In certain areas of Eastern Germany, it can feel like the country is still divided. Monuments to the great DDR still stand (including significant portions of the Berlin Wall). You can still buy beloved East German products. Germans still talk about the “Mauer im Kopf” (Wall in the Head). In a city like Berlin, the past looms large.
The truth is, it’s not all stories of border crossings and secret prisons. Germans often have fond memories of life in the East. Known as “Ostalgie”, a combination of “Ost” (east) and “Nostalgie” (nostalgia), visitors can capture the sensation with 7 Ways to Experience Life in East Germany.
1. Visit a Plattenbau
Plattenbauten are plentiful around East Germany. Apartments composed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs, these massive housing projects were once quite luxurious and modern. They came with elevators, consistent warm water, and heat, plus panoramic views from the upper floors. And there were a lot of them. Designated as Neubaugebiet (“New development areas”), these were built in the 1960s as a quick and inexpensive way to address the housing shortage due to homes lost in wartime bombing.
Today they there are often looked at with unkind eyes. They are from a specific place and era. They look dated.
But they are a living part of East German history. If you aren’t lucky enough to score an invite to someone’s Plattenbau home, you have several other opportunities to glimpse this convergence of past and present.
Get the full-on GDR apartment experience in this museum. Narrowly saved from redevelopment, Stadt und Land preserved one apartment in pristine GDR condition – complete with furnishings. The museum is only open on Sundays, admission is free and English tours can be arranged.
The neighborhoods (Kiez) of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg are chronicled in this museum. The permanent exhibit covers 300 years of urban development including a photo series of different homes in similar Plattenbauten. This museum is free and open from Wednesday to Sunday from 12:00 to 18:00.
2. Get Nude
Getty Images / Heinz Wohner
Germans are (in)famous for their nonchalant attitude about nudity and no region embraces life in the buff more than the East. Known as FKK (Freikörperkultur “Free Body Culture”), this is less about sexuality and more about being natural. People enjoy nudity in the sauna, at the many lakes and beaches, and even sunbathing in the parks.
Some areas are clearly marked FKK but don’t be surprised if a spontaneous swimming session doesn’t require swimsuits.
3. East German Architecture
Karl-Marx-Allee is one of the city’s most important boulevards and its almost 2 miles (3 km) reveal extraordinary history. It is flanked by eight-story residential buildings and is now a protected monument (Denkmalschutz). Events like May Day parades of goose-stepping soldiers and an unarmed uprising on June 17th, 1953 happened here. Refer to our walking tour of this showcase of DDR grandeur for more of its history and attractions.
Of course, this is just one example of East German architecture. Uncountable examples exist around the city like the Fernsehturm and World Time Clock (Weltzeituhr) in Alexanderplatz.
4. Descend into DDR’s Uncomfortable Past
Of course, it’s not all nude swimming, grand Allees, and nostalgic museums. There is a negative side to time spent behind the Wall. Several excellent memorial sites focus on this time period.
The Stasi Museum offers a chilling look at a society that encouraged informing on neighbors, co-workers, family. Located on the headquarters of the DDR Ministry for State Security (MfS), visitors can tour the perfectly persevered offices. Guided tours in English are available every Saturday and Sunday at 15:00.
For about forty years, this prison complex was where people simply vanished. First, a prison for the Soviets to interrogate Nazis, it eventually became the property of the Stasis and they used it to question political dissidents, critics, and people trying to flee East Germany. The interrogation scenes in The Lives of Others were based on this site and the tours given by former inmates provide eerie authenticity. Since the memorial’s opening in 1994, over 2 million people have visited. Tours are available for 5 euro with English speaking groups on Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 14:30.
DDR Radio Station
Rundfunk der DDR (Radio of the GDR) was once the size of a bustling small city. Today, the main structure serve as recording studios, offices, film sets and concert spaces with periodic tours to relive its heyday.