How to spot the differences between former East- and West-Berlin
In order to be a true Berlin you have to be able to spot the difference between the former East and West Berlin – no matter wherever your are in Berlin.
There are certain signs to look out for to be able to determine if this is the former East or former West.
With our help you will turn into a real Berlin expert.
But before we start let’s look at the Berlin neighbourhoods and if they were located in the former East or former West of Berlin.
East-Berlin neighbourhoods include:
- Berlin Mitte
- Prenzlauer Berg
West-Berlin neighbourhoods include:
But we want you to be able to spot the differences in the streets walking through Berlin and not by memorizing this list.
So here are some of the things to look out for to spot the difference between East and West Berlin.
Just as a reminder – these sings are not 100% accurate anymore as you might spot an Ampelmännchen in the West as well as there are now trams running in the West of Berlin.
But generally these signs will give you a good idea of which part of Berlin you are.
Probably all of you have seen or heard about the Ampelmännchen.
If you walked past the touristy spots such as Hackescher Markt, Alexanderplatz or many more you might have even spottet some shops called “Ampelmännchen”.
So what exactly is special about the Ampelmännchen?
The former Easter Berlin Ampelmännchen had a special design that became iconic after the wall came down in Germany.
And Berlin decided to keep the Ampelmännchen in the former Eastern part of Berlin while the rest of Germany, including the former Western part of Berlin, have a less cool Ampelmännchen.
But judge for yourself – here are the East and West Berlin Ampelmännchen.
Plattenbauten – Panel buildings
These huge panel buildings were the dream of any family back in the GDR (East Berlin).
Most of these standardized buildings included a balcony and all of them had running water, heating and an insuite toilet/bathroom.
30 years ago Prenzlauer Berg, now one of the most expensive and hip neighbourhoods in Germany, was not a nice place to live.
The run down buildings usually were heated with coal, which meant that the air in the neighbourhood was quite bad and there was always a layer of dirt around.
Most buildings had shared bathrooms and toilets – say goodbye to privacy.
So now you know why East Berlin residents were keen on living in one of those (now deemed) ugly panel buildings.
The prime locations like Alexanderplatz were almost exclusively reserved for members of the East German party.
But as we learned the former East German party did not even trust their own people – e.g. in the panel buildings at Alexanderplatz right new to the Rotes Rathaus the installed fake walls with listening devices to spy on their own people.
The biggest Plattenbauten with 20+ floors are located in Berlin Mitte next to Leipziger Straße and in Marzahn and in the Märkisches Viertel.
Tram or Bus
One thing that we only noticed after several years of living in Berlin – there are almost no trams in the former Western parts of Berlin.
Before the wall came down the tram was only running in East Berlin.
So if you are on a tram you are almost surely in East Berlin – however nowadays also the former Western parts of Berlin try to move traffic from cars and busses towards the rail.
So some of the existing tram lines have been expanded towards West Berlin such as around Hauptbahnhof towards Moabit.
As West Berlin was relying on busses they started to dedicate more and more traffic lanes as bus lanes.
So if you are cruising through Berlin on a bus lane this might be an indicator that you are in the former Western part.
Orange Street Lights
Up to this day you can tell the difference between former East and West Berlin at night by the color of the street lights.
West Berlin street lights have the “normal” whitish colour while East Berlin has this orange glow.
But whenever the old orange glowing street lights are replaced right now they are with modern LED lights – which means within maybe 20 years the old orange glow will be gone at night.
Also interesting to know, during times when everyone should be trying to minimize gas consumption: Berlin still has old gas street lights that are running all day long – yes even if the sun is shining they are burning gas like crazy.
Well, only in Berlin we have to say.
Altbau with high ceilings
When you have been apartment hunting in Berlin you might already know the advantage of a proper Berliner Altbau (at least if it is completely renovated):
The ceilings are extremely high – up from 3,50m and even more.
This gives the apartments a very spacious feel.
On the downside you have to heat a lot more space in winter.
So if you find yourself in a house with very high ceilings chances are high you are in the former Eastern part of Berlin.
Irratic naming and numbering of streets
Now it is getting complicated. Let us try to start with the numbering system of streets in the former East.
That will then explain why some streets change names at a crossroad even though it is basically the same street.
Back to numbering: In the West it is pretty straight forward. You start at 1 on one side and 2 on the other side.
Each following house on that side gets a 2 numbers higher number.
So you have on one side of the street buildings with even numbers and on the other side of the streets buildings with odd numbers.
Also you can be sure that these numbers are counted upwards, no matter what.
In the East and until this day, there are several systems.
So sometimes you have this system as in the West.
But sometimes you have streets that start at the beginning with 1 and then the house next on the same side gets 2, then 3, then 4 and so on.
At the end of the street you move to the other side and continue the way back until you reach the house opposite number 1.
So that means that a house on the left side of the street is Number 1, while the one opposite is number 392.
That is very confusing as you never know where a certain number is if you are not familiar with that particular street.
And that leads to another very bad effect.
Imagine we reach the end of the street (where we countinue counting but on the other side of the street and in the other direction).
What happens if the city grows (surprice, cities do grow) and the street will be built to continue another 1km?
Now you have to give this new part of the same street a new name as you can not continue with the numbers (remember that Number 1 and the highest number of the old street are on the other end of the new extension and now you have no way to continue with the numbers).
So, if you ever get lost in Berlin you can blame it on the city designers that screwed up and say it is not your fault.
Famous landmarks in East Berlin
Now another quick cheat sheet in order to determine if you are in the East or West of Berlin.
Fernsehturm, Brandenburger Tor, Charite
Famous landmarks in West Berlin
Kadewe, Gedächtniskirche, Funkturm, Messe ICC
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