Berlin Landmarks

Berlin Landmarks

Prussian palaces, totalitarian-era towers, Cold War relics and cutting-edge street art – Berlin landmarks are among the most fascinating and diverse of any European city. Discover over 20 of them in our unique curated guide to the capital of Germany.

Berlin is one of the most compelling European cities to visit because it was at the forefront of European history for much of the 20th century. It’s now one of the best arts cities in Europe, a young, dynamic city in feel. Start discovering it with these famous buildings in Berlin, and explore further from there.

Brandenburg Gate

Image of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at night
The Brandenburg Gate at dusk

The best-known of all Berlin landmarks, the Gate was built by Frederick William II of Prussia and designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, between 1788 and 1791. Originally known as the Peace Gate (Friedentor), it is one of the most famous landmarks in Germany, and a symbol of both the city and country for over two centuries.

Like numerous other Berlin buildings, the Brandenburg Gate was built in the Neoclassical style, meant to resemble the Propylaea gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It’s topped by a Quadriga of horses driven by the goddess Victoria, with an Iron Cross subsequently added to her spear. Napoleon Bonaparte pinched it for a few years, but it was returned to Berlin in 1814.

It’s the first place many people head for when visiting Berlin, and rightly so. It transcends the usual shorthand visual notion of a city or country – also symbolising the Cold War, division, reunification and, yes, peace.

Bundestag – Formerly The Reichstag

Image of the dome of the Reichstag or Bundestag in Berlin at night
The dome of the Reichstag / Bundestag from the rooftop terrace
Image of the front of the Bundestag or reichstag and a German flag Berlin Germany
The inscription on the facade of the Bundestag translates as ‘For The German People’

The German Parliament building dates from the 19th century but it was burned down soon after the Nazis assumed power in 1933. It remained in ruins until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it was decided to restore it to its former use, ending Bonn’s time as the capital of West Germany.

The Reichstag was famously ‘wrapped’ by Bulgarian artist Christo, and it was reopened with a new glass dome and spiral walkway inside. It’s one of the most famous places to visit in Germany, offering great views over the city and also over the main debating chamber of the Bundestag.

Ampelmännchen – The East Berlin Traffic Light Men

Image of Ampelmann East Berlin traffic light figures and the Brandenburg Gate Berlin
The popular Ampelmann traffic light figures of the old East Berlin

Something you’ll still encounter in Berlin – and eastern Germany – is ‘Ostalgie’, a longing for the old East Germany. Sometimes this can be genuine and heartfelt, sometimes ironic. One of the most visible survivals of the old East Berlin is its pedestrian traffic lights, quirky little figures called ‘Ampelmännchen’. They are one of the few remnants of the Communist era that people wanted to keep, and almost as soon as you pass beneath the Brandenburg Gate and walk up Unter den Linden you’ll encounter – r them.  They’re one of the easiest things to see in Berlin, as they’re everywhere in the former Communist half of the city.

Gendarmenmarkt

Image of the statue of Friedrich Schiller and the Deutscher Dom in Gendarmenmarkt Berlin
Friedrich Schiller statue and the Deutscher Dom (German Church)

This is the most beautiful of Berlin’s squares and home to the annual Berlin Christmas Markets, with the Neoclassical Konzerthaus, and similar domed Deutscher Dom (German Church) and Franzosischer Dom (French Church) at either end.

Kaiser Wilhelms Gedächtniskirche

Iamge of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorila Church Berlin
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and Berlin Monument

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is another well-known stop on the sightseeing in Berlin circuit, on Breitscheidplatz on the Kurfurstendamm in former West Berlin. The church was built in the late 19th century in neo-Romanesque style, similar to several Rhineland churches including Bonn Munster. It was severely damaged during an air raid in 1943, leaving a small part of the original body of the church and the tower and part of the spire above.

It was decided not to restore the church – like the original Coventry Cathedral in England – and the ruin – albeit recently stabilised and restored – has been left as it was, together with a modern church next to it. Like Coventry Cathedral it’s now a symbol of reconciliation and peace. It’s one of the most famous Berlin landmarks, well worth a visit.

Tempelhofer Feld – The Former Tempelhof Airport

More of a land mass than a landmark, possibly, Tempelhofer Feld is one of the most unusual Berlin sights.  Berlin Tempelhof was once one of the most important civilian airports in Europe, and was greatly expanded by the Nazis, its 1.2 kilometre-long terminal building one of the largest buildings in the world. Time eventually passed Tempelhof by, and it was decided to close it and Tegel airport so that all air traffic to Berlin would come through the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport at Schonefeld

Tempelhof Airport was closed in 2008 and opened as a vast park. It’s a fantastic site, with kids on tricycles hurtling down runways that would have been used in the 1948 Berlin Airlift. It’s a very popular place with Berliners, and accessible from Neukolln and Schoneberg.

Berliner Dom

Image of the berliner Dom, also known as Berlin Cathedral
The Protestant riposte to the Vatican – if you can go gargantuan, so can we

The Berliner Dom is one of the most prominent sights in Berlin, a colossal domed Protestant church on Museumsinsel, just across the Lustgarten from the Altes Museum. Many call it Berlin Cathedral but technically speaking it isn’t – Dom is the German word for a large church or Minster, though some translate it as ‘cathedral’ instead.

The vast domed structure is, believe it or not, in something of a truncated state. The East German authorities did away with the chapel housing the tombs of the Hohenzollern dynasty – an Imperial mausoleum across the street from several Socialist landmarks (Alexanderplatz, the Fernsehturm TV Tower and the now-demolished Palast der Republik, which housed the GDR Parliament) was not the best look for a ruthless totalitarian state. 

Berlin Wall Memorial

Image of the Berlin Wall Memorial
The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, the only complete section left

The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse is the only fully preserved part of the Wall in the city. Cross the street and climb to the viewpoint where you can look down on the Death Strip between the two sections of Wall, with the central Berlin skyline in the distance.

Fernsehturm

Image of the Fernsehturm Berlin TV Tower and Alexanderplatz neon sign
The Fernsehturm towers above Alexanderplatz
Image of the Fernsehturm and a section of the Berlin Wall
The Fernsehturm and Berlin Wall

The Fernsehturm, or TV Tower, is the most visible of the landmarks of Berlin, looming 368 metres above Alexanderplatz and the heart of former East Berlin. It was built as a symbol of the power and might of the GDR, but this rather backfired because the sun shining on the tiles of the orb created the reflection of a Greek cross – not quite what an atheist regime with a habit of knocking down churches would have wanted. The viewing platform is just over 200 metres above street level. And just above that is the classic Communist-era revolving restaurant.

Potsdamer Platz

Iamage of Potsdamer Platz Berlin
The high-rise towers of Potsdamer Platz

The rebuilt Potsdamer Platz is once again one of the top landmarks in Berlin, a collection of skyscrapers replacing the wasteland that had occupied the site for over 50 years.  Prior to World War II it was the thriving heart of Berlin nightlife, busy with cafes and hotels. After a massive rebuilding project,it has become the corporate corner of Berlin, with several high-rise towers soaring above the square.  

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Image of part of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Some of the blocks, or stelae, of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial

This enormous Memorial is on Cora-Berliner Strasse, the street linking the Brandenburg Gate with Potsdamer Platz. Designed by Peter Eisenman, it was opened in 2005 and occupies a 1.9 hectare site with over 2,700 concrete slabs, or stelae. I’ve always thought that the site resembles a cemetery or graveyard, though not everyone agrees on this. It’s very effective in conveying the scale and scope of the Holocaust, with seemingly endless rows of blocks, all without names. There is an excellent information centre underground on the east side of the Memorial. One of the most moving monuments in Berlin.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall

Image of man passing the Trabant painting on the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery
Birgit Kinder’s Trabant mural at the East Side Gallery

After the Brandenburger Tor, the Berlin Wall – which once ran behind it – is the most widely recognised Berlin landmark. The most-visited surviving section is the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstrasse, which runs between the striking towered Oberbaumbrücke bridge and  Berlin-Ostbahnhof, with the River Spree below. While much of the Wall was destroyed, this section has been preserved for posterity, and in 1990 was decorated with a series of over 100 murals. Essential Berlin sightseeing.

Tränenpalast

Image of the Palace of Tears or Tranenpalast Berlin
The Palace of Tears, one of the infamous Berlin crossing points between 1961 and 1989

It’s one of the least obvious things to see in Berlin, an inauspicious 1960s building just off Friedrichstrasse, yet this was where so much Cold War history was made. Known as the Tränenpalast, or Palace of Tears, it was the Berlin Friedrichstrasse station westbound only  border crossing. It was given this name because of the daily emotional farewells between Western visitors and their East German families and friends who were trapped behind the Berlin Wall and had to remain there. The building is a single large hallway with an exhibition devoted to the history of Berlin during the Cold war, and you can also pass through the grim GDR border posts.

Karl-Marx-Allee

Image of  tower and apartment block on Karl-Marx-Allee Berlin
The Socialist Realist showpiece of Karl-Marx-Allee – just don’t mention the dodgy tiles

Karl-Marx-Allee – originally Stalinallee – was the showcase street of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany). It’s one of the widest streets I’ve ever seen, 89 metres wide. The buildings are all in the monumental Soviet-influenced Socialist Realist style, with endless rows of identical windows and stone friezes with typical sculptures (see also the Hotel International in our Prague Architecture article) of heroic figures leading the effort to greater production output. The main breaks from the monotony are the twin towers either side of the street at Frankfurter Tor. In June 1953, a strike by construction workers on the street sparked nationwide protests which were brutally suppressed within 24 hours with Soviet backing.

Nikolaikirche

Iamge of the Nikolaikirche or St Nicholas' Church Berlin
The Nikolaikirche is the main landmark of the nearest thing there is to ‘old Berlin’, the Nikolaiviertel

Berlin is a relatively young city, but it’s natural to seek out the older, historic parts of a destination. The nearest thing you’ll find to an old Berlin is the Nikolaiviertel, a small area of restored streets around the twin-spired Nikolaikirche. It’s one of the oldest churches in Berlin, originally founded in the 13th century. The church was largely complete by the 15th century, including its distinctive brick façade, similar to others in the Baltic region of north-east Germany and over the border in Poland.

The church was deconsecrated in 1938 and, after belated post-war restoration, has been used as a church museum and concert venue. The surrounding area is one of the quieter places to visit in Berlin, but well worth a brief visit.

Neue Synagoge

Image of the Neue Synagoge Berlin
The massive front of the Neue Synagoge

The Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) on Oranienburger Strasse is one of the most poignant landmarks in Berlin. It was completed in 1866 to serve the thriving Jewish community of Berlin, a splendid building in Moorish style like many others of the period in central Europe. It narrowly escaped complete destruction in the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 when a fire officer insisted that the arsonists left as it was a heritage building. Further destruction ensued during Allied bombing raids, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that restoration could be considered.

The main front and domes have been restored, but much of the rest of the synagogue, including the main prayer hall, hasn’t been. It’s now home to the Centrum Judaicum, which lead guided tours of the Synagogue and Dome.

The Missing House Berlin

It’s one of the most unusual places to visit in Berlin, a building that is not there. The apartment building at 15 Grosse Hamburger Strasse, around the corner from the Neue Synagoge, was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II,  and wasn’t rebuilt in the aftermath. In 1990 Christian Boltanski thought of a simple memorial on the site, a collection of plaques on the adjoining walls with the names of people who had resided there before its destruction. It’s a poignant sight, a few metres across the street from the Memorial to the Jewish Victims of Fascism, a group of statues outside the site of Berlin’s Old Jewish Cemetery. 

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie is probably the best-known of the crossing points between West and East Berlin, situated at the lower end of Friedrichstrasse. The checkpoint itself in the middle of the street consists of a sandbagged sentry point and the famous multi-lingual ‘You Are Now Leaving The American Sector’. The presence of the various multinational chain fast food restaurants adds to the feeling it’s a bit of a tourist trap nowadays, but the Mauer Museum – Haus am Checkpoint Charlie is very much worth the visit. It’s mainly devoted to the history of the Berlin Wall and tells the story of various ingenious escapes, from tunnels to hidden compartments in cars and false papers. I’ve been twice and spent a few hours in there each time.

Olympiastadion

The Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) was built by the Nazis to host the infamous 1936 Olympics, making it one of the most famous places in Berlin, albeit far from the most visited. The original arena was hugely impressive, a concrete bowl of the grandest totalitarian architecture, and I happened to see the last football match there before it was closed for a massive refit in 2000. I was especially keen to see where the great Jesse Owens won his four gold medals under the out-of-joint nose of Hitler. Many wanted the stadium demolished because of its past Nazi associations.

It was remodelled and rebuilt for the 2006 World Cup, whose final it hosted, with the roof expanded to cover all spectators. It is the home ground of Bundesliga side Hertha BSC (usually known as Hertha Berlin), and they play there on alternate weekends during the August to May season.

Treptower Park Soviet Memorial

If my copy of the 1962 Travel Guide GDR – hurriedly written months after the Berlin Wall was built – could be believed, this is one of the very best places to visit in Berlin. The Soviet War Memorial commemorates the Red Army’s losses – around 80,000 soldiers – with the focal point a soldier rescuing a child while trampling on a swastika. If 20th century history or Soviet architecture are your thing, it’s well worth the trip into old East Berlin.

Schloss Charlottenburg

Haus der Kulturen der Welt – House of World Cultures

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David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.