Berlin has not one centre but several, this has nothing to do with the former partition, it has always been like that, the different boroughs have quite independent sub-centres, too, a tourist should know this in order not to be disappointed. It‘s advisable to move through the city from West to East, starting at Bahnhof (train station) Zoologischer Garten which was the destination for everyone coming from West Germany before the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) was opened in May 2006.
The area round the station was one of the shopping and cultural centres of Berlin before WW2 and the only one after the war until reunification. The Gedächtniskirche near the station was bombed in 1943 and nearly completely destroyed, the Berliners decided to leave the ruined steeple of the old church as a memorial and build a new one and a new, separate church beside it. Since 1961 this ensemble has been the landmark of West Berlin, both buildings are octagonal and have straight walls, because of their shape (tall steeple, low church) they‘ve got the nickname ‘Lipstick and Powder box‘.
Nearby is the famous Kurfürstendamm, ‘Kudamm‘ in short, a 3.5 km long avenue with rows of trees and with expensive shops and restaurants, galleries, theatres and fashion boutiques (also in the side streets), a place to see and to be seen. Tired (window) shoppers can relax in the famous Café Kranzler. But they can also find refreshment in the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens=Department Store of the West), one of the most famous European department stores, in 2007 it celebrated its 100th anniversary. This store is a sight in its own right, people go there to visit the sixth floor where food is sold. Ah, but what kind of food! Delicatessen like elk and bear ham, for example.
Tourists can buy a day ticket or a ticket for the number of days they want to stay in Berlin for the S-Bahn (trains above ground), the U-Bahn (underground) and all buses in the ticket booth of the BVG in front of the station, tickets must be stamped before entering a train (the fine is 40€) .
A good way to see the main sights is to take Bus 100 running from Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten in the west through the city to the Alexanderplatz in the east. The bus takes 33 minutes to cover the distance, it‘s advisable to get off occasionally and walk around a bit to also see the sights off the route.
At the stop Großer Stern stands a 69m high column in the middle of a traffic circle on the avenue Straße des 17. Juni (the Love Parade used to move along here) which runs through the Tiergarten, a former Royal hunting estate tuned into a large park. It‘s the Siegessäule (victory column) erected in the late 19th century to commemorate the Prussian victory in a war against Denmark. On its top a gilded female figure (nickname: ‘Goldelse‘ [~ Gold Lizzy] represents the Goddess of Victory. It‘s possible to climb up and enjoy a panoramic view.
Look left when we come to the stop Bellevue, this is where the German President resides, the German Buckingham Palace so-to-speak (several sizes smaller, though). The next stop is the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the Cultures of the World), nickname: ‘Pregnant Oyster‘ because of its extraordinarily curved roof. Exhibitions are shown here, but even if nothing is on, it‘s worth while getting off here. Behind the building is the river Spree, not used for commercial traffic any more, it‘s too small for modern barges, but tourist boats run up and down the river and it‘s a good idea to get on a boat here and glide along behind the buildings of the Regierungsviertel (government quarter).
A guide explains the sights (there are also tours in English), the Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), Europe‘s largest two-level railway station, the Chancellery (nickname: Washing Machine), the building where the politicians have their offices, all built after reunification and brand new, and the Reichstag (Parliament) built in 1872 with its huge glass cupola (nickname: cheese cover) designed by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. From the stop at the Cathedral (nickname: Soul Gasometer) the Museumsinsel (Museum Island)is near, it was added to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 1999, a must see sight for tourists interested in Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek art and paintings of the 19th century.
This boat tour is quite relaxing but it only gives an overview, to get near the buildings tourists have to stay on Bus 100, the stop after the Haus der Kulturen der Welt is the Reichstag. Approaching it queues of waiting tourists can be seen, they want to get in and up and then look down into the assembly room where the politicians have their meetings and then walk up the ramp inside the cupola to the top. It‘s free of charge, it‘s best to go there early or very late (admission from 10am until 10pm, open until 1am), the view of the cityscape is striking. The cupola has become the No 2 tourist attraction in Germany after the Cathedral in Cologne and it‘s closing ranks.
About 100m away from the Reichstag is the famous Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) topped by a triumphal chariot, the Wall ran between the two buildings, the Reichstag was in the West and the Brandenburger Tor in the East, a double line of granite stones in the asphalt shows where the Wall was, all tourists want to know, understandably the Berliners are not so keen.
Standing in front of the Brandenburger Tor and turning to the right tourists can walk down the street for about 200m until they come to the much debated Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe which was opened to the public in 2005. On a field of 19.000 m² stand (from the net) ‘2711 stones placed on sloping, uneven ground in an undulating wave-like pattern, giving visitors the feeling of insecurity as though the stones were on unstable ground. Visitors can enter from all four sides, day or night, and wander on their own through the maze of stones, as though visiting a graveyard with nameless tombstones. The columns are sunk into the ground to various depths and at some places, they are higher than the heads of the visitors. There are no set paths or sign posts to guide viewers. The memorial was designed by architect Peter Eisenman to deliberately disorient visitors by having all the stones tilted slightly and paths that are not level.‘ Beside the memorial is an Information Centre.
From here it‘s only a stone‘s throw to the Potsdamer Platz, waste land once and now a magnet for visitors from all over the world, they don‘t only come to shop or do business but also to look at the buildings from an architectural point of view the most famous being the Sony Centre with a roof that reminds of the peak of the Fujiyama.
Back to the Brandenburger Tor, the area east of it was also waste land until ten years ago when the Grand Hotel Adlon (five stars +) was reopened and other buildings, many embassies among them, were built on the street Unter den Linden (Under the Linden) which starts here. This Avenue was a famous promenade before the war and has now regained some of its former splendour.
Before getting onto Bus 100 again and going straight along the avenue Unter den Linden up to the final destination Alexanderplatz, tourists should make a detour and visit the Friedrichstraße, the first street to the right behind the Brandenburger Tor, this is another shopping area, the street itself is not elegant like the Kudamm, but some of the shops are in a price range not found in the West. In the Quartier 205, the Gallery Lafayette, the shopping areas are located round an empty space shaped like two cones, the longer one going up two floors, the shorter one going down one floor, in Quartier 206 a white curved marble staircase leads from the ground floor down to the basement with coloured marble inlays where a piano player entertains the guests sitting at small tables consuming coffee and cake. It‘s a shop in a shop store, who buys here and where and when the clothes are worn remains a mystery. The Berliners as such are not elegant, on the contrary, a certain Proll (from the word ‘proletarian‘) charm is typical for the capital.
There‘s a lot more to see near the Friedrichstraße, but it‘s time to hop onto Bus 100 again and go to the Alexanderplatz and look closely at Berlin‘s highest building (368m, Europe‘s third highest structure), the TV tower, nickname: ‘tele-asparagus‘. It‘s possible to go up (the queues in front of the lifts may be long), the reward will be the best view of the city. There is a visitor platform at the height of 204m and a restaurant rotating every 20 minutes in the middle of the sphere.