At least for ten days every year year, Potsdamer Platz, described by Stefan Zweig in the 1920s as 'the Babel of the World', is the center of the glamorous world cinema. Raising from a 'no man's land' during the Berlin Wall to a place displaying one of the boldest architectural mix in the whole Germany, this is a place I love to visit once in a while, for its bubbling spirit and the high concentration of attractions of any kind. For those visiting Berlin only for the Berlinale or who are living here, but never too tempted to see all its splendor, here is a quick guide of what you can do, see and eat in Potsdamer Platz.
I've started my exploration at the Potsdamer Platz metro station. It is not in my cards for one of my beautiful metro stations in Berlin, but it has though an old vintage charm of itself and looks much better than in the case of other public transportation hubs in the city.
Although it is surrounded by so many cultural and historical attractions - from the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial, to the impressive modernist exhibitions hosted at Martin Gropius Bau and the dark history on display at Topographie des Terrors, as you will see, there are so many things to check in this small area that if you are a slow traveller, you may need more than one day to go through the entire list.
The cultural offer around this tiny station is impressive. You can start with the Dali Museum, a permanent exhibition I visited a couple of years ago and which has unique illustrations of Carmen, Alice in Wonderland or Gargantua and Pantagruel, as well as special lithographies with very interesting histories. Next door, there is the Korean Cultural Center, which right now is very busy displaying information about the Winter Olympics, but round the year hosts interesting events. A couple of years ago, I've been to a special Korean jazz evening and loved everything about it.
Another couple of doors, another attraction: Spy Museum, one of the newest entry in the very long list of museums in the city - an almost complete guide coming soon on the blog. As Berlin, alongside with Vienna, used to be a very active spy center during the Cold War, you will see a lot of funny James Bond Stasi-style kind of tricks, but it has also a very elaborated historical material about the creation of intelligence services after WWII and other interesting histories. If you plan to visit, be sure you dedicated a couple of full hours for a throughout exploration.
After so much serious thinking and cultural encounters, a bit of relaxation and some shopping at the Mall of Berlin, across the street, can be a good idea. The malls are a relatively new and pretty controversial presence in the landscape of the hipster Berlin and Germany in general. Although in general small retails and shopping centers are preferred to the massive shopping sprees from North America, Asia or the Middle East, the business landscape is changing here too, with at least another mall planned to be open in the Eastern side of the city in the next years. If not too much into shopping, at least you can use the view from the connecting passages between the blocks of building for having a look at the Bundesrat, the headquarters of German's local parliament, a good example of institutional architecture.
A really hidden gem of institutional architecture is for me the Canadian embassy building. Open in 2005 and aimed to display the role of this country as a main player in relationship with the EU it displays the concept of 'integrated art', with works of art displaying specific geographical and cultural features of the country being includes as part of the building construction. During the planning and further the construction, five local artists worked closely with designers and architects to create works of art which complete and compliment the main concepts. I've found this a great idea, and connecting politics and economics with arts is always a very noble add-on.
More than in any other place in the city, the memory of the Berlin Wall is a reminder of the recent history wounds but also a reference point for how far you can go when there is will and an elaborated political consensus.
Without a proper investment and political support, Potsdamer Platz could have not been what it is nowadays: an architectural jewel, hosting a high concentration of important foreign and local companies. During the first German unification, for instance, in 1871, the country's busiest intersection with the first traffic light system in Europe installed here in 1924, as it was leading to the then garrison city of Potsdam, the plans of making this square a trademark of the new country were abandoned because the lack of funds. After the second reunification of Germany, there were only a couple of years needed until the planning stage and the start of the constructions, in 1993.
The main concept assigned to this area was connected to 'new beginnings'. From the steel and glass sky scraper house of the transportation giant Deutsche Bahn to the Art Deco building of Potsdamer Strasse 1, designed by Hans Kollhoff where Europe's fastest elevator brings you within 20 seconds to the 25th floor from where you can have a Panoramic view over the city, everything is just out of the best architecture coffee table books. Among the winners of the international architecture competition was also Renzo Piano, the creator of Centre Pompidou, whose building on Eichhornstraße 3 is aimed to balance the weights of another two high scrapers, raising in their middle. Its dimensions are the same as the central nave of Notre Dame, which you may not believe as you have a first look at its elongated shape.
The newest jewel on the elegance crown is The Ritz Carlton Berlin, with its exquisite display of style and a delicious invitation to afternoon tea.
From the old Potsdamer Platz, it is only one single building that remained: Haus Hüth, a former wine house built in 1912, resting nowadays on the Daimler Benz building. Greatly undamaged by WWII, it was carefully restored and integrated into the newest social and architectural landscape. It includes nowadays the Daimler Art Collection and the luxurious Lutter&Wegner restaurant. All around the Potsdamer Platz, the foodie offer is more than generous, from the always busy food courts of the Arkaden shopping center (where you can buy fast your Berlinale tickets), to the international restaurants displaying Mexican, Australian and elegant Italian menus.
Inaugurated in 2000, Sony Center is one of the landmarks of Potsdamer Platz and Berlin nowadays, with its always busy avenues, outdoors restaurants and movie theaters. Especially during the nightfall, the translucent roof, the main element covering the disparate buildings, is wrapping the entire complex in changing colours. What else can better epitomize the changing nature of this city that seems to never have a proper historical rest?
With its multiplex cinema locations, Sony Center is also a destination for movie lovers as it includes the Film Museum, an elaborated journey through the history of German movies, and the Cinematheque. Nearby, the first German walk of stars was recently inaugurated, featuring local famous actors and film directors.
Especially if you are visiting with children, don't forget to pay a long - maybe too long from the parents' perspective - visit at the Lego Center there.
Right on the corner, there is the building of the National Library - Staatsbibliothek - the work of the German architects Hans Scharoun and Edgar Wisniewski, next to the Landwehr Canal and near the Ibero-American Institute. After the Soviet occupation of Berlin, and the building of the Berlin Wall, books that were aimed to be saved previously from the bombings ended up here, and the other half in the other building of the Staatsbibliothek in Unter den Linden. Nowadays, the two institutions - 'the library in two houses' are part of the same cultural umbrella 'Preussischer Kulturbesitz'.
Part of the Kultur Forum, which includes buildings in a more brutalist style specific to the time of the construction, the 1970s, on the other side of the street, with the Design Museum and contemporary art exhibitions, it is also a counter-answer to the very modernist Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalerie, currently under renovation.
Probably less known is the fact that in this very modernist area, there is also a small little place called the Instruments Museum, where music lovers can have a very interesting journey through the history of European music and beautiful instruments.
Another work of Sharoun, the Berliner Philharmonie, is one of my favorite works of architecture in the whole city. During my first year in Berlin, I've spent here a lot of time, going to various concerts, including the free Tuesday lunch concerts in Hauptfoyer. Especially if you are new in the city, music is the best way you can connect to the city and Philharmonie has one of the best offers in this respect.
Near one of the entrances, opposite the Tiergarten, there is a relatively less known memorial, in the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people victimes of euthanasia during the National-Socialist regime.
After such an intensive tour, only a slow walk through the Tiergarten can help you settle down your memories and impressions of such a busy day. Berlin is still having so many stories to tell and I am here to listen them all.