Journey by Design: Berlin's Tempelhof Airport Is a Public Park Like No Other
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Journey by Design: Berlin's Tempelhof Airport Is a Public Park Like No Other

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By Kathryn McLamb
Sprawling across a bewildering 32 million square feet, Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is one of the world’s most eclectic public spaces. Contributor and former Dwell editor Kathryn McLamb shares her first-time experience, plus tips on more to see and do in Berlin.

I never thought I’d ever practice cartwheels on an airport tarmac, much less rollerblade down one. Yet somehow, I found myself jubilantly doing both during my last day in Berlin. Getting here wasn’t easy. Not knowing how to read or speak German, I spent a good chunk of time wandering aimlessly around the city’s south-central borough trying to find this place; clutching my dead iPhone as if Google Maps might miraculously appear through the black screen. Then, finally, I stumbled upon the 4,000-foot-long Nazi-era terminal building and knew I’d arrived.

Built in the 18th century, the sandstone Brandenburg Gate is one of the earliest examples of neoclassical architecture in Germany. While it symbolized the East and West division of Germany from 1961 to 1989, this iconic monument now represents reunification. 

Built in the 18th century, the sandstone Brandenburg Gate is one of the earliest examples of neoclassical architecture in Germany. While it symbolized the East and West division of Germany from 1961 to 1989, this iconic monument now represents reunification. 

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Covering over 800 acres, Berlin's Tempelhof Airport is larger than New York City's Central Park and is twice the size of Monaco. The airport was constructed by the Nazis from 1936 to 1941, however it reopened as an eclectic city park in 2010. The project received the Symbol of Engineering Architecture award in 2011.

Covering over 800 acres, Berlin's Tempelhof Airport is larger than New York City's Central Park and is twice the size of Monaco. The airport was constructed by the Nazis from 1936 to 1941, however it reopened as an eclectic city park in 2010. The project received the Symbol of Engineering Architecture award in 2011.

As expected, visiting Tempelhof Airport was an incredibly moving experience. Home to the famed Berlin Airlift from 1948 to 1949, this enormous, monumental airfield ceased operation in 2008, and reopened its doors when residents rallied together to transform the abandoned 877-acre site into a public park for all to enjoy—hence the rollerblading.

A trip to Berlin would be incomplete without swinging by the beloved Mitte neighborhood. Conveniently located in the heart of the city, this spellbinding area is filled with design-centric shops, eccentric art galleries, and architectural gems.

A trip to Berlin would be incomplete without swinging by the beloved Mitte neighborhood. Conveniently located in the heart of the city, this spellbinding area is filled with design-centric shops, eccentric art galleries, and architectural gems.

Another neighborhood to add to your itinerary is Kreuzberg. It's celebrated for its quirky thrift stores, laid-back cafes, and gritty street art—and you can also find Parisian-style cobblestone lanes and alleyways waiting to be explored.

Another neighborhood to add to your itinerary is Kreuzberg. It's celebrated for its quirky thrift stores, laid-back cafes, and gritty street art—and you can also find Parisian-style cobblestone lanes and alleyways waiting to be explored.

Sitting on the runway, tightening my skates while trying to catch my breath, I marveled at the astounding resilience this landmark recreation center now embodies, not to mention the city itself. To think how in the last century alone, this corner of Germany has survived defeat in World War I, the rise and fall of the Nazi party, 40 years as a divided city, and the demolition of the Berlin Wall to become one of the most vibrant metropolitan areas on earth is overwhelmingly inspiring.

Another of the city’s most popular sights to take in is the East Side Gallery. This mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall features over 100 unique paintings from artists around the world.

Another of the city’s most popular sights to take in is the East Side Gallery. This mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall features over 100 unique paintings from artists around the world.

As I sat in awe, reflecting on its past and observing its present, I could sense the magnetic pull Berlin has on longtime locals and newcomers alike; a charismatic wave of energy, similar to the one that cloaked me the day before as I meandered through the city's design district. Maybe it was the rush of adrenaline from rolling on shoes with wheels. Maybe it was the alluring mix of old-meets-new architecture. Or maybe it was the fact that I was exploring an official UNESCO City of Design. Who knows—but at that moment, I interpreted it as yet another reason to extend my stay. 

Berlin was once dubbed the world's mecca for urban graffiti. Here is a glimpse at some of the street art that can be found around town. 

Berlin was once dubbed the world's mecca for urban graffiti. Here is a glimpse at some of the street art that can be found around town. 

If you’re planning your own trip, check out a few can’t-miss destinations below:

The Reichstag Building: Sited north of the Brandenburg Gate, this iconic building houses the German Parliament, with the roof terrace and dome open to visitors. While admission is free, advance registration is required.

The Brandenburg Gate: This 18th-century neoclassical monument is one of the most iconic sights in Berlin. Formerly signaling Berlin’s Cold War division into East and West, the gate now represents a reunified Germany. 

East-Side Gallery: Another one of the city’s most popular sights, the East Side Gallery is a section of the Berlin Wall featuring over 100 unique paintings from artists around the world.

Bauhaus Museum: Housed in a Gropius-designed building, the Bauhaus Museum offers visitors a unique chance to marvel at all the design ideas fostered through the beloved Bauhaus School of Design, which was founded in Berlin in 1919.

Berliner Unterwelten: Go beneath Berlin’s surface at this subterranean museum, which allows visitors to walk through the legion of formerly secret subway stations, air-raid shelters, and bunkers used during WWII.

Sammlung Boros: Located in a former bunker, this eclectic art gallery features a stunning collection of contemporary and modern art, including international artists’ work from the 1990s onward.

Do you read me?: If you’re seeking somewhere off the beaten path, consider this small shop completely dedicated to printed matter. Housing a well-curated selection of books and magazines on art, architecture, interiors, and design, this cozy reading corner has it all.

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