Despite it’s ultra cool vibes and alternative presence, many visitors to Berlin want to know where to see the Berlin Wall, or what still stands of it.
For 28 years a concrete wall over 100km long divided Berlin, and the entire country. Now it’s one of the main go-to sights in the city. But its history is complex and vast, and while I learnt about it at school and saw it for the first time as a 16 year old history student, I was still learning about it three days into my recent trip to Berlin.
I didn’t just want to go to Berlin and say ‘yea, I saw the Wall’ – I wanted to eat up every ounce of information I was feed to know why, to find reason and to understand the consequences. I’d look at people my parent’s age and wonder about their individual stories during the Wall years of 1961 – 1989 and I’d look at people my age and wonder how the ideologies they’ve grown up with shape their outlook today in a unified city.
As you stroll through Berlin you will notice two rows of cobbled stones marking where the wall once stood – a wall which cut off West Berlin from East Berlin and East Germany. While the city is reunited, its past is never forgotten and the trail of stones means that this piece of history is firmly in your consciousness as you wander day to day.
At times it is hard to define which side is East and which is West due to the rapid and continuous construction (marked by a sea of cranes, scaffolding and overland pipes). I found myself constantly whipping out my map and trying to work it out. But there are still some parts of the city that feel shrouded in the dark past, still trying to catch up with the unified present, still trying to modernise and fit in, still bearing the scars of soviet influence while its western sibling glistens as new. Or is it just that those districts are still living in and holding on to the past? Afterall, not everyone wanted the Wall to come down.
It was those moments that made me feel confused about what I felt about Berlin. What should it be? Will it ever be a city as one? Will there always be an East and West divide because the scars run too deep?
Has gritty become ‘cool’ because that’s the only way to justify and accept post war devastation?
Today, the preserved parts of the wall serve as memorials. Without it there you wouldn’t be able to imagine how imposing a structure it once was, how imprisoned it must have made people feel, the desperation it caused among people separated from loved ones… the distinct lack of choice and freedom.
So before you strike a ridiculous pose on it or scribble your name on it with squiggles, dates and love hearts (yes I saw this happen) think about what it is, what it means, and what it symbolises.
Where to Visit The Berlin Wall – Three Preserved Sites
The East Side Gallery
This is the best preserved and longest part of the Wall and is beautifully decorated with murals painted by international artists, which have been there since 1990 – a year after the boarders of East and West started to open. Over 1km long, it’s an array of spectacular colour and creative vision, but much of this open air gallery carries political messages and symbols of peace.
This stretch of the wall stands alongside the river and it’s a really lively area. Behind sections of the wall you will find a few bars including one on a boat, one with its own beach and the funky Jamaican themed bar, Yaam.
Nearest transport stop: S-Bahn Ostbahnhof
The Berlin Wall Memorial – Former Border Strip in the Bernauer Strasse
On the historical Bernauer Strasse, this memorial was the one that really hit me hard.
The grounds are preserved and so you find yourself walking within the former border strip. On one side you will see preserved sections of the Wall and on the other long brown bars where the other Wall and a watch tower once stood. It is said that the bars symbolise the ‘prison’ feeling of the Wall. There are also markings in the grass across the former border strip to highlight the route of the most famous and successful tunnels constructed for escape.
The open air gallery highlights how the border facilities were constructed and controlled, but it is here that you see how this particular section of wall connected and was built into houses and other main buildings (the Wall ran directly in front of the buildings situated on the East Berlin side of the street) and the urban destruction it caused.
This site is also where the first elements of unification took place, where on November 10, 1989, the first portions of the Wall were knocked down to create a crossing between East and West Berlin and a year later it’s where the official demolition of the border fortifications began. Construction is still taking place there today.
Nearest transport stop: U-Bahn Bernauer Strasse
The Wall Near Checkpoint Charlie
Located in the centre of the city and a 10 minute walk down the road from the disneyland’esque attraction that Checkpoint Charlie has become, this memorial houses a short section of wall which has been mostly chipped away for souvenirs. Here there is a line of information boards – presented as a timeline of events – detailing the history of the country and what factors led to the Wall’s construction. I recommend spending some time here to get to grips with it all.
Nearest transport stop: U-bahn Kochstrasse