Joseph Kanon is the Edgar Award–winning author of Istanbul Passage, Los Alamos, The Prodigal Spy, Alibi, Stardust, and The Good German, which was made into a major motion picture starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a book publishing executive. He lives in New York City. His newest novel, Leaving Berlin, is out now from sister company Simon & Schuster and available wherever books are sold.
If you’re a first time visitor to Berlin, you’ll undoubtedly start at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, take in the nearby Reichstag, then walk down Unter den Linden to Museum Island and feast on the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum. But what makes Berlin such a fascinating city is not just what you can see (Neues Museum, Potsdamer Platz), but what you can’t (the Berlin City Palace, Hitler’s Chancellery).
Nearly destroyed during the bombing of World War II, the few remaining structures were rebuilt by the Allied occupation, and then partitioned when the Iron Curtain divided the city in two. Here are a few places where an earlier postwar Berlin still exists and you can get a sense of a now vanished East Berlin.
13355 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 49910517
Start underground. Berliner Unterwelten is an organization that sponsors guided tours of the Berlin nobody sees. Although they can show you Cold War bunkers and ghost U-bahn stations, their most popular tour is a World War II air raid shelter, a fascinating underground maze that gives you a sense of what it was like to be in Berlin during the nightly raids at the end of the war. This is one of Berlin’s most interesting off-the-beaten track sights and personable, English-speaking guides make the experience come alive.
Am Friedrichshain 1
10407 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 25002333
One of the most attractive of Berlin’s inner city parks, Volkspark Friedrichshain is best known for its ornate Fairy Tale Fountain which features figures from the Grimm tales. Less well known is that its two towering hills, the Grosser Bunkerberg and Kleiner Bunkerberg, are artificial. Created after the war from millions of cubic feet of rubble hauled up from bombed-out Friedrichshain and dumped over two partially destroyed wartime bunkers, they are now covered with grass and trees.
Between Strausberger Platz and Frankfurter Tor
10245 Berlin, Germany
Formerly Stalinallee (and before that Grosse Frankfurter Strasse), this is where much of the Bunkerberg rubble came from. Begun in 1951 and designed to be a showcase of the new socialist regime, this mile long avenue of Stalinist wedding cake apartment blocks, “palaces of the people”, marks the high point of East Berlin’s postwar aspirations. Halfway down the avenue at #72 stop for coffee at Café Sybille, a café filled with Stalinallee memorabilia that serves as a kind of unofficial museum of the street.
Stasi Headquarters And The Stasi Prison
10365 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 5536854
Just a few steps from the Magdalenestrasse U-bahn station is a complex of bland office buildings that was once the most feared location in East Berlin—home of the Stasi, the East German secret police. A museum now occupies part of the building, with displays of surveillance devices and the office of the former Stasi head Erich Mielke (eerily preserved as it was). Files the Stasi kept on millions of its fellow citizens are still housed in the building opposite. If you were unlucky enough to be arrested by the Stasi, you might have been taken to its remand prison in Hohenschonhausen. Now its interrogation rooms and torture chambers are open to the public, complete with tours guided by ex-prisoners. English available.
12099 Berlin, Germany
Between June 1948 and May 1949 the Soviets blockaded all land access to the western sectors of Berlin. The Allies responded with a massive airlift to supply the city—at its peak, 8000 tons of material aid a day. Most of the planes touched down here in what is now considered the opening battle of the Cold War. The moderne buildings, among the few architectural survivors of the Hitler era, are closed now, but the airfield behind has been reclaimed by Berliners as a park with windsurfers and cyclists and in-line skaters whizzing down the old runways that once served as a lifeline for the city, a fascinating example of Berlin’s resiliency and its layered history.