Visiting a city like the German capital of Berlin taught me a very important lesson. And that is, that the feelings of nostalgia cannot be compartmentalised into rigid boxes of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ memories of the past. Even though most of us, including myself, tend to lean towards the former as we reminisce about the good old days. I also learnt that the past cannot be ignored and white washed over!
In the few days spent there, I noticed that some of the most visited attractions in the city are those that reference the city’s divided, pre-1990 past so very well. The Berliners have even coined a very interesting phrase to represent their very own brand of nostalgia. They call it ‘Ostalgie’. Simply put, Ostalgie is nostalgia for aspects of life in Communist East Germany. It is a portmanteau of the German words Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia) and one that popped up almost everywhere I went.
But, having said that, I found it represented the best in the following attractions and sites around Berlin:
East Side Gallery
I cannot possibly kick start this list without one of the most iconic and obvious remnants of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) taking top billing! Yes, I’m talking about the mighty Berlin Wall. Though most of the wall has be razed there are parts of it scattered across the city that still give you a good look and feel.
Once such place is the East Side Gallery that lies between the Berlin Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrücke, located right next to the River Spree. Parts of the Berlin Wall are still there and street artists from all over the world have immortalised their work on the wall, which makes it a 1,316-meter-long piece of art. 118 artists from 21 countries painted on the wall in 1990, and since then it’s one of the most famous monuments in Germany.
Another must-visit, given the sheer number of selfie-hungry tourists that swing by it is the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. A former border crossing at Friedrichstrasse, it was managed by the Allies during World War II and in 1961, the US and the Soviet tanks had a confrontation here. Checkpoint Charlie also served as a place where many tried to escape from East Berlin. Do make sure to check out the wall museum, as you can explore things which were used to escape underneath or over the wall and read stories of the refugees. The museum does serve to keep their memories alive, as it rightly should.
Another must-visit Ostalgie strong-hold is the DDR Museum. Located right in the center of Berlin across from the Berliner Dom, the museum is perhaps one of the first places to go if you want to learn more about East German history in the city. This interactive museum has exhibitions that are all about the daily life in the former DDR in all its morbid glory! From the Stasi secret police, the Trabant car to the rather stark and austere DDR style housing and plenty more. Here is where you will get to immerse yourself into a different time and experience 40 years of the DDR.
Speaking of an ‘immersion’, how about doing so literally? Descend into the bowels of the city and get yourself a piece of history in a place that is as different from a museum or a monument as it can possibly be. I’m talking of Berlin’s Unterwelten. Most people would not have been to a bunker or an abandoned U-Bahn tunnel, so now’s your chance. The Berlin Unterwelten offers five daily English tours through subterranean Berlin. You can experience World War II bombing raids through the eyes of citizens, see a former mother and child bunker or walk through the escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall.
Dinner and a movie, perhaps?
The city’s stunning Karl-Marx-Allee boasts two of the DDR’s cult cinemas, the Kino Kosmos and the Kino International — both offering you a different twist on your normal movie night. Kino Kosmos has a mammoth 3,400 seats and was the DDR’s largest cinema. Its architecture and typography will transport you in a different time.
Still on the Karl-Marx-Allee, Café Sibylle offers cinemagoers a convenient option for a pre- or post-cinema coffee. The café exhibits authentic DDR flair with original painted murals covering its walls and everyday.