For almost 30 years, the Berlin wall separated the oppressed Soviet Union from the free West Germany. Even though the wall fell in 1989, reminders of Berlin’s historical past can still be found throughout the city. Some people have commercialized upon Berlin’s history but there are a plethora of important sites throughout the city that are excellent for tourists to visit. One such place is Checkpoint Charlie, the most notorious gateway through the Berlin Wall. Today, it sits in the middle of a bustling section of the city and is a must-see for visitors in Berlin.
What is Checkpoint Charlie?
Checkpoint Charlie was located on Friedrichstraße, right in the heart of the American sector. It was the only checkpoint where Allied diplomats, military personnel, and foreign tourists could pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector. This made Charlie the most notorious checkpoint in all of Berlin.
Several East Germans dared risky escapes at Checkpoint Charlie. The space between East and West was aptly named “no-man’s land”. It was extremely dangerous to try and cross illegally and can be compared to some of the modern-day escapes from Mexico to the United States. Except in Soviet Germany, it could mean the difference between life and death. At least 138 people died while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall in the three decades that it split the capitol in two. Thankfully, a supposed 5,000 people were able to escape from East Germany during the time of the Wall.
How to Get There
Checkpoint Charlie is located right above the Kochstraße U-Bahn stop, which makes it very convenient for tourists to find. One ticket on the U-Bahn costs only a little over 1 Euro. Some people decide to risk it by not purchasing a ticket. Although ticket collectors rarely get on the U-Bahn, it is still a possibility that they will ask you for your ticket and you can be fined up to 60 Euros. I’ve only been asked to show my ticket once but it’s up to you if you’re willing to take that chance. Riding the subway to Checkpoint Charlie is the best way to get there because the area will be packed with tourists. Driving there by car is feasible but I wouldn’t recommend it.
If traveling from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, take the S5 towards Strausberg Nord and get off at the Friedrichstraße stop. From there, get on the U6 line towards Alt-Mariendorf and get off at the Kochstraße stop. Follow the signs (and the people) to Checkpoint Charlie.
The original guardhouse now permanently stays at the Allied Museum in Berlin, but a replica stands in its original place. Standing in the middle of a functioning street, the white boards of the guardhouse almost blend in to the background. Tourist shops surround the streets but the guardhouse remains a solemn reminder – in essence, a place where time forever stands still.
What to do at Checkpoint Charlie
There isn’t a lot to do at Checkpoint Charlie other than walk around and interact with some of the things they have. Several museums have sprung up in that area but I haven’t found them particularly noteworthy. For those who are on a budget, the city of Berlin has created a small open-air museum that teaches visitors about the history of Checkpoint Charlie. The best part about it? It’s free! So be sure to hit up that museum and explore the surrounding area. Overall, I wouldn’t plan to spend more than an hour or two at Checkpoint Charlie.
Two guards stand in front of the guardhouse itself – Germans dressed up as American soldiers. The irony isn’t lost on anybody, but it makes for a fun photo op. The actors, for lack of a better word, speak several languages and are really fun to pose with. Look at how much fun we are all having!
But the hidden gem of Checkpoint Charlie is one of the best parts. There’s a sign slightly hidden on the side of the guardhouse that boldly reads VISAS and looks like it might not be official. Go up to the stand and ask to have your passports stamped. There are 15 possible stamps, all of them from the Soviet Era. For 10 Euros, you can have all 15 stamps and for 5 Euros, you can have 10 of the stamps. I have a major slight obsession with passport stamps, so I eagerly handed over my 10 Euros. As he stamps them, the guard explains the meaning behind each one and which country used them. In a way, it’s like a history lesson on the go.
I recommend everybody to go to Checkpoint Charlie and get his or her passports stamped. It’s fun and interactive! Some people have asked me if they were questioned by any border control because I had strange stamps in my passport. Thankfully, I never have and neither has anybody else that I know of.
Today, the barbed wire and armed guards are long gone, but the area still remains pulsing with the memories that occurred there.