Everywhere you turn in Berlin, there is a story to be told: An easy-to-miss row of cobblestones marks where the Berlin Wall once stood; four small sidewalk plaques signify where a Jewish family lived before being deported; green spaces thrive in the former “death strip”; and a paved road and patch of grass hide the fact that Hitler’s bunker once lay beneath. Without tour guides, it’s easy to overlook such places. On my latest visit to Berlin, our Travel Office booked us several contrasting tours illuminating various aspects of the city’s history. These are the three that my traveling companion and I enjoyed the most.
When the German Bundestag (parliament) is not in session, preregistered visitors can take a guided 90-minute tour of the Reichstag and its associated buildings to learn about the history of the complex, its architectural features and the functions of parliament. Completed in 1894, the neo-Renaissance Reichstag building was deemed the “pinnacle of bad taste” by Kaiser Wilhelm II, but today, it is seen as the symbol of a reunified Germany. A massive fire destroyed much of it in 1933, an event Hitler blamed on the Communists and used as an excuse to crack down on civil liberties and consolidate power. Soviet soldiers occupied the building for a time after the Battle of Berlin, and you can still see graffiti they left on the walls — a detail that makes history come alive. It was a detail that British architect Norman Foster decided to leave intact during the reconstruction of the building in the early 1990s, which left only the outer walls and added a striking glass dome. It offers 360-degree views of Berlin from the double-helix staircase that wraps around its interior, while the mirrored cone at its center reflects light into the parliament below, symbolizing the transparency of democracy. Our captivating guide, Claas Gnauck, was charming and informative throughout. He described details of the plenary chamber, various art installations, underground passageways and other parts of the impressively massive complex, which houses 6,000 paintings and offices for 7,000 workers. After the guided tours, visitors can climb the dome while listening to the 20-minute audio guide describing various sites around the city.
Art Gallery Tour
You can, of course, appreciate art in Berlin without a tour guide, but what a difference having one makes. We toured the city’s cutting-edge art scene with art historian Justin Polera, an American transplant who co-founded the nonprofit art space PS120 here and curates exhibitions at HUA International, with locations in Berlin and Beijing. On a fascinating three-hour exploration, he put a variety of works into context, revealing techniques, intentions and interpretations. We saw the kaleidoscopic spray paintings of Katharina Grosse; the childlike marbling of Dan Rees’ inks on canvas; Will Sheldon’s unforgettable detached baby-doll heads and hands that call to mind a darker version of Eugène Delacroix’s sketches; and the Atlas of Affinities show Polera co-curated, bringing together important artists from China and elsewhere in Asia with emerging artists from the West. We watched video installations, too, and paused to view Erik van Lieshout’s poignant film tribute to Dutch painter René Daniëls, whose career was thrown off course in 1987 by a stroke from which he never fully recovered. After visiting six galleries, Polera took us to the refurbished Neue Nationalgalerie, where we saw an exhibition of Gerhard Richter paintings called “100 Werke für Berlin,” as well as the captivating performance art of Tehching Hsieh. In “One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece),” the artist punched a clock every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day for a year. In documenting the piece, he took 8,760 self-portraits, one for each time he clocked in. The resulting images lining the walls represent a full year and illuminate the social construct of time. Overall, it was an enlightening and thrilling afternoon.