Key facts About Berlin

The Berlin Wall - a historic dividing line

This section introduces key facts about Berlin to the novice and shares important moments in the capital’s turbulent history.

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First-time visitors will immediately sense Berlin’s international atmosphere, note its coolness, and feel that it’s got something special going for it.

Touted as “poor but sexy”, Germany’s capital retains this mantra as the city evolves from a popular hangout for alternative cultures into a gentrified metropolis driven by high-tech industries, and a thriving startup scene with international appeal.

Arriving in Berlin Hauptbahnhof

A racy metropolis on a budget

Berlin is a vibrant city, full of contrasts.Compared to other metropolitan areas around the world, it’s not that populous yet very cool.

Moving to Berlin is an attractive proposition. The cost of living is comparably low and opportunities for work and play are plentiful. According Numbeo, Berlin ranks at place 115 of 556 worldwide cities in terms of living expenses.  Keep in mind, the city was once the most populous metropolis in the world.

Contemporary Berlin where multi-culture abounds

Visitors to Berlin immediately note an international flair that the capital exudes. Next to the foreign diplomatic corps, almost one-third of the city’s 3.7 million population have their roots outside of Germany. By current German standards, the politically correct term for any foreigner is “Einwohner mit Migrationshintergrund” which translates to citizens with a migration background. The largest ethnic group are of Turkish origin, accounting for approximately 6 % of Berlin’s population. The city is at the apex of German culture, politics, media, and science.

Advanced industries, an extensive public transport network, and the city’s green lung

Next to its vibrant startup scene, Berlin’s significant industries include IT, pharmaceuticals, biomedical engineering, clean tech, biotechnology, construction, and electronics.

Its public transportation network is extensive, encompassing a stretch of over 2600 km covered by underground trains, trams, buses, suburban lines. A high density of stops (over 7000) and makes getting around the city easy. No wonder that more than half of Berlin’s residents don’t own a car.

The city takes pride in its renowned universities, orchestras, museums, entertainment, trade show, and sporting venues. Visitors will never encounter a dull day in the capital for lack of festivals, events, nightlife, or recreational destinations.
Over a third of Berlin’s area consists of forests, parks, gardens, rivers, canals, and lakes. Tiergarten – a popular, inner-city park – is bigger than Hyde Park in London. The western border of the city is lined with a number of large lakes interspersed with forests of pine, beech, and oak trees, as well as moors and dunes. If you happen to drive to Berlin by car, you’ll be in awe at the seemingly endless kilometres of green that fleet by before the capital finally emerges.

On a Growth Trajectory

Before the second world war Berlin headquartered many of Germany’s largest industries such as Daimler and Siemens. After the war, the city was divided and big industry moved out to economically more attractive locations in West Germany. Many abandoned factories and warehouses turned into clubs and studios. As a result, these attracted artists and younger people with a penchant for partying. Berlin became renowned by its slogan “poor but sexy”.

Reunification of West and East Germany in 1989 was a watershed moment for change. Decades later Germany’s capital city now attracts entrepreneurs and technology startups that are forging the new digital economy. Tech companies such as Amazon, eBay and Google have followed suit.  They already have substantial office space, employees and projects ongoing in the city. Tesla is building a Gigafactory south of Berlin to supply Europe with vehicles, batteries and power trains. Investments in new technology are ramping up full speed as Berlin spearheads the new economy in Germany.

Naturally Germany’s capital is lined with consulates that bring in a stream of diplomats from across the world.


1899 map of Berlin

Berlin’s history in a nutshell

Berlin is big and thinks big as a consequence of many riveting, historical episodes since the 15th century

During its many epochs, Berlin maintained, then lost, and finally regained its status as the capital city of Germany.

From 1417 to 1701 it was the capital of Mark Brandenburg, a territory belonging to the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe, In 1701 it became the capital of Prussia. From 1871 to 1918 Berlin remained capital of the German Empire. In 1919 until 1933 the Weimar Republic was founded with Berlin as its capital. Finally, in Hitler’s Third Reich from 1933 to 1945, Berlin remained the capital city. After Germany’s defeat in the war, Berlin was deprived of this status.

World War II left Germany divided into two territories, West and East. Bonn became the capital of West Germany, whereas East Germany – known as DDR to West Germans held on to Berlin, despite it not being recognised as such by the West.

Berlin Once Again Capital City

The city once again became the capital of a reunited Germany in 1989.

After reunification, Germany elected to relocate its parliament, the “Bundestag”, and most key ministries from Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, to Berlin. By 1999 Berlin boasted one of the largest construction sites in Europe as government moved in from Bonn. As a result infrastructure projects (example: Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the new railway station), a slew of new buildings and offices, as well as apartments emerged. At the time, Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz became an emblem for the building boom that changed the face of the city.

This growth in turn attracted an entrepreneurial scene that hosts some of the country’s hottest startups, attracting talent from across the world. Little wonder that Berlin features an immense breadth and depth in culture, art, and history. Visitors can enjoy the capital’s many historic buildings, fascinating museums, and unique art collections.

After World War II: A Divided City

The Allied bombings of the Second World War left much of Berlin destroyed. The four victors – USA, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union – divided Germany into four occupational zones as shown in the map with its divisions that lasted from 1945 to 1949. As time progressed, the differing world views, economic agendas, and political orders of the four victors essentially left Germany divided into an Eastern zone controlled by the Soviet Union, and a Western zone controlled by the USA, UK, and France.

Understanding the Berlin Wall

The Cold War and its resulting tensions exemplified the profound economic and political differences of the two superpowers USA and the Soviet Union. This provided for an unusual backdrop to Berlin’s future: the city eventually became an island which lay entirely inside Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany – see this map and look for the yellow speck which is Berlin. The city was partitioned into East Berlin and West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall was constructed by East Germans in 1961, blocking free access in both directions. The wall separated the two sides of the city until November 1989. It became a 130 km long / 3.6-meter high concrete barrier that ensnared West Berlin, lined with over 300 watch towers and wide-area “death strips” to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin. Visiting Berlin at the time was a bizarre experience.

Approximately 100 people died in attempts to cross from East to West Berlin during its 28-year existence. After unification in 1989, Germany began tearing down the wall and only a few small segments now remain as memorials. Tracking the former course of the Berlin Wall and re-imagining the scenes and events of the time remains an intriguing excursion for any tourist visiting Berlin today.