Spandauer Vorstadt – Self-guided tour of Historic Old Berlin
While the old historic center of Berlin was destroyed in World War II and most of the buildings are reconstructions, the Spandauer Vorstadt, between Alexanderplatz and the theater district (e.g. Friedrichstadtpalast with its Las Vegas-like shows) has the real old houses from the 18th and 19th century. This neighborhood had also been the center of Berlin Jewish life and again houses important Jewish institutions. Neglected in socialist times, the Spandauer Vorstadt is beautifully restored today with cafés, shops and much more to explore. Come and explore this Historic Old Berlin – The Spandauer Vorstadt on this self-guided tour.
START: At the subway/U-Bahn Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (U 2). (A)
This train station is named after Ms. Rosa Luxemburg who was the co-founder of Germany’s Communist Party in 1918. She was murdered in January 1919, an effort to shut down the left-wing worker’s uprising. Walk south, and you’ll see the most prominent building on your left side the Volksbühne (B). It’s opposite of the anglo-friendly sports bar Belushi’s (C). This theater was founded in 1914 by workers who wanted their own theater with affordable admission and plays that reflected their own situation more than traditional theater did.
Follow Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße south until you arrive at the intersection with Memhardstraße (left) and Münzstraße (right). Chose Münzstraße and continue until you arrive at the next intersection. Take the Neue Schönhauser on your left.
(D) You’ll see beautifully restored houses, fashion stores such as the second hand designer store “Made in Berlin” (both international designers and less known Berlin labels) and a lot of cafés. It’s hard to imagine, that this neighborhood, the Scheunenviertel (the eastern part of the Spandauer Vorstadt, named after the barns that used to be on the site in the 17th century) was a hub of poverty, crime and – Chassidic Judaism way into the 1930s. Over 2 million Jews left Russia when pogroms started after Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated in 1881. On their way to the United States or Palestine some stranded in Berlin and founded their shtetl in the Scheunenviertel, a neglected neighborhood of old tenements. Today, these buildings are renovated or demolished and replaced by modern houses.
Walk the Neue Schönhauser Straße until it meets Rosenthaler Straße, cross the latter and take a left until you enter a yard next to Café Cinema.
(E) You’re in Haus Schwarzenberg , a project by artists with an art gallery, a cinema and several small museums. The backyards themselves are a museum of the early 1990s. This exhibition shows how the whole Spandauer Vorstadt looked like around the time of German unification: crumbling plaster or naked brickwork, graffiti and street art and bizarre sculptures. Find the Anne-Frank-Zentrum (“Diary of a young Girl”, but Anne Frank never came to Berlin) and “Otto Weidts Blindenwerkstatt”. In the 1940s, the legally blind Otto Weidt managed to save some of the Jewish employees at his workshop for the blind, which was in the side wing of the tenement.
(F) Leave the yard, take a right and enter the famous Hackesche Höfe, eight yards with retail, restaurants, culture and apartments. The first yard was conceived as a “piazza”, where people could meet for culture or festivities. The colorful terracotta tiles are still an eye- catcher. Stroll through the yards, look at all the beautiful things – what a contrast to what you’ve seen before!
Adjacent to the Hackesche Höfe are the Rosenhöfe (G) from the early 1990s, very postmodern assembly of shops and restaurants. Cross the yard and before you leave it for the street, look at your left and see a beautiful staircase from the late 1700s.
Go back to the Hackesche Höfe and follow the signs inside the courtyards to Sophienstraße. When you exit the Hackesche Höfe at Sophienstraße, look to your left.
(H) This is the Sophienclub. What used to be a East German disco and youth club in the 80s, is still a night club today. Take a left and follow the street. You’ll see two more courtyards: the Sophiensäle (I), a former meeting place of labor unions, today a center of modern dance and the Sophien-Gips-Höfe (J) with private arts collection and tempting pastry café.
The Sophienstraße itself was renovated already in the 1980s when the GDR prepared for Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987 and was focusing more on pre-socialist German history. Craftspeople were seen as predecessors to the socialist workers and thus Sophienstraße was turned into a street where small private entrepreneurs opened their workshops with some government support. The Bakery (K) at street number 30 is worth a try – bread and cakes produced in the old fashioned way. But as the owner Waltraud Balzer is 85 now, the place might close by the end of 2015.
Pass the bakery and you’ll reach the Große Hamburger Straße. Take a right, pass by some 1980s concrete slab buildings and then make a left into Auguststraße.
This is a string of art galleries – if you’re into contemporary art, you won’t need any more tips how to spend the rest of your day. But first check out Clärchens Ballhaus (L). The first thing you’ll see is a beer garden. A front building used to be here – but it was destroyed during the war. The traditional dance hall was in the rear building and it survived as a family-owned business not only the war but also socialism. It has changed ownership, but you can still dance to live music or even take dancing lessons. Did you know that a scene of “Inglorious Basterds” was filmed there?
Walk back on Auguststraße to the Große Hamburger Straße and follow it southwards. The large red brick building on your right is the Catholic St. Hedwig Hospital (M). In addition to the regular hospital operation, they are housing refugees from Syria and Eritrea in a side wing. The street is also named “street of tolerance” as you find Catholic, Protestant and Jewish institutions side by side.
On the left, you see the 18th century Protestant church, the Sophienkirche (N). In contrast to the churches and cathedrals in the center of Berlin, this one is an original and not a reconstruction. In 1964, Martin Luther King held one of two sermons in East Berlin in this church.
At the wall of the parish house you see bullet holes from the war. The Soviet Army had the boots on the ground in spring of 1945 and they took Berlin one building at a time – the traces are to be seen everywhere in the city.
And now, look down on the sidewalk. Have you already noticed the square brass plates? Each of the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) stands for one victim of the Nazi-Regime (mostly Jewish). They are installed in front of their former residences or sometimes workplaces and show the name, year of birth and date of deportation. You’ll find more Jewish life in the Große Hamburger Straße in the form of a Jewish middle and high school (O). Not all of the students are of Jewish faith, but all learn Hebrew, have Jewish religious instruction, eat kosher at the cafeteria and observe the Jewish holidays. The school dates from the 19th century and in the early 1940s the building was used as a collection point for Jewish citizens to be deported to the concentration camps.
On the opposite side of the street is the Missing House (P) – the building that stood here, was destroyed and not replaced after the war. The French artist Christian Boltanski did research on the former residents and had plates put on the walls of the neighboring houses with the names and the dates of the moving in or out of the former residents. Some people “moved out” the day of the bombing, some a couple of years earlier – the Jewish residents who were deported.
Across the street was a Jewish retirement-home that was used as a collection point as well. Today, you find a memorial here. The greenery behind the memorial is the oldest Jewish cemetery (R) of Berlin from the 18th century, closed already in 1827. The Gestapo (secret police of Nazi-Germany) defiled the cemetery, later victims of the air raid were buried here.
Take Oranienburger Straße and walk right for about ten minutes. After passing some restaurants and fast food stands you’ll find more boutiques on your right. Across the street is a park, the Monbijou Park (S). From the 17th century until World War II, there used to be the Monbijou Palace, traditionally owned by the wives of the monarchs, later used as a museum. Today there is a pool for small children and an outdoor theater.
Eventually, you’ll arrive at a building with a sparkling golden dome. It’s the Neue Synagoge (T) (New Synagogue) built in the 1860s and for a long time the largest synagogue in Germany. It was spared during the Kristallnacht (November 9th 1938, when almost all German synagogues were destroyed by the SA) because a courageous police officer prevented the SA from burning it down, citing landmark regulations. During the air raid the building suffered a lot and only the front elevation was reconstructed in the early 1990s. Today it is not a synagogue, but a museum about Jewish life in Berlin, the Centrum Judaicum. In the neighborhood, namely in the Tucholskystraße, are some more Jewish institutions: the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the Orthodox community Adass Jisroel, a kosher café and a grocery store.
END: This is the end of our tour. At the intersection of Oranienburger Straße and Tucholskystraße, you find the S-Bahn train station Oranienburger Straße, further down the road the subway Oranienburger Tor (U 6) and the streetcars. Or you walk back to the S-Bahn station Hackescher Markt across the Hackesche Höfe.
Approx. 2.5- 3 hours