Berlin: a big city with history (and bicycles)

My first impression of Berlin was boxy, geometric and structured. This, however, deserves some context. I stayed next to its central train station (Hauptbahnhof) which opened in 2006 on the border of what used to be East and West during the Berlin Wall (1961- 1989). Today in and around this area stand many of Berlin’s most impressive modern (or renovated) buildings: the German Parliament, the German Chancellery, Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus (legislation building), the historic Brandenburger Tor, numerous private-sector enterprises and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (which by design consists of 2711 concrete blocks).  The (recent) history of Berlin is hard to comprehend in a single visit, and especially these days when the former border zone is teeming with life and interaction. “A unique landscape with huge potential as stated by the German Center for Architecture. Parts of the wall remain for symbolic reasons, but Berlin is a united city. For a first-timer it is difficult to know which side of the city you are on, without a local referring to it as the (former) East or West.

This post, however, is not so much to look at the history of Berlin; but to acknowledge where it has come. In the 20 years since, Berlin has transformed. And with this, a new form of architecture boldly makes its claim. The parliament, museums, government offices and bridges connecting them, are gigantic, impressive structures. They sit on the rivers that wrap around the central city, or are surrounded by long lawns; granting the centre a formal and official feel. From an architectural point of view, they are skillfully designed, with attention to detail, angles and perception. Still, one feels minuscule walking next to these towering structures.

But Berlin has a softer side. The city hosts beautiful parks, such as Tier Garden (5.17 km2) in the centre or Tempelhofer Park (former airport) in the South. Its cozy neighborhoods encompass small cafes, book stores, second-hand shops and market squares. The rivers feature cycling and walking paths. And, while much of its historic architecture was destroyed in WWII or suffered neglect during the Cold War, many of its most beautiful buildings survived. Others are in the process of renewal: older facades incorporated in new designs, preserving the city’s history. Berlin’s architecture mixes old & new, East & West, boxy structures with attention to detail & green spaces. It is carefully sensitive to the city’s past, whilst acknowledging its present, and looking to its future.  As someone fascinated by city planning strategies, I was told for years, “You have to visit Berlin.”  As anticipated, I was impressed.

But while its size and architecture scream massive; it is also one of Europe’s most cycle-friendly cities. Bicyclists, cycle paths, signage and bike parking are everywhere; softening the landscape and hinting to a friendly atmosphere. Berlin is a large city (891.85 km2/ population over 3,500,000). And yet, cyclists are in abundance. Berlin demonstrates that despite the size of a city, people will cycle; if provided the right infrastructure or the ability to take the bike on public transport. This time I opted to explore by foot (something I rarely do in Amsterdam and always enjoy), hopping between districts with the local train services.  Through this wandering, I arrived at a few observations:

  • Berlin is a large city; but cycling or walking are feasible – just wear the right shoes if you walk;
  • Berlin is a transport-friendly city; trains, subways and buses are affordable and come often;
  • Berlin is a clean city, with little trash and plenty of facilities;
  • Berlin is a cultured city; it is rich in history and activism, as well as art, urban expression, music and museums;
  • Berlin acknowledges its history; but is not controlled by it;
  • Berlin requires time to explore; make sure you have a few days. Or in my case, prepare to come back in the spring and enjoy the water-side beer gardens. A six-hour direct train from Amsterdam; how could I not? 🙂
The German Chancellery serves as the executive office of the Chancellor, the head of the German federal government. Locally, it is referred to as the ‘washing machine’ and from different angles this is a rather accurate description.
The modern Potsdamer Platz is full of interaction: skyscrapers and market corners. In the foreground, parts of the Berlin Wall are remembered; in this place where East formely met West.
The Brandenburg Tor is a city gate, commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a sign of peace; built from 1788 to 1791. During the Berlin Wall, it was on the East side. (The wall stood just behind.) Today, it remains a place for bringing attention to current events and issues of oppression – here protesters organize a hunger strike, to acknowledge asylum seekers.
Parts of the Berlin Wall are now used to bring to light ongoing conflicts and political oppression: “More walls to tear down…”
Near the famous (and former) Checkpoint Charlie. Today, cyclists pass and tourists take photos, while actors pose as American soldiers.
Remembering the younger victims and families torn apart during WWII
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: covering an area of 19,000 m2 and containing 2711 concrete blocks, it opened on 12 May 2005. Below is an information centre.
With so many rivers and water bodies, Berlin claims to be “the Venice of the North…” (However, I have also heard Amsterdam, Stockholm and Moscow proclaim the same thing.  Indeed, each city’s beauty is reflected and enhanced by their respective bodies of water.)
Berlin is a clean city – not a lot of graffiti or trash
Call-a-Bike is a bike rental system provided by Deutsche Bahn (the German Rail Company) in several German cities, including Berlin. It uses a system of authentication codes to lock and unlock bikes.
Marked bicycle paths: my favourite symbol in any city…

3 thoughts on “Berlin: a big city with history (and bicycles)

  1. My partner immigrated from Germany as a little boy. But he’s never expressed interest in visiting Berlin. He’s been back several times over past few decades for both seeing relatives and solo cycle-touring. 2 yrs. ago I had the benefit of cycle touring with him for about 10 days in southern Germany –in Freiburg, Karlsruhe area, near the French border by Strasbourg (we cycled to there too) and enjoyed it immensely.

    1. Hi Jean, I enjoyed seeing your photos & hearing your stories. I’ve never been to Freiburg, but it is certainly on my list: always ranking as one of Europe’s most sustainable cities. As my research focuses on cities, Berlin was indeed interesting. Perhaps not as cozy as some of Germany’s Southern cities, but it is rich in modern history and very diverse. I plan to go back in the summer, rent a bike and explore some of its urban farms.
      Also, I see you are (in part) from Vancouver. I consider Seattle ‘home’… so close by. 🙂 I love living in the cycle city of Amsterdam, but I think eventually the mountains will call me home. Hopefully I can bring back a few urban planning lessons from the various places I have lived and studied. I look forward to reading more of your stories!


  2. My partner immigrated from Germany as a little boy and has been back several times over the past few decades. However he’s never expressed interest in seeing Berlin. I had the pleasure of cycle touring with him in southern Germany 2 yrs. ago in Freiburg, Karlsruhe area, near the French border, not far from Strasbourg where we spent 2 days too. Yes, also used the Deustche-Bahn train system with the bikes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s