Every time I decide to get out and see a great city after dark, I’m impressed by how different it is after hours. And Berlin is no exception.
After a long day of filming our new TV episode on Berlin, I decided to take my own audio tour — the newest self-guided tour on our free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app. It’s fun to actually give these tours a whirl after we produce them. (The tour works great. But I took notes on the gaps where I needed to pause my iPhone. Now I’ll go home and edit the tour so that it can be done in real time, without pausing. If you have our app, remember to update the tours periodically so you don’t miss the fixes we make.)
Berlin is a city with a dark history and many memorials. In about an hour, you can visit 8 or 10 powerful memorials across the old center of Berlin. Experiencing them at night on this trip, I realized this is a great way to see the city.
I enjoyed standing before the Brandenburg Gate, gloriously floodlit and without all the commercial commotion that surrounds it throughout the day. I pondered the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with only the security guard sharing the moment with me. And I stood over the spot where the Nazis ceremonially burned the booked that didn’t fit their ideology.
It was on this square (now called Bebelplatz) in 1933 that staff and students from the university threw 20,000 newly forbidden books (authored by Einstein, Hemmingway, Freud, and T.S. Elliot, among others) into a huge bonfire on the orders of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. In fact, Goebbels himself tossed books onto the fire, condemning writers to the flames. He declared, “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism has come to an end, and the German revolution has again opened the way for the true essence of being German.”
The “burning of the books memorial” on Bebelplatz is a glass pane in the cobbles with a room of shelves under the square. During the day, it’s full of glare and commotion, so the experience never quite works. But after dark, it’s quiet, and the empty shelves are hauntingly bare and beautifully lit. The contrast between that and the nighttime cityscape above is quite evocative. I’ve stood over this memorial many times in broad daylight and never really been moved. Finally, tonight, it grabbed me.
Get out at night and just be in a great city. Have you noticed that difference I’m clueing into in other great cities?
The historic Brandenburg Gate (1791) was the grandest — and is the last survivor — of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin, and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. Today, it’s once again the centerpiece of a great and united capital.