Nikolaiviertel in Mitte: What to see and do
Having experienced such a turbulent 20th Century, it’s no wonder that Berlin is a patchwork of old and new, original and reconstructed, designed and organic. One thing Berlin seems to lack, however, is a mediaeval centre, a centuries-old maze of twisting alleyways and antiquated inns that dates to the earliest days of the city, such as you will find in many European cities. Well, that’s not entirely true. Join us as we take a stroll through the Nikolaiviertel, the original “old town” and site of the founding of Berlin 800 years ago.
During the Middle Ages, the Nikolaiviertel (“Nicholas’ Quarter”, named after the Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas' Church) lay in the middle of a well-trodden trade route. The new settlements of Berlin and Cölln (precursor of today’s Neukölln) lay on either side of the river Spree, connected by a ford. Tradesmen and merchants settled where the road crossed the river, and this grew into what we know as Nikolaiviertel. The town of Berlin was officially recognised in 1237 and, despite the growth that went on over the centuries, the Nikolaiviertel remained characterised by inns, stores, farms and small businesses.
Unfortunately, like so much of historic Berlin, Nikolaiviertel was completely destroyed in World War II and lay in ruins for several decades afterwards. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the East German government decided to rebuild the quarter, as part of the celebrations commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin. Construction officially began in 1984, with the rebuilding overseen by architect Günter Stahn. The houses and streets were recreated as accurately as possible based on historical models, though still with room for some artistic licence. Aside from a few original buildings, the reconstruction consists of both exact replicas of historic buildings and of stylised building not based on any building or period in particular, but in a slightly generic imitation of ‘old Berlin’.
Yet there were other concessions made to modernity. The GDR had one of the largest industrialised housing programmes ever seen, in which practically everything was made from mass-produced concrete panels (so-called Plattenbau). The reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel did not escape this gratuitous use of concrete. Some of the arcades, gables, columns and archways were made from the familiar prefabricated panels. It is a little odd to spot these incongruous details, but the East German government wasn’t generally in the habit of reconstructing damaged areas, preferring to completely level an area and build enormous concrete edifices upon it (like nearby Frankfurter Allee), so we should be thankful for what we got.
Walking and dining
So, this isn’t a genuinely mediaeval part of Berlin, but more a Soviet Disneyland approximation, surrounded by prefabricated Communist high-rises. Yet the area is certainly not without charm. It’s a dense, atmospheric network of streets completely free of cars, where you can dine and drink al fresco. Depending on how powerful your suspension of disbelief, it can indeed feel like being in a small, European town, and it’s mostly convincing, though something feels a little off. The occasional concrete façade pulls you out of the fantasy, though it also adds a little something. Not necessarily charm, but a certain Ostalgic appeal. With that kind of backstory, the Nikolaiviertel is definitely worth a visit. Let’s take a stroll through the area and pick out some of the notable sights.
On the edge of the Nikolaiviertel, at the intersection of Mühlendamm and Poststrasse, stands the Ephraim Palais. This beautiful Rococo palace was built in 1766 for Veitel Ephraim, a court jeweller and manufacturer of precious metals, and was once called “Berlin's finest corner”. The palace was not actually destroyed in WWII but was demolished in the mid-1930s to make way for expansion of the Mühlendamm across the river. Yet parts of the façade were rescued and stored in the western outskirts of Berlin. West Berlin authorities delivered them to East Berlin’s magistrate in 1982 to support the reconstruction and it was rebuilt on a plot close to the original site. With its original, elegantly curving decorated façade, wrought-iron balconies and famous oval staircase, the palace is still one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, and is today used for temporary exhibitions.
The river lies just a few steps from the Ephraim Palais. Pass by the stone lions flanking the steps down to the river (the lions originally stood nearby in front of the Imperial Mint) and walk along the picturesque Spreeufer. Take in the “authentic” inns on one side, and the river traffic on the other. Along the way, you will pass the largest monument in Nikolaiviertel, a statue of St. George fighting the dragon. Created in 1853 by the sculptor August Kiss, the statue originally adorned a courtyard of the Stadtschloss, the city palace currently also undergoing reconstruction nearby.
Further along the banks of the river stands the Kurfürstenhaus (Prince-elector's House). The building was constructed in 1897 at the site of an older building, in the Neo-Renaissance style with a distinctive red sandstone façade. The building is probably named after the Elector Johann Sigismund of Brandenburg, who died in the original building in 1619. He had fled to the home of his valet as he believed the Stadtschloss was haunted. No word on whether the ghosts had followed him to the Kurfürstenhaus…
After the Kurfürstenhaus, we double back to the statue of St. George, and then take a left and head down Propststrasse. This is a pretty, quaint, cobbled street, lined with inns and shops, perfect for ambling along and absorbing the atmosphere. If you squint slightly, you can imagine yourself walking the mediaeval streets. It also leads you to…
The church which gave its name to the entire area, Nikolaikirche is certainly a venerable-looking building, with its striking double spire. Surely it is original? Alas, Berlin’s “oldest” church is also a reconstruction. The church dates all the way back to the early days of the city and was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges. The building has undergone much reconstruction over the centuries, with a presbytery built in 1402 and the two towers added in 1877. It was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987. So, can it be called Berlin’s oldest church, with such a history of reconstruction? Like the Ship of Theseus, if an object has had all its components replaced, does it remain fundamentally the same object? We’ll let you decide…
On the pavement in front of the church is a two-meter-wide memorial medallion showing the original seal of the city. The medallion commemorates the year 1230 when Berlin first received town privileges, granting it autonomy.
To the right of the church stand the Knoblauchhaus, a Rococo-style house and the former residence of the Knoblauch family. This is one of the few remaining 18th century town houses in Berlin (though the façade received a neoclassical makeover in the early nineteenth century), having survived WWII almost unscathed. It was built in Nikolaiviertel in1759-1761 as the residence for Johann Christian Knoblauch, and owned by the family until they sold it to the city in 1929.
It is not just the intermittent concrete that is out of place. On the opposite side of the church is a charming, historic inn named Zum Nussbaum. As you can probably guess, the inn is a reconstruction. Yet not only is it not original, it’s not even in the right place. It was originally built on Nikolaiviertel's neighbouring island, Fischerinsel, in either 1505 or 1705 (according to a difficult-to-read inscription over the cellar entrance), making it one of the oldest drinking establishments in the city.
If you follow the street Am Nussbaum past the inn and round to the left, you will find the Gerichtslaube. This is a reconstruction of Berlin's medieval courthouse, now a restaurant. Originally built in 1270 in the Gothic style, the building was demolished in 1871 during the construction of the Rotes Rathaus, the new city hall. When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, the government decided to build a replica of the Gerichtslaube here, about 150 meters from its original location. The vaulted ceilings inside certainly conjure an authentic atmosphere. So, if you have an afternoon to spare and fancy exploring one of Berlin’s most unique, unusual neighbourhoods, take a trip to the Nikolaiviertel. It is certainly an experience.
To learn more about the area, check out the map below, or read our Mitte neighbourhood guide.