I recently went on a weekend trip to Berlin and I must say the German capital is one of the most fascinating European cities I have seen so far. The history of the city permeates every building, street and park. As you walk through Berlin you can see the 2 faces of the city, East and West, now reunited under one flag but still distinguishable through the marks of history. It’s a young city, easily walkable and very tourist friendly.
PRO TIP: I recommend getting the BERLIN WELCOME CARD which offers discounts on 200 museums and attractions around Berlin, free use of public transport (bus, tub, train) and more.
Here is my list of MUST SEE IN BERLIN.
FREE WALKING TOUR
When I explore a city I love to know more about the history, the politics, the events that occurred in the past and shaped the city as we see it now. I always recommend a guided tour, even better if it’s a FREE TOUR! Tips-based tours are usually very good, the guides really do their best to make the experience informative and entertaining, it’s in their interest to offer a good service. There are plenty of companies out there offering tips based tours, we went for Sandemans New Europe Tours and spent 2.5 hours exploring the city highlights: Brandenburg Gate, Hitler’s bunker, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Checkpoint Charlie in the former American sector, the picturesque Gendarmenmarkt, parts of the Berlin Wall etc. A walking tour is a great opportunity to see all the important sites of the city if you are staying only 2 days.
Berlin’s Museum Island is an ensemble of 5 museums, an UNESCO world heritage site, located on the Spree river in the Mitte district. The museums are famous for their cultural and archeological exhibits like the Ishtar gate and the bust of Nefertiti, as well as world renowned artists: Monet, Gaugin and more. The ticket is 18 € for adults (9€ under 18) and includes access to all 5 museums on the island which are:
- Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) – most popular museum, exhibiting the astonishing Ishtar Gate-
- Bode-Museum, extensive collection of medieval sculptures-
- Neues Museum (New Museum), housing the bust of Nefertiti and a collection of Classic Antiquities-
- Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), showcasing masterpieces of artists such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir etc.-
- Altes Museum (Old Museum), an especial highlight is the collection of Etruscan art, the largest outside Italy
You need to dedicate at least 2-3 hours to the Island Museum and still you might not be able to see everything. I recommend picking 2 museums and seeing them properly; we visited the Pergamonmuseum and the Alte Nationalgalerie, a good mix of arts, from antique sculptures and architectures to modern paintings. If you are in Berlin for a few days I recommed to do a 3 DAY PASS and visit all the museums of the island and more!
If you are visiting Berlin over the weekend you might check out the Berlin Art Market on the Museum Island, exhibiting every Saturday and Sunday (11am-5pm). It’s an open air market event with exhibitors from the fields of art, handicrafts and design.
The biggest and most popular park in Berlin, once used as hunting area for the Elector of Brandenburg, is now home of attractions and important monuments such as the Berlin Zoo, the Soviet War Memorial, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism and the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. In summer the park offers picnic areas, barbecue, jogging and sports fields.
Alexanderplatz, Alex for the locals, is the commercial heart of Berlin, a transportation hub and one of the busiest places in the capital. Located in the Mitte neighbourhood, the square is a fulcrum of activities and things to do that are not just shopping: you can climb up to the top of the Fernsehturm, Berlin’s TV tower, to enjoy the stunning panoramic view, have a look at the Christmas Market in December, drink a pint during the Oktoberfest celebrations or check the time on the World Clock.
EAST SIDE GALLERY
You might wonder if there is any part of the Berlin wall still standing. The answer is YES! and it’s now an open air art gallery and the longest section of the wall remaining. The East Side is a sequence of more than 100 murals painted by 118 artists after 1989. There are some famous paintings such as Dmitri Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss and Birgit Kinders’s Trabant breaking through the wall. The site was given protected memorial status and is regularly restored to preserve the artworks. You can find the East Side Gallery on the banks of the Spree in Friedrichshain.
THE iconic landmark of Berlin. The classic postcard photo. The Brandenburg gate is a neoclassical monument built in 1788, situated in the Mitte district and is now a symbol of the reunification of west and east Germany. During our walking tour the guide told us a fun fact regarding the Quadriga statue towering on the top of the gate. Initially the statue was placed there as a symbol of peace…well, that didn’t quite work out. In 1806 Napoleon’s troops invaded Berlin and took the Quadriga back to Paris. In 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication, the statue was returned to Berlin and its original spot on the Brandenburg gate. Ironically the Germans decided to change the Quadriga symbolism from Peace to Victory and they renamed the square of the Brandenburg Gate as “Pariser Platz” translated “Parisian Place”. The statue is the symbol of the German Victory over Paris.
It’s an historical building, home of the German Parliament, that was bombed and damaged repeatedly during the 20th century and it’s now an incredible example of modern architecture with its famous glass dome designed by the architect Normann Foster. I highly recommend visiting the Reichstag, not just for the panoramic view from the rooftop terrace but also to learn more about the history of the building and the construction of the glass dome, an example of eco-architecture. Foster designed the dome to make the parliament a self sufficient building in terms of energy, lighting and ventilation.
You should register and buy the tickets in advance on the website to book a time slot for your visit. The audio guide is included in the ticket.
Not far from the Brandenburg gate you can find the Holocaust Memorial dedicated to the Murdered Jewish victims of the holocaust. The architecture is made of a grid of concrete slabs where the visitors are invited to walk through. The architect Peter Einseman didn’t want to give a specific interpretation to the design of the site, the visit of the memorial should be a personal experience and everyone is welcome to interpret the concrete blocks as they feel. There is also an underground information centre under the Memorial with lists of names of the victims, photographs, diaries and letters.
Who is Charlie and why is there a checkpoint in his name? Charlie is not a soldier as most of the tourists believe, Charlie is actually the letter C of the alphabet. In the NATO phonetic alphabet each letter is represented with a word – i.g A for Alpha, B for Bravo, C for Charlie etc. – and during the Cold War the crossing points between East and West Berlin were named by the Western Allies with letters of the alphabet. Now that we are all on the same page, we know that “Checkpoint Charlie” was the “Checkpoint C”on the Berlin Wall. The site became famous in 1961 because of a diplomatic incident that led to a stand-off of US and Soviet tanks either side of the wall. After 24 hrs of tension the US and Soviet armies decided to withdraw the tanks after reaching a tacit agreement in the Kennedy – Bolshakov meeting. The site is also famous for the civilian attempts of crossing the border during the Cold War years. Today Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist attraction that was rebuilt a few years ago, you will see a replica of the “border house”, photos of US and SOVIET soldiers and the history of the crosspoint. Berliners are not huge fans of Checkpoint Charlie, it’s considered by locals a sort of Dysneyland, but if you are into history it might be worth a visit.
EXPLORE KREUZBERG THE HIPSTER NEIGHBOURHOOD
Kreuzberg is my favourite district of Berlin: hipster, trendy, great coffee shops. There is plenty to do in this neighborhood from a stroll on the Landwehrkanal, Berlin’s canal, to a visit of the Berlinische Galerie, a modern art museum, or some street food at the Markthalle Neun, a foodie heaven. Kreuzberg is multicultural and young, you would not be surprised to see a busy Turkish kebab place right next to a swanky hipster pop up store/coffee shop serving lattes along with overpriced hats. Even if you are staying only 2 days in Berlin, you need to make time for a stroll in Kreuzberg.
If you are not “arted out” after the Museum Island you should check out this museum in the Kreuzberg district. The mission of the gallery is to showcase Berlin artists and art movements in a variety of media from photography, to fine art and architecture. You will find artworks of the Berlin Secessionists and Expressionists such as Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Hannah Höch.
If you want even more art there is another contemporary art gallery nearby, the KÖNIG GALERIE, a brutalist building that used to be st. Agnes church and now it has been turned into a world class exhibition space representing 40 international established and emerging artists.
Potsdamer Platz is in the center of Berlin on the southeast corner of the Tiergarten. The site was devastated during WWII then divided by the wall, eventually after the reunification the works began to transform the area into a new modern district with the participation of international architects such as Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Arata Isozaki. Today is a shopping and nightlife district with plenty of restaurants, theatres, the Sony center and a three storey shopping arcade. In winter Posterdam Platz turns into a winter wonderland with an ice rink, Bavarian curling and an après-ski party cabin. Quite impressive is the elliptical glass roof that covers the Sony center, just that is worth a visit.
In the hearth of Berlin near Hackescher Markt is a hidden courtyard, where you will find the weirdest and coolest assembling of cafes, museums, shops and galleries all part of the Haus Schwarzenberg association. The facades of the building looking into the courtyard are covered in colorful graffiti giving the space a strange feeling of walking into an unknown side of Berlin. In the courtyard you can visit the Anne Frank museum or stop at the Cinema Cafe for a drink, a famous spot where artists, bohemians and locals hang out. Or if you feel adventurous you can take a flight of stairs – all covered in stickers, tags, graffiti – to the first and second floor to have a look at the Stock Shop full of designer illustrations, and the Neurotian Gallery with exhibitions of emerging artists from photography, painting and videography.
As you can read there is so much to do in Berlin! And to eat as well! Keep an eye on the blog … an article about BERLIN BEST BITES is coming soon!
If you are hungry for more TRAVEL ADVENTURES, have a look at this FOODIE DESTINATIONS IN EUROPE: