If I’m asked what to do in Berlin, my top recommendation is going to be a visit to the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. It’s an essential piece of history and a street art lovers mecca.
As you scroll through the photos in this article, you’ve likely seen some of these murals before, but not known that they are part of a one mile long gallery. And what’s even better, this attraction is free. Whether you want to breeze through the gallery in 30 minutes, or soak it all in for a few hours, this place is one of the top things to do in Berlin. Let me explain.
A Brief History of the Berlin Wall
To fully appreciate the East Side Gallery, it helps to put it in context, so here’s a brief Berlin Wall timeline.
1945 World War II Ends. Germany and Berlin are divided into four parts; the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and the United States. Almost immediately people in the Soviet section begin defecting to the Allied parts.
1961 East Germany created the footprint of the future “wall” by placing barbed wire around the perimeter of West Berlin. They claimed this was to protect its citizens from the West, but in reality the number of defectors was an embarrassment to East Germany and the Soviets.
1961-1989 East Germany continually strengthens this boundary through the building of a double wall, gates, and guard towers.
1989 In early November, after an announcement by the East German government that it’s citizens will soon be able to visit the West more freely, East Germans arrive in droves at the gates and eventually force them open. The next day news organizations around the world announce the “fall of the Berlin wall.”
1990 Artists begin painting the East Side Gallery. In October, East and West Germany are formally reunified.
1994 The German Government began the building of the Berlin Wall Memorial. Prior to this, most Germans were in favor of destroying all remaining portions of the wall, but eventually it was decided that a portion should be preserved so that the victims of this wall would never be forgotten.
Below is a map of the Berlin Wall with several important sections marked, including the East Side Gallery.
What Is The East Side Gallery?
The Berlin East Side Gallery, created in 1990, is a monument to the fall of the wall. It’s comprised of 101 murals, painted by 118 artists from 21 countries. Many of the murals have political messages. I love how artists from around the world came together to celebrate the end of this despised landmark, and they did it by making the ugly concrete blocks colorful and engaging.
This wasn’t the first time the wall dividing the two cities was painted. In fact Berlin Wall graffiti had become common during the cold war. The space immediately in front of the West facing wall was sort of a no-man’s land. East Germany did not care about this side of the wall, and West German police had no interest in patrolling here. So it became a popular spot for parties and graffiti. This tradition of graffiti painting has continued on the back of the East Side Gallery.
Despite its popularity as a tourist attraction, the gallery has often faced problems. Since it blocks the view of the Spree River, there have been attempts to tear it down and build luxury apartments. And the maintenance of the murals has at times been ignored. Today, however, it has achieved recognition as a historic landmark, and the murals are now periodically cleaned and restored.
Today, this is the longest open air gallery in the world and attracts over three million visitors each year. While it’s quite easy to visit this attraction on your own, it’s also possible to take a guided tour offered through the Berlin Wall Foundation. Many companies also include the gallery in their Berlin overview tours. I've provided links to a few such tours below.
Tips For Visiting The East Side Gallery
The gallery’s address is Mühlenstrasse 45-80, Berlin - Friedrichshain. If taking public transportation head to the Ostbahnhof Station (line S5, S7, S9, S75) or Warschauer Station (U1, S5, S7, S75).
Come prepared to walk for a while since the length of the gallery is almost a mile. Part of the path along the gallery is shared with bikes, so be sure to watch out for this as you get closer to the bridge. If you need to take a break, there are plenty of places to stop for a snack, or just sit, between the wall and the Spree River. And if you are looking for a good currywurst, the stand at the end of the wall, close to the bridge is quite good.
Finally, you will want to photos here! Whether you want to use your cell phone or a camera, this is a photographers dream come true. I am currently using a Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless camera.
How To Learn More About The Berlin Wall
If you’re like me, and are eager to learn more about the Berlin Wall, here are a few suggestions.
First, check-out our earlier post about a Fat Tire Bike Tour along the wall. This was a great experience for me, Jason, and our son, Ryan. I was impressed by how much we learned about the cold war, the wall, and East Germany. Fat Tire offers several options for a Berlin bike tour so be sure to visit their website.
The Berlin Wall Memorial is definitely worth a visit. Located on Bernauer Strasse, the memorial stretches for 1.4 kilometers. This open space museum marks where the wall was previously located and documents many important events--including escapes--along it.
Where To Stay In Berlin
During our recent trip we stayed at the Motel One Berlin Alexanderplatz and were really pleased with it. Alexanderplatz is centrally located in Berlin and the home to a large public transportation hub. Getting to the East Side Gallery from this location is about a 20 minute ride on the S Bahn or U Bahn. The rooms were small, but very clean, and the rates are definitely affordable. Alexanderplatz is loaded with restaurants and shops, making it a very convenient place to stay for a few days.