Berlin culture has often been regarded as synonymous with the rise of the techno music scene, but it also has an indisputable tumultuous past. Whether it be the soaring TV tower that once stood as a symbol of communist power commanding the gaze of the city, or the memorial plaques for holocaust victims on every street corner, it’s impossible to walk through the streets and forget this city’s controversial past. Because of Berlin’s history, and the constant change of political power over the past century, Berlin has become an urban explorers dream. Now inundated with sites that have since been forgotten, these abandoned places still reside as permanent reminders of this city’s painful past. Though, unlike the other reminders in the city, these places remain frozen in time. Berlin has come a long way since the fall of the wall, and has honed in on a new endeavor in recent years: preserving the city’s past by making these abandoned sites more accessible to the public.
Much of this reinvigorated focus comes from the sad truth that many of these sites lay decaying into ruin and pose a threat to public safety for the explorers who wish to partake in a part of the city’s forgotten past. What used to be a jungle gym of hopping fences and climbing unstable staircases, many abandoned sites have been revived to allow for safe guided tours. In addition to guided tours, there are many abandoned sites that have been repurposed to be used by the public while still paying homage to their past. The need for the sites to become more accessible to the public, rather than demolishing them, is a testament to the true Berlin culture of urban exploration, and the city’s desire to preserve its past. In our time here, we were able to visit several of Berlin’s abandoned sites (though, not all of them) and wanted to share our experiences and give you a taste of what these places have to offer the urban explorer.
On the outskirts of Berlin, only a short train ride away, lies a small city of abandoned sanatorium buildings. Only a ten-minute walk from the train station, these dilapidated buildings hold secrets dating back to the turn of the century.
These buildings have been purposed and repurposed throughout the ages. Firstly, they were built between 1898 and 1930 by the Berlin State Insurance Institution as an answer to the rising tuberculosis epidemic affecting the Berlin working class. The hospital was designed to treat men and women of all classes for an array of long term illnesses. The network of buildings was divided into quarters: on one half were men, and the other, women. All patients were also housed based on the nature of their disease. Tuberculosis patients were housed separately; Beelitz Heilstätten devoted an entire half of the medical compound to combatting the rising tuberculosis plague (historically referred to as “the white plague”). The invalids of each quarter where strictly forbidden to fraternize because of gender segregation and quarantine. No expense was spared in the facility’s construction so that no funds or hospital space would be sacrificed in future renovations.
During both World Wars the facility served as a military hospital. During his short stint (a few weeks) on the front lines, Adolph Hitler himself was a patient sometime during 1916 after his left thigh was wounded by shrapnel on the western front. After its use as a military hospital in WWII, the Red Army took up residence in 1945. It served as their largest military hospital abroad. After the fall of the wall and the Soviets vacated the property, the buildings fell into decay and ruins. Young Berliners would venture out to Beelitz Heilstätten and make their mark on the premises with graffiti. There are also accounts of illegal grunge parties being held in the deserted rooms of the sanitorium (Is everyone free this Friday?).
We were able to walk around a portion of the grounds and buildings on a guided English tour. Included in our tickets was access to Alpenhaus (the women’s tuberculosis sanitorium) and the treetop path that looms above it. The treetop path offers a unique aerial view of Alpenhaus, namely the “bonsai garden” that has replaced what was once the building’s roof. Outfitted with hardhats, we entered the rubble strewn, graffitied corridor. There was an undeniable eerie sense interruption hanging in the air. The building has been stripped of most artifacts (and even some of its walls), but we were reassured that due to its steel structure, we weren’t in danger of a structural collapse. Over a century has passed since its inception, and though its appearance has changed tremendously, there are still reminders of its former use. A few remnant steel bed frames stand misplaced next to the stairwell, or in the middle of a hallway. We noticed boots lying on a stairwell that looked as though their owner left them there only moments before.
Even though Beelitz Heilstätten is not included in the classic canon of Berlin highlights, its haunted spirit and opportunity for exploration offers a rare glimpse into Berlin’s dynamic past.
A visit to Berlin would be incomplete without a jaunt to some of the city’s Cold War era structures. One such place, which may be especially fascinating for Americans, is Teufelsberg. From a distance, the complex looks like a couple of giant golf balls mounted on top of a forested hill. What is left standing on a pile of rubble are the remnants of a former U.S. listening station (what we lovingly refer to as “the spy tower”).
A hop, skip, and a jump away away from the busy streets of inner-city Berlin, we navigated through a maze of wooded dirt paths up a hill with nothing but a questionable GPS signal and our internal compasses (we didn’t spring for data plans). After paying a €5 entrance fee, we started wandering through the neglected and graffitied buildings. While there are tours available, we chose to let the paths around the towers guide us themselves. The green spaces around the structures have been converted into hang-out spots, a pop-up art gallery, and there’s even a Biergarten for the thirsty traveler.
Before the towers were left to crumble, the American forces constructed the towers, antennas, and radomes in order to conduct espionage and surveillance of the then Eastern Bloc during the early 1950s until the end of the Cold War in 1989. The substance of what the Americans derived from this reconnaissance and their methods remains a secret even though nearly 30 years have passed since the fall of the wall. The archives will remain sealed until 2020, when the records will become public.
The only drawback to our visit was that the climb to the viewing platform within the towers is temporarily closed to the public. Apparently structures made from deteriorating fabric flapping in the wind is deemed a fire hazard? Even though we didn’t get to climb the towers personally, we were able to send a drone up to conduct some espionage of our own (see the drone footage below). The towers are now regarded as one of the most notorious of Berlin’s formerly secret spots. There’s something alluring about an abandoned historical site that still has so many secrets left to uncover, which is why we would recommend getting in touch with your inner spy and checking out Teufelsberg during your next trip to Berlin.
Flying high above the domes, the complex retains an aura of mystery and looks almost alien. We owe a huge thanks to the kind stranger who we met upon the nearby “Nazi hill” (a manmade hill constructed by the Nazis), and coached Rachel through her second drone flight ever.
During the hottest hours of a summer day in 2014, we made our way through the forest. After walking several miles (and a yogurt exploding in my bag), we finally met the fence. Unsure of how to get in, we walked around the perimeter until we found an access point. While bikers and elderly couples passed us by, we hoisted ourselves using an old stump and plopped over the barrier. Immediately upon entering, equal feelings of “oh shit, what have I done,” and adrenaline fueled curiosity flooded over us. We were in Spreepark, the abandoned GDR amusement park on the southeast side of Berlin, but a lot has changed in the park since that day.
Spreepark opened its gates as “VEB KulturePark” in 1969 to provide entertainment to the East Berlin population. The park not only featured dozens of exciting rides, but also offered concerts and dances for GDR citizens. Perhaps the most striking thing about the park was the 400ft red Ferris Wheel, which still stands today and greets you with a ghostly creaking noise that echos throughout the park.
After the fall of the wall in 1989, the Senate of Berlin held an auction to bid off the park in an attempt to modernize the grounds. The park was sold to buyer Pia Witte, whose husband Norbert Witte managed the park and renamed it “Spreepark.” Throughout the 90s, Spreepark was wildly successful, bringing in crowds of 1.5 million annually. However, as luck would have it, the reunification brought new regulations. The city of Berlin later declared the Plänterwald forest surrounding Spreepark a nature reserve. This regulation forced the parking lot of the amusement park to be considerably downsized. With less access to the park and climbing overhead costs, the park dropped to 400,000 visitors annually and accrued a lot of debt. Their bad luck continued when Norbert Witte and his son were caught smuggling 181 Kilos of cocaine (yes you read that right) in an amusement park ride called “Flying Carpet” from Peru (you can’t make this stuff up). With their high debts racking up against the property and Norbert not around to manage the park, Spreepark officially closed in 2002. After the property was abandoned, nature began to reclaim the park and it faded into a shell of its glorious past. Vandals and urban explorers were free (not legally) to climb the fence and discover the abandoned grounds of the once great amusement park.
Lauren was fortunate enough to visit in 2014. The story mentioned earlier was a recollection of her first time there during her study abroad semester when she had to hop a fence to visit the abandoned grounds. Walking through the park back then could only be described as a euphoric discovery of the unknown, while simultaneously struggling to evade the park watchmen (cue the Scooby Doo chase montage music). In 2014, everything had remained virtually untouched since the park’s closure: roller coasters, concession stands, and all. The only differences were the additions of vandalism and the overgrown plants that now sprawl the grounds. However, curious trespassers and vandals wouldn’t be the only people to enjoy mysterious place for long.
After being owned by the city of Berlin again for almost a decade, the parks gates opened once more, but to be enjoyed in a different way. Since many of the rides were structurally unsound, the city began removing them and cleaning up the park in order to make it safe to be used by the public once again. As of 2019, adventure enthusiasts can now book safe guided tours through the park’s grounds. We were not fortunate enough to get tickets to the grounds this time around, as they only operate on weekends and are booked through November. We were still able to visit the Plänterwald forest and walk the perimeter of the former park to get a taste for what has changed. Much of the debris has been cleared and several rides appear to have been removed. Though not as exhilarating as climbing a fence, it is promising to know that the urban explorer can visit these sites safely and that the history of this park will prevail for years to come. However, the magical feeling of sneaking into this “verboten” territory to discover Cold War era entertainment forgotten by the public can not quite be captured on a guided tour.
Honorable Mention: Tempelhof
Sitting south of Berlin’s city center, lies a giant grass field and paths lined with traffic control symbols only a pilot would understand. Berlin’s Tempelhof airport no longer serves its original purpose, but has found new life as a park. Commissioned by the Reich Ministry of Transport in 1923, the airport has served many purposes throughout its life. From a Nazi parade ground, to an American military transport center, and today, a park, this airport has done it all. It is only listed as an honorable mention because the airport is no longer abandoned and has been repurposed. In addition to being a park, the main airport terminal has served as a refugee center since 2015. The park itself spans the former Tempelhof tarmac. Running up and down the runways almost feels like you’re about to take flight as the arrows guide you forward. We would highly recommend a visit to the park, especially if you’re looking to spice up your run with some Cold War history.