Visiting Spandau Citadel in Berlin – Hints & Tips

Berlin is rich on buildings from recent European history. The German Kaiser, the Nazis and the Cold War all left their mark on the city. But due to the turbulent history of the city and especially the destructions of World War 2, older buildings are hard to find. The Spandau Citadel (Zitadelle Spandau) is an exception. Built atop a castle from 1200 on an island at the meeting of the Havel and the Spree rivers, it is today one of the best-preserved military structures from Renaissance times in Northern Europe and a must see during your stay in Berlin.

The fortress was planned by Italian architect Francesco Chiaramella de Gandino, and building works began in 1560 during the rule of Elector Joachim II with the construction finally completed in 1594. Made from red brick, the main building material of Northern Europe during Renaissance times, the Spandau citadel has the form of a square and includes the Julius tower (an original structure from the medieval castle that was incorporated into the fortress) and four bastions, bearing the names of King, Queen, Crown Prince and Brandenburg. With these four bastions, symmetrically arranged and connected by curtain walls, the Spandau citadel is an ideal example of 16th century Italian fortress design. Due to the bastions' formation, there is no blind spot for enemies to hide.

But it turned out that the fortress was not unpenetrable at all: Swedish troops besieged the citadel in 1675 and Napoleon's troops were the first to conquer it in 1806. During the French attack the citadel was almost completely destroyed and had to be restored, which allowed  famous architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design a new top for the Julius tower in 1838, which became one of Spandau's most famous sights today.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, part of the war reparations paid by France, 120 million marks in gold coin (the so-called 'Reichskriegsschatz' or War Booty of the Realm), was stored at the Julius tower with its 3.60 metre thick walls. Then the Nazis used the solid structure of the fortress to set up a laboratory for military research on nerve gas here in 1935. Around 300 employees worked not only on poisonous defence gas, but also on developing chemical weapons.

During the Battle of Berlin in 1945, the citadel became an integral part of the cities defenses against the Red Army. And the old citadel's thick walls again proved to be a tough nut to crack.  In the end, the Red Army commanders decided against bombarding and storming the citadel and negotiated a surrender with the German defenders. The citadel's commander surrendered to the Soviet 47th Army on 1 May 1945, thereby not only saving the lives of many soldiers and civilians who had sought refuge within the fortress, but also preserving the ancient infrastructure for coming generations.

After the Second World War, the citadel has only been used for peaceful, cultural activities and purposes. From 1950 to 1986, the citadel housed vocational school of Bauhaus architect Otto Bartning and over the years more and more buildings were redesigned for museums and exhibition. Since 1989, the building has been open to the public and is now used exclusively for cultural purposes. The Spandau citadel now serves as a venue for outdoor theatrical performances and numerous other events. During the summer, national and international artists take part in the 'Citadel Music Festival'. In the former commander's house a permanent exhibition focusing on the history of the citadel is housed.

Furthermore, in the Queen's bastion, you can visit (by appointment only) 70 medieval Jewish gravestones. Popular with families with children are the exciting bat tours and walks into the bat cellar, where fruit bats and other flapping birds from different regions of the world can be observed. The former Arsenal houses the Museum of Spandau City History. In the Bastion Kronprinz are exhibition spaces and the Youth Art School. Artists, craftsmen and a puppet theatre have established themselves in House Four. And last but not least, the citadel is also used for one of the most atmospheric Christmas markets in Berlin, with the only fires burning inside the war-scarred red brick walls of the medieval fortress coming from candles and coals used to fry sausages.