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Berlin, capital and the most important urban center of Germany. The city is located in the heart of the North German Plain, across an east-west trade and geographic axis that helped it become the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and, from 1871, of unified Germany. Berlin’s former glory ended in 1945, but the city survived the devastation of World War II. It was rebuilt and experienced amazing economic and cultural growth.
Due to the division of Germany after the war, Berlin was completely part of the territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The city itself reflected the national division – East Berlin was the capital of the GDR and West Berlin was a state of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany). West Berlin’s isolation was later reinforced by the concrete wall built in 1961, known as the Berlin Wall. Its status as an enclave made Berlin a constant focus of confrontation between the Eastern and Western powers for 45 years and a symbol of the Western way of life. The fall of the communist regime in the GDR – and the accompanying opening of the Wall – in late 1989 unexpectedly opened up the prospect of Berlin once again becoming the all-German capital. This status was restored in 1990 under the Unification Treaty, and Berlin was subsequently declared one of the 16 German states. These developments heralded the city’s return to its historic importance in European culture and commerce. Area 344 square miles (891 square kilometers). Population. (2005 estimate) 3,395,189.
Physical and human geography
The location of the city
Berlin lies about 180 km south of the Baltic Sea, 190 km north of the German-Czech border, 177 km east of the former inner-German border, and 89 km west of Poland. It is located in the wide glacial valley of the Spree River, which flows through the center of the city. The average altitude of Berlin is 35 meters above sea level. The highest point near the center of Berlin is the top of Kreuzberg, a hill 66 meters above sea level.
Extending about 23 miles (37 km) from north to south and 28 miles (45 km) from east to west, Berlin is by far the largest city in Germany. It is built mainly on sandy glacial soil amid an extensive belt of forest-fringed lakes formed by the waters of the Dahme River to the southeast and the Havel River to the west; in fact, about one-third of greater Berlin is still covered by sandy pine and birch forests, lakes, and beaches. “Teufelsberg,” one of several hills built from the rubble of World War II bombings, rises as high as 116 meters and is now a winter sports area for skiing and sledding.
Berlin is located where the influence of the Atlantic Ocean subsides and the climate of the continental plain begins. The average annual temperature in the city is 9 °C (48 °F), and average temperatures range from -1 °C (30 °F) in winter to 18 °C (65 °F) in summer. The average rainfall is 568 mm (22 in). About one-fifth to one-quarter of the total falls as snow.
The city map
The original twin cities of Berlin and Kölln developed from the early 13th century on an island in the Spree River (the site of Kölln) and a small piece of land on the north bank of the river opposite the island (the site of Berlin). While still a small town, it became the capital of the Electors of Brandenburg from the late 15th century. From the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as the Electors of Brandenburg (also Kings of Prussia from 1701) became powerful figures on the European political stage, the city expanded and acquired a Baroque appearance; new palaces, such as Charlottenburg Palace, were built. The central quarter expanded and was embellished with wide avenues, beautiful squares and magnificent stone buildings. The central area received wide north-south avenues such as Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse, as well as its characteristic east-west street axis. This main axis is supplemented by several arterial streets, which today serve as main traffic arteries. In the late 19th century, the suburbs developed around these arteries and their side streets. Where the destruction during World War II was massive, modern residential and office buildings were constructed on a large scale. One of the most famous is the Hansa Quarter, built by renowned architects from many countries.
Although there is only one large park near the city center – the Tiergarten to the west of the Brandenburg Gate – Berlin has always been a surprisingly green city, with lush trees softening the effect of the stone apartment blocks in many streets. The Spree River flows through the city center, a wide belt of lakes stretches east and west, and canals crisscross much of the city.
Until the “peaceful revolution” of 1989, the city’s most notorious feature was the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 by the communist government of East Germany to prevent free movement between East Berlin (and East Germany) and West Berlin. The border between East and West Berlin and the border between West Berlin and East Germany were closed by a massive ring of walls made of prefabricated concrete slabs for a length of 166 kilometers until 1989. Of the several heavily guarded border crossings, Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse was the most famous. Here you can find remains of the Wall and a small museum dedicated to its history. In some places, buildings directly adjoined the Wall, and in the early days of the division, some people died trying to jump from the upper floors to freedom. Today, crosses mark some of the places where these and other potential refugees, at least 110 in number, lost their lives.
The political and physical division of Berlin had a profound and far-reaching impact on urban planning. Because the city’s border ran immediately west of the central administrative, commercial and cultural district of Berlin-Mitte, which was part of East Berlin, West Berlin was forced to develop a new central area around Kurfürstendamm and the nearby Bahnhof Zoo in the former Charlottenburg district. The area had been a distinct commercial and entertainment district since the late 19th century, but reconstruction after the severe damage of World War II gave it a distinctly modern character.
Everywhere in the city, one can see an effort to combine the modern with the traditional. An impressive example is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which integrates the bell tower of the original 19th-century structure (destroyed in World War II) into a dramatic glass and concrete church built in 1961.
A landmark of conventional historic preservation is the lavishly restored Reichstag building. The decision to restore the former parliament building in the 1970s was controversial – the building had been set on fire in the early days of Hitler’s chancellorship (a key event in his assumption of dictatorial power) and was heavily bombed during the final Soviet offensive in April 1945. In early 1990, the plenary hall of the building was made usable again for parliamentary work. After extensive renovations and a major redesign, the German Bundestag finally moved into the Reichstag building in 1999, and the area surrounding the Reichstag became a center of national government.
Other buildings worth seeing include the Philharmonie (built by Hans Scharoun in 1963) and the Neue Nationalgalerie, the last work of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who worked in Berlin and Dessau (Bauhaus) until 1938, when he emigrated to Chicago. The Chamber Music Hall, an annex to the Philharmonic Hall, opened in 1987. Charlottenburg Palace, dating from the late 17th century, is perhaps the most outstanding example of Baroque design in the city.
The center of the city has its own architectural symbol and war memorial – St. Nicholas Church, built around 1200. After a bombing raid during World War II, all that remained of Berlin’s oldest building was its red brick shell, but restoration was completed in 1987, the 750th anniversary of the city’s founding. The church, crowned by two towers, is the centerpiece of the Old Town enclave Nikolaiviertel, which features replicas of town houses from three centuries.
A 365-meter television tower, built by the communist state, dominates the center of Berlin. Completed in 1969 to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the GDR, the tower dominates the Berlin skyline and borders Alexanderplatz. Nearby once stood the Palace of the Republic. The building, which opened in 1976 as the new seat of the People’s Chamber, was located on the site of the former palace of Prussian and German kings and emperors. In 2003, it was decided to demolish the asbestos-contaminated building and rebuild the former palace. Demolition of the Palace of the Republic began in 2006 and was completed two years later. Also on Alexanderplatz, which has once again become a hub of Berlin, rises the 39-story Hotel Stadt Berlin, one of the tallest buildings in the city.
The same area is also home to Berlin’s oldest surviving church, St. Mary’s Church, and Museum Island, which houses the Old and New Museums, the National Gallery, the Bode Museum, and the Pergamon Museum with its famous Greek Altar of Zeus. Most of these museums are neoclassical buildings designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and his students. This area is also home to the red-brick Red City Hall, the former Council of State and Central Committee building, and the rebuilt St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, built in 1747, the first Roman Catholic church built in Berlin after the Reformation. North of Museum Island, on Oranienburger Strasse, is Berlin’s main synagogue, which was officially reopened in 1991, 125 years after its first dedication. The conversion of the interior, primarily as a museum, was completed in 1995.
The Unter den Linden cultural district, the wide avenue leading from Alexanderplatz to the Brandenburg Gate, also reflects the old and the new. At its eastern end is the Berlin Cathedral, restored between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Along the entire length of the avenue are modern hotels, stores, and landmarks, including the restored Zeughaus (Armory), the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse), the Berlin Palace (formerly the Crown Prince’s Palace), the Princess Palace, the Opera House, the Berlin State Library, the Kaiser Wilhelm Palace, and Humboldt University. The four-horse chariot figure of the Brandenburg Gate was restored in 1958 and again in 1991, on the 200th anniversary of the gate’s construction.
South of Unter den Linden is Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s finest architectural centers, where restoration of the German and French Cathedrals and the Konzerthaus (formerly called the Schauspielhaus), the former royal playhouse, was completed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wilhelmstrasse, which runs north-south, once housed the buildings of the Prussian and Imperial governments. Removal of the wall west of the street exposed the remains of Hitler’s bunker and Potsdamer Platz, which was once the city’s main transportation hub. Before the collapse, the East German government bulldozed the bunker site and began building apartment buildings. Archaeologists have uncovered the underground complex, which has now returned to the focus of historical research. Since the removal of the Wall, Potsdamer Platz has become one of the most important sites in current urban planning and development; international architectural groups, the German government, and commercial enterprises have proposed various plans for the revitalization of the area.
As the Prussian and German capital, Berlin has always attracted architects and urban planners. After World War I, it was the international center of the architectural avant-garde, represented by architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bruno and Max Taut, Martin Wagner, and Hans Scharoun. Berlin’s many buildings, representing the styles of Baroque, Classicism, Romanticism, the Gründerjahre (1871-90) and Wilhelmine eras, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, postwar Modernism and Postmodernism, and Socialist state architecture, make the city a rich resource for the study of architecture from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
Although the two districts separated by the Wall were roughly equal in area, the population of East Berlin was less than two-thirds that of West Berlin. Because the average age of West Berliners was higher than that of other West Germans, West Berlin encouraged the immigration of younger West German and foreign workers. With the end of division, new patterns of population growth quickly emerged. Some people from the West sought cheaper housing in the East. Real estate prices and rents rose throughout the city. Many international companies sought Berlin locations. By the early 1990s, more than 300,000 non-Germans, “guest workers” and refugees, were living permanently in the city. The Kreuzberg district has the largest Turkish community in Europe. For much of its history, Berlin had a multiethnic population. Since the collapse of communism, the city has attracted immigrants from various Eastern European countries and the former Soviet Union, including large numbers of Jews. Indeed, the city has seen a modest rebirth of its once thriving Jewish community.
The Economy in Berlin
Industry and commerce
Traditional industries, which had declined sharply as a result of World War II, were largely revived in Greater Berlin. These include the manufacture of textiles, metals, clothing, porcelain, bicycles and machinery. The electronics industry became one of the most important post-war industries. The production of food, chemicals, cigarettes and confectionery also continues. Berlin is the largest industrial city in Germany and an important center of trade and technological development; many companies are located in the city.
Modern rapid transit systems have existed since the 19th century. 19th century. In 1871 construction began on the light or rapid railroad (S-Bahn), a largely elevated and partially underground rail system, and in 1897 construction began on the subway. By World War II, the city had one of the best rapid transit systems in Europe. After the construction of the Wall, buses became the main means of transportation, although streetcars continued to operate in some eastern districts. After reunification, through train service was rapidly expanded and once again connected Berlin to all major German and European cities.
Air transport has played an important role since 1945, especially in West Berlin in 1948, at the time of the Soviet blockade of the western sectors. Tempelhof, the main airlift site, lost its traditional role as the center of Berlin’s air traffic in the 1970s. (It closed permanently in 2008.) German reunification led to a general overhaul of Berlin’s passenger and commercial air traffic. Berlin-Tegel and Berlin-Schönefeld airports remained in operation, but in the late 1990s expansion of Schönefeld began with the goal of making it the city’s only commercial airport. After numerous setbacks and delays, the expanded airport, known as Berlin Brandenburg Airport, opened in 2020, and Berlin-Tegel closed shortly thereafter.
The federal highway in Berlin is part of a national trunk road network that was opened before World War II. The system is connected to the Berlin Ring, a circle of highways around the city with Berlin at the center of the access spokes. Even before 1990, the two German states cooperated in maintaining road and rail traffic to and from Berlin. A new autobahn linking Berlin to Hamburg was funded by West Germany. Since 1990, both the highway and rail networks have been expanded to serve Berlin’s metropolitan and capital functions.