Visiting Checkpoint Charlie and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum
Checkpoint Charlie was the most well-known border crossing between former East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War era. Visiting the border house and iconic warning signs (both recreations of the originals) is one of the most popular activities for tourists in Berlin. A visit will feel a bit tourist-y. But when combined with a visit to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where you’ll learn about the Berlin Wall and the many daring escape attempts by East Germans, you might be surprisingly moved by the experience. A stop at Checkpoint Charlie is included in our pay-what-you-like Classic Berlin Tour. It is also a stop on pay-what-you-wish guided Berlin Wall walking tour. If you cant make our tours, feel free to enjoy our Self-guided tour of East Berlin.
Checkpoint Charlie was Berlin’s best known crossing point between what was then communist East Berlin and the American-controlled sector of democratic West Berlin. In 1961, the East German government unexpectedly constructed a wall along its borders to restrict the flow of East Germans trying to permanently flee East Berlin. (For more information, read our History of the Berlin Wall). Several checkpoints were erected, each laced heavily with barbed wire and carefully guarded by East German troops. They had instructions to shoot anyone trying to illegally cross over from East Berlin into West Berlin. More than 1,300 East Berliners died trying to escape from via other means and locations along the wall.
In response to the East German Government sealing off East Berlin, the Americans built their own checkpoints. The three American checkpoints, Checkpoints A, B & C, were named using the phonetic alphabet. Checkpoint A was known as Checkpoint Alpha, Checkpoint B was Checkpoint Bravo and Checkpoint C was Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was the most well-known of the three because it was the only checkpoint through which diplomatic personnel, American military and non-German visitors could pass into East Berlin. (Steven Spielberg’s movie Bridge of Spies depicts Tom Hanks’s character, an American diplomat, entering East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie). Unlike the East German checkpoint border house and guards, the American checkpoints were not meant to restrict the movement of people between East and West Berlin. They were mainly there to inform people in no uncertain terms that once they crossed the checkpoint into East Berlin, they were no longer in a democratic society.
In the years that Checkpoint Charlie existed (1961-1989) hundreds of daring and creative escape efforts were made by East Berliners desperate to escape oppression or to reunite with their families in West Berlin. (See a short news reel from 1961 at the end of this post). One infamous success story took place in 1962, when an Austrian named Heinz Meixner helped his East German girlfriend and her mother cross the border by lowering the windshield on his Austin-Healey convertible and speeding underneath the checkpoint’s vehicle barrier. After another East German successfully used the same escape method, the East Germans added steel bars to the crossing.
No longer did East Germans try to speed through the border to freedom. Instead, many East Germans tried to escape, some successfully, by hiding in the trunks of cars being driven by someone who had a visa to travel between East and West Berlin. Less dramatic, but equally successful, escapes were made. An East German photographer, Horst Beyer, set up a mock photo shoot at Checkpoint Charlie. While pretending to take pictures simply, and amazingly, hoped across the border. Once a person was in American territory, they were safe from being shot down by East German guards. On the other hand, American guards were not allowed to assist any East German escaping, even if that person was just feet away from them. As long as that East German was not on American soil, American soldiers could do nothing as East German guards shot at those attempting to escape.
In perhaps the most well-known and most tragic failed escape occurred in 1962 when an East German teenager named Peter Fetcher attempted to escape by trying to climb over the wall near Checkpoint Charlie. East German guards shot at him and he was severely injured in his pelvis. Wounded but still alive, he fell to the ground on East German soil, tangled in barbed wired. Unable to move, he remained there slowly bleeding to death. Nearby American soldiers could not rescue him because he was still inside East Germany.East German guards were reluctant to approach Fetcher because just a few days earlier a serious altercation between American and East German guards had occurred. After an hour, East German guards did retrieve Fetcher. It was too late. Literally caught between two dramatically different worlds, Fetcher was already dead. This horrific death was captured in pictures taken by photographers on the American side of Checkpoint Charlie. These photos of this innocent young man dying were shown around the world. Below is a short news reel clip (without sound) of the event as filmed from the American side of the wall.
Visiting the site of the replica of the Checkpoint Charlie border house is free to do. It is located outdoors near Friedrichstraße 43-45 (map). You will also see the world-recognizable billboard signs warning people that they were leaving or entering American Sector. At the “border house” you will see ‘soldiers’ posted. They are in fact actors and for a few euro, the “soldiers” will pose with you. If you want to see the original Checkpoint Charlie border house and signs head to the Allied Museum.
An analysis of reviews on TripAdvisor reveals that visiting the Checkpoint Charlie Border House isn’t for everyone. It has a 3 1/2 star rating and most people find a visit to this site to be just an average experience. Most reviewers state that it is a tourist-trap and minimizes the historic significance of the gateway between a free, democratic society and an oppressive communist regime. Other reviewers felt that a quick visit to the site was worth the time and the experience was heightened with a visit to either the nearby Checkpoint Charlie museum or the Outdoor Photo Gallery and the Black Box Exhibit (see below).
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum is also called the Mauermuseum (Mauer meaning “wall”), because it covers the history of both Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. There are many exhibits and objects to see including original artifacts used in some of the most well-known and ingenious escapes from East Berlin. You will see escape cars, homemade mini-submarines, and hollow surfboards. There are recreations of escapees crammed in suitcases or car trunks. Click here for numerous photos of exhibits.
This small museum building is jam-packed with boards of written information, so much in fact that many reviewers on TripAdvisor said that it felt overwhelming. In addition, many said the space was poorly organized and one reviewer said the audio guide didn’t correspond to the natural flow of the exhibit. This museum is best for people who are interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the Cold War and the way that the Berlin Wall effected the lives of average Berliners. It may not be good for very young children due to the crowds and enormity of the written information. An excellent, and budget-friendly alternative is to visit the free Outdoor Photo Gallery and/or the less expensive Black Box Cold War exhibit described below.
Location Friedrichstraße 43-45 (map) U6 to Kochstraße station) or U2 to Stadtmitte station
Hours 365 days a year 9:00 am to 10:00 pm
- Adults: €12.50
- Students: €9.50
- School Pupils from 7-18: €6.50
- Concessions ticket: €6.50
- Disabled persons with a valid certificate: €9.50 (registered assistants are free)
An audio guide is available for €5.00. To take photos, you will need to pay €2.00 for permission. Lockers are available for a deposit of a €2 coin which is returned when you retrieve you items. A gift shop and café are located inside.
At the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße (map) diagonally across from the north side of the Checkpoint Charlie Border House you will see what looks like a temporary pop-up space. It is in fact a permanent exhibition space called the Black Box. This small but very-well curated exhibit is an excellent and less expensive alternative to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Inside the Black Box, there are 16 media stations, a small movie theater, documents, and original objects to demonstrate the conflict East-West conflict that dominated the international political arena after World War II. The exhibits, consisting of old news reels and newspaper articles, photos and videos offer a trip back in time. The explanations of what you are seeing are very informative, but not as overwhelming as the texts at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It is less than half the price of the Museum and is a concise and well-designed way to learn about the Cold War in a variety of medium.
Hours 10am – 6pm Open every day of the year
- Adults €5
- Reduced rate/Concessions €3.50
- Students up to age 18 €2
- Children 14 and younger Free
Note: Plans are in the works for a new Cold War museum to be built on the site, but as of August 2016, the Black Box is still there.
Running along Friedrichstraße, Zimmerstraße, and Schützenstraße is a series of 320 informational panels that include 175 large-format photos accompanied by written narratives (in English and German). The gallery focuses on three themes: the daring escape attempts at the border crossing, information about other memorial sites, and lastly the dramatic show-down between Soviet and American tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961 (see a 2 minute video here). Along Zimmerstraße you can see actual remains of the Berlin Wall. To see more remnants of the Wall throughout Berlin, check out our Berlin Wall Tour.
Within 10-15 minutes by foot are many interesting attractions that can easily be combined with a visit to Checkpoint Charlie. Please take advantage of our free self-guided tour of Things to do in Mitte which includes such sites as
Written by Courtney Shapiro