopping mall Europa Center right on Breitscheidplatz is one of the original West Berlin malls with the famous water-clock inside.

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Just down the road you will find Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten (train station). While the building itself is nothing spectacular, it is probably one of the most popular train stations in Berlin. During the city´s separation, it was West Berlin´s busiest transfer station and during the 1970s and 80s a melting pot for drug addicts, call boys and homeless people. It gained much attention with the social disputed publication of the autobiography “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” which was based on real life tape records by Christiane F. Today, it is still a social focus within Berlin, but probably only few other places reflect the city´s social and cultural diversity as Bahnhof Zoo.

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Berlin is a playground for international architects as the towers of the Waldorf Astoria hotel (left) and the Upper West building (right) confirm.

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Ku´damm, the short version of Kurfürstendamm, is one of Berlin´s longest boulevards and one of the most touristic and commercial spots these days. In 1542 it was originally built as a connecting road between the Berlin city castle and the hunting lodge of electoral Prince Joachim II. As the city grew, Kurfürstendamm evolved to a an elegant residential address over the centuries and became West Berlin´s commercial center during the Cold War.

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Another view from Ku´Damm onto the Gedächtniskirche

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Much better for shopping than Ku´damm is Tauentzienstrasse which has all of today´s favorite brands. Right in the center of this busy boulevard lies this stainless steel sculpture honoring the 750th birthday of Berlin.

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Another must see only a few blocks further down the road is KaDeWe, Kaufhaus des Westens. What once was West Berlin´s most fashionable department store belongs today to the upper league of luxury department stores around the world. I love wandering through the deli on the top floor and to sit down for a quick glass of champagne.

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The Berlin Bear is Berlin´s emblem since 1280 AD and can be found throughout the city. This art installation is currently on display (July 2017) at metro station Wittenbergplatz.

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When you visit Berlin, the Siegessäule is definitely a must see. This Berlin landmark and memorial was built between 1864 and 1873 and recalls the victory of Prussia over Denmark. It is located right in the heart of Berlin´s largest public park, the Tiergarten, and you can easily reach it from KaDeWe in about 25 to 30 minutes by foot. It is particularly nice to photograph it from the center curb limit of Hofjägerallee.

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About 15 minutes later down avenue Straße des 17. Juni you will head straight towards the extraordinary Brandenburger Tor. King Friedrich Wilhelm II erected the gate between 1789 and 1793 as a conclusion to the magnificent avenue Unter den Linden. It is the last remaining of the 18 historic city gates and probably the most recognized and popular landmark that Berlin is connected with. With its direct location at the previous border between West and East Berlin during the Cold War, the Brandenburger Tor was a symbol for the frontiers between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It gained international attention when the first people crossed freely from East to West Berlin after the German Reunification in 1989.

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On the other side of the gate lies Pariser Platz. This public square marks the beginning of Unter den Linden avenue which passes eventually (after changing names) old East Berlin´s main square Alexanderplatz. From here you have Brandenburger Tor and the Siegessäule together in one view. The exclusive Adlon Hotel could be a lovely spot for an afternoon tea and cake, don´t you think?

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After the reunification and the decision to make Berlin the capital for all of Germany, the historic Reichstag building was chosen to be the seat of the German house of representatives. The cornerstone was laid back in 1884 and it was here in 1933 that Hitler was named Reich chancellor. The Reichstag suffered major damage during World War II bomb raids and was occupied by the Russians in mid 1945, when the war officially came to an end. Its present appearance  included the major renovation of the original exteriors as well as the addition of star architect Sir Norman Foster´s world renown glass dome between 1991 and 1999. It lies only a few minutes walk from the Brandenburger Tor and is as well a must see item.

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Once you are there, take a walk past it on the Reichstagsufer and get a glimpse on the completely new buildings for the German government at the shores of the Spree River. The river itself is approximately 400 kilometers long and only a small part of it flows right through the center of Berlin.

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In the Western suburb of Spandau, the Spree joins into the River Havel which eventually opens into the Elbe River and finally flowing into the sea near Cuxhaven. You can do all kinds of scenic and sightseeing cruising on it and there are even a few river cruise companies that offer luxury cruising in and out of Berlin.

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From the Reichstagsufer, head back over Friedrichstrasse towards Unter den Linden. If you wanted to, you could even continue a few blocks South on Friedrichstrasse to check out the gorgeous luxury department store Galleries Lafayette before continuing again on Unter den Linden towards Alexanderplatz. By the way: A very nostalgic and quite cool way to explore Berlin is a tour in an authentic East German Trabant car (Trabbi).

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On your way to Alexanderplatz make sure to include a stop at St. Hedwig´s cathedral just opposite of the state opera. This gorgeous construction with a massive dome is the city´s bishop church and was constructed as a pantheon inspired church between 1747 and 1773. After burning completely down during a bomb raid in 1943, St. Hedwig´s was rebuilt between 1952 and 1963 under the control of the former GDR government.

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One of Berlin´s most characteristic landmarks is the impressive Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) which shows up just a couple of blocks up the street from St. Hedwig´s. While being called cathedral, the church is originally “only” a regular Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church. Most of the building had survived the Allied bombings during World War II, yet reconstructions of the interiors and the roof took part beginning in 1975. The current building design which dates back to 1905 is widely seen as a Protestant counterpart to the St. Peter´s Dome in Rome.

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On your way towards Alexanderplatz, you will pass Berlin´s city hall, the so-called Rotes Rathaus (red, because it was built from red bricks). It is the seat of the mayor and as a public building accessible. The interiors are quite interesting to look at!

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With a total height of 368 meters, the radio tower Alex is Germany´s tallest detached building and the fourth highest in whole Europe. Upon its completion back in 1969 it was even the second tallest radio tower in the world. Over 1 Million visitors a year make it one of Germany´s top 10 sites and the 360 degree views from up there over Berlin are simply amazing!

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Having been the commercial center of East Berlin back then, Alexanderplatz still is the city´s largest and one of the liveliest public squares these days. It is even the largest public space in whole Germany and one of Berlin´s most visited spots with a wide array of shopping, restaurants and bars. It was named after Tsar Alexander I who paid visit to the Prussian capital back in 1805, yet it was not before 1882 that the square became a major transportation junction and commercial city center. World War II almost completely destroyed the Alex and it was rebuilt and turned into a pedestrian zone during the 1960´s/70´s. The Atomic clock and the radio tower are two of its most recognized landmarks.

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While most of Berlin´s eastern districts have received major facelifts since the country had been reunified in 1989, one thing that makes Berlin stand out from any German city is its widely preserved Socialistic architecture that still can be found in many parts around the city. Interestingly, even though there are no political boundaries today, locals still refer to East or West when talking about specific locations within Berlin. Despite the large sums of economic aid poured into East Berlin, there still remain obvious differences between the former East and West Berlin. East Berlin has a distinct visual style; this is partly due to the greater survival of prewar facades and streetscapes, with some even still showing signs of wartime damage.

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After heading back towards Zoologischer Garten, you will cross Mühlendamm Bridge which provides a nice view onto the famous Museumsinsel on the left. There are quite a few great spots to sit next to the Spree river shores and enjoy a drink and a snack before continuing.

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The next bridge, Gertraudenbrücke, crosses over the so-called Kupfergraben, the second canal that surrounds the Museumsinsel. While being a rather ordinary-looking side channel, Kupfergraben is home to Germany´s chancellor Angela Merkel and therefore quite a sight to walk past. While in most countries around the world political leaders reside in hermetically sealed fortresses, the head of Germany lives more or less amongst the people. With bodyguards, of course.

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A look down the road. If you put a black and white or sepia filter on this photo, it might well be date back to the GDR time, don´t you think? Ok, apart from the modern highrise in the center.

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The unique look of Stalinist architecture that was used in East Berlin (along with the rest of the former GDR) also contrasts markedly with the urban development styles employed in the former West Berlin. Additionally, the former East Berlin (along with the rest of the former GDR) retains a small number of its GDR-era street and place names commemorating German and Polish socialist heroes, such as Karl-Marx-Allee, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, and Karl-Liebknecht-Straße.

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Leading right towards Potsdamer Platz, Leipziger Strasse is also home to the impressive Mall of Berlin. Brass plates in front of the escalators display historical significant quotes by Barack Obama, for instance: “People of the world, look at Berlin. Where a wall was taken down, a continent reunified and where the course of history proved, that no act of defiance is too large for a world that stands together.”

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Being one of Europe´s most busiest squares in the early 20th century, Potsdamer Platz was one of the first locations on the continent to receive in 1924 electric traffic lights. In 1961, it was divided by the Berlin Wall and location to where the Soviet, British and American sectors bordered. During its reconstruction in the 1990´s, Potsdamer Platz was the largest construction site in Europe and still is an eyesight these days after its completion. Two of its most recognized details are the remains of the Berlin Wall and the Sony Center.

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I was almost at the end of this long power walk and on the way back to the hotel when I passed the rather interesting architecture of the Berlin Philharmonia which is home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world´s most recognized orchestras.

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Following Tiergartenstraße took me past the diplomatic district with all the embassies lining up behind massive fences and their quite diverse architecture.

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It was a long and busy afternoon when I reached the hotel about 5 1/2 hours later again that day and my feet denied any further effort. Even though I was tired and exhausted, the walk was a beautiful way to explore my capital from the perspective of a tourist and I was happy about all the impressions that I was able to take home with me. It surely asked for a well-deserved bubble bath before drifting off to dreamland that evening to prepare my feet and my eyes for a new day full of exciting adventures. Even if these would happen simply at home. Where my heart belonged.

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