A visit to Berlin is simply not to be missed. Since the wall was pulled down in 1989, the city has a new lease on life. It's no longer isolated in the middle of Communist East Germany; now, it's the capital city of a new Germany. What had been such a contrast -- West Berlin vs. East Berlin -- has now been largely erased. In fact, the former East Berlin side is where you will want to spend most of your precious time. It was, and is again, the soul of the city that follows a band running east from the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag (Parliament) along Unter den Linden, the city's handsome boulevard, to Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral and Alexanderplatz. Several intriguing neighborhoods are just a few blocks to the north and south of this line.
Few monuments, apart from a couple of churches, are truly old. Berlin itself is not an ancient city like Rome, and so much of what was historic was largely destroyed during World War II. With many churches, government buildings and landmarks rebuilt in the original 18th- and 19th-century styles, the city again presents itself as monumental, well laid out and, happily, with a minimum of intrusive high-rise skyscrapers.
While 3.4 million Berliners live in an area nine times the size of Paris, sites that a visitor will want to see are confined to a relatively small, mostly walkable area. The first-timer may want to join a standard city tour to take in as much as possible in the limited amount of time available. That way you will get to see the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Hauptbahnhof (the spectacular new main railway station), Holocaust Memorial, Potsdam Platz, Unter den Linden, the German and French cathedrals facing Gendarmenmarkt, Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral, Nikolai Church, Checkpoint Charlie and a piece of the wall, Kaiser Wilhelm Church, and Charlottenburg Palace. That's not all, by any means, as other sights further afield and lots of neighborhoods are also worth exploring. If you are intrigued by Berlin the first time around, come back for a longer stay.
My first visit to Berlin came as a teenager, and I returned when the wall was being constructed in August 1961. The latter trip was not altogether smooth. While touring East Berlin to see the contrast with West Berlin, I was arrested by the Stasi and interrogated for the better part of the day. Falsely accused of taking illegal photographs and spying on the German Democratic Republic, I had to sign a confession; otherwise I would not be released. The U.S. government had no diplomatic relations with the GDR and no one even knew I was in Berlin. Once I put my signature to the document, I was escorted to the S-Bahn and sent back across the border.
It was almost 40 years before I returned, and I found the new Berlin to be a very exciting city well beyond my own previous experience.
--written by Theodore W. Scull