START at Alexanderplatz (A) with the S-Bahn, several subways (U-Bahn), streetcars and buses.
The square had been used as a market for livestock and was named Ochsenmarkt (oxen market) before it was named Alexanderplatz in 1805 on the occasion of the visit of the Russian Tsar Alexander I. Most of the buildings are in the 1960s architectural style. You find the World Time Clock there, a fountain, and a lot of shopping opportunities. Alexanderplatz was the modern city center of the “Capital of GDR”, in 1989, during the peaceful revolution; the biggest demonstration of the country was here.
Proceed under the elevated railroad and you arrive at the TV tower (B), from 1969 the tallest building in Germany 368 m (1,200 ft.). The silver ball is partly broadcasting technology, partly restaurant, and the ring underneath is the observation deck. The reflection of the sun on the uneven surface of the ball lets a golden cross appear – the authorities of the atheist East German state hated it. The ball is a reference to the Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in space from 1957, launched by the Soviet Union. Read our full post on the TV Tower.
Next to the TV tower is a church, the Marienkirche/St. Mary’s Church (C) from 1294, only slightly damaged in the war. It is the seat of the Protestant bishop and has regular services. The building an example of different architectural styles during history: medieval fieldstone foundations, redbrick Gothic in the interior, a baroque tower and pulpit. In the narthex is the “death dance” from 1484 (year of the plague). A fresco of death dancing with people of all social classes and a poem containing the death’s dialogues with the people. It is one of Berlin’s first pieces of visual art and the first piece of literature published in the city. Visit the church's English website.
Across the square from the Neptune Fountain is a shopping center, the Rathauspassagen. Take the Littenstraße and cross the broad Grunerstraße. On the left, you see the ruin of a medieval church from the 13th century, “Ruine der Franziskaner-Klosterkirche” (D). The cloister of the Franciscan friars is gone, but the church was turned into an open-air event space, namely for classical and ancient music. Next to it, you can see a piece of the medieval city wall, from the 13th century.
Go back to Grunerstraße and cross it again to see the huge red building with the tower. It’s Rotes Rathaus/City Hall (E), dating from from 1869. It looks a bit like a Renaissance palace and is inspired by the city hall in Torun in Poland (in the 19th century a German city). Around the building is a series of reliefs showing the history of Berlin from the Middle Ages on, as the residents in Berlin in the 1860's saw it. During the time of the partition, this was the East Berlin city hall; today it’s for all Berlin and the seat of the Governing Mayor. There are some interesting rooms to visit inside the building, e.g. a hall with the coat of arms of all the districts of Berlin.
Cross Spandauer Straße (parallel to Littenstraße) and you arrive in the” Nikolaiviertel” (F). This neighborhood is a reconstruction completed in the 1980s. It is a mixture of original buildings, e.g. the Ephraimspalais and the Knoblauchhaus from the 18th century, copies like the canopy for public court sessions that used to be part of the old city hall in the Middle Ages and some new buildings imitating 18th century architecture. Other buildings do not pretend to be older than 30 years; they are residential. On the banks of the river Spree is a bronze statue of St. George fighting the dragon, it used to be in a courtyard of the City Palace. The Nikolaiviertel has some small museums, cafés and restaurants and artsy shops.
In the center of this neighborhood you find the Nikolaikirche/St. Nicholas Church (G). It’s Berlin’s oldest church, with the foundations dating from 1230. Today it is a museum. The two towers had been added only in the 1870s. The church was destroyed during WW2 and was reconstructed during the 1980s. From 1913 – 1922, Wilhelm Wessel was the pastor in the Nikolaikirche. He disliked the democratic system of the Weimar Republic. His son, Horst Wessel, would later be a well-known member of the Nazi-Party, his only notable achievement was being shot by a communist in 1930 and his death was used for propaganda.
Go to the bank of the river Spree (where the statue of St. Michael is), make a right, follow the river, crossing a bridge (Rathausbrücke). On the next bridge (Liebknecht-Brücke) go down to the river and you see the “DDR-Museum” (H), a private museum about the daily life in the East German Socialist state, the GDR (DDR in German). The museum is open daily and visitors are permitted and even encouraged to touch the exhibits. If you want to learn more about the GDR, check out our self-guided Berlin Wall tour.
Across the river is the Berliner Dom/Berlin Cathedral Church (I) from 1905. William II, the last emperor of Germany (he resigned after World War I) had it built on the site of a smaller cathedral. In the crypt, some 100 sarcophagi of members of the royal, later imperial dynasty, can be found. The Berlin Cathedral was heavily damaged during World War II; reconstruction lasted well into our millennium. In order to be able to maintain this giant building, they now charge admission, but the rich and interesting interior is worth it.
The Berliner Dom is located on “Museum Island” (J). It’s actually the northern tip of the stretched island in the Spree. Museum Island contains 5 museums, built between 1830 and 1930. The one you see best from the cathedral is the “Altes Museum” (Old Museum), which dates from 1830, with the collection of antiques, the “Neues Museum” (New Museum) contains the Egyptian collection with Nefertiti’s bust, in the “Alte Nationalgalerie” (Old National Gallery) you find art from the 19th and early 20th century, in the “Bodemuseum” Byzantine art, coins and sculptures and the 1930 “Pergamonmuseum” the famous Greek Pergamon Altar (currently not on display because of renovations at the building) and the Babylonian collection.
Across the street from the Cathedral Church and the museums is a huge construction site: The City Palace (K) from the early 18th century is being reconstructed. It will be called Humboldt Forum and contain non-European collections, currently on display in museums outside the city center. The original palace was damaged in the war, but was demolished only in 1950 by the East German Socialist Government. From 1976 to 2007, there was the “Palast der Republik” (Palace of the Republic) on the site. You would find the GDR parliament (didn’t sit very often), restaurants and entertainment in the building that had to make room for the reconstruction.
Cross the river on the Schlossbrücke with the white sculptures. On your left, you’ll see a small white building and then a larger one with columns and four statues on the roof. That’s the “Kronprinzenpalais” (Crown Prince’s Palace) (L). This was the residence of the crown princes and their families, who were waiting to inherit the throne. The last German emperor, William II, was born in this place. Today, it belongs to the Federal government and is used for events. In September 1990, the document sealing the unification of Germany was signed here.
Across the street is a big pink building with a lot of ornaments. The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German museum of history) in the “Zeughaus” (arsenal and spoils of war) (M). The first Prussian monarch, who could call himself a king, wanted to show off with this edifice as well as with the City Palace. The building is from 1706 and an original building that was meticulously renovated, not a reconstruction like most of the buildings in the city center. In 1945, the city center of Berlin was only ruins after all. Behind the old structure is a modern annex by the American architect I.M.Pi for the special exhibits.
Follow the street and after the museum you’ll see a small building with columns and flags. It is the “Neue Wache” (New Guardhouse) (N). When it opened in 1818, it was the guardhouse to the City Palace and a memorial to the soldiers that had lost their lives in the wars against the French Emperor Napoleon in the years before. After World War I, it became a memorial to commemorate the civil victims as well. Hitler used the space before the building for parades, and it was used again in East Germany for the victims of World War II where honored with troops parading in the manner of Prussia. Today, there is a statue of a mother with her dead son on her lap and no more military outside.
The big yellow building after the Neue Wache is the main building of Humboldt University (O), Berlin’s oldest university and dating back to 1810. It was named after two brothers who were the founding directors. Here, research and instruction were combined for the first time and thus Humboldt University became the model for modern academic teaching worldwide. Important scientists like Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner, who contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission, worked here.
Once you pass the reconstruction site of the City Palace, the street changes name and is now called “Unter den Linden” (under the linden trees) (P). And here they are, behind the equestrian statue of Frederick II, “the Great”, and several rows of linden trees. Already in the 17th century the first linden trees were planted to provide shade for the hunting parties on their way to the hunting ground in the Tiergarten (today a park) ahead. The first buildings other than farm houses appeared in the 18th century, namely the town houses of the nobility, later more and more prestigious buildings but also restaurants and cafes were built. Today you find high-end retail, cafes, souvenir shops and tourist attractions.
Across the street from Humboldt University, between the opera house (currently under renovation) on the left and the university’s law school on the right, you’ll see tour groups looking at the ground on a spot neat the fence at the construction site. This is the Bebelplatz. Under a glass window there are empty bookshelves made of concrete under the pavement. It is a memorial by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman from 1995, Memorial to May 10, 1933 Nazi Book Burning (Q). It has room for 20,000 books (but it’s not accessible) and reminds us of the first burning of books in the Third Reich. These burnings had been organized by NS-students and affected books of Jewish authors, left wing books and books considered as pornographic.
In the corner of the square you see a church with a round copper roof. It is the St. Hedwigs’s Cathedral (R). The building, which dates from the mid 18th century, is the first Catholic Church built in Berlin after Prussia became Protestant in the 16th century. The building resembles the Pantheon in Rome, an antique building for several deities. The church's style was to King Frederick the Great’s taste, the monarch who commissioned the building, but let the Catholic community pay for it. He was more a philosopher than a believer.
Walk between the Cathedral and the Hotel de Rome, then take a right. You’ll see a tall baroque domed tower with a rather small church behind. This is the “Französische Friedrichstadtkirche” (French Cathedral) (S) for the Huguenots, French Protestants who fled persecution in France after 1685. Today it is a reformed church with some services in French and a museum about the Huguenots.
The beautiful square with another domed tower and the Konzerthaus Berlin” is the “Gendarmenmarkt” (T). In the early 1700s, there were the stables of the Corps des Gens d’armes, a cavalry corps of Huguenots, a market and two churches, one for the French reformed and one for the German Lutheran congregation. Under Frederick the Great, the stables made room for a French language theater and the domed towers were added. The Konzerthaus is from 1821; it was the German National Theater. Reconstruction in the 1980s made it a concert hall.
The Neue Kirche (New Church) (U) is the official name of the German church, the one with the second domed tower. The Neue Kirche is larger and richer than the French church and is used today as a museum about the history of parliamentarianism in Germany.
This is the end of our tour. Enjoy the cafés on Gendarmenmarkt or stroll through the shops around the square. You have two U-Bahn-Stops, Hausvogteiplatz and Stadtmitte and the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn-station is 15 minutes away.