An important piece of history and a nice green space, but don’t put this at the top of your ‘to-visit’ list.
There’s something a bit odd about Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld. Sure, there are all the regular amenities of a public park, but this is no ordinary green space. Because on the edge of the enormous 300+ hectare park stands an imposing Nazi constructed airport terminal. Where once the two runways on the site carried jumbo jets, they are now used by skaters and cyclists.
The area is littered with remnants of Tempelhof Airport’s past. You can take your pick from the multitude of nearby U-Bahn stations which served the old airport. Then there is the discarded fuselage and barbed wire topped perimeter fences. Tempelhof only ceased to be an operational airport in 2008 after an unsatisfactory turnout in a referendum on the issue of whether to keep it running. Two years later, it was turned over to public use under the ownership of Grün Berlin GmbH, responsible for a number of parks in the city. Tempelhofer Feld is free to enter and regularly hosts a variety of public events.
The history of the site is extremely interesting. The terminal was built in the 1930s Nazi Germany in a not dissimilar architectural style to the Olympic Stadium as a similarly imposing assertion of the regime’s might. The building is one of the longest in the world. Until visiting I had no idea that Tempelhof was used as a concentration camp for political prisoners, with aviation firms employing forced labour on the site. In fact, aeroplanes had flown from Tempelhof since the 1920s, making it one of the world’s oldest operational airports at the time of its closure.
After the end of the Second World War, it ended up in the American occupied zone and was the base for the Berlin Air Lift beginning in 1948. Although it hadn’t been built then, the fact that you can see the Soviet TV Tower (Fernsehturm) from the site is not something lost on those who know about this period. Even the airport’s recent past has been turbulent, with plenty of wrangling and local posturing before the referendum on its closure and the perceived ‘happy ending’ for Berliners. The recent and ongoing partial adaptation of hangar space into an emergency refugee camp has once again placed the site at the forefront of an international crisis.
Tempelhofer Feld is home to a number of good quality services. I approached the public toilets, an outbuilding on their own, with due trepidation, as a research activity more than with the intention of using them. I needn’t have. They were that rare breed of outdoor public toilets which don’t look very promising but are actually quite well maintained and very serviceable. Deceptive but in a good way, like a toilet TARDIS, if you will…
The terminal itself has been let out to local businesses, and there is a café inside. There is now another village of similar looking tents to those used to house refugees inside, now in front of the building. When I visited, what looked like a circus was setting up several big top tents nearby. There have also been a number of sports facilities built for those which require a little more space. The airfield is now home to Berlin Braves baseball team with space for spectators around the field’s high perimeter fences, a neighbouring softball pitch, several beach volleyball courts, plus surfaced areas for casual tennis and basketball. There is also an information desk near the sports pitches selling refreshments.
In addition, there are designated barbecue spots, organised tours of the terminal building, plus a trail of information boards on the airfield for those who have brought their walking boots and have an afternoon to kill. The site is subject to opening hours depending on the season, from 6am in the summer until the mid to late evening, shortening during the winter months. Also in the summer months, visitors are prohibited from entering the grassy strip between the two runways because the natural meadow is important in bird conservation, providing a home for the rare Feldlerche species.
Aside from its scale, the one thing that struck me about Tempelhof was its sparseness. Perhaps 4pm on an albeit sweltering Wednesday afternoon was not the best time to visit, but it initially seemed extraordinarily empty, as any space this big without a reasonable crowd would. I thought it seemed a bit of a waste of space, especially considering there is already the sprawling Volkspark just across the road and of course the enormous wooded Tiergarten in the heart of the typical Berlin sightseer’s walking tour, much more conveniently placed for tourists who want a green break.
However, I changed my mind as I sat on one of the small areas of raised seating by the Braves’ pitch and observed the people walking through the park and passing through one of two entrances off the Columbiadamm road.
There was a constant stream of people using the park, and what struck me was their diversity. There were dog walkers, teenage lads with a ghetto blaster blaring (top marks- German language) hip hop. There were groups of friends on bicycles and using the sports courts. There was a baseball player, fully kitted out, presumably waiting to train or play on the pitch. There really were few unrepresented groups.
It’s clearly a favourite of locals and I’m sure that at peak times like summer weekends the community feel increases as more of the residents of Neukölln, Kreuzburg and Tempelhof wander down to the park. For a lone traveller or if you need time to think or space for a picnic or kickabout with a restless family and children, you can kill the two birds of a park and a historically significant visit with one stone.
However, once you’ve seen the terminal and marvelled for a few minutes at the airport detritus and sheer scale of the place, there’s not that much else to occupy the lay tourist especially when compared to the golden rectangle inside the Mitte district bordered by the Victory Column in the West, Alexanderplatz in the North-East and Checkpoint Charlie in the South, inside of which you can visit almost all of the most iconic landmarks of Berlin on foot in a few hours.
So, by all means, include Tempelhofer Feld in your plans for Berlin, especially if you are visiting for more than a day, with a picnic and family. It’s eerie, historically interesting and a good example of the success of modern community action. I’m sure you can have a chilled few hours there, and I couldn’t think of a better place for a local to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
But don’t go out of your way to visit. Firstly, it is a bit out of your way unless you are attending a concert at the Columbiahalle or going for a dip in the nearby outdoor swimming pool. As a tourist you need to pack as much into your trip as possible, and with Tempelhofer Feld a good hour’s walk or a short U-Bahn ride from the Brandenburg Gate, and so many important sites much closer, the airfield should be on your list if you have time, but not near the top if yours is only a flying visit.
Public transport to Tempelhofer Feld:
U-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Boddinstraße or Leinestraße (U8, dir.) – €2,80 one-way AB zone ticket.
U-Bahn from Friedrichstrasse to Paradestraße or Tempelhof (U6, dir.) – €2,80 one-way AB zone ticket.
S-Bahn from Flughafen Schönefeld Railway Station to Tempelhof (S45, dir.) – €3,40 one-way ABC zone ticket.
Deals are available on day tickets. Buy tickets from ticket machines at stations and remember to validate them by inserting them into the red boxes by the machines or on the platform which gets them stamped before travel to avoid a possible €60 fine. All single-journey tickets are valid for 120 minutes to complete your journey via any public transport regardless of changes but are not valid for returns.
Find below some interesting pictures taken by other visitors, all via Pixabay: