Impressions of Berlin
As always, let me start with a few factoids. Berlin has about 3.4 million people in the city proper and 5 million in the metropolitan area – making it smaller than most of the major European capitals of London (12-14m), Paris (10-11m), and Madrid (6m) for example. If you are comparing to the US, Berlin city proper would be the third (behind NY and LA, a bit ahead of Chicago), but only 12th when comparing metropolitan areas after Detroit (can you name the top 10 in the US, in order?). In terms of people, you might be interested to know that Berlin is the largest Turkish settlement outside of Turkey, with over 250,000 Turks, and also has large numbers of Polish and Russian people.
So, with those bits out of the way, the first thing to say about Berlin relates to age – it is practically new! This is true on multiple levels. First, although settlement can be traced back to 1192, it didn’t really become a European capital until the late 1800s, when it was established as the capital of the new German Empire. Second, the devastation of the city in the World Wars of the 20th Century (1945 especially) destroyed a lot. Third, and most importantly (at least in delivering the present situation), the divisions of the Cold War, including the occupation zones/sectors and the Berlin Wall, led to both the destruction of older buildings that did survive the war (due to the desire to move on in separate ways in the West and East), a lag in modernization (especially in former East Berlin), and ultimately to a bubble of new development in the years since reunification (which actually occurred almost a year after the fall of the wall, with the capital of the new Germany not really moving to Berlin until 1999).
My point is, especially compared with the rest of Europe, Berlin feels like a very new place. This applies to the buildings, of course, in that there are really no super-old buildings like you get in most other major European capitals. As an example, the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) dates from 1905, while St. Paul’s Cathedral in London dates from the late 1600s and Notre Dame in Paris was finished in 1345. The buildings surrounding the Brandenburg Gate and the adjacent Pariser Platz, which is something of the heart of the city, are mostly from the last ten years. The newness also manifests itself in the streets; unlike the small, winding streets of many European cities, Berlin is a city of wide and straight boulevards, clearly designed in a more modern age and for more modern vehicles. Finally, the people also have a bit of newness; not only is the population generally quite young, but like London there are a lot of immigrants, and perhaps the current situation (and prosperity) is still quite new to those from the former East Berlin.
Berlin reminds me of a mixture of Paris and Washington DC, largely because of the look and feel of the wide boulevards and relatively low buildings. Of course, Paris is no surprise, given the proximity and the various entanglements with the French during the 1800s, and the timing – much of that grand look of Paris was created in the mid-1800s by the planner Baron Haussmann under the directive of Napoleon III. I mean, the main square by the Brandenburg Gate is called Pariser Platz (Paris Square)!
Since Washington was planned by Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant in the 1790s, it makes sense that there are also similarities. Interestingly, the population density of Washington DC and Berlin are almost identical (at just shy of 10,000 people per square mile), and the proportion of park land is close to the same as well. Actually, the climates aren’t too different either; Berlin is about 5-10 degrees (F) cooler on average, with somewhat less rain, but the general climate profile is quite similar.