The “Other” Cities of the GDR

Leipzig, Dresden, Rostock, Chemnitz, Halle… How much do you know about the “other” cities of the former GDR? We are all so infatuated with Berlin that we tend to forget that there was more to the GDR than just its capital. There were vibrant urban centres all across the country, each with its own charm and sights. And surprise, surprise: they’re still here. Why not visit another (East) German city on your next mini break? Here’s some inspiration!

Leipzig: the Rawness of Berlin with a Charming Historic Centre

Population in 1981 and in 2013: 559,574 v. 531,582.

In the GDR: An important city in terms of both tourism and industry. The peaceful revolution that ultimately brought down the GDR started in Leipzig.
Why visit now: Leipzig has the rough charm of Berlin, but combines it with a beautiful historic centre. Bars are crowded with students and everything within the city centre is within walking distance.
GDR sights:

  • Zeitgeschichtliches Museum: the best and most extensive exhibition about life in the GDR I’ve ever visited.
  • Museum in der Runden Ecke: former HQ of the Secret Service (‘Stasi’), now a museum about the Stasi.
  • Innenstadtring: leave the historic centre and look up when you reach the big streets surrounding it; there’s still GDR advertising on the roofs.
  • Messe: the exhibition grounds were famous in the entire country and
    housed important events in GDR times. Don’t miss the Soviet Pavilion, with a red star on its roof.

Distance from Berlin: 190km / 1h and 10min by train.

Dresden: Baroque charm with an Alternative Alter Ego

Population in 1981 and in 2013: 521,060 v. 530,754.

In the GDR: The city was severely damaged by bombs during WWII and its centre wasn’t rebuilt until the 1960’s (and later).

Why visit now: Since the impressive Frauenkirche church has been completely reconstructed as well, Dresden is once again picture-perfect. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful baroque cities in the world, with the broad river Elbe flowing right through the centre. The more alternative Neustadt part of the city is a great place for shopping and drinks.
GDR sights:

  • Trümmerfrau at the Neues Rathaus: a wonderful example of Socialist Realism, this statue depicting the ‘rubble women’ who were tasked with cleaning up the city after the many bombings.
  • Kulturpalast: this ‘palace of culture’ was opened in the 1980’s and hosted musical events. Noteworthy not only for its socialist architecture, but also because of the socialist mural on the western façade.

Distance from Berlin: 190km / 1h and 50min by train.

Potsdam: Stunning Palaces Just outside Berlin

Population in 1981 and in 2013: 132,543 v. 161,468.

In the GDR: The 1945 ‘Potsdam Agreement’, signed by Truman, Churchill and Stalin, decided Germany’s future – i.e. the country’s division – after WWII. It was signed in Cecilienhof, Potsdam. The Glienicke Bridge is famous (most recently thanks to the movie ‘Bridge of Spies’) for the spy exchanges that took place here, at the border of the GDR and West Berlin.

Why visit now: Potsdam’s weakest and strongest point is its vicinity to Berlin. This makes it a convenient day-trip destination during a visit to Berlin, but it also means that Potsdam is often overlooked. Do make the (short!) trip and be surprised by the laid-back atmosphere and beautiful Prussian palaces.
GDR sights:

  • Schloss Cecilienhof, because this is where the Potsdam Agreement was signed
  • Glienicke Bridge, where spies were exchanged

Distance from Berlin: 35km / 25min by train

Weimar: German history grasped in one beloved city

Population in 1981 and in 2013: 63,725 v. 63,315.

In the GDR: Weimar was quickly rebuilt after WWII because the city’s many historical buildings were essential to the tourism industry of the GDR. The Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald just outside the city was used as a Soviet prison until 1950 and for educational and memorial purposes from the end of the 1950’s.

Why visit now: Weimar plays a very important role in the most recent centuries of German history. Goethe and Schiller lived here, just like many other artists and musicians in the 19th century. In 1919 the Weimar Republic was born here, just like Bauhaus. Traces of all this cultural heritage are still to be found in this beautiful city, which continues to attract a lot of tourists.
GDR sights:

  • Sowjetischer Ehrenfriedhof: cemetery constructed in 1945 for the deceased Red Army soldiers.
  • Buchenwald: an impressive monument with bell tower was built (1954 to 1958) next to the former concentration camp.

Distance from Berlin: 285km / 2h and 35min by train.

Stralsund: Hanseatic Pearl Restored to Its Former Glory

Population in 1981 and in 2013: 74,421 versus 57,301.

In the GDR: Ship building, mostly for the Soviet Union, was the most important source of income for this port city; around 8,000 employees worked in the docks. New prefab neighbourhoods were quickly constructed, but the historic centre was left to decay. In the 40 GDR years, the city grew from 31,000 to 76,000 inhabitants in 1989 – but almost 20,000 people moved away after the Reunification of Germany.

Why visit now: It’s hard to imagine when you watch footage from 1990, but the historic centre of Stralsund with its many Backsteingotik (red-brick gothic architecture) buildings is now once again among the most beautiful former Hanseatic pearls. After the Hanseatic period, the city was Swedish for almost two centuries, still visible in some baroque buildings. Stralsund is also the ‘gateway to Rügen’, with a bridge that connects the city directly to the amazingly beautiful island.
GDR sights:

  • Deutsches Meeresmuseum: a museum about the sea, started in the GDR (1951) and with special attention to fishing in the GDR.
  • Prora: words fail to describe this monstrous building, which extends to a length of 4.5km, on the island of Rügen; built by the Nazi’s in the 1930s, it was used by the Soviet and later the GDR army until the early 1990’s. Most of the building is abandoned now, but there is a Documentation Centre and a GDR museum.

Distance from Berlin: 270km / 3h.

* Please note that I didn’t select the cities based on their size, but based on their degree of attractiveness; are they worth a visit?