Berlin’s Ringbahn (S41, S42) which encircles the inner city, is ideal for those seeking a more comprehensive view of the German capital. A full 40km lap will take about an hour, and it can be nice to simply sit and gaze out the window as Berlin saunters past. For the more inquisitive however, the Ring is a fantastic way to get behind the scenes and explore some of the cities less trodden treasures.
The rail was laid in the 1870’s through what was mainly open space outside city limits. Berlin has since expanded to spill over this steel belt, so that these days the “Hundekopf” (named for the resemblance to a Dachshund’s head) is an important connection between some of Berlin’s slightly more outlying neighbourhoods.
The train travels in both directions with S41 travelling clockwise and S42 counter clockwise. Other lines join the Ring for a bit before veering off while some dissect it, so make sure you’re on the right Bahn!
Remember: On a single ticket you’re officially not allowed to travel more than half of the Ringbahn as that is then considered a round trip. Whether the conductor will enforce this rule is uncertain, but it’s probably better to play it safe and buy a day ticket, or at least two single tickets (one of which you’ll have to validate when you’re half way round). For more advice and In the Know tips regarding Berlin’s public transport – check out How to Bahn.
Not the most beautiful station, with the monstrous Gesundbrunnen Center and a four lane road to greet you as you ascend from the platform. But push on through, across the road (at the lights like a good Berliner) and the smoky roar will subside behind you as you enter Volkspark Humboldthain. One of Berlin’s prettier green spaces, the park invites exploration with a slight roll to the land, arched wooden bridges, forested trails and open meadows. A pleasant couple of hours is easily spent lolling around the park. But there’s more to this park than first meets the eye, the real attraction here is what’s looming in the background.
The largest hill in the park is really not a hill at all, or at least it didn’t used to be. FlakTurm III, built in 1942, was one of three anti-aircraft towers in Berlin. Not only did this five story concrete hulk brandish four double barreled flak cannons, it acted as an air raid shelter for thousands of civilians and even contained a hospital with maternity ward. Despite the efforts of British and US bombers and the artillery of the Red army, the tower survived the war intact. During post-war occupation the French managed to destroy half of it, and then bury most of the rest under one and a half million cubic metres of rubble.
As you climb the forested path, it’s unsettling to think that the stones crunching under your feet are the bones of old Berlin. The view from the top over Pankow and Wedding is not the most spectacular, but you’ll enjoy it nonetheless. If only for the knowledge that the planes crisscrossing above the city aren’t looking to wipe it off the map.
The Prenzlazer Allee S Bahn station sits close to the edge of trendy Prenzlauer Berg, and the area around Helmholtzplatz and Stargarderstrasse, which offers plenty of eating, drinking and shopping options, is def worth a mosey. For something a little more bizarre though, cross the road directly in front of the station entrance towards Ernst Thälmann Park. First you’ll have to pass through the Park am Planetarium, you’ll know you’ve found that when you see the Zeiss-Großplanetarium, looking something like a space age snail.
Ernst Thälmann Park, an East German prestige project, was laid out on the site of a former gas works and designed with the goal of combining living and leisure. The plan seems to have been to bring a splash of nature and sense of community into inner city life. The result: 18 story apartment blocks teetering awkwardly above a sprawling, tatty park. Head for the far end, past the high rise Plattenbau, and towards the roar of traffic on Greifswalderstrasse. Follow the wooded path which borders the road and sooner or later you will emerge onto a field of concrete slabs. The imposing bronze and granite monument plonked in the middle commemorates Ernst Thälmann, one time leader of Germany’s communist party.
Thälmann was arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and held in solitary confinement for eleven years before being murdered in 1944. He was upheld as a martyr by the East German regime, who conveniently overlooked his own violent political resumé. The hammer and sickle emblazoned monument has survived democratization mainly because it’s bloody massive and incredibly heavy. Reports that the steel struts supporting it are rotting however mean that this hulking relics days are probably numbered.
The S Bahn station Frankfurter Allee, on the border of Friedrichshain and Lichtenberg, is one of the busier stops on the Ringbahn. It’s namesake, a major six lane carriage way (named not for Frankfurt am Main in the west, but Frankfurt an der Oder on the Polish border), has long been Berlin’s gateway to the East. Accordingly, it was one of the main approaches the Red Army took into the city centre in 1945 and the surrounding area was among the worst hit during the Battle of Berlin. From 1949 to 1961 the significance of the connection to Moscow was underlined with the roads new name Stalin Allee, the reconstruction of which was one of the first major East German building projects.
Lichtenberg, east of the station, is one of the cities less visited districts. Granted it is not the prettiest, yet some of the cities more fascinating sites are to be found among the Plattenbau. The neighbourhood has a distinctly East German character and the sites associated with the area attest to this: Hohenschönhausen prison, the Friedrichsfelde cemetery, and, just a short walk from the station, the former Stasi HQ which now houses the Stasi museum and document archive.
East Germany’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Stasi is considered to have been the most extensive state security apparatus of any country in history. Using a vast web of informants, surveillance, blackmail and intimidation they created an atmosphere of fear and distrust which permeated East German society. Whether at work, at a bar, on the tram or even at home the Stasi were listening. One method of breaking the will of people whom the Stasi regarded as dissidents was known as Zersetzung (decomposition). Here, operatives would spread rumours or embarrassing personal secrets of the target, tamper with their vehicle, break into their home and move furniture around, swap their medication or even poison their food. Perhaps the most chilling thing about the building is how plain it is. It’s difficult to imagine that a system of oppression which ruined so many lives was orchestrated from such unremarkable offices.
The Treptower Park S-Bahn station sits aside the river Spree, just south of Ostkreuz, on the eastern rim of the Ringbahn. The graffiti strewn Elsenbrücke nearby offers a marvelous view downstream towards the city. The towering sculpture in the foreground, depicting three perforated figures merging into one, is Jonathan Borofsky’s Molecule Man. A wander along the river-front to the south east (keeping the water to your left) is pleasant if the conditions allow. After a couple of kilometres you will come to Insel der Jugend, a small, egg shaped island connected via foot-bridge with a choice beer garden and boat hire (don’t drink and paddle).
Following the bend of the river past the island, keeping an eye out through the trees on your right, you may just discover the (not so much anymore) abandoned Spreepark. Established in 1969, East Germany’s only amusement park once attracted over one and a half million people annually. The story of the park post reunification, which involves bankruptcy, drug smuggling and the Peruvian mafia has become part of Berlin’s folklore. These days you can join guided tours, jump the fence, or at the very least peer through barriers at yet another example of nature’s creeping triumph over human ambition. The most impressive sight in the area, however, is not this abandoned theme park but rather the largest Soviet war memorial outside of Russia.
The Soviet War Memorial Treptow, is the final resting place for 7,000 (out of 80,000) Red Army soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin. It is is one of three memorials in Berlin which commemorate the 10-12 million Soviet soldiers who died during World War Two. The 12 metre tall statue standing at the apex was inspired by the heroism of Sergeant of Arms Nikolai Masalov, who reportedly risked his life during the furious battle to save a German child. Among the relief carvings on either side are quotes from Josef Stalin which in English would translate to: “Now all recognize that the Soviet people with their selfless fight saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs.”
The southern stretch of the Ring scoots through one of Berlin’s more diverse neighbourhoods: Neukölln. As is often the case, the area around the S bahn station itself is not all that charming, with infrastructure and commerce dominating the senses. But point your nose northwards, because one of Berlin’s most lovable Kieze is just a short walk away.
Schillerkiez was first conceived in the late 19th century with the purpose of providing a higher class of living for those who could afford it. The area survived World War Two virtually undamaged, but the increase in air traffic in and out of nearby Tempelhof airport, alongside the general urban decay of post war West Berlin, brought about a drop in the quality of living. In 2008, the airport was closed down and in 2010 handed over to the public as a recreational reserve. Needless to say when the flights stopped, interest in the area took off (along with the rent). Since then Schillerkiez has become one of the more desirable neighbourhoods which has attracted a young, international and bohemian crowd.
These days Schillerkiez has the feeling of a hipster village in the middle of the German capital. Sheltered from the commercialisation of the big city, here the roar of the traffic could be mistaken for the sound of breaking surf. The new blood pumping into the area has brought a wave of trendy bars, cafes and restaurants making Schillerkiez an ideal place for you to take some time to recharge while enjoying the finer things in life.
This former military parade grounds history as an airfield began in the early 20th century. Since that time until it’s closure in 2008, for better or worse, Tempelhof has been centre stage for the German capital’s aviation history. In 1909 American Orville Wright demonstrated the wonder of flying to Berlin here for the first time, 18 years later Lufthansa’s first commercial flight took off from here. In 1935 construction began on what British architect Sir Norman Foster was to call “the mother of all airports”. The sweeping main terminal building, designed by Ernst Sagebiel to resemble an eagle with wings spread, was eventually completed in 1962 by the American occupiers (with the additions of a basketball court and bowling alley). At 1.2 kilometres long and with a floor space of around 300,000 m² it is among the largest free standing buildings in the world.
The terminal can be visited on guided tours, see opening times and other information, including a useful map here
During cold war division, the airport was West Berlin’s window to the world, the significance of which became clear early, during Stalin’s blockade of 1948/49. In an attempt to force the Western powers out of Berlin, Stalin denied land and water access to the marooned city. In response the U.S., British and commonwealth airforces began the Berlin Airlift. Over the next 15 months, 278,226 flights provided West Berliners with almost 2,500,000 tonnes of vital cargo. With a plane landing roughly every 30 seconds, eventually more supplies were being flown in than were ever being brought by rail. The operation was a success in more ways than one. Pilots, noticing children gathered by the airports perimeter fence began dropping parcels of sweets via parachute. This deed earned the planes the nickname “Candy bombers” and ensured the pilots, and the airfield, a special place in the hearts of the embattled locals.
After reunification, plans were made to replace the three existing commercial airports (Tempelhof, Tegel and Schönefeld) with one. Construction of the state owned Berlin Brandenburg International, which began in 2006, has been a humiliating comedy of errors and is expected to run around four times over budget and ten years behind schedule. Nevertheless, the last flight left Tempelhof in November 2008 and the 300 hectare area (an area larger than Monaco) was given over to the public in 2010. The Tempelhofer Feld has since become one of the locals’ favourite green spaces which encapsulates that unique blend of history, re-invention and freedom which is quintessentially Berlin.
S Bahn Station Westend is situated right on the edge of Charlottenburg, a neighbourhood which these days is generally a little more straight laced and tidy than the more hedonistic areas of the city. A lot of the action Charlottenburg is known for these days is further away around Kurfürstendamm and the Zoo. But from this stop on the Ringbahn one of the big sights is just a 15 minute stroll (or an even shorter bus ride) away: Schloss Charlottenburg.
This Baroque style palace was completed in 1699 as a summer residence for the very first Queen of Prussia, Sophie Charlotte. After her untimely death at just 36, the palace and surrounding district were renamed in her memory. In 1880 the palace was handed over to the public, along with the surrounding park and gardens. The palace itself is impressive, with all the usual trimmings you would expect of a Great Power – expensive porcelain, luxurious furnishings and the Prussian crown jewels. All this can be seen with a reservation. But the highlight of this Schloss is in fact the sprawling green space which lays behind it
From perfectly manicured flower beds, reflecting pools and fountains to greek inspired temples, romantic forested paths and peaceful hidden clearings. The Schloss park at Charlottenburg is an intriguing mix of the French and English style garden. Keep an eye out as you wander as it’s not just human’s who enjoy the serenity here.