10 ways to explore the history of the Berlin Wall
This November, the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin has spent a quarter of a century reconnecting, rebuilding and redefining itself around this painful historical scar. While Berliners long sought to forget this period, thankfully numerous museums, exhibitions and tours have developed to help younger Germans and foreign visitors dig deeper into the complicated history of both the Wall and German division.
With the big milestone coming up, we’ve compiled a list of 10 ways to explore the history of the Wall, its construction, dismantling, and the reunification of Germany. And good news for budget travelers, almost all of these are free to visit!
Related: Win a trip for 2 to Berlin to celebrate the Fall of the Wall this November!
1. Visit the Berlin Wall Memorial
Starting point for any deeper understanding of the Berlin Wall is the Berlin Wall Memorial, near S-Nordbahnhof. Before exiting the station, study the informational displays in the stairwell and station foyer telling the story of the Bahnhof and others like it which became “ghost stations.” (The GDR blocked access for its citizens to certain sections of Berlin’s S-Bahn network which could have served as a direct escape route to West Berlin.)
Above ground, you’ll find indoor and outdoor informational displays, including historical films, original documents and numerous broadcasts and interviews detailing the events leading up to the the Wall’s construction, reactions and dramatic events—including numerous escape attempts—around its construction in August 1963, what the division of the city meant for its residents (especially those in the shadow of the Wall, as here in Bernauer Str.), and what the city looked like in the days and months after the Wall came down.
The Memorial also reflects on the short history of its own existence, including the struggle to maintain the existing section of border strip with original Wall pieces given residents’ animosity, the interference of neighboring parishes and the profit-driven desire to develop as much of this newly open land as possible.
From a specially constructed viewing tower, you can look down into the memorial for a better sense of the entire border complex, view the small chapel constructed from the rubble following the 1986 destruction of a church which stood on the same spot, enveloped by the Wall for nearly three decades and imagine the current memorial park landscape in its former militarized state.
The interpretive park ends at U8-Bernauer Str., but you may choose to extend your walk to Mauerpark, the meeting point of three Berlin districts. On Sundays, this lively strip is host to a popular flea market, chock full of original Berlin souvenirs; in the afternoons, free and friendly karaoke steals the show on the amphitheater stage.
Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, Bernauer Str. 119. Outdoor displays accessible at all times, indoor displays 9:30 AM to 7 PM (summer), to 6 PM (winter), closed Mondays, free admission. S-Nordbahnhof, U8-Bernauer Str.
2. Visit other bits of the Wall
Other places to view original segments of the Wall include Berlin’s East Side Gallery (running along the Spree between S-Ostbahnhof and S-Warschauer Str.) or the Topography of Terror (between Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie). There are numerous Wall pieces which have now been sprinkled around Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, generally not in their original location.
3. Explore the German Historical Museum
To understand better the parallel developments in West and East Germany following the end of World War II, including the events leading to reunification, visit the German Historical Museum’s permanent exhibition. An entire floor is dedicated to this period, and visitors to the well-designed display get an excellent sense of the events leading to the division of Germany, as well as the significance of the erection of the Berlin Wall and the inner-German border for the GDR economy and East-West German relations in the mid- to late-20th century.
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Unter den Linden 2. Open 10 AM To 6 PM daily, admission €8/4. S-Friedrichstr., S-Hackescher Markt, S-Alexanderplatz, bus stop Unter den Linden/Staatsoper.
4. Trace the path of the Wall
Where was the Wall located? Well, in the center of Berlin, the former path of the westernmost element of the Berlin Wall security complex is often marked by a cobblestone line, regularly inset with copper plates stating, “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989.” You can easily pick up this line running behind the Reichstag and around the Brandenburg Gate, past the Holocaust Memorial, up to Potsdamer Platz, then past the Topography of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie to points beyond.
It may be difficult to believe it today, but anywhere you’re standing in the Potsdamer Platz area—now home to the Sony Center and numerous other highrise developments—was once entirely empty, fully contained within the Berlin Wall complex.
In other sections of Berlin, the Wall perimeter wasn’t marked with the cobblestone line. The Wall border followed the sector boundaries between West and East Berlin (which typically followed the borough or Bezirk boundaries which even today divide the city into its various districts), which is why one of the city’s most important stretches can be found in the Bernauer Str., the boundary between the districts of Mitte (East) and Wedding (West).
The truly dedicated can study this map carefully in order to understand whether they are in West or East Berlin at any given moment. If you’ve found a boundary but aren’t sure which side you’re on, you can safely guess that the side closest to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) on Alexanderplatz is probably the “East.”
5. Cross between East and West Berlin at Friedrichstrasse station
If you find yourself confused and lost by the complicated design of the Friedrichstrasse train station, this is not without reason. One of the city’s transportation hubs, the station was redesigned to maintain separate passenger flows for eastern and western travelers after it became an essential border crossing between East and West Berlin following the Wall’s construction. You can see a giant model of this elaborate system in the bright blue Tränenpalast, or Palace of Tears, just outside the station next to the Spree canal.
It was here that many West Berliners exited the GDR; the name refers to the tears that were shed as families affected by German division were forced to say their goodbyes. The building now houses an excellent historical exhibition on border crossings, with eyewitness accounts from those who left East Germany legally and illegally, those who visited and passed through rigorous controls, those who smuggled, and those performing the controls.
Grenzerfahrungen – Tränenpalast at Bahnhof Friedrichstr., Reichstagufer 17. Open 9 AM to 7 PM weekdays (closed Mondays), 10 AM to 6 PM weekends and holidays, free admission.
6. Look away from Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie remains, however, the most infamous of all Berlin crossing points. The third of three around the city nicknamed by Allied soldiers after the first letters of the military’s phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie), Charlie was reserved for foreigners and military personnel entering East Berlin and thus played a role in nearly every East-West spy novel or movie set during this period.
To gain an accurate picture of the crossing, don’t gawk at the replica booth flanked with sandbags and men in costume uniforms; stand instead with your back to the spectacle and stare down Friedrichstr. This entire intersection—everything between the Zimmerstr. to where the highrise buildings begin—made up the historical checkpoint; you’ll note this is an area far larger than the tiny booth would lead you to believe. Today, much of this area is surrounded by fencing covered in an informational historical exhibit which is worth reading further.
Checkpoint Charlie, corner of Zimmerstr. and Friedrichstr. Accessible all hours, no admission. U6-Kochstr.
7. Visit an East German apartment
Traveling on the U5 subway line eastward from Alexanderplatz, you will find yourself driving into the deepest heart of GDR Berlin: through the districts of Lichtenberg and Marzahn, buildings take on the characteristic heights and pre-fab construction styles once (and still) ubiquitous across the GDR. Your ride ends in Hellersdorf, at U-Cottbusser Platz, where one of Berlin’s housing management companies has maintained an original—once highly coveted—three-room apartment with authentic furnishings.
The apartment was typical for the area; more than half of the 42,000 apartments built in Hellersdorf, developed quickly to meet the needs of young families with small children, were perfectly identical to the one on display.
Museumswohnung in der Platte, Hellersdorferstr. 179. Open Sundays from 2-4 PM (other times by arrangement), free admission. U5-Cottbusser Platz.
8. Consider everyday life
Through traditional and multimedia displays, including original media and recent interviews with former GDR citizens, a museum in the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg highlights the chasm between the Socialist utopia promoted by the GDR government and the everyday realities of life for those on the ground, with a special focus on the way the government exerted control over its citizens. The display includes a large collection of original GDR-designed products, including, of course, a pristine Trabi automobile.
Alltag in der DDR – Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, Knaackstr. 97. Open 10 AM to 6 PM (to 8 PM Thursdays), closed Mondays, free admission. U2-Eberswalder Str.
9. Study the Stasi files
To understand the degree to which the GDR exploited its own citizens in the maintenance of control and the methods used to repress and monitor suspected dissidents, you may appreciate the informative exhibition on the state security apparatus known as the Stasi, housed near Checkpoint Charlie. The information center at BStU-Bildungszentrum is curated by the state agency which maintains the Stasi file archive; here historians, researchers, and citizens can request access to the information painstakingly collected and documented by the SED apparatus.
Stasi Exhibition – Bildungszentrum BStU, Zimmerstr. 90. Open daily 10 AM to 6 PM, free admission. U6-Kochstr.
10. Take a guided tour of the Berlin Wall
Rent Mauerguide, a GPS-guided audio tour providing comprehensive information on the Berlin Wall and nearly every location discussed in this article. €10/day (€8/4 hours), students receive €3 discount. Pick up/drop off at Bernauer Str., Brandenburg Gate, or Checkpoint Charlie.
Berliner Unterwelten e.V. offers a two-hour Under the Berlin Wall (M) underground walking tour for €13/€10. Starts near S-Gesundbrunnen at 3 PM on Fridays and Sundays, with tours every weekday at 3 PM during the summer.
Fat Tire Bikes offers a five-hour Berlin Wall and Cold War tour for €24. Starts from S-/U-Alexanderplatz at 10:30 AM on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays (summer).
Berlin on Bike offers Berlin Wall or Wall Eyewitness tours—the former €19, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 AM; the latter €25, Saturdays at 10 AM Both 3.5-hour tours start at the Kulturbrauerei (U2-Eberswalder Str.).