Alexanderplatz might be the strangest square in all of Europe. It’s world famous and a must-see for every visitor to Berlin. But why? It doesn’t have any character or appeal – it’s just a huge open space surrounded by not-so-great-looking buildings housing chain shops. Oh yes, and then there’s this huge concrete tower. Because of all this, it might also be one of the most disappointing squares in Europe. But in this Valentine’s week, let’s try to give our good old “Alex” a bit of Liebe and focus on some little-known facts about it.
Alexanderplatz today. Image courtesy of john_coffee/ photocase.de
How It All Began
So let’s start with the history, because Alexanderplatz has been one of Berlin’s most important locations for centuries now. Long before it was the heart of the GDR’s capital East Berlin, it was a cattle market outside Berlin’s city walls. In 1805, after a visit by the Russian emperor Alexander I, its name was changed from Königs Thor Platz to Alexanderplatz. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the opening of a train station, covered market and department store increased the importance of Alexanderplatz.
During the roaring twenties it was, together with Potsdamer Platz, the pulsating heart of Berlin’s nightlife. This was also when Alfred Döblin wrote his famous novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Not much remains from this time, since Alexanderplatz was the site of one of the heaviest bombings and fights of WWII. However, parts of the train station and two prominent pre-war buildings survived: Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus, both finished in 1932.
Never a Dull Moment
Time for some numbers: at the last count (in 2014) 360,000 people visited Alexanderplatz per day – that’s exactly the same amount of visitors New York’s Times Square receives. 250,000 of them also used the railway station, making it one of Berlin’s busiest stations. Every hour, 10,230 people shop at the (department) stores around Alexanderplatz, and that’s twice as many as in 2000. It makes the “Alex” one of the most visited squares in all of Europe and one of the most important shopping areas in Germany. Luckily, there’s still plenty of space for everyone: the square measures no less than 80,000 m2 – four times the size of Amsterdam’s most famous square, the Dam.
Alexanderplatz from Galeria Kaufhof. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans
I don’t need exact numbers to state that the Fernsehturm (“TV Tower”) is the most photographed object in Berlin. That’s why I never advise people to go up and admire the view – the panorama (and pictures) are much better when the tower is in it. Last year, I provided some tips for the best view in Berlin. Built in 1965-1969, the tower has been defining Berlin’s skyline for 50 years now and grew to be one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions with 12 million visitors per year. It’s easy to forget that the tower is in fact still a broadcasting tower. 150 antennae for radio and TV are mounted on the top, creating a reach of 20,000 square kilometres around the tower.
Alexanderplatz at night. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans
Germany’s Highest Hotel
The Fernsehturm is the tallest object in all of Germany, which makes it easy to overlook the other tower on Alexanderplatz: the Park Inn Hotel, 125 metres high and therefore the second highest building in Berlin. The former ‘Interhotel Stadt Berlin’ was, just like the Fernsehturm, constructed in the late 1960s, when Alexanderplatz was undergoing a complete renewal. When it opened on the 21st birthday of the GDR, it had 1,006 rooms with 1,982 beds. Around 1,000 employees assisted the guests – mostly important (political) foreign dignitaries – in the bars, restaurants, shops, hair salon and carwash. The hotel was completely renovated in the early 2000s and is still the highest as well as the second largest hotel in Germany.
Finally: Snacks at the Alex!
Right next to Interhotel Stadt Berlin and in the shadow of the Fernsehturm, the HO-Centrum-Warenhaus was another addition in the early 1970s. With 15,0000 m2 of retail space, it was the largest department store of the GDR. By the start of the 1970s, the Alexanderplatz was ready for the future – except for one thing.
Because of all these futuristic new buildings, Alex soon became a tourist attraction. And all these visitors had to eat. There were some restaurants, but they didn’t offer enough seats to satisfy all. The GDR government organized a special team to come up with a solution – and they did: Alexanderplatz needed fast-food. Not in the American sense, obviously, but an East-German variety. From 1979 on, the ‘Ketwurst’ (a sausage in a roll, covered with ketchup) and ‘Grilletta’ (a hamburger on a round sandwich) were introduced to visitors of Alexanderplatz. Needless to say: they loved it.