A good plan for your first day in Berlin is to explore Unter den Linden, the mile-long boulevard which begins at the Brandenburg Gate and extends eastwards to Museum Island and the River Spree. It is the city’s most-visited street, popular with tourists who seek boat trips, museum visits or just a wander past its many monuments.
Unter den Linden
Unter den Linden was once the heart of Old Berlin, the wide boulevard on which the royal palace was built. In July 1914, Kaiser Wihelm II declared war from its balcony and in the 1930s, Hitler’s brown-shirted storm-troopers marched past by torchlight. At the end of World War 2 desperate Berliners, whose city had been largely destroyed, cut down the Linden (lime trees) for firewood. They were replanted in the 1950s. During the Wall years, Unter den Linden was the site of the East German government’s parliament, the Palast der Republik.
The royal palace may be gone, but you can connect with the history of the Hohenzollern family who ruled Prussia from the 15th century until 1918 by visiting the Berliner Dom, (the cathedral) More than 90 family members are buried in the crypt. While there, you can climb up the top of the dome for a splendid view of the city and go inside to admire the glorious marble, gold and mosaic decorations. Kaiser Wilhelm, who oversaw its building in the 1890s wanted it to rival St Peter’s in Rome – do you think he managed it?
Frederick the Great
Prominent in the middle of the boulevard is the statue of Frederick the Great on horseback. This most famous Hohenzollern, who ruled for 46 years from 1740, was a fearsome soldier, a great patron of music and the arts and he transformed this part of Berlin, often seen out on horseback using an eyeglass to inspect the progress of his building projects. They included the Opera House and St Hedwig’s Cathedral, both of which you can visit today, and a palace for his younger brother, Prinz Heinrich, which is today the home of Humboldt University. Many admired Frederick’s transformation of Berlin, but the diplomat Nathaniel Wraxall, complained that ‘ostentation and vanity seem to have impelled Frederick to enlarge his capital’.
History and Remembrance
The Museum of German History is on Unter den Linden and its detailed, but easy-to-follow displays will be enjoyed by all history enthusiasts. Whether that is you or not, you should not miss the building next door, the Neue Wache, which is Germany’s equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It has been a guardhouse in the past, a memorial for the victims of World War One and, in GDR days, a memorial ‘to the victims of fascism.’ Today, as the board outside says, it is quite simply ‘the place where we commemorate the victims of war and tyranny’.
As you cross the River Spree by the cathedral you will arrive at the Lustgarten, a pretty little park which forms the entrance to Museum Island, home to a total of 5 world-class museums including the Pergamon, where the highlight is a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, the entrance to the ancient city of Babylon. Other top exhibits include a bust of Nefertiti, Queen of Ancient Egypt in the Neues Museum and a collection of European Art, including many German paintings, in the Alte Nationalgalerie. The whole island is packed with treasures from over 6000 years of history and you can buy a ticket for the whole complex, or one for any individual museum.
The Humboldt Forum
One building not yet mentioned encapsulates everything about Unter den Linden and its complex history. On the site of the former Hohenzollern Palace is a remarkable building, the Humboldt Forum, where 3 sides have been rebuilt in the original baroque style and the fourth is modern. Inside it is, as its first director explained, ‘not a museum, not a palace, but a forum’. This flexible building will be a centre for exhibitions and for the exchange of ideas, welcoming everyone and constantly evolving. So do check out what will be there when you visit!
How Long Do You Need To See Unter Den Linden?
You could easily spend a day on Unter den Linden, strolling, visiting one or two sights and taking a boat trip from Museum Island. If you are seriously into museums, there’s probably a week’s worth of sightseeing right here.
Where next? Alexanderplatz is just a few minutes’ walk from Museum Island if you want to stay in the area. Or consider crossing to the other half of the city, around the Tiergarten and the Kurfürstendamm? That’s what we’ll be doing in the next post.
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The State Opera Unter den Linden
St Hedwig’s Cathedral
Museum of German History
Boat trips from Museum Island