Tempelhof, former airport, Berlin
A former airport within the city of Berlin
, famous for the role it played during the Berlin Airlift of 1948/49, as well as for featuring one of the world's largest buildings by area space (namely the Nazi
-era terminal). Now all air traffic from Tempelhof has been discontinued and the airfield turned over to the public for recreational use. The terminal building can be visited on guided tours that also allow access to parts that were formerly off limits to the public.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Tempelhof aviation history started with a modest grass airfield with a single little shack as its only building. It was officially designated Berlin
's city airport in 1923, which makes it one of the oldest in the world. The airline Deutsche Lufthansa
was founded here in 1926.
In addition to the fledging commercial air traffic, Tempelhof was also the site of the dramatic air shows of the day, when daredevil pilots would fly their little planes in the most crazy way, even getting out and standing on the wing or hanging from the bottom.
When the Nazis
came to power in Germany
in 1933, they quickly realized what potential the airport had, both for staging huge rallies (cf. Nuremberg
), but also as part of the grand plan of turning Berlin into a new Third Reich
capital called “Germania”. Most of those plans never got very far, but Tempelhof is THE major exception.
As early as 1934, according to Albert Speer's big plans, a new terminal building was ordered. Construction commenced in 1936. However, as WWII
entered its third year, work was halted in 1941 and the already finished parts were later instead used for arms production (mainly “Stuka” dive-bombers and Fw-190 fighter planes).
This also means that the Nazi design was never quite finished, although much of the structure and outer facade was already in place when construction stopped. The overall design is unique: the main terminal building features a gigantic self-supporting roof over the apron and the hangars were built flanking the central building.
In total the complex forms a single crescent of 1230m length
(over 4000 feet)! It's the largest architectural relic in Europe and was at one time one of the very largest buildings by floor space in the world (cf. Pentagon
). A rail tunnel connected the entire structure at an underground level enabling easy access for suppliers of goods and building materials.
the building suffered some minor bomb damage, but remained largely intact. As the Soviet
Red Army entered Berlin, the commander of Tempelhof received orders to blow the structure up – but he refused and instead committed suicide.
When the Red Army reached Tempelhof during the Battle of Berlin in late April 1945, they searched and looted the place. When they came across a locked steel bunker door in the basement of one of the administrative buildings, they blew up explosives by the door to gain access – not knowing that this was the Hansa Luftbild (aerial photo) company's storage of celluloid film. The explosion set the whole lot of highly flammable film on fire. The ensuing inferno inside the film bunker raged for days.
After the end of the war, Tempelhof found itself in the American sector
of divided Berlin
and the US
military took over the site. Under US control some repairs were made to the terminal and flight operations resumed in early 1946.
In June 1948, the Soviet Union
blocked off all land access routes to West Berlin
– in what was an early major crisis of the unfolding Cold War
. The West Berlin population, which had been placed under the Allies' protection, was suddenly cut off from food and fuel supplies. The Allies responded with the Berlin Airlift, one of the greatest feats in aviation history.
For eleven months, cargo planes of the USAF
used their three airspace corridors they had been guaranteed under the Potsdam
Agreement to fly in supplies in a delicately orchestrated flight schedule. And Tempelhof played a major role in this. The whole operation was a logistical triumph. Given the high frequency of flights, however, there were also accidents and crashes. The casualties are now remembered at the main Airlift memorial on the square outside the airport that has accordingly been renamed “Platz der Luftbrücke” ('Airlift Square')
The Berlin Airlift is fondly remembered in Berlin – not only as the vital lifeline it was, but also for the story of the “Rosinenbomber” (literally this means 'raisin bomber', but they're better known as 'candy bombers' in American lingo). Some Allied pilots began dropping little bags of sweets on parachutes from their aircraft windows as treats for the kids – and the children of Berlin quickly learned to anticipate these chances to get their hands on such luxury commodities at a time of scarcity and hunger. One of the most iconic images of this time shows a group of little kids standing on a pile of wartime rubble waving an enthusiastic welcome to one of the incoming planes.
The main thing was, though, that the Airlift proved that the city could be kept alive despite the blockade over a prolonged period of time. So eventually the Soviets caved in and called off the Berlin Blockade on 12 May 1949.
Commercial scheduled flights resumed at Tempelhof in 1951. For this a small annexe south of the still unfinished main terminal hall was built and named General Aviation Terminal (GAT). Using material from the originally grand foyer, where a lower ceiling was installed, the main terminal hall was finally finished and put into service in 1962.
Over the next decade or so, Tempelhof became one of the busiest airports in Germany
and handled the large majority of all flights into and out of West Berlin. Since West Berlin was officially Allied territory, no German airline was allowed to operate there, so it was left to three western Allies' airlines, Air France, BEA (British European Airways) and in particular Pan Am. (The latter two do not even exist any more; Pan Am folded in 1991 and BEA became part of British Airways in 1974.)
Tempelhof Airport has a very special place in my own personal memory and my heart: it was the very first airport I ever flew to, when I was a kid, in 1973. Arriving at such a spectacular and historically charged airport terminal felt like an exciting privilege. I vividly remember how impressed I was by that huge roof and the monumental architecture. And I am glad I have that experience amongst my memories, because not long after it all changed for Tempelhof.
When the new terminals at the airport Berlin Tegel were finished, the commercial airlines moved all their operation there in 1975. So Tempelhof became an entirely US military airfield again for several years before some small-scale commercial flight operations resumed. But the days of Tempelhof as an airport were numbered.
The US military
left after the end of the Cold War
and German reunification, after which only a few short-haul routes, as well as business jets and private planes used this airport. Eventually it was closed altogether in October 2008.
As a commercial enterprise it had thus long ceased to be profitable. Commercially, the other West Berlin airport at Tegel remains the main city airport of Berlin. Since 1990 the former East Berlin airport at Schönefeld had taken over much of the city's air traffic too.
And for years now the multiply botched grand construction plan of an all-new Berlin-Brandenburg airport at Schönefeld has been a source of embarrassment and cynicism, but one day in the (probably yet more distant) future, this will take over all Berlin
The reason Tempelhof wasn't closed much earlier probably lies in its historical significance, especially the fact that it had been one of the most important airfields used in the famous Berlin Airlift of 1948/49.
For many years scenic flights in one of those historic "Rosinenbomber" planes were offered for tourists from Tempelhof Airport, in a genuine old C-47 (see above
). Since the closure of Tempelhof these flights have had to depart from Schönefeld instead too.
No matter how "sensible" the closure of Tempelhof may have been from the point of view of economics, I still find it very sad, emotionally. At least it currently looks like the former airfield with its two runways will remain as an open public space – after initial fears that it would all quickly be built over. Maybe the local protests have had an impact at least in this respect.
The main terminal building will certainly be retained. It is, after all, an important architectural piece of world heritage and a historically immensely significant site. Some floor space is rented out to several companies, but large parts remain empty and unused. Since the refugee crisis hit Germany in 2015, the hangars on either side of the main terminal building have been used as emergency accommodation for refugees.
Plans for the longer-term future regarding uses for the huge terminal building remain somewhat open. There has even been talk of setting up a dedicated Berlin Airlift museum. There are also visions of using the large roof for solar power, and adding restaurants and cafes. We will see …
The terminal (including the apron) is a protected historical site and is now run by a government-funded company called Tempelhof Projekt, or THF for short (after the former airport code of Tempelhof). Parts of the complex can be hired as an “event location” (for corporate festivities, specialist trade fairs and such like). But for tourists the most important thing is: there are a range of guided tours on offer. Two of these are described below in more detail.
Some of the specially themed tours are currently hampered or made altogether impossible, due to the fact that the hangar parts of the airport are being used as emergency refugee accommodation. But the general tours are still running as normal. Occasionally, special one-off tours are offered too, e.g. of the former tower of the airport, which is normally out of bounds to visitors.
Also envisioned is a move of the Allied Museum
into one of Tempelhof's hangars, but I suppose those plans are on hold for the time being, while the space is occupied by refugees. Originally, the move was planned for 2017. Whether, and if so when, this will actually happen remains to be seen.
What there is to see:
one of the great attractions of this ex-airport is mainly the rare opportunity to wander freely around the abandoned runways
, with the additional chance of getting up close to a few former radar installations dotted around. There are also a number of information panels that provide historical background information (in German and English).
A veteran C-54 cargo plane
marked "troop carrier", on permanent loan from the USAF Museum
in Dayton, Ohio, USA
, is parked as a memorial to the Airlift on the apron. Last time I was there it was under the big roof, before it used to be out in the open by the big radar tower. While it can be wheeled around, it is definite that it won't be able to take off into the air from here ever again.
Another permanently grounded, semi-derelict plane can be found further south-east. This was used by the airport fire brigade for practice purposes. Other evidence of past practice of a different sort is visible nearby: a former US military shooting range and parachute training towers.
The runways and open areas in general are keenly used by Berliners for activities such as roller skating, skateboarding, cycling, kite-flying, and even hang-gliding … so watch out to avoid being crashed into! (Update: when I was last there in May 2016, I was informed that there had indeed been such an accident and that since then hang-gliders have been required to stay within a special area that is separated from other activities.)
I even saw a couple of electric wheelchairs being raced by their occupants on the runways in what evidently looked like great fun. I found that a marvellous sight! Some of the kites you can see out here are also beyond the ordinary – I spotted one shaped like a huge bat and another constituting the longest single-line string of kites I have ever seen in my life.
Size-wise the otherwise most impressive part of Tempelhof remains that huge crescent-shaped main terminal building
with its sweeping roof that is seemingly just hovering in the air, and the array of former hangars on either side. You can view it from the outside through the fence from the ex-airfield – or from the (somewhat less impressive) back, i.e. from the street.
Here, the architectural heritage from the Nazi
era is also still visible, not only in the style of the edifice in general, but in particular in a few typical eagle sculptures on the facade.
The square in front of the terminal building is called Platz der Luftbrücke (= 'Airlift Square'), and here there is also a large monument to the Airlift "heroes". It's basically a large concrete indication of an arch with three bows spreading outwards, symbolizing the air traffic corridors used in the Airlift. Copies of this monument have also been put up at airports in the West, in particular at the Rhein-Main airbase of Frankfurt as well as at its equivalent in Celle; and a small-scale copy of the monument forms part of the National Memorial Arboretum
in Great Britain
The most visible remnant of the US military use of Tempelhof between 1945 and 1994 is the 235 feet (72m) tall white radar dome tower
on four legs. Its sphere at the top echoes the equivalent installations on top of the abandoned Teufelsberg
listening station. The tower was built in the early 1980s as part of the US military airspace monitoring system in Berlin and has since 1993/94 been used by Germany's air force. Of course, the tower is not normally accessible to the public (although there have been a couple of exceptional open days) and remains fenced off, just like the apron in front of the main building.
Parts of the terminal building have been made accessible to visitors on guided tours. There are a handful of different tour offers and in May 2016 I was finally able to sign up for two of them.
I first went on the English-language general tour (in German this is called “Mythos Tempelhof”). The guide was not a native speaker of English but a very pleasant Czech guy whose level of English was up to the job (despite a few cute, typical mistakes very occasionally). For further illustration he carried both a folder with prints as well as a tablet computer to show historic photos relating to the various stops on the tour.
The tour started in the former transit area, then led to a former restaurant and bar
area from where you could get a good view of the apron
and the huge roof
. Parked under this roof was a veteran US plane (a “Rosinenbomber
”/'candy bomber' type – see above
) as well as several vehicles.
Some areas under the roof were also used for storage of different items related to the refugee camps that at the time of my visit had been set up in the airport's former hangars. The apron served as the 'logistics centre' for these. This also meant that we were not allowed to walk onto the apron. Apparently that used to be part of these tours before the refugee crisis of 2015/16 set in.
We then proceeded to the huge main terminal hall with its high ceiling. The former check-in counters lining the side were still there, as was the central baggage conveyor belt, but the benches around it had been removed. It all looked very abandoned but clean. While some installations seemed intact, others were gutted, such as the former information booth by the entrance.
In the foyer of the main hall it was pointed out that once it would have been as monumental as the main hall itself, with an equally high ceiling. But this was invisible due to a lower ceiling that was fitted when the terminal hall was finished after WWII.
However, we then went upstairs and were able to walk on top of that new ceiling and look up at the original grand ceiling. The columns on the side had reinforcing rods poking out of them, because some of the stone cladding was taken from these to be used in the reconstruction of the main hall.
At the near end of the foyer hall was a large aerial photo that showed one of the open-day shows the USAF
held annually at Tempelhof until their departure in the early 1990s. They clearly managed to land some big planes here, despite Tempelhof's rather short runways.
We then proceeded into other parts of the building which would also have been off limits to the general public, namely those occupied by the US military. This included the basketball hall, complete with the home team's logo in the centre.
Behind this was the former casino of the Americans. Like the public restaurants this was largely gutted, but a few furnishings were still there. At the far end was a wooden model of the airport area and posters along the wall gave some impressions of the various different plans that have been suggested for a future use of Tempelhof.
The tour also briefly went outside to one of the courtyards to the side of the main terminal hall and briefly also stopped at the tunnel that connects the entire length of the crescent-shaped Tempelhof building. You can see the tracks of the railway line that used to run here in the past. Today, however, this is only a road tunnel – and you have to take care with the occasional traffic rushing through here.
Back inside we went to take a look inside the old air-raid shelter rooms in the bottom basement level. These still had cartoons and funny lines in the German Wilhelm Busch style along the walls, for entertainment and edification. It still had very much a Nazi-era atmosphere, though. On the side was an escape hatch that led to a shaft with a ladder to the level above. But the regular access is through original steel doors. Some of the original air ventilation pipes are also still in place.
From this deepest level we proceeded to the top level (fortunately by lift) for a view from the rooftop. The grand views from here are indeed a highlight of this tour. To the left we got a good impression of the gigantic sweep of the hangar buildings and the US radar tower at the end. In the other direction you could make out the rather modest-looking tower of the airport. The air was clear enough to see the former Teufelsberg listening station in the distance too.
Back down at ground level the tour finished.
The next day I went back to go on another tour I had booked, this time in German and called “Verborgene Orte” – 'hidden places'. This was to give access to even more mysterious places that had been out of bounds in the past and are not included in the regular tours.
There was some overlap, though. Partly because of the inaccessibility of the parts of the complex being used for refugee accommodation at Tempelhof at the time (May 2016), this special-themed tour was modified to a combination with the regular tour. So this tour also took me back to a few already familiar spots such as the railway tunnel, the basketball court, the main terminal hall and the room above the foyer with the old ceiling.
Still the extras on this tour were worth it all the same. Amongst these were a visit to another of the old air-raid shelter rooms, where they even still had the original light bulbs glowing dimly.
Another highlight was the former US military command operations room. It was mostly gutted except for some fixed furniture and a large English-language map of the complex on the wall. Apparently they tried to take it with them too, but couldn't get it off the wall so they just left it.
We were also shown some historic photos on this tour and went through both side courtyards and into the bowels of the building. A noteworthy stop was at the US squash court, built into a giant wooden box!
But the absolute highlight of this tour was the scorched film bunker, where the Soviets had accidentally ignited the storerooms of celluloid films during the Battle of Berlin (see above). The rooms and corridors are still black from soot and lots of damaged installations also gave an impression of the inferno that had raged here all those years ago.
The group was then setting off to go to the rooftop as the final stop of the tour, but since I had been there the day before I declined and left early (the tour had overrun its two hours already and I still had other sites to tick off that day, so I was under a bit of time pressure).
All in all
, the tours really enhance a visit to Tempelhof. Seeing some of the inside is massive added value compared to just seeing the outside and the airfield. The 'hidden places' tour may not have been up to its normal full brilliance because of the restrictions at the time I went on it, but the regular tour in English alone is most definitely to be recommended to international tourists in Berlin
in the southern Berlin
district of the same name, Tempelhof, just south of Kreuzberg. The old terminal building is on the north-western end of the almost circular area, between Columbiadamm and Tempelhofer Damm at Platz der Luftbrücke. The guided tours usually start at the former GAT area (General Aviation Terminal) to the south-west of the main terminal.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
former airfield: freely accessible during daylight hours; building: by guided tour only (for a fee).
Details: The still fenced-in former airfield can be accessed through a number of entrances. Of the main entrances, the one on the south-western end near Tempelhofer Damm is the most convenient – for public transport at least, both the U6 and the regional metro lines S41/42 (ring) and S45/46/47 share the station simply called Tempelhof. There are two more main gates: one at Columbiadamm (near the US radar tower) and another at Oderstraße in the east.
Access to parts of the central green fields between the ex-runways and to the south of them is restricted in order to protect local wildlife, which includes a number of rare birds. Otherwise you can roam as you like – but only between sunrise and sunset. Outside daylight hours the park is closed.
The guided tours run by THF usually start at the old GAT (General Aviation Terminal), which is to the south-east of the main terminal hall. To get there it is better to use the U6 station Paradestraße and walk north (it's shorter and easier than from Platz der Luftbrücke).
Walk up Tempelhofer Damm or Bayernring and turn right opposite the petrol station and you will see the low, yellow GAT building ahead. Inside you can purchase tickets or register if you've already bought your tickets online. The foyer is usually the meeting point for the start of the tours. (Some special tours may use different spots, but they will advise you of this.)
There are a variety of tours on offer, including a regular English-language tour. These take place (at the time of writing in May 2016) on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.; tickets cost 15 EUR (students 10 EUR, children up to 14 years of age: 7 EUR).
You can pre-purchase tickets online (follow the relevant link on the thf-berlin website and scroll down and click on the little Union Jack to activate a partially German version of the page – not all text is translated, but it should be enough to get through the process).
Tours in other foreign languages have to be specially arranged; contact the THF directly to enquire about this.
Other regular tours are all in German only and include one that focuses on the “hidden” and underground parts. This one, called “Verborgene Orte”, also follows a regular schedule – currently (May 2016) on Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m.
In addition there are specially themed tours, e.g. on the Nazi history or the time of the Allies using the airport and even ones led by former employees of the airport. All these do not follow a schedule but have to be arranged on request. Most tours cost 15 EUR per person (concession 10/7 EUR). Group tour tariffs are a bit higher per person for smaller numbers but work out a little cheaper for larger groups.
The former airport area may not look as massive as that of other modern airports, but do not underestimate its vastness. The two runways (aligned in an east-west direction) are ca. 1.25 miles (2 km) long each, and the distance from north to south is similar. So exploring the entire field involves some considerable legwork! Allow a good few hours.
The guided tours of the building normally last about 2 to 2 ½ hours, special tours can be longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
On Columbiadamm, near the eastern end of the terminal building and just north of the former US radar tower, is a small memorial that commemorates the location here of a former Gestapo
prison and concentration camp
during the early Nazi
era, which was demolished when the new terminal building was constructed. The memorial of rusty iron is located on the corner of Columbiadamm and Golßener Straße.
In general see under Berlin
. The U6 metro line provides excellent and quick access to the centre of the city and the hub of Friedrichstraße
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
walking around the open ex-airfield is already mostly fun and not particularly dark. It certainly adds a public attraction to a part of Berlin that is otherwise not especially blessed with such things. Most of what is of general tourist interest is located elsewhere in Berlin
- Tempelhof 01 - square with Berlin Airlift Memorial
- Tempelhof 01b - martyrs of the Airlift
- Tempelhof 02 - when the airport was still in use
- Tempelhof 03 - apron, hangars and US radar tower
- Tempelhof 04 - one of the last planes to use the airport
- Tempelhof 05 - parked veteran candy bomber in 2008
- Tempelhof 06 - main terminal building entrance
- Tempelhof 06b -no longer in operation
- Tempelhof 07 - main terminal hall in 2008
- Tempelhof 08 - Eagle on the facade
- Tempelhof 09 - stern eagle-eyed historical outlook
- Tempelhof 10 - in 2011, closed for good
- Tempelhof 11 - US radar tower behind barbed wire
- Tempelhof 12 - end of train line
- Tempelhof 13 - end of service
- Tempelhof 14 - all air traffic has now stopped here
- Tempelhof 15 - relocated former candy bomber
- Tempelhof 16 - now disused main terminal building
- Tempelhof 17 - now the runways are open to the public
- Tempelhof 18 - for recreation - even racing electric wheelchairs
- Tempelhof 19 - hang-glider landing dangerously
- Tempelhof 20 - grounded hang-glider
- Tempelhof 21 - bat-shaped kite
- Tempelhof 22 - another grounded plane wreck
- Tempelhof 23 - old radar installation
- Tempelhof 24 - former helipad
- Tempelhof 25 - concentration camp memorial marker outside on Columbiadamm
- Tempelhof 26 - GAT entrance
- Tempelhof 27 - locked
- Tempelhof 28 - tour of the inside in 2016
- Tempelhof 29 - deactivated departure area
- Tempelhof 30 - abandoned pub
- Tempelhof 30 - under the giant roof
- Tempelhof 31 - candy bomber now parked under the roof
- Tempelhof 32 - tower and the hangars used as refugee accommodation in 2016
- Tempelhof 33 - closed doors to the main terminal hall
- Tempelhof 34 - empty main terminal hall in 2016
- Tempelhof 35 - no more flights
- Tempelhof 36 - abandoned rental car booths
- Tempelhof 37 - gutted information booth
- Tempelhof 38 - foyer floor
- Tempelhof 39 - original foyer top half
- Tempelhof 40 - old ceiling
- Tempelhof 41 - where they took the stones from the facade to rebuild the main terminal hall
- Tempelhof 42 - American basketball hall
- Tempelhof 43 - local US basketball team
- Tempelhof 44 - they even had outside visitor teams playing here
- Tempelhof 45 - former US casino
- Tempelhof 46 - staircase
- Tempelhof 47 - view from the roof
- Tempelhof 48 - at the lowest point - the former railway tunnel
- Tempelhof 49 - in one of the courtyards next to the main hall
- Tempelhof 50 - door to former air raid shelter
- Tempelhof 51 - Wilhelm Busch cartoons on the wall
- Tempelhof 51 - inside one of the air raid shelter rooms
- Tempelhof 52 - escape hatch
- Tempelhof 53 - blocked
- Tempelhof 54 - former US operations room
- Tempelhof 55 - US map of the airport left behind
- Tempelhof 56 - floor plaques
- Tempelhof 57 - in the bowels of the terminal building
- Tempelhof 58 - squash court
- Tempelhof 59 - inside a big wooden box
- Tempelhof 60 - burned-out former film bunker
- Tempelhof 61 - scorched
- Tempelhof 62 - ironic
- Tempelhof 63 - charcoal filter
- Tempelhof 64 - I wonder if anybody still waters these plants
- Tempelhof 65 - facade of a side building
- Tempelhof 66 - golden memories