Arty Outings: Berlin

Berlin is well-known as being one of the cultural capitals of the world, but I never realised quite how much culture and art is crammed into the German capital. Over summer I travelled to Berlin with my family for four days, and we spent the time being classic tourists, visiting every sight and trying to get as much into our short trip as we could. In those four days Berlin became my favourite city in the world, overtaking Beijing and Reykjavik – if you get a chance to visit this amazing city then I wholeheartedly recommend it! Below are a few of the more famous sights and what I thought of them, but if you go be sure to explore by yourself – who knows what you’ll find!

Germans know how to do big, imposing buildings – that much was obvious from the instant we got into the centre of Berlin, though the two most impressive have to be the Reichstag and the Berlin Cathedral. Originally built in 1894, the Reichstag was used by all major political parties until 1933, when the famous Reichstag fire destroyed much of the building (including the famed dome). It fell into disrepair until it was eventually refurbished in the 1990s, after which the Bundestag moved back into the building. The Reichstag building functions as the meeting place of the German government (the Bundestag), but is, rather surprisingly, still open to the public (as long as you’re willing to queue for over an hour to book your slot and go through airport levels of security, of course). The most surprising feature of the Reichstag is the impressive glass dome that sits on top of the main building; it is this structure that is open to the public. After a (very cramped) lift ride up to the roof, spiral ramps take visitors up to the very top of the dome, from which there are impressive views across the whole of Berlin – though this is definitely not for those with a fear of heights!


The Berlin Cathedral is another spectacular sight, standing 114m tall on Museum Island, just down the Unter den Linden from the Brandenburg Gate. While the Collegiate Church (who the Cathedral is home to) has been present in Berlin since 1451, the current Neo-renaissance-style building was only completed in 1905. During WWII the building took a direct hit during an air raid, and the resulting fire caused the collapse of the dome and destruction of much of the interior. A temporary roof was built 13 years later, and proper reconstruction only started in 1975; the Cathedral was fully re-opened in 1993. We didn’t have chance to go inside, but we passed it on the way to the various museums on Museum Island, and each time it seemed more spectacular.


Obviously WWII and the horrors that it brought were a huge part of Germany in the mid-20th century, and the memorials built to those who died as a result of the Holocaust around the city centre are amazingly done. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is quiet and understated, yet still immensely powerful – hundreds of stone blocks stand in a quiet square close to the Brandenburg Gate, seemingly identical at first glance, but the longer you wander around the memorial, the more they each seem to differ. Each block is a slightly different height, as the ground they are set into drops into a small valley hidden from the outside – perhaps a statement about how the Nazis judged those they persecuted because they thought they were all the same, when they were in fact entirely unique and different. Across the road stands the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, a larger block of stone, within which plays a looping video of two men kissing – powerful stuff.

The Berlin Wall is another huge part of Berlin’s history, and the city’s memorials and remembrance of the years that it stood are amazing. The route that the Wall used to take through Berlin is now marked by a simple path of cobbles that snake through the city, across roads and through buildings; I kept seeing it in totally unexpected places, and it was an imaginative way of keeping the history of the city in mind.  The site is remarkable: the paths of the two walls, escape tunnels and memorials to those who died trying to cross there are all marked. berlin-image-3

Being a Classics student, the Berlin museums were easily the thing I enjoyed the most during our short visit. Berlin has an entire island devoted to Museums, and the five that make up ‘Museumsinsel’ are some of the best I’ve ever seen. These are: the Altes Museum (Old Museum), which houses the antiquities collection of the Berlin State Museums; the Neues Museum (New Museum), which is home to Berlin’s Egyptian artefacts; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), which is full of 19th-century art; the Bode Museum, exhibiting the sculpture collections and late Antique/Byzantine art; and the Pergamon Museum, which holds multiple reconstructed historically significant buildings.

We only went in three museums (Altes Museum, Pergamon Museum and the Altes Nationalgalerie), but the two stars of the show were the Altes and Pergamon Museum as far as I was concerned. My one true love in Classics is classical art, so being offered an entire museum full of Greek and Roman vases, reliefs, sculpture, and everything else besides was some kind of a dream come true. The Pergamon Museum has been on my bucket list ever since I learnt that the Pergamon Altar was something I could actually visit, though sadly it was only after we’d been in the queue for a good half hour that I read the dreaded sign saying it was closed. However, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and Market Gate of Miletus were still open for viewing, and I am not ashamed to say that I nearly cried at them (yes, I am an utter nerd).

berlin-image-4Berlin is an amazing city, and I will almost certainly be going back soon to experience it again. Between the pop-up markets, the amazing culture, and the refreshing acknowledgement of history, Berlin is just a great example of a truly thriving modern European city. I miss it already, and want to go back as soon as possible, and would really recommend a visit if you ever get chance.


Ellen Smithies

Image Credit: Ellen Smithies

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