Before the Iron Curtain fell Charlottenburg was full of a vibrant mix of cultures – intellectuals and artists in the cafés around Savignyplatz, ladies who loved to shop along Kufürstendamm, and heroin addicts in the recesses of Zoo Station. “Ku’damm,” the tree-lined boulevard often referred to as the “Champs-Elysées of Berlin,” buzzed with commerce and ended at the antithesis of consumerism: the bombed-out ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where hippies, punks and drunks whiled away their days and nights on its steps.
Today the new generation of artists have made eastern districts their home, Zoo Station is pleasant enough, vendors and South American musicians are more likely to be found on the church steps, but shoppers rightfully remain loyal to Charlottenburg. KaDeWe, Europe’s largest department store is the highlight of Tauentzienstrasse, and boutiques, bookstores, and house ware shops line the quieter cross streets of Ku’damm. Favourite streets to stroll include Leibnitzstrasse, Bleibtreustrasse, and Fasanenstrasse. This district is home to the city’s best design hotels and the most charming, matron-run and antique-filled pensions, found mostly on the upper floors of late 19th century buildings.
In 1893, a population of 100,000 qualified the city as a metropolis; seven years later in 1900 Charlottenburg counted 182,000 residents and was the richest city in Prussia. Universities and theatres sprang up between 1878 and 1912 and after the slump of World War I, Charlottenburg once again defined modern life in the roaring 1920s.
Tourists may have done their sightseeing in Mitte, but they did their thrill-seeking in the cabarets, cafés and theatres of Charlottenburg. Before the phrase “see and be seen” was quipped, the cultural avant garde dubbed themselves the “swimmers” (the “be seen”) and derided the gawkers who came to eavesdrop on their oh-so-titillating conversations as the “non-swimmers.” Cabarets and theatres still abound in Charlottenburg. As for daytime activities, if you’re not a shopper, come for Europe’s most diverse zoo – perhaps home to even more species than Noah managed to fit on his ark – the museums surrounding Schloss Charlottenburg, or the new Helmut Newton photography museum behind Zoo Station. The latter keeps up Berlin’s racy reputation with Newton’s famous Amazon-proportioned nudes in sometimes compromising positions. So, there’s something to make Charlottenburg proud again...
Who’s That Girl?
Who’s the Charlotte behind Charlottenburg, and why did the only district in Berlin named for a woman plant such an inelegant syllable as “burg” at its end? In 2005, the chic district with a castle (“Burg”) celebrates its 300th year of existence. Alas, it wasn’t love, but a marriage of political alliance that brought the 16-year-old Sophie Charlotte von Hanover (1668-1705) to town in 1684. The well-educated young woman married Elector Friedrich von Brandenburg, and their fortunes rose together in 1701 when they became Prussia’s first king and queen (her husband crowned himself King Friedrich I in a pompous ceremony, which is said to have greatly embarrassed the intellectual woman). Still, Sophie Charlotte beat her older brother to the loftiest royal level by 13 years: George only became King of Great Britain in 1711. At least she spoke her subjects’ language (George’s English was rot). Sophie Charlotte drew the thinkers and philosophers of her time to the court, including John Toland and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and backed the founding of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. After her death in 1705 at the age of 37, the King renamed her summer palace Schloss Charlottenburg and founded the city of Charlottenburg. You can pay your respects to this would-be feminist at her apartment in the palace and at her crypt within the Berliner Dom.