Berlin - The ladies and gentlemen of Berlin's high society are dressed in the latest Parisian styles. The women appear in hoop skirts, the men in jackets and knee breeches. Hundreds flock to the northern part of Tiergarten on 23 July 1776. Their destination is a clearing on the Spree called Zirkel (today: Großfürstenplatz). They've gone there to toast the engagement of Sophie Dorothee von Württemberg to Tsarevich Paul, the Russian heir to the throne.

In the blink of an eye, the gathering breaks up: "Having begun in the most glorious weather, a sudden thunderstorm put a swift, tragicomic end to the fun," writes Ferdinand Meyer, co-founder of the Society for the History of Berlin, in his book Der Berliner Tiergarten von der ältesten Zeit bis zur Gegenwart (Berlin's Tiergarten from the Earliest Times to the Present), published in 1892. No amount of scrambling and running helps. "The long way home, on which thousands had to cross sodden ground, was covered with ribbons, coiffures, silk shoes and buckles."

High society in the Tiergarten tents

Why did they meet on the edge of Tiergarten, at that time located far outside the city? Because that's where the popular tents were, the first day-tripper destinations beyond the gates of the city. On Sundays and public holidays, ladies and gentlemen strutted through the city gate on the road to Brandenburg (later the Brandenburg Gate) into the park. The spot would remain popular for 200 years.

Heading out to Tiergarten as a couple or with the family was a typical weekend activity for Berliners 200 years ago. 

A walk through where the tented inns once stood should begin at Zeltenplatz on John-Foster-Dulles-Allee. Today strollers and joggers pass the spot where the carriages used to stop. The semicircular square has a certain charm and its beautiful avenues that still bear their old names: chestnut, elm, beech, maple, sycamore and oak.

Diagonally opposite is the House of World Cultures (HKW), known for festivals, concerts and open-air cinema. The roof terrace offers a panoramic view of the Tiergarten and the Spree as well as the chancellery. A small rooftop kiosk sells food and drinks.

Hunting ground for aristocrats

Originally, the Tiergarten was a hunting ground for the city's nobility, probably as early as the end of the 16th century. Court huntsmen released wild animals. A fence prevented the hares, pheasants, foxes, deer and stags from escaping. Under Friedrich I, coronated the first king of Prussia in 1701, a path was cut through the game reserve connecting the royal city palace with the palace in Lietzow (Charlottenburg).

In 1718, the "soldier king" Friederich Wilhelm I, of all people, ordered the hunting ground be shut down, even though he himself was fond of hunting. Frederich II, his son, later known as  "Old Fritz", arranged for the former reserve to be turned into a public garden.

A baroque pleasure garden

In 1742, the king hired the architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff to remove the fence and create a baroque garden. The Venus Basin from that time is still a popular spot. Right next to it is Floraplatz, known for Louis Tuaillon's "Amazon on Horseback". Children are enthralled by the eight animal sculptures that line the square. During the war, the pieces disappeared or were scattered across the Tiergarten, but they were reinstalled at Floraplatz in 2020.

With the opening of the Tiergarten in the 18th century, Friedrich II allowed enterprising Huguenots who had fled France for Prussia to escape persecution, to set up canvas tents on the banks of the Spree to sell refreshments: lemonade and coffee, wine and wheat beer, later also food. The first "tent hosts" to set up shop in 1745 were the refugees Thomassin, Dortu and Mourier. They came from the opposite bank, the Terre de Moab or Moabite, as they called their new home, in allusion to the Bible.

Lemonade, wine, beer

The French immigrants brought a certain flair with them, which also had an effect on Berlin cuisine. The adaptations were often rather humble, however. Berliners turned fine meat pies into meatballs, beef tartare into minced pork, and fricassee with crayfish and morels into chicken fricassee. Foreign guests might turn up their noses at the menu, but the Berliners loved it. Friday was always fish day: green eel, pike with dumplings, tench, pikeperch or burbot in beer were served.

The Tiergarten with its many avenues and statues. Siegesallee (Victory Avenue) no longer exists: the 750-metre-long boulevard was lined with 32 monuments to the margraves and electors of Brandenburg and the kings of Prussia.

From the early days of the Tiergarten as a public garden comes the expression, still in use today, of having been out "until the dolls" ("bis in die Puppen"), i.e. of having come home late. It refers to the statues of ancient gods that architect Knobelsdorff had erected at the Großer Stern, which people called "the dolls". The trek from the city centre to the tents was so long and so arduous those days, daytrippers often lingered and only returned to town after dark or at dawn.

Tourists loved the party tents too

Not only Berliners, but also visitors were drawn to Zeltenallee, which ran from Kurfürstenplatz to Friedensallee (today: Simsonweg). In his "Remarks of a Traveller" from 1779, Johann Friedrich Karl Grimm wrote: "All kinds of Berliners from all walks of life sit at many tables in tent huts. The variety of dress alone is encouraging. Among the huts where I found myself, the nobler part of Berlin's population tend to gather, further on there is already a wasteland, and at the very end sits Krethi and Plethi."

From the 19th century onwards, the wind-prone linen tents gave way to walled inns with beer gardens, bandstands and ballrooms. There was the Kronprinzenzelt, later Bötzow-Zelt (In den Zelten 1), the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Zelt (In den Zelten 2), the Victoria-Zelt, later Schultheiß-Zelt (In den Zelten 3), the Gasthof Löwenbrauerei (In den Zelten 4) - and even tents "behind the tents", such as the Spree-Zelt at the boat landing at what was then Richard-Wagner-Straße 10 (today: Bettina-von-Arnim-Ufer).

dpa/ullstein-bild/Haeckel Archiv
Around 1900, those who could afford it employed a wet nurse from the Spreewald to take their offspring out to the Tiergarten. Whether the parents enjoyed themselves in the tents in the meantime is not known.

Behind the tents, where today a path runs along the Spree, gondolas ferried people to Moabit, for 10 pfennigs round trip. The gondoliers would scream "Who wants to come to Moabit?" until the "water omnibuses" were so full that they swayed precariously. An organ grinder on board entertained revelers on the way to Moabit, where more "jugs" were waiting - more bars, in other words.

dpa/Britta Pedersen
Chilling at the Venus Basin. On the south side once stood the Venus of Capua, which Kaiser Wilhelm II had replaced in 1904 with a Beethoven-Haydn-Mozart monument. Because it resembles a tiled stove, it's nicknamed the "musicians' stove".

The origins of Berlin's party culture

With the opening of the Kroll Opera House near the Brandenburg Gate in 1844, the tents became the locus of excursions and nightlife in Berlin. 

In the 1870s, a residential quarter was built on the northern edge of the Tiergarten. Well-to-do citizens lived in the stately homes: the merchant and patron of the arts Otto Wesendonck and his wife Mathilde, writer and muse of the composer Richard Wagner; the writer Bettina von Arnim, the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, and the theatre and film director Max Reinhardt - they all lived here.

On fine days, thousands headed to the Tiergarten. People "of the first rank", even members of the royal family, as the journalist and writer Julius Rodenberg reported in 1882, mingled with the Volk, . They rolled up in small, ornate carriages driven by princes and princesses themselves. Rodenberg wrote: "Here one found the beauties of the city, the wealth, the spirit, the wit and the folly of it. Here was a reflection of the court."

The fun ended with the Nazis. And after the war, the whole neighbourhood lay in ruins. Their foundations were removed for the construction of the Congress Hall (now the HKW), which opened in 1956. When you sit in the HKW beer garden today, with a view of the passing boats, their wakes splashing against the riverbank and the sounds of the Tiergarten behind you, the beauty of the place becomes clear. And you know why it all began here.