Located close to Alexanderplatz is the lovely Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter). Although it looks old, this area was completely re-created in 1987-88.
Its maze of little streets and medieval houses were created by architects to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the foundation of Berlin.
It is a great place to have a wander around, perhaps browse in some of the shops or stop off for a meal at one of the inviting looking restaurants.
Dominating the quarter is the Nikolaikirche (church), with its tall, thin twin spires. The church is Berlins oldest - built between 1220-1230 - though there has been several modifications to its appearance since then. Today the church is a museum and also a concert hall. It is appreciated by the experts because of its amazing acoustics.
The Nicolaiviertal is a bit of an oddity. At first glance it is a tranquil back-water, a lingering remnant of medieval Berlin that seems somehow to have escaped the various traumatic events that have scarred the rest of the city so indelibly. But appearances are deceptive. The Allied bombers wrought their destruction here as much as elsewhere in the city and after the war the buildings lay pretty much in ruins. Whereas elsewhere, especially in the East, the city was rebuilt largely to a more modern design, here the authorities took the decision to try to recreate Altberlin, with its winding alley-ways and historic houses. In 1987 the whole quarter was restored in a peculiar mixture of reconstructed houses and concrete emulations of these (see photo for an example of the latter). The effect is somewhat bizarre, and while it is a pleasant area to wander through it all feels a little Disney-esque. Nevertheless it is worth a visit for the interesting, if touristy, shops (I loved the one that sold all things related to angels) and some good traditional restaurants (see my Restaurant tip on Zum Paddenwirt), also to see what claims to be the oldest building in the city, the Nicolaikirche (see my next tip).
As with all other monuments in Berlin, the age of Nikolaikirche is relative. The church dates back to 1230 and therefore is Berlin’s oldest church, located in Berlin’s oldest and most picturesque quarter (Nikolaiviertel). The wonderful thing is that some parts are really from this era. Well, not a lot – but the four-storey base of the west tower which looks a bit like a fortification is that old, and it was integrated into the new church from the 15th century. The neo-Gothic twin towers, very distinctive for the extremely pointed helm-roofs, were added in 1878. And then… same story… World War II, bombs, rubble, ruin. Not before 1980 to 1987 the burnt-out ruin was reconstructed, ready for Berlin’s 750th anniversary. Thanks to some remains of the vaults it was possible to keep to the original colour scheme.
You would not think that the major parts of the church are of such recent date. When you walk around it you feel like stepping back in time, discovering historic looking details on the exterior walls, some beautifully carved stone plates with angels and coats of arms. Of course, also the atmosphere contributes to this feeling, walking through Berlin’s medieval history.
The church is consecrated to the patron saint of the merchants. The original building was a pillar basilica made of stone. At the end of the 13th century the nave was transformed into a brick hall-church, with three naves identical in height. This had not been seen before in the region and was copied everywhere within the next decades. The construction of the choir was started in the 1370s but interrupted by the big fire in the city in 1380. Probably it was not finished before 1400. In the middle of the 15th century the main nave, the northern addition to the choir and the Liebfrauenkapelle (chapel) in the south-west were built. From 1876 to 1878 Hermann Blankenstein removed most of the Baroque modifications and rebuilt the front towers; since then it has its symmetrical structure.
Open Tue – Sun 10am – 6pm, Wed 12noon – 8pm
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A lot of nice cafés and restaurants are relaxing places far from the hustle and bustle of the city. If I remember right the Wirtshaus zum Nussbaum (well, the name-giving nut tree has disappeared…) is the oldest one. You can also browse through some very nice shops, with the unique Puppenstube (Doll’s House) where you find an incredible lot of historic and new dolls, teddy bears, and, of course, Berlin bears, including a huge selection of glazed china bears, very creatively painted by various artists. They are called Buddy Bears. They can stand on their feet and hands and have become very fashionable since some years.
I also loved the huuuuuuge and very old stuffed toy bears sitting opposite the neighbouring shop named – surprise, surprise - Teddy’s on their chairs, in front of Nikolaikirche.
But back to more serious subjects ;-) The reconstructed houses from the 17th, 18th and 19th century were originally located at other sites, for example the Ephraim-Palais on Mühlendamm which is a significant Baroque palace from 1766. Also the Gerichtslaube (Court Pavillion) in Poststraße is a copy. The already mentioned restaurant, Gasthof zum Nussbaum, was reconstructed true to the original which was built in 1507. At the church square you find a house from the 17th century in which the writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing lived. The Knoblauchhaus (Garlic House; Garlic being a common German family name) in Poststraße is the quarter’s oldest residential house.
The Zille-Museum in Nikolaiviertel is dedicated to the legendary Berlin artist/cartoonist Heinrich Zille who lived from 1858 to 1929. He was dubbed “Raffael der Hinterhöfe” (Raffael of the Backyards) and surely most popular artist ever, an incredibly humourous critic of society. If you want to know something about Berlin’s spirit and the people’s special kind of humour, this is a great place to go.
Open Tue – Sun 11am – 6pm, Apr – Oct until 7pm
Entry fee 4 Euro
I had not been in Nikolaiviertel on previous Berlin visits, and would I not have seen it now I would have missed an area which has become my favourite place in the whole city. For many reasons. But mostly because it felt so authentic, and romantic, and especially because no hordes of tourists wandered around. In some moments I was totally alone! To keep this extraordinary atmosphere please do not go there all at once! LOL
The Nikolaiviertel feels a bit like an open-air museum of the destroyed old Berlin. Nikolaikirche is located in the centre, and this is Berlin’s oldest building. However, I do not really consider it as preserved as the church as well as the surrounding houses were destroyed in World War II, and were reconstructed – some restored, others newly built as replicas – as late as from 1981 to 1989. On the other hand, until WW2, they were Berlin’s oldest houses, the church dates back to 1230, and the quarter can well be called Berlin’s birthplace.
The Nikolaiviertel is located between the Spree River (southern end of the Museumsinsel which is no more called Museumsinsel this far south…) and Berlin’s Town Hall. You see it from quite a distance thanks to the pointed neo-Gothic twin towers of Nikolaikirche.
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Of course, there has to be a bear somewhere in the historic centre of Berlin. And you will not be disappointed. To the right of the main entrance of Nikolaikirche you find a bear statue made of stone, the poor bear seemingly sitting behind bars – but you could see it in a positive way, as the bars are the support of a pavillion, and from his elevated position the bear (who holds a coat of arms) has a good view over the quarter. If you have a closer look you see that this bear ensemble is not just a scupture but a fountain called Bärenbrunnen, which means nothing else than Bear Fountain.
The bear is even a small bear, and that is what the name Berlin means: little bear, from the old German words Ber-lin, which would now be spelled as: Bärlein, “lein” being a suffix that gives the word a diminishing sense, identical with the German ending –chen, like in: Mädchen.
When you look for the religious remainings inside the church, you see an interesting mixture of styles: The carvings in front of the organ are done in a simple style, mostly in shades of brown. When you look up to the ceiling, you see colouful paintings and stucco, partly with golden ornaments.
This, together with the technical exhibition in the foreground, make a very interesting mixture.
Nikolaiviertel or St. Nicholas Quarter is a small district in the historic center, part of Mitte and close to the Alexanderplatz. Its narrow streets are a favorite place for strolling, especially for tourists. The area, which borders the Spree river contained some of the oldest buildings in Berlin before it was turned into wasteland at the end of the second world war.
It wasn't until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th anniver-sary of the city, before reconstruction of the area started. During the 8-year project, replicas of historic buildings were constructed in an attempt to recreate a historic quarter. The result is a nice tourist-attracting area with many restaurants, cafés and shops.
You get information about Nikolaikirche, and also some rather superficial information about Nikolaiviertel in travel guides. But this is just for getting a glimpse into the incredibly interesting history of this beautiful quarter. So it would really make sense to join a guided tour, the guides will have to tell fascinating stories of Berlin’s birthplace, of its destruction and resurrection.
Tours last about 1 hour and cost 8 Euro pp (as 2007).
Phone (030) 247 232 78 for more information.
You can already find a lot of information on a really good website of a community group, called:
Aktionsgemeinschaft Nikolaiviertel e.V.
Phone (030) 247 460 10
Fax (030) 247 460 130
On this website you find a list of all museums, shops and restaurants in Nikolaiviertel and lots more, including a fabulous map. The actual events are not up to date but this, I think, does not matter as this has no influence on the history.
I took shelter from a massive storm in the middle of the day, in this lovely historic quarter of the city, where the oldest church in Berlin stands with its famous twin spires, the Nikolai church. There are lots of lovely little interesting shops here, including a miniature book shop and a shop selling all kinds of bears! (stuffed ones of course :)
Also in this quarter is the 16th century reconstructed inn "Zum Nussbaum" (At the Nut Tree). I was sitting opposite in a cafe called Kartoffelhaus ( The Potato House). I wasn't in need of potato sustainance but that was all that was on the menu - so I ordered Potato cake from a dis-interested waitress who, realising I was only sheltering from the storm, proceeded to take as long as she liked with my order. Anyway, after a couple of coffees, the storm did eventually pass and I was able to move on.
At the Spree end of Propststraße (in Nikolaiviertel) you find a spectacular bronze statue. It depicts St. George fighting against the dragon. It was created by the artist August Kiss in 1853.
The statue has been relocated twice until it found its actual site on the banks of the river Spree. Originally it sat in the courtyard of Berlin’s City Castle that does not exist anymore. In 1951 when the GDR regime ordered the demolition of the castle’s remains St. George found a new home in Volkspark Friedrichshain until it was transported to the banks of the Spree.
From its current location you have a great view towards Museumsinsel with the Spree bridges and especially to Berliner Dom.
From every corner of Nikolaiviertel you have interesting views. I enjoyed to be in such a quiet old part of the city and spotting the landmarks of the newer Berlin over the roofs of the old buildings.
The most obvious ones are the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz and the red brick tower of Berlin’s (Red) Town Hall on the other side of the street. And from the banks of the Spree you have breathtaking views over the river towards Berliner Dom. This side of Nikolaiviertel offers the only really open view.
If you come from the Red Town Hall or Molkenmarkt, the terraced houses enclose the quarter like a city wall, and you walk into the old core through a kind of city gate. This gives Nikolaiviertel a unique atmosphere. The noise of the city and the streets is blocked off by this ring of terraced houses. The quarter is an own little world.
Right in the center of the Nikolai quarter there is the Nikolaikirche. It's one of the oldest churches in Berlin,from the 13th century. People famous in the history of the Protestant churches in Germany have preached and worked here, but unfortunately today it's no longer a working church. It houses an exhibition about the changing face of Berlin, how the city developed. There are huge models of Berlin, a large map where you can see where the wall used to be etc.
Quite interesting, but in the background you can still see the remainings of former religious times, which I found much more interesting.
To call the Nikolaiviertel (Nikolai Quarter) the Old City of Berlin would be presumptuous. This is just a very small neighborhood, which was the site of Berlin's beginnings dating to the 13th century. What you see today is mostly reconstructed.
The location of this early settlement of Berlin was on the river Spree, at a shallow point where it could be crossed. Today the Nikolaiviertel lies between the Spree and the modern Alexanderplatz with its TV tower.
In the center of Nikolaiviertel stands the Nikolai Church, on the site where Berlin's oldest church was built in the 1230s in the romanesque style.
"Ephraim Palais", one of the most well known buildings in the Nikolaiviertel, was the palace of King Friedrich the 2nd's finance minister. It got demolished in 1936, and its reconstruction during the Cold War era was a unique story: parts of the original facade were stored in West Berlin, and the West Berlin authorities gave them to the DDR for use in the re-building of the palace.
Today the Nikolaiviertel boasts 5 museums (the cannabis museum is one of them), 22 restaurants (mainly traditional German cuisine) and over 50 shops. It's a change of style and pace from modern Berlin which surrounds it, and a nice place to spend an evening.
The church today hosts an ecclesiastical museum.
You can also see a model of the original church.
The interior is exceptionally light. I would not expected this of such an old and darkish brick exterior. The pillars that hold the Gothic arches are bright white, as is the ceiling with its fine red and green fan-vaulting (and blue in the side naves).
The arches between the entrance hall and the main nave are made of red brick, and sit on dark and rather thin stone pillars. This is rather a big contrast to te lot of white in the main part of the church. You can walk around the choir, connecting the side naves around the altar.
The church holds three impressive organs, a 17th century Italian, a 19th century German and a big new one. Regular concerts are held. Also very nice is a Glockenspiel consisting of 41 bells.
The windows are simple, so no stained glass windows or other spectacular features. This simplicity is very appealing, it has a calming and relaxing effect on me.
Open daily 10am - 6pm
Update October 2012 - 5 Euro admission
On my recent visit of Nikolaikirche it was not possible anymore to walk around in the church without paying an admission of 5 Euro. For what you get I think this is quite a steep price.