Charlottenburg may be one of the more underrated and misunderstood of all Berlin’s many neighbourhoods. When we first arrived we spent a hot and sweaty six weeks (the summer was brutal) in an apartment in Charlottenburg, while looking for a permanent place to live. Charlottenburg is a large district with a wide range of social and economic disparities, yet the general perception is of a middle-class, verging on suburban, area that’s unlikely to ever cut sufficient mustard to be one of Berlin’s hip neighbourhoods.
During the Cold War the area around the Zoologischer Garten marked the boundary of Charlottenburg. Controlled by the Allies, it became the nightlife epicentre of West Berlin, a fun-loving rebuke to po-faced communists on the other side of the ideological divide a few hundred metres away. Even though this bit of the district was never truly representative of the larger area, the inevitable decline that came following the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have coloured people’s ideas of the whole area.
That said, if you want cutting-edge nightlife and an edgy artistic scene, this is probably not the place to be. Charlottenburg, at least parts of it, provides an insight into a more elegant version of Berlin that’s sometimes hard to find elsewhere. Close to the S-Bahn station you’ll find tree-lined streets with a decent number of original buildings spared destruction during the Second World War. There are good restaurants, boutiques, a smattering of museums and galleries, and plenty of antique shops.
It’s a relaxed area which at first gives little hint of its royal history. Walk along the River Spree though, and you’ll unearth one of the gems of Berlin’s Prussian past: the Schloss Charlottenburg. Built as a summer retreat for Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Frederick I, in 1699, the palace is a baroque and rococo architectural glory, inside and out. There are extensive landscaped gardens that sought to rival the finest in Europe, and which house a mausoleum to the Hohenzollern dynasty.
The House of Hohenzollern began life as fairly insignificant Black Forest nobility but, over an 800-year period, would become one of the most powerful families in Europe, claiming the title of Kings of Prussia before going on to unify Germany as Emperors. The household that gave birth to Frederick the Great only lost its grip on power with defeat in the First World War, and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Or Kaiser Bill as he was known to British soldiers on the Somme.
There’s a fascinating 3-D film showing the building’s evolution from summer house, to an immense palace designed by the finest architects of the period. It was intended to rival Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The film also shows the near-total destruction of the palace from Allied air raids and Soviet artillery in the Second World War. Parts of Schloss Charlottenburg were reduced to little more than a shell, but decades of careful reconstruction have restored much of its former glory
The exterior is pretty dramatic and, if our experience was anything to go by, a popular spot for newlyweds to have their photographs taken. You can enter the gardens for free but to visit the interior costs a fairly hefty €17, plus another couple of euros for the privilege of taking photos. It’s probably overpriced to be honest and, bizarrely, it’s cheaper for a family of four to visit than for two adults. Alas, there are real gems inside that you won’t get to see otherwise.
These include the exquisite porcelain room, filled with Chinese and Japanese porcelain pieces, a reminder that in the 18th century, porcelain was one of the most valuable commodities available. So much so, it was known as ‘white gold’, and was subject to the frenzied attentions of royalty and alchemists alike. Augustus II of Saxony, one of many avid German collectors, founded the legendary Meissen porcelain factory and tried to capture the market in European porcelain.
There are other grand ball rooms and dinning rooms to explore, but the interior feels a little sterile. It didn’t help that it was hot and stuffy inside, and we were glad to get back outside to wander around the gardens. At least the mausoleum was cool.