Berlin’s first aquarium was a nineteenth-century hotspot. Image: cover of the “Guide Through Berlin’s Aquarium”, image in public domain, via Wikipedia.

Did you know that the Aquarium in Budapester Straße in Charlottenburg was not the original Berlin Aquarium? The first Berlin Aquarium opened on the corner of Unter den Linden and Schadowstraße on May 11, 1869.

Built in a grotto-style – a design both attractive and highly practical – the aquarium located in the backyard of Berlin’s main boulevard was the largest such establishment worldwide. Dr Alfred Brehm, a renowned zoologist, former head of the Hamburg zoo as well as the man after whom much later the famous Brehmshaus in Berlin’s Tierpark was to be named, managed to secure the support of King Wilhelm I and his son, Friedrich (the future “99-Day Kaiser“). Royal seal of approval as well as the prospect of having a real crowd´’s magnet right in the heart of the city meant that money was hardly an issue.

Aquarium_Unter_den_Linden_1 from book klös
The house on the corner of Unter den Linden and Schadowstraße – home to Berlin’s first aquarium.

And a real crowd magnet is became. After the official opening, attended by King Wilhelm I (two years later he changed the title to Kaiser), the aquarium quickly gained international fame. No respectable Berlin city guidebook would have failed to mention its name and the wonders it held.

Apart from the usual water creatures one would expect in a place announced as an “aquarium” – both sweet-water and sea fish, crustaceans, polyps, a beautiful collection of sponges as well as numerous cave animals – it also offered real crowd-pleasers such as as turtles, birds and monkeys.

The New and Old World monkeys and gorillas occupied a series of cages placed between reptiles and the crocodile basin. These cages, by the way, had one wall fitted with mirrors, which not only improved the illumination but was also a source of amusement for both the creatures and the guests (or so the widespread belief at the time…)

A large aviary placed in the same grotto as reptiles and apes – one could probably hear the echo of the theory of the origin of species reverberating inside – was divided into 14 departments and held birds representing all climate zones.

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A series of illustrations presenting the interiors of the aquarium, printed by the popular magazine “Die Gartenlaube” in 1873. Image via Wikipedia.

The actual aquarium, located behind the turtle grotto, was a delight for all fish fans and of those there were many in the nineteenth-century Berlin. Here a little anecdote: after the goldfish living in the Tiergarten ponds froze to death in the harsh winter of 1849, the city bought a new population but, having burnt their fingers once, began to remove the fish from the park before frosty days arrived.

As a result, the fish population grew fast and the excess could be sold to private people. One of the side-effects was a huge – and perhaps a bit unexpected – success of an aquarium and pet-fish shop in Markgrafenstraße, offering glass fish-bowls and other necessary paraphernalia. The trade owed its success to the 1849 “Tiergarten Fish Disaster”.

Back at the old Berlin aquarium, after admiring the many wonders of nautical world and unwittingly taking a crash course in the evolution of species, guests could rest for a moment inside the aquarium’s most romantic room: the replica of the Blue Grotto of Capri. With such a cornucopia of delights on offer and an unceasing interest especially among the guests from abroad, what could possibly prevent Berlin’s first Aquarium from remaining one of the city’s leading sights?

As always, economy and competition could. Alfred Brehm’s Berlin establishment was competing against the excellent Zoological Garten opened in August 1844 in Charlottenburg (until 1920 Charlottenburg was not part of Berlin but an independent city). By the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear that a fusion of the two cities was imminent. Also, the city transport network became so dense and efficient by then that a trip to Charlottenburg was no trouble at all. At the same time, the idea of a large, mostly outdoor zoo had slowly won against the by then obsolete looking grottos from Unter den Linden. In 1907, Berlin Aquarium’s director, Otto Hermes, announced its inevitable end. The old aquarium closed down on September 30, 1910. Most of its animals were sold to the zoos in Leipzig and Frankfurt am Main.

On August 18, 1913 the new aquarium opened in Kurfürstendamm (Budapester Straße today).


Hotel Minerva, which existed until the beginning of the 1920s, on the corner of Unter den Linden and Schadowstraße opened in the building housing the first Berlin aquarium and planned as an additional source of income for the collection.