Throughout history, Berlin has had more outfit changes than a drag runway show. Long before the German capital was famed for techno, it was home to the Prussian royals and center stage of the Second World War. Before adding Berlin to your bucket list, walk through the chapters of its colorful history. Knowing the meaning behind every stone and castle will make you blend in with the locals more than a fanny pack. Here are some impressive facts about Berlin’s history.
1. Berlin is older than Germany
Berlin is 800-years-old while the German Empire was only founded 149 years ago (And the German Republic 48 years after that). As early as the 13th century, early merchants set up shop near today’s Museum Island. Folklore says that the city was founded by Albert the “Bear” — Margrave (nobleman) of Brandenburg — but there’s no archeological proof of this. The city’s name probably comes from the polish “brl”, meaning swamp (the earliest real estate to be snapped up here). The bear in the coat of arms was probably the work of an early marketing mind who saw the onomatopoeic reference in the name.
2. Napoleon stole the statue on Brandenburg Gate
Modeled off the gateway to the Acropolis of Athens, a goddess pulling 4 horses (also known as the Quadriga) stands on top of Brandenburg Gate. When Berlin was the capital of Prussian Empire from 1701–1918, the city was captured by French forces in 1806 during the Fall of Berlin. The French Emperor, Napoleon, marched through the gates and got the Quadriga dismantled and shipped to Paris. In the following years, Prussia captured Paris and swiftly stole it back.
3. Berlin was once the beer capital of Europe
Belgium and Bavaria may come to mind when we think of the “beer capital” of Europe, but once upon a time, the title was bestowed upon Berlin. Currently, there are about 17 active breweries in the “poor but sexy” city, but in the 1900s, Berlin was the biggest beer producer in Europe. There were over 150 active breweries. Today, a few of the originals can be found in the Prenzlauer Berg district.
4. A secret lays beneath Berlin’s highest “mountain”
Man-made hills from war rubble are a common feature of former war-torn cities. Berlin’s 120-meter-high (394 feet) Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) is a special case. The hill owes its elevation to an unfinished Third Reich technical college buried underneath. The engineering facility was too sturdy for the allies to demolish. In 1961, the British and the US used the hill as a Cold War listening station. Today, you can still hike up Teufelsberg and see the remains of the towers.
5. The city was home to the royals
Relax like a royal and walk through the palaces where kaisers and princesses whiled away their afternoons. Berlin’s famous palaces include Glienicke, Bellevue, and — technically in the surrounding region, Brandenburg, but a short ride from Berlin — Sanssouci. Don’t miss Charlottenburg Palace, named after Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich I. If you notice some French baroque vibes, it’s because Fredrich sent his architect to France (including the Palace of Versailles )to study before extending the palace.
6. Charité hospital has been treating patients for 3 centuries
When the bubonic plague threatened Prussia in 1710, Frederich I built Charité (charity) hospital to quarantine impoverish plague patients. The building, 307 years later, continues to take patients and has since expanded to train Nobel Prize-winning medical professionals. Looking more like a medieval castle than a hospital, it’s also the oldest hospital in Germany.
7. Bunnies dominated the Berlin Wall’s no man’s land
You may notice a few brass bunny silhouettes on the pavement near the former Berlin Wall. The long-eared inhabitants once flourished between the 2 parallel-running Berlin Walls. This heavily guarded 100-meter space, known as “no man’s land,” made it harder for East Berliners in the Soviet Sector to defect to the allied-occupied West Berlin. With the walls built overnight, wild rabbits awoke to find themselves in the lush green space void of natural predators. Artist Karla Sachse created 120 bunny pavement stones to honor them.
Go on a virtual Berlin history tour right now
Feeling inspired? Take a virtual Berlin History Tour with your official tour guide, Mike Stack. Mike runs the Third Reich and Cold War walking tour in Berlin. Learn about how the Nazis gained power after World War One, discover the Soviet War Memorial, and go from East to West at Checkpoint Charlie. Watch the tour and use it to map out must-sees on a future trip to Berlin.
For our world at home initiative, we’re bringing some of our best-loved tours and experiences to you. It’s our way of injecting a little of the joy of travel into your living room and of celebrating the fantastic guides who make our trips incredible. If you want to know more about Berlin, discover life as a drag queen with Gloria Glamour or take an online graffiti art workshop with a local artist. We’re adding new content every week.