All you need to know about Berlin’s iconic TV Tower on its 50th birthday

The TV Tower (Fernsehturm) in the centre of Berlin is 50 years old. It has become the symbol of a reunified Germany. We look at its fascinating history.

All you need to know about Berlin's iconic TV Tower on its 50th birthday
A photo of the TV Tower taken on the panorama terrace of the Park Inn Hotel. Photo: DPA

First opened in October 1969 to mark the 20th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, the Tower was intended to demonstrate the efficiency of socialism. Even after Reunification, visitors can’t stay away from the tallest building in Germany, measuring 368 meters from ground to spire.

READ ALSO: How to understand Berlin through its landmarks with quirky names

Real turtle soup was on the menu for 3.30 Ostmarks (the East German currency) at the opening of the TV Tower fifty years ago. Whether it was French coffee in a glass for 4.90 or Soviet Vodka, the new East Berlin telecafé, set 270 meters high, offered something special to its customers with a touch of the wider world.

Inside the rotating café of the TV tower. Photo: DPA

The café, inside the tower’s characteristic sphere, would turn around completing one rotation in around an hour, offering East Germans, as well as tourists, a panoramic view of the capital. This is still the case today, only now visitors are allowed to experience more than just one turn. And the “tele-café” is now called the Sphere Restaurant.

An emblem for the whole of Germany

Without a doubt, the GDR’s flagship project has become a national emblem for the whole of Germany. Around 60 million people have visited the tower since its opening day, or around 1.6 million every year. 

“It’s an honour to work in such a historic place,” says Visitor Service Director Stephan Vogel. “Once upon a time, you were able to look over the Berlin Wall to West Berlin”, said 31-year-old Vogel, who was too young to experience this himself.

Vogel believes the East and West divide is no longer significant, though he explained that he has been asked whether certain windows used to be opaque as a result of their view of the West. 

The “Telespargel”, as the East Germans called it, was opened after almost four years of construction near Alexanderplatz on October 3rd, just four days before the GDR’s 20th anniversary.

According to press spokesman Dietmar Jeserich, “the TV Tower was designed to showcase the GDR’s potential”. Coincidentally, the TV Tower shares its birthday with the day of German reunification.

Initially, the TV Tower (which was the transmission tower for East German TV) was going to be built on the outskirts of the city in Müggelbergen, until GDR authorities determined that it would affect the airspace of Berlin Schönefeld airport.

It is believed the new location was personally decided by East German leader Walter Ulbricht, as it fit well with the socialist redesign of the neighbouring Alexanderplatz. A few days before the TV Tower opened, the spectacular World Clock was unveiled to the public on September 30th, 1969. 

Photo: DPA

Steel for the TV Tower was purchased from Sweden, with Swedish technicians coming to East Berlin to aid in its construction. The building was designed to be reminiscent of Soviet Sputnik satellites, with the tower being hoisted up by crane. 

Overall, 8,000 cubic meters of concrete were used. At a cost of 132 million Ostmarks, the building was four times over-budget. At the time, the GDR party newspaper New Germany wrote that over 300 firms had worked on this “technological miracle”.

'Pope's revenge'

One thing that bothered GDR Leaders was when the sun shines on the TV Tower’s tiled stainless steel dome, the reflection usually appears in the form of a cross. Engineers used further materials in an attempt to hide the cross; however it remained. Berliners nicknamed the luminous cross the “Pope’s revenge”.

Today, the TV Tower belongs to the German Funkturm GmbH, a subsidiary of Telekom. A separate catering company is responsible for hosting visitors at the tower. The monument is now immortalized on T-shirts, cups and glasses, as well as on baking dishes and baby rattles. 

“The tower is a listed building. Every renovation must be voted on,” says Jeserich. “Some of the original glass elements are still there.”

Photo: DPA

Two lifts travelling at six meters per second bring customers to the restaurant. Sybille Janke, restaurant manager, started there as an apprentice in 1996. It was one of the few specifically East German jobs still recognized after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Today everything is built up, but people sill want to see the history of Berlin,” she said.

Janke is reliant upon technology. Due to limited space, food has to be prepared downstairs then brought to the restaurant by elevator. The restaurant offers a culinary journey through time, their famous solyanka (a spicy Russian soup which was highly popular in the GDR) is a must-try!

The restaurant contains 40 bolted-on tables, where guests can enjoy the rotating views. Janke, a native Berliner, appreciates her “special job”. In the evenings, when she is the last person there, she says “it’s quiet then, so I like taking in the view”.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.