In the centre of the ever-bustling Berlin, next to the impressive Rotes Rathaus and the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm (TV Tower), lies the unique and picturesque Nikolai Quarter or Nikolaiviertel in German. Although the district is the oldest residential area in the city, it was built in its current form after World War II. It is considered the birthplace of Berlin, so it has historical and emotional significance for the city and its citizens.
The neighbourhood’s history begins in the Middle Ages when one of Germany’s trade routes passed through Berlin and this area was one of its main stops. Merchants and traders settled at this point, where the road crossed the Spree River. Around 1230, the Church of St. Nicholas or Nikolaikirche in German was built, and is therefore the oldest church in Berlin. Until World War II, the district was characterized by taverns, shops, courtyards and professional workshops. Artists such as Kleist, Ibsen, Casanova, Strindberg and Lessing lived or lodged here. During the heavy bombing raids of Berlin in 1944, the buildings in the area were severely damaged and the Quarter remained an unused landscape of rubble for many years. The dilapidated neighbourhood was not rebuilt until Berlin’s 750th anniversary celebrations in 1987. In 1981, a team led by architect Günter Stahn began designing and rebuilding the neighbourhood. The houses were carefully reconstructed according to historical records, giving the illusion that a part of old Berlin had returned.
Since its rebirth, the Nikolai Quarter has become a cultural hub, a shopping area and a favourite tourist attraction. The charming Church of St. Nicholas presents a working museum with a stunning exhibition of its 800-year history and its importance for the city. In addition you can also visit the impressive rococo Ephraim-Palais, which hosts changing exhibitions of Berlin’s art and cultural history, and the Knoblauch House, which is one of the few remaining mansions of the 18th century Berlin, and its faithfully remodeled living rooms display the decoration of the Berlin house in the Biedermeier Era. Also in the Quarter is the Heinrich Zille Museum, which houses a collection of his drawings, lithographs and photographs as well as a presentation on the artist’s life and work. Heinrich Zille was a popular illustrator and photographer known for his satirical and humorous drawings of working-class Berliners. His fame peaked towards the end of his life in the 1920s, during the age of the Weimar Republic.
An interesting way to visit the Quarter and learn about its history and buildings is to follow the route of The Historic Path. It is a tour that you can do on your own and at your own pace. Download the guide and starting from the east, follow the path of the historical plaques on the buildings. During the walk you come across the Eiergasse, the shortest street in Berlin, which is no longer than a restaurant building itself, and the restaurant Zum Nußbaum (Am Nußbaum 3), whose rustic interior and cosy atmosphere inspired Heinrich Zille. Here you can try homemade Berlin cuisine and relax in the beer garden in summer. The Historic Path is provided by the Housing Company of Berlin-Mitte as a tribute to the birthplace of Berlin.
Nikolai Quarter also houses two unique sculptures by the German sculptor Albert Wolff. The one is “Clio – the Muse of History” and the other is “The Allegory of Science”. They were both base figures of the equestrian statue of Frederick William III, which was once found in the Lustgarten. The equestrian statue was unveiled in 1871 and the base figures were finally placed in 1876. During World War II, the monument was melted down and only these two sculptures have survived. Finally, one of your stops at the Quarter should be the Antiquitäten im Nikolaiviertel (Spandauer Str. 29), an impressive 150 sqm antique shop specialising in 18th and 19th century porcelain, as well as Art Nouveau and Art Deco from the manufactures at Meissen and Berlin.
The Nikolai Quarter, although relatively small, has a lot to offer the visitor. It is a welcome break from the noise of the rest of the city. After a stroll through the streets or shopping in the shops, where you can find everything from souvenirs, clothes to very interesting antiques, you can relax in one of its cafes and restaurants on the banks of Spree River.