It’s rare to leave Berlin without lingering curiosity. If you need a lifetime to see Rome, Berlin might require one just to understand it. The dynamic capital of Germany is always on the move; no single visit to Berlin is enough to satisfy. Every return to Berlin as a traveller invites you into a city that is ever less predictable.
If the twentieth century could crown a capital, Berlin would be it. The roots of some of the most important afflictions and triumphs of the last 100 years trace back to Berlin. No one city has had such a profound impact on modern world history as Germany’s capital. And as you traipse through the streets, seeking out things to do in Berlin, it becomes all-too obvious.
Whether walking in the haunting final steps of the Führer, reigniting your inner Cold War kid or pulling out all the stops to better understand modern Germany, Berlin’s gonna keep you on your feet. (And you’re gonna love every minute of it.)
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Want to explore Berlin? Start with these top 10 things to do in Berlin, Germany.
At first glance, Berlin won’t perk your tourist eyebrows as more outwardly-elegant German cities like Munich, Nuremberg or Dresden, one of the best day trips from Berlin. Berlin’s not a silky smooth tourism haven; it’s got rough edges, and that’s all part of what plunks Berlin among the best cities to visit in Europe.
Berlin attractions will appeal to just about anyone: history buffs, culture lovers, art enthusiasts, and aimless wanderers. With the immensity of the city, sprawling in all directions from the nucleus of Mitte, figuring out what to do in Berlin isn’t always smash-and-grab. Here are my suggestions to get you started prouncing upon the best things to do in Berlin, Germany:
Whether it’s a cliché or not, no serious Berlin itinerary can leave out the city’s most (in)famous landmark: the Berlin Wall.
Truthfully, there’s not much left to see. Most of the Berlin Wall, once dividing Soviet-occupied East Berlin and West Berlin, has long been torn down with little more than a few isolated sections and cobblestones in place to mark its stretches in most areas.
To catch a glimpse of the original wall, seek out the 80-metre section on Niederkirchnerstraße near the Topography of Terror, the wall-cum-art-gallery near Oberbaumbrücke (East Side Gallery) and the small sections of graffittied wall remaining near Potsdamer Platz.
The most compelling stretch of the former wall, however, lies at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße. Though this section of the Berlin Wall isn’t all original, its reconstruction includes guardtowers, border lights and a preserved section of the “death strip,” the no-man’s zone between the inner and outer walls where trespassers would be shot on sight. No other area in Berlin recreates the atmosphere of Cold War Berlin quite like the Berlin Wall Memorial.
Getting to the Berlin Wall: The small remaining sections of the Berlin Wall are all easily accessible by public transit and walking by the U Kochstraße/Checkpoint Charlie (Niederkirchnerstr.), U Warschauer Straße (East Side Gallery), and Potsdamer Platz. For the Berlin Wall Memorial, exit Bernauer Straße U-bahn and walk west along Bernauer Straße.
East Side Gallery
While the Berlin Wall Memorial tells a story of the past, the East Side Gallery paints a picture of the Cold War mindset perhaps better than anywhere else in Berlin. This 1.3-kilometre section of the former Berlin Wall along Mühlenstraße is one of the world’s largest open-air art galleries, decorated with over 100 paintings by renowned international artists.
Even if restorations and graffiti have sullied the originals, the artwork at the East Side Gallery summons the jubilation and hopes of a bright future that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. The East Side Gallery’s most famous painting, “Fraternal Kiss” by Dmitri Vrubel, capturing a kiss between Leonid Brezhnev (USSR) and Erich Honecker (GDR) with the caption “Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben” (“My God, help me survive this deadly love.”), is bound to grasp your attention.
Getting to the East Side Gallery: The Warschauer Straße S-bahn and U-bahn station is about a 5-minute, one-block walk from the beginning of the East Side Gallery. When leaving the station walk south on Warschauer Straße until you reach Mühlenstraße. The East Side Gallery starts on the southwest corner of the intersection to the right of Oberbaumbrücke.
Since the 18th-century it seems every impactful historic event traces some connection to Brandenburg Gate. Whether the backdrop to Napoleon’s triumphant march into Berlin 1806 after defeating the Prussians, the Nazis ratcheting up their propaganda machine, Ronald Reagan challenging Gorbachev to tear down the wall or the euphoria that followed the fall of communism, Brandenburg Gate’s always been front and center in Berlin’s history.
Reimagining the events that took place afront Berlin’s most recognizable landmark isn’t the only perk. Brandenburg Gate is also a grand piece of architecture. Even if what’s standing now is a reconstruction (the gate was badly damaged in WWII), the gate’s 12 Doric columns, dividing into 5 seperate passages, and quadriga mounted atop, are impressive to behold. The best views of Brandenburg Gate fall at night when the columns and quadriga are swathed in a gentle warm light that highlights the architectural details.
Getting to Brandenburg Gate: To get to Brandenburg Gate simply take the U-bahn or S-bahn to Berlin Brandenburger Tor station. The gate is on the western edge of Pariser Platz.
The Holocaust Memorial
Just one block south of Brandenburg Gate lies one of Berlin’s most harrowing attractions: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (or simply “Holocaust Memorial”). Unlike typical monuments, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial is an immersive experience ripe for interpretation.
The memorial consists of over 2,700 concrete slabs laid out in a grid pattern over uneven ground. As you walk through the rows, the concrete slabs appear to rise up slowly until you reach a point where you’re completely disconnected from the outside world.
Various interpretations exist to explain the Holocaust Memorial’s meaning. Some see the Holocaust Memorial as a descent into the depths of human unreason, a visualization of the structured bureaucracy that drove the persecution, or as an unmarked and desecrated graveyard. Whatever your own interpretation, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is worth visiting to pay your respects.
Getting to the Holocaust Memorial: Once at Brandenburg Gate, walk one block south down Ebertstraßse. From Potsdamer Platz, the Holocaust Memorial is less than a 10-minute walk north.
Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower)
Watch any movie set in Berlin and you’re bound to scope out the Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower) peeking into the camera. Built off Alexanderplatz in the late 1960s, the Fernsehturm is the most recognizable structure peeking above the Berlin skyline. The architectural feel is decidely more Eastern Europe than Central Europe—with a quick look upwards, you might even think you’re in Moscow!
There’s more to the Fernsehturm than just letting it pop in to say hello in your travel photos. Zip 203 metres up the elevator to the observation deck (€13) for 360˚views of Berlin. For a more leisurely experience at the Berlin TV Tower, reserve a table at the rotating Sphere Restaurant. Better food can be found, to be sure, elsewhere in Berlin, but the sweeping vistas are hard to beat.
Getting to the Fernsehturm: Make your way to Alexanderplatz via S-bahn or U-bahn. The Fernsehturm towers over the western edge of the square.
Culture vultures will have their day at Museumsinsel (Museum Island) on the banks of the Spree River. The swath of Museum Island north of Unter den Linden is home to some of Berlin’s best museums for travellers.
Can’t get enough ancient history? Hit up the Altesmuseum, a stunning collection of classical Greek and Roman antiquities. Or if you’re more enchanted by the pharoahs, drop into the Neuesmuseum for a peek at Berlin’s best gathering of ancient Egyptian artifacts including the Nefertiti Bust, a 14th-century BC sculpture that remains one of the most famous antiquities from ancient Egypt.
Further north on the island you’ll find a couple of Berlin’s most famous art museums including the Bode-Museum (Byzantine art), Pergamonmuseum (Roman, Greek and Islamic art), and Alte Nationalgalerie (Romantic, Impressionist and Modern art).
Getting to Museumsinsel: From either Alexanderplatz or Friedrichstraße stations, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the heart of Museumsinsel (west or east, respectively). The easiest way is to find your way to the Berliner Dom from Alexanderplatz and start off at the Altesmuseum on the northside of field in front of the cathedral.
One of the most recognizable symbols in the city, the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) is a must-see while sauntering through Mitte. A long and storied history predates today’s Berliner Dom. Since the mid-15th century, three buildings have come and gone. The final design, built in 1905 under Wilhelm II, was Prussia’s answer to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Unlike other churches in Berlin, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Berliner Dom escaped total destruction in WWII. Even with its damaged dome, the church remained mostly intact. The current restoration, started under the guise of East Germany’s communist government, simplified the original 20th-century design by removing the undamaged northern wing (Denkmalskirche).
The cavernous interior of the Berliner Dom, adorned with marble columns and ornate ornaments, is a sight to behold. The real highlights of the church for many, however, lie upstairs—and down.
Get your cardio in gear and traipse up 267 steps to the dome viewing gallery that gives a stunning bird’s-eye view over Berlin Mitte. If you’d prefer a history lesson over a panorama, slide down to the Hohenzollern Crypt in the basement of the Berliner Dom to peer upon the elaborately-ornamented sarcophagi of Central Europe’s most important royal dynasty.
Getting to the Berliner Dom: Walking from Alexanderplatz to the Berliner Dom should take no more than 15 minutes. Wander through the square at Alexanderplatz, passing by the beautiful Neptunbrunnen fountain, before crossing over Spandauer Straße into the Marx-Engels-Forum. Get your daily dose of East German nostalgia and head across the river via Karl-Liebknecht Straße to find the church.
No museum in Berlin is a better playground for Cold War kids than the DDR Museum. This blast-from-the-past flips the boring historical museum model on its head with interactive exhibits that place you back in the heart of the former East Germany.
The €9.50 entrance fee is well worth the change to catch a rare glimpse into life under socialism in East Germany. Whether you wanted to test your driving skills behind the wheel of a Trabi on your way home from work, relax in a socialist living room or prove your nerves of steel during a Stasi interrogation simulation, the DDR Museum is about the best dose of Cold War nostalgia you’ll find anywhere.
Getting to the DDR Museum: The DDR Museum is on the east side of the River Spree across from the Berliner Dom. The closest U-bahn stop, Alexanderplatz, is about 10-12 minutes by foot.
Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter)
Getting a sense of Berlin in centuries past isn’t always easy. One remaining taste of bygone Berlin lingers in the Nikolaiviertel, the reconstructed historical quarter of Old Berlin.
Like much of the city, Nikolaiviertel laid in ruins following World War II. After decades of neglect, a reconstruction project in the 1980s launched, rebuilding the Nikolaiviertel just in time for Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987.
Today, the area is as much a slice of Old Berlin as you’ll find. Wandering through the small network cobblestoned streets and alleyways, fringed by traditional German bars and restaurants, won’t take you long. Be sure to poke your head into Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), a 13th-century church that holds title as the oldest in Berlin, and grab a traditional German snack and a dunkelbier at Brauhaus Georgebrau for beautiful views onto the River Spree.
Getting to Nikolaiviertel: The Nikolaiviertel lies just south of Alexanderplatz and the Marx-Engels-Forum on the banks of the Spree. From the Alexanderplatz U-bahn station, it should be no more than a 10-minute walk south into the heart of Nikolaiviertel.
When you hear travellers claim that Berlin’s one of Europe’s hippest cities, the reputation probably stems from a quick jaunt around Kreuzberg. Unlike the tourist-pleasing streets of Nikolaiviertel, Kreuzberg’s got the edge that Berlin’s known for. Whether you dig it or not, Berlin’s coolest neighbourhood leaves an impression that won’t soon be forgotten.
Even within Kreuzberg itself, there’s a distinct division between sub-neighbourhoods. To the west, Kreuzberg looks much like the rest of West Berlin, and is home to a few major Berlin attractions like Checkpoint Charlie and the Jewish Museum. The east is a different story.
In a city of rising rents, East Kreuzberg became the alternative district in Berlin, attracting a host of immigrants and young artists. Today, Kreuzberg sports a mish-mash of cafés, restaurants, bars and vintage shops, scattered among streets where graffiti and street art reign.
The best place to start exploring Kreuzberg is from Oberbaumbrücke, Berlin’s famous red-brick bridge that screams of influences further east. As you enter the neighbourhood on Skalitzer Straße, veer right onto Oranienstraße to pierce into the heart of Kreuzberg. Refuel the tank with street eats at Curry 36 (Mehringdamm 36), Berlin’s most famous currywurst shop, or at Tadim (Adalbertstraße 98), a Turkish eatery that’s home to some of Berlin’s most mouth-watering lahmacun and döner kebabs.
Getting to Kreuzberg: For East Kreuzberg, take the U-bahn to U Schlesisches Tor (for Oberbaumbrücke) or U Görlitzer (for Oranienstraße). West Kreuzberg and its more conventional tourist attractions is best explored starting at U Kochstraße/Checkpoint Charlie.