Berlin has long held a special place in French hearts. Well before the recent expat invasion – some 20,000 French citizens currently call Berlin home – the French displayed a notable tendency to come and occupy the German capital: Napoleon’s army conquered Berlin in 1806 and stayed for seven years, while the postwar Allied occupation brought up to 3,000 soldiers and their families to the city’s French sector.
But Berlin has also attracted the French much more peaceably, particularly in the 17th century when French Protestants known as Huguenots – persecuted in their home country – found a safe haven in Berlin-Brandenburg. By 1700, almost one in five Berliners was French thanks to an avant la lettre manifestation of German Willkommenskultur.
Unsurprisingly, all this history has left its mark on the cityscape, from churches, schools and hospitals to more genteel cultural destinations. Whether you want to search for enlightenment at Französischer Dom or shop at Galeries Lafayette, hone your language skills at the Maison de France or grab a bite at Paris Bar, French Berlin is on the map.
Maison de France
This building is the Berlin headquarters of the Institut Français, whose main mission is to promote the French language and culture abroad. Here you can take French classes for foreigners or visit a friendly Mediatheque where guests can browse through books, magazines, video and audio media – you can become a borrowing member for a €25 annual fee, which also allows access to 20,000 online media products. The Institut shares the building with the Brasserie Le Paris and with Cinema Paris, Berlin’s premiere French Kino since 1950 and still going strong. Now under the ownership of Yorck, Cinema Paris hosts French Film Week each year. Little known fact: the Maison de France was once the subject of a terrorist attack! More precisely, it was the French Consulate – housed here until 1985 – that was targeted when the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia tried to blow up the building: the roof was torn off, the fourth floor was destroyed and a large part of the structure collapsed. The Maison de France was eventually reopened without the Consulate, which got moved to the more secure site of the French Embassy on Pariser Platz.
Ach, those Huguenots! Did you know that by 1700, one in five Berliners had French heritage? Much of this had to do with the roughly 6,000 Protestant refugees, the Huguenots, who settled here beginning in the 1670s onwards – and who seriously came en masse once Louis XIV formally revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1598, thereby depriving Protestants in France of all religious and civil liberties. In 1685, the Edict of Potsdam was passed in Berlin-Brandenburg, formally welcoming Huguenots to settle in the area. Despite its name, the Französischer Dom isn’t actually a church, although it is right next to the one built by Huguenots in 1705. Ordered by Frederick the Great for decorative purposes, the “Dom” was constructed in 1784 and is now home to the the small yet informative Huguenot Museum, whose narrow and winding hallways will have you walking in circles! Eager sightseers can also climb to the top for a 360-degree panorama view of Mitte.
Le Centre Français
With its very own miniature Eiffel Tower out front, it is the most conspicuously French location in the city. Originally established by French forces during the postwar division of Berlin, it was handed back to the Germans in 1992. Following renovations, the center was reopened in 1994 and now houses the arthouse cinema Kino Wedding.
The Berlin offshoot of Paris’s upmarket department store boasts award-winning architecture by French star architect Jean Nouvel. Designed in the 1990s, it stands out on the Friedrichstraße streetscape thanks to its large glass walls, which pre-date building regulations prohibiting such features in the area. Head inside and take a peek at the two large mirrored cones that rise up and down all five floors, allowing shoppers to easily catch a glimpse of what’s happening elsewhere in the store. Complete with Paris Métro-style arches over the escalators, a gourmet épicerie, three floors of fashion and its own French bookshop, Galeries Lafayette is Berlin’s haven for all things French.
After WWII, France was given one of the four occupation sectors of Berlin, an area mostly comprised of what’s now Reinickendorf and Wedding. (This moment in history has been immortalised by those oh-so-trendy Vous sortez du secteur américain signs.) In August 1945, they took over a Soviet barracks to house their local command center as well as Germany’s largest French garrison. Soon they had built a Catholic church for the soldiers and their families, as well as a cinema called “L’Aiglon”. Mini France expanded from there, with the subsequent addition of cités, schools and hotels. Today, unfortunately, this has almost all vanished. The barracks was reclaimed by the German military in 1994, and renamed Julius Leber Kaserne; the site served as the army coordination centre during the Covid epidemic.
Founded by the Huguenots in 1689, the Französisches Gymnasium is the oldest public high school in Berlin. Each year, some 830 students are fed a genuine French curriculum including Greek, Latin and Philosophie. They also get to enjoy extended summer holidays while preparing for the Baccalaureate, which students there pass with a staggering success rate – especially for a school free of charge!
The French Embassy
The French Embassy’s address at Pariser Platz 5 feels appropriate, even if the square was named not in the spirit of friendship but instead to commemorate the fateful 1814 day when Prussia and its allies seized the French capital from Napoleon at the Battle of Paris. The embassy first opened on this site in 1860, but it was destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Berlin. After German reunification, France reclaimed its prime spot facing the Akademie der Künste – and right beside the Brandenburg Gate. French architect Christian de Portzamparc designed the building, while his wife Elizabeth took care of the interior. The result, alas, was underwhelming: it looks like a bunker with slit windows along the top. But hey, at least there’s a fountain out front.
David Bowie called their steak frites the best in town; he also famously rolled around with Iggy Pop on the ice outside there, mid-interview. A French staple ever since it was opened by a homesick cook in the 1950s, Paris Bar has become a revolving door for visiting celebrities – everyone from Leo DiCaprio to Madonna has been there – and for works of art worth millions: Martin Kippenberger used to sell his art to the restaurant in exchange for meals. If you are hungry for a sole meunière, or for a brush with celebrity, then Paris Bar is a must-visit.
Berlin’s Zadig French Bookstore with over 9,500 works of francophone literature is as much a cultural institution as it is a shop. Its sizable section of comics – paired with frequent literary readings and hushed conversation in French – will make you feel like you’re in central Paris as you browse for your next great read.