BERLIN — The modern skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz glisten in the sun. Stylish Berliners sip coffee in swanky sidewalk cafes. And the streets are packed with cyclists and tour buses.
Hard to imagine this used to be the Death Strip. If you had tried to come here 20 years ago, you would have been shot.
The Berlin Wall ran right through the middle of this square, making it a deadly no man's land between freedom in West Berlin and Communist dictatorship in East Germany. Instead of skyscrapers were barbed wire, watchtowers and the wall.
But on Nov. 9, 1989, the wall fell. Two decades later, Berlin has roared back to life, offering visitors both a taste of modern Germany and a firsthand encounter with the wall's history.
To understand Berlin, you have to understand the story of the wall.
On Aug. 13, 1961, East Berliners woke to find themselves prisoners in their own country. During the night, the East German regime had sealed the border between East and West Berlin. What was at first a makeshift barrier of barbed wire became the Berlin Wall, a network of walls, fences and obstacles that stretched for nearly 100 miles.
For decades, the wall sliced through Berlin, splitting not just a city but also families, friends and loved ones.
But in the face of a pro-democracy revolution in 1989, the East German regime imploded and the wall fell. After the two Germanys unified a year later, the remnants of the wall were torn down.
While not much of it is left, a small segment was preserved and is now the must-see Berlin Wall Memorial. In addition to part of the actual wall, you can visit a memorial chapel and a small but informative museum that tells the story of the wall.
From a viewing platform, you can look over the wall and into the Death Strip.
"The border guards had the motto, 'Nobody gets through,'" says Axel Klausmeier, director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, which runs the memorial.
Guards were authorized to shoot to kill, he said. And 136 people lost their lives at the wall, many while trying to escape.
"This wall was built to keep people in. East Germans were voting with their feet," says Klausmeier, adding that between 1949 and 1961 nearly 3.5 million East Germans fled, many through the open border at West Berlin. The wall — nearly 12 feet tall in places — plugged that hole.
While the Berlin Wall Memorial offers a look at the wall in historical context, the longest remaining segment of the wall has been turned into an open-air art gallery known as the East Side Gallery. The near mile-long section of the wall runs along the Spree River and features more than 100 paintings maintained by a group of artists as a memorial to freedom.
When the wall split Germany, slogans and pictures were painted on its western side. In the East, such open expression was strictly forbidden. And Easterners weren't allowed to get near the wall out of fear they might try to flee.
Without question, Berlin's most popular wall-related site is Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing where American and Soviet tanks faced each other down at the height of the Cold War. Actors dressed as border guards pose for tourists at the tollbooth-like reconstructed checkpoint.
Next to the checkpoint, the Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie offers visitors a crash course in Berlin's Cold War history.
"It's a lot more educational than just what you read in history books," American tourist Martin Mulford says as he browses the exhibit. "The wall is such a vital part of our history. It's a reminder of the division of peoples."
"Welcome to hell," says the tour guide as he leads us into Hohenschonhausen prison, where the East German secret police, the Stasi, imprisoned 40,000 enemies of the state.
The head of the Stasi at the time defined an enemy of the state as anyone with their own opinion, our tour guide tells us.
The Stasi kept close tabs on East Germans, reading 90,000 letters a day and listening in on 20,000 phone calls.
Political dissidents and anyone the Stasi wanted to silence landed in this cold, gray prison surrounded by barbed wire in what formerly was the Soviet sector of Berlin. Tours take visitors from the processing area where prisoners arrived in unmarked vans to the lonely cells where they were held without legal recourse.
This type of oppression led to the mass demonstrations that eventually brought down the East German regime.
"The prison is part of the 1989 history. In order for the wall to come down, there had to be a resistance movement. And many of those who protested landed here," explained Andre Kockisch from the Memorial Berlin-Hohenschonhausen.
The Hohenschonhausen prison offers visitors a view into life in East Germany, he said, adding, "This place explains how the dictatorship functioned. This is the other side of the coin."
In the years since the fall of the wall, the German capital has become one of Europe's hippest cities, with culture and clubs galore. The former East, especially, is hopping, with pubs, cafes and a pulsing night life.
The city is aggressively grungy and nonconformist. In the heart of the hip Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, a dilapidated building displays a sign proclaiming, "Capitalism kills."
In contrast to other European capitals, Berlin is dirt-poor. And proud of it. The mayor boasts that his city is "poor but sexy."
Berlin is edgy, alternative and full of energy.
But visitors are constantly confronted with Berlin's history. Bullet holes dating to World War II are visible in many buildings. And a split is still noticeable between the wealthier, right-leaning western part of the city and the poorer, left-leaning eastern area.
"Walking down Unter den Linden, you experience several hundred years of history," tourist Severin St. Martin says of Berlin's grand boulevard that leads under the Brandenburg Gate.
"Princes and princesses rode down the street. The Prussians, Hitler and Stalin, you just imagine different periods of time and realize they all played out on the same street," he says.
And it wasn't that long ago.
"It baffles me how it was so recent. To see where people protested, it makes me wonder, what I would have done if I had been there," tourist Tovah Penning says as she browses an exhibit about the wall at the Checkpoint Charlie museum.
"It's pretty crazy if you think about it."
BERLIN WALL TIMELINE
1945: World War II ends with Germany's surrender. The Allied powers — the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union — divide Germany into four occupation zones.
June 1948 to May 1949: When the Soviets blockade West Berlin, the Western Allies respond with the Berlin Airlift.
1949: The Federal Republic of Germany is established in the West and the socialist German Democratic Republic is founded in the East.
1953: Uprisings and demonstrations against the regime in East Germany are put down by Soviet tanks.
1949 to 1961: 3.5 million East Germans flee.
Aug. 13, 1961: The border between East and West Berlin is sealed and construction of the Berlin Wall begins.
October 1961: Famous standoff between Soviet and American tanks at the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing
June 12, 1987: U.S. President Ronald Reagan at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate challenges Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, "Tear down this wall."
October and November 1989: Mass demonstrations and protests break out across East Germany, including on Berlin's Alexanderplatz.
Nov. 9, 1989: The border is opened, and the Berlin Wall falls.
Oct. 3, 1990: East Germany joins the Federal Republic of Germany, unifying Germany.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY: Myer's Hotel, Metzer Strasse 26; 011-49-30-44-01-40; www.myershotel.de. Rooms from about $142.
GOING OUT: Berlin has more than 6,500 bars and restaurants, so there's no shortage of food or drink. The good news is that Berlin is relatively cheap. I recommend the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, a great place to enjoy yourself after a day of sightseeing.
EATING AND DRINKING: I Due Forni, Schonhauser Allee 12. Known for its famous pizzas (about $12) and infamous service. Subway: U2 Senefelderplatz.
Also, the area around the Eberswalder Strasse U-Bahn Station has many bars and restaurants. My favorites: Wohnzimmer, Lettestrasse 6; www.wohnzimmer-bar.de; drinks about $6. Also, Weinerei, Fehrbelliner Strasse 57; tram station, Zionskirchplatz; you set the prices.
MUSEUMS AND EXHIBITS:
Berlin Wall Memorial, www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de. Free.
Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, www.mauermuseum.de. Cost: about $18; audio guide, about $4.50.
Memorial Berlin-Hohenschonhausen, former Stasi prison, www.stiftung-hsh.de. English tours at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Cost: about $6.
The Peaceful Revolution 1989/1990, www.revolution89.de. Open-air exhibit at Alexanderplatz.
German Historical Museum, www.dhm.de. Cost: about $7.
Anniversary events, www.mauerfall09.de/en
Berlin tourist information, www.visitberlin.de
SEEING THE WALL
After the wall was dismantled, panels — many with brightly colored, often political graffiti — were dispersed among museums, galleries and public spaces worldwide. Here are a few sites where you can see original pieces of the barrier.
Berlin Wall Memorial, Bernauer Strasse 111; www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de. Free.
East Side Gallery, between the S-bahn stations Ostbahnhof and Warschauer Strasse; www.eastsidegallery.com.
Topography of Terror Documentation Center, Niederkirchnerstrasse 8 (open-air exhibit); www.topographie.de/en.
Some sites worldwide:
Newseum in Washington, D.C., 1-888-639-7386; www.newseum.org
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Washington, D.C., 202-312-1300; www.itcdc.com/index.php
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University in College Station, 979-691-4000; http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu
James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, 713-348-4683; www.bakerinstitute.org
United Nations headquarters in New York City, www.un.org/en
Imperial War Museum, London, 011-44-20-7416-5320; www.iwm.org.uk