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Berlin Travel Guide

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Plan Your Berlin Vacation

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, no other city in Europe has seen more change than Berlin, the German capital. The two Berlins that had been physically separated for almost 30 years have become one, and the reunited city has become a cutting-edge destination for architecture, culture, entertainment, nightlife, and shopping. After successfully uniting its own East and West, Berlin now plays

a pivotal role in the European Union. But even as the capital thinks and moves forward, history is always tugging at its sleeve. Between the wealth of neoclassical and 21st-century buildings there are constant reminders, both subtle and stark, of the events of the 20th century.

Berlin is quite young by European standards, beginning as two separate entities in 1237 on two islands in the Spree River: Cölln and Berlin. By the 1300s, Berlin was prospering, thanks to its location at the intersection of important trade routes, and rose to power as the seat of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, in the nearly 50 years of his reign (1640–88), touched off a cultural renaissance. Later, Frederick the Great (1712–86) made Berlin and Potsdam glorious centers of his enlightened yet autocratic Prussian monarchy.

In 1871, Prussia, ruled by the "Iron Chancellor" Count Otto von Bismarck, unified the many independent German states into the German Empire. Berlin maintained its status as capital for the duration of that Second Reich (1871–1918), through the post–World War I Weimar Republic (1919–33), and also through Hitler's so-called Third Reich (1933–45). The city's golden years were the Roaring ’20s, when Berlin evolved as the energetic center for the era's cultural avant-garde. World-famous writers, painters, and artists met here while the impoverished bulk of its 4 million inhabitants lived in heavily overpopulated quarters. This "dance on the volcano," as those years of political and economic upheaval have been called, came to a grisly and bloody end after January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor. The Nazis made Berlin their capital but ultimately failed to remake the city into a monument to their power, as they had planned. By World War II's end, 70% of the city lay in ruins, with more rubble than in all other German cities combined.

Along with the division of Germany after World War II, Berlin was partitioned into American, British, and French zones in the West and a Soviet zone in the East. The three western-occupied zones became West Berlin, while the Soviets, who controlled not only Berlin’s eastern zone but also all of the east German land surrounding it tried to blockade West Berlin out of existence. (They failed thanks to the yearlong Berlin Airlift [1948–49], during which American airplanes known in German as "raisin bombers," dropped supplies until the blockade lifted.) In 1949 the Soviet Union established East Berlin as the capital of its new satellite state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The division of the city was cruelly finalized in concrete in August 1961, when the GDR erected the Berlin Wall, the only border fortification in history built to keep people from leaving rather than to protect them.

For nearly 30 years, the two Berlins served as competing visions of the new world order: Capitalist on one side, Communist on the other. West Berlin, an island of democracy in the Eastern bloc, was surrounded by guards and checkpoints. Nonetheless, thanks in part to being heavily subsidized by Western powers, the city became a haven for artists and freethinkers. Today, with the Wall long relegated to history (most of it was recycled as street gravel), visitors can appreciate the whole city and the anything-goes atmosphere that still pervades.

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When To Go

When to Go to Berlin

Berlin tends to be gray and cold; it can be warm and beautiful in summer but there's no guarantee, so it's best to always pack a jacket. The...

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