Travel guide to visiting the Berlin Wall

Symbolic site of the Iron Curtain


Bernauer Straße 119, 13355 Berlin

GPS: 52.534388555476, 13.388656431824

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The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) was a system of fortifications, including a vast concrete wall that was 3.6 metres high, that stretched for 45 kilometres dividing the German capital into two parts for 28 years: West Berlin (12 districts occupied by the French, British and American allied forces) and East Berlin (8 districts attached to the Soviet bloc).

Erected on the night of 12-13 August 1961, in the early years of the Cold War, this physical boundary symbolises the Iron Curtain that cuts Berlin in two. At that time, it separated Western Europe from the Communist bloc. Described as the “wall of shame” by West Germany (FRG) and the “anti-fascist protection wall” by East Germany (GDR), this further construction of fortified barriers completely encircled West Berlin, as the German capital was located in the Soviet occupation zone. The Berlin Wall is infamous for its “death row”, the border strip between the two walls where East Berlin guards were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to enter. More than a hundred people are said to have lost their lives trying to escape to West Berlin.

Built on the initiative of the German Communist Party (SED) with Soviet support, the aim of this complex system of fortifications was to prevent East Berliners and GDR citizens from fleeing to the West at a time when East Germany had already lost a sixth of its population. According to estimates, 50,000 people crossed the border every day until the wall was built (a total of 3 million people migrated to the West to escape the repressive GDR regime between 1950 and 1961). Under pressure and forced to reopen its borders, the SED saw the wall fall on the night of 9 November 1989 and caused scenes of jubilation. This fall of the wall, as a sudden, confused and unexpected event, put an end to 40 years of cold war. At the same time, it precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of Communist rule in Europe. The excitement and exaltation of the German population in the following months led to the destruction of the wall, fences, watchtowers and checkpoints, so that few remnants remain visible to this day. The demolition of the wall did not officially begin until 13 June 1990 and was completed in 1992, leading to the reunification of the country and the dissolution of the East German state.

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  • A symbolic place of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War; the evocative history that still surrounds the remains of the Wall
  • The Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), the Chapel of Reconciliation and the Documentation Centre, and the collection of murals and graffiti in the East Side Gallery along the river Spree; the walks along the areas of the former wall symbolised by commemorative plaques and information boards (East Side Gallery, Niederkirchnerstrasse and Bernauer Strasse)
  • The Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing; the chronological exhibition of events related to the construction of the wall and the objects used by fugitives to cross the border between East and West
  • The Topography of Terror Museum in the former Gestapo (Nazi secret police) headquarters; the former West Berlin/East Berlin border crossing at the Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast); the Allied Museum (AlliiertenMuseum) on the role of the Americans, French and British in West Berlin during the Cold War
  • The walks along the areas of the former wall symbolised by commemorative plaques and information boards (East Side Gallery, Niederkirchnerstrasse and Bernauer Strasse)
  • The watchtower near Potsdamer Platz (one of the last of the 200 towers along the Wall)
  • The Mauerpark (Wall Park) with its Sunday flea market
  • The rich cultural and artistic experiences on offer in the centre of Berlin (Mitte district); the theatres, opera houses, symphony orchestras and various performance venues; the Kurfürstendamm shopping street and the Kaufhaus des Westens (or KadeWe) department stores; the bars and nightclubs near the East Side Gallery
  • Music festivals and cultural and artistic events throughout the year
  • At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into four distinct zones to be administered by the victorious countries (the western occupation forces of the USA, Great Britain and France and the USSR). Symbolically, the same fate befell Berlin as the former capital of the Nazi German state of the Third Reich, although it was located in the Soviet zone. As the western zones merged, tensions soon arose with the USSR. The Soviets organised a blockade of West Berlin by cutting off the land routes linking this part of the capital to the western zone of Germany. In response, the Americans formed an airlift to supply the city and its population with medicine, food, coal and equipment. This operation lasted for a year and from 1949 onwards the city was split in two (two political parties with diametrically opposed views faced each other). Until 1952, East Berliners could still work in the West where economic conditions were better and freedoms less restricted. But in the mid-1950s, the idea of building a wall began to gain ground on the Soviet side to prevent a mass exodus of inhabitants to the West and to protect themselves from American influence, which they considered harmful.
  • According to Alain Clavien, professor of history at the University of Fribourg, the wall project was planned in the greatest secrecy, to the great displeasure of the stunned inhabitants who could no longer move freely overnight. It was not built in one night but in several accelerated stages (installation of rolls of barbed wire, positioning of guards, closing of metro exits…). Cinder blocks were quickly erected along the entire length of the wall separating the two zones of Berlin. The two walls between which a border zone was made safe were adapted and evolved over the years on both sides. No military intervention was deployed by the international community on Berlin to avoid another deadly war.
  • The fortification line between the outer and inner walls had serious obstacles to prevent passage: a wide ditch, barbed wire fences, soldiers and watchdogs, watchtowers, cable and alarm systems, concrete blocks, electrified fences…
  • Between 1961 and 1989, an estimated 5,000 people managed to cross the Berlin Wall clandestinely through tunnels or pipes, hidden in cars or even concealed in hot air balloons. A total of 40 tunnels were reportedly dug to organise escapes to West Germany. While East Berliners tried en masse to leave for the West in search of a better life, many of their West Berlin counterparts moved to West Germany to escape the climate of psychosis that had gripped the city. Turkish populations were invited to migrate in large numbers to West Berlin to stem the loss of population.
  • Officially, 136 people died in their attempt to flee (in most cases they were shot while trying to cross the border), including 8 East German border guards. In addition, the distress, suffering and despair of the population following the brutal construction of the wall and the consequences on their lives (loss of jobs, family separation, abandonment of their homes…) must be taken into account.
  • Behind the scenes, and only a few months before the fall of the Wall, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev are said to have negotiated a large sum of money (a credit of 5 billion marks for the benefit of the USSR) in order to implement reunification without the knowledge of the Kremlin.
  • In the first days after the fall of the Wall, about 3 million East Berliners came to West Berlin in an extraordinary festive atmosphere, celebrating freedom. Many of these curious residents were young people born after the Wall was built and completely unaware of this part of the city.
  • The end of 2019 coincides with the end of the German state’s subsidy and financial aid programmes for the economic revitalisation of the East. Despite the efforts made, great disparities and differences remain between the former FRG and the former GDR.
  • The remains of the Berlin Wall are easily accessible on foot or by bicycle.
  • Ideally, start your tour at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße, the main resource and information centre for the division of Berlin and Germany.
  • Mühlenstraße, where the East Side Gallery is located, remains the best preserved and longest section of the Wall.

Where to eat

  • Scheers Schnitzel
    (meals on the run)
  • Monsieur Vuong
    (Vietnamese cuisine)
  • Rutz Weinbar
    (sophisticated dishes)

Where to go

  • Museum Island
    (art collections)
  • Reichstag
    (historic building)
  • Berlin Zoo
    (large zoological park)

Where to stay

  • EastSeven Berlin Hostel
    (modern hostel)
  • Brilliant Apartments
    (charming flats)
  • Adina Apartment Hotel Berlin...
    (central and spacious)