Berlin – shaped by revolutions, social tragedies, forced separation and finally reunion, this city is an open-air textbook. Whether you’re tracing the murals of the Berlin Wall or your footsteps echo around the grandiose palaces, you’re surrounded by centuries of rich history. But let’s not forget the casual charms and artistic pursuits that crafted Berlin as the party central of Europe. Art galleries, beer gardens, repurposed courtyards, theatre and opera stages come together in a dynamic stage number; and at night, cocktail bars and hedonistic clubs remove you far from the dignified sights of daytime attractions.
Canvassing the vestiges of the Berlin Wall
Berlin doesn’t shield away from its losses but embraces pain-letting relics as symbols of the freedom they fought to reclaim. The vestiges of Berlin Wall top this list of must-visits for its historical significance and vibrant Easy Side Gallery. Unfortunately the turn of the new millennia has seen some decay in the installation, and modern progress means slowly chipping away at these portions of the wall. Do visit this landmark while it still stands strong.
Visit the stunning Charlottenburg Palace
Palaces are common sights throughout Europe, but Charlottenburg Palace is a class of its own. A much loved summer residence of the first Prussian Queen, Sophie Charlotte, the winged palace and sculpted gardens were designed for entertainment. The exterior is deceptively simple for a Baroque architecture; its interior however, is outfitted with sleek wooden flooring for dancing, plush benches and gold gilded rooms with intricate emblems. Featuring the Prussian crown jewels, the Porcelain Cabinet, Silver Vault tableware and more, it is a museum of the Prussian Empire’s riches. Other must visit highlights are the Mausoleum of Queen Louise, The Belvedere Tea House and the Orangery where the Berliner Residenz Orchester plays in costume.
Marvel at solemn Brandenburg Gate
Divisive panels and pillars hold up a staunch platform where the Quadriga, the Goddess of Victory in sculpture, guards this portal onto Boulevard Unter den Linden. Despite its symbolic status in the days of the Cold War, Brandenburg Gate was simply one of eighteen entry points commissioned by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II in the 18th century. It has grown to be one of Berlin’s most significant monuments; its bordering location had marked the Easy and West Germany split only to reinvent itself into a symbol of unity when the Berlin Wall fell. Brandenburg Gate is, in both literal and metaphorical sense, a door into new eras.
Reflect and introspect at the Holocaust Memorial
The haunting arrangement of 2711 concrete slabs that make up the Holocaust Memorial are designed for a very personal processing of the events that have occurred. Covering 19,000 square meters of open space in wavering topology, the abstract design deigns to evoke a sense of scale and uncertainty, effectively calling into question the human identity. A supplementary underground information center breaks the symbolic veneer of the open-air square, recounting the stories of individual victims through photographs, diaries and farewell letters. Historical documentations wedge reality deeper, showing persecution sites.
Visit the Reichstag Building
The hulking edifice of Reichstag Building has seen much wear and tear since its conception in 1894, the stately structure built to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. After its restoration post-Cold War, it has come to symbolize remembrance and political transparency. While the Reichstag’s exterior is relatively untouched (in fact Soviet-drawn graffiti were requested to be left in respect towards historical happenings), the modernized interior is crowned by a large glass dome at the top. The cutting edge glass and sunshield design can be admired up close via guided tours, which also take you through important Parliament halls and lingering historical remnants.
Scope out the historical trove of Museum Island
Like the name suggests, Museum Island is a floating collection of museums! Sitting aesthetically in Spree River, this UNESCO Heritage Site can almost classify as a day trip – that’s how long you can spend exploring its trove of cultural riches. Bode Museum offers up Byzantine and Antique art via sculptured glory, whereas Neues Museum walks you through Ancient Egypt. Greek, Etruscan and Roman art compete for attention at Altes Museum. These are nothing against the impressive Pergamon Museum however, which is one of the most visited museums in Europe. Having reconstructed massive archaeological structures such as the Pergamon Altar, Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, and the Market Gate of Miletus, its exhibitions are legendary in scope and historical weight.
Explore Botanical Garden Berlin
If you need a break from the museums and historical sites, give Botanical Garden Berlin a visit. Bringing the world to you in a series of green houses and garden walks, it is home to over 20,000 plant species. Loosely categorized by plant type, you can find areas themed by aquatic and marsh plants, medicinal plants, an Italian garden, a moss garden, a scent and touch garden, arboretum and more. Make it a point to visit the Main Tropical Greenhouse (aka the Great Pavilion), an Art Nouveau style construction that creates its own seasons.
Camera capture the Haus Schwarzenberg Street Art Alley
This to-do is self-explanatory. Just a few minutes away from the interconnected courtyards that make up Hackeschen Höfe and Hackescher Markt is the unassuming Haus Schwarzenberg Street Art Alley. The displayed murals keep to the chaotic nature of street art, changing in a matter of days to offer an evolving collage of caricatures, statement pieces and vivid worlds. Featuring renown artists such as Stinkfish, El Bocho and Otto Schade, the rotating art work is offset by the one untouched piece by Jimmy C; a famous painting of Anne Frank.
Catch daylight and sunset at TV Tower Berlin
The needle-sharp, bulb-toting Berlin TV Tower may very well be your first destination of visit, laying down a 360-degree view of the city like a 3D map. But it is best experienced at sunset, when the sun sinks low to cast Berlin with a burnished orange gold. The highest building in the city, Berlin TV Tower is more than just a scenic experience. Enjoy a meal at the revolving Tower Restaurant to justify time spent; booking a table will also get you a skip-the-line ticket for the Observation Deck.
Explore the Garten der Welt
Nestled in East Berlin are the multiple magical spaces that flow into the “Gardens of the World”, a series of Asian, European and Middle Eastern green-oasis representatives. Holding strong to the idea of good, global relations, these gardens are symbolic of Berlin’s partnership with other cities. Staged with poetic names (such as The Garden of the Reclaimed Moon, The Garden of Confluent Waters, or the Room of Speech and Word), the meticulously designed gardens and rooms all take up the traditional styles of their respective origins. The park also celebrates local fairytales, small statues and a labyrinth winding around a central tower.
Marvel at the Berliner Dom
Another classic landmark worth visiting is the Berliner Dom, characterized by the blue tinted domes capping the main structure and towers. Oft known as a cathedral, it is actually a Protestant church of high standing, originally court church of the Hohenzollern dynasty and subsequent German Emperors. Visitors are mainly drawn to Berliner Dom for its architectural beauty, this neo-classical structure drawing from Baroque and Italian Renaissance influences. The crowning gold cross is hardly the sole lavish ornament; mosaics, gold accents and statues decorate the interior. Some highlights to take note of are the marble and onyx altar, the monumental ‘Descent of the Holy Spirit’ painting, the Hohenzollern Crypt of sarcophagi and rich Imperial Staircase.
A bite of history at Spandau Citadel
A moated island tipping Havel and Spree River, Spandau Citadel’s fortifications can be traced back as far as early 12th century. Much of its current architectural form is construed in mid-16th century, where its completion kick-started centuries of military undertakings. Serving as base and prison during the Thirty Years War, the French sieges during the Franco-Prussian War and the occupation of Berlin, it finally landed on the identity of tourist and cultural site in late 1980s. The old buildings are part of its open museum design, and the inner courtyard hosts annual summer concerts.
Crossing over Check Point Charlie
Check Point Charlie might look deceptively simple, comprised of a tiny shack and sandbags to represent temporary Allied presence, but it played witness to many tense situations. Set up in 1961 as one of the only Wall crossings, its American-center location meant only Allied dignitaries, military personnel and foreign tourists were allowed to pass through. That didn’t stop East Germans from enacting escapes, going as far as to bulldoze through with rental cars. It was also the spot of an armed confrontation between an U.S diplomat and East German border guards, averted only when President John F. Kennedy stepped in. Now it is a much visited photo stop thanks to the replica set-up.
Get lost within Tiergarten Park
Breathe in the earthy riches where Tiergarten Park sprawls across 210 hectares in the middle of Berlin, lush nature that breaks free from city trappings. It might be the heart of Berliner weekends, jogging paths, clear ponds and fresh lawns a playground for health nuts, families and those in desperate need of unwinding – but it’s not without its history either. Formerly royal hunting grounds, Tiergarten Park got its first taste of public recreation in late 17th century. World War II resulted in a lot of damage, but it is immediately post-war that saw trees cut down for fuel. After thorough replanting, the park’s thicket now hides several memorials and cultural sights. This includes the German Resistance Memorial Centre, Hause der Kulturen der Welt (arts and exhibition centre), and the Victory Column.
Go underground with Berlin Unterwelten
Duck down into the nitty, gritty air raid bunker still wearing the ravages of war; broken stairways, torn cables, recreated rubble and drab rooms. Founded in 1997 to preserve the subterranean architecture so vital to war survival, the Berliner Unterwelten Museum is set in the Gesundbrunnen subway station. Exhibits display the network of bunkers, tunnels, canals, storage rooms and the like that made up these air raid shelters, with tours that guide you around the four underground floors. Note that tickets have to be purchased in advance and in person.
Deep dive into AquaDOM
The small Berlin Sea Life Centre aquarium won’t spark new interest, although the collection of aquatic life will induce love for the marine in your kids. The true attraction lies across the street with AquaDOM – an aquarium with a twist. Located inside Radisson Blu Hotel, it is the largest freestanding aquarium in the world; a cylindrical glass structure at 25 meters tall. Home to over 2,500 fish and bright corals, it is impressive from up top or down bottom or from within. Take the internal elevator up through its center as if you’re swimming with the stunning shoals, then plunge back down for more of that awe-inspiring sight.
Go artsy at East Side Gallery Berlin
Political and satire art has done a lot of express mid-war and post-war sentiments – and sometimes, we are lucky enough to see it on the subject they are commenting on. If you haven’t joined the dots yet, East Side Gallery Berlin is unique because the canvas is none other than the Berlin Wall itself. 105 paintings by global artists stretch out along 1316 meters, combining the best of street art with undertones of political expression. There are even blank pieces of wall left untouched to allow you comparison; it’s a visual history lesson of Berlin’s fight for freedom.
Entertainment in the Hackeschen Höfe
After extensive restoration, Hackeschen Höfe emerged as a complex of eight courtyards to provide modern luxuries and entertainments. Small businesses in form of cafés, institutions, boutiques and a cinema have settled below apartments, and nightlife has grown in the surrounding areas into one of Berlin’s most popular spaces. The Art Nouveau façades lure in photographers and those seeking atmospheric rest stops, geometrical shapes and pops of color standing out amid the otherwise neutral palette of the buildings.
Go thrift hunting at a flea market
Flea market culture is integral to the Berlin of today, reflecting their propensity for the casual but stylish, cheap with a heaping of backstory. Pencil in a visit to the biweekly Nowkoelln Flowmarkt for some canal-side charm, where tented stalls present flowers, second-hand clothes and coffee to wake you up. Bookworms will love the antique and book market at Bodemuseum, official since 1992. For the usual fare, Marheinekeplatz offers bargain hunts after brunch at a nearby café. And topping these suggestions is the carnival-like Mauerpark flee market experience, a Sunday full of vintage finds, street food and karaoke accompaniment in the background.
Wandering the abandoned Tempelhof Feld
Ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at busing transportation hubs like airports? Well, the non-operational Tempelhof Feld (Tempelhof Berlin Field) might not have officers scurrying around in action, but you get squirrel around previously “staff only” areas. The in-city grounds have transformed into a unique recreational space, offering up cycling and skating trails, a barbecue area, an expansive doggy field and picnic area. It is also a kite-flying favorite, thanks to the open space and wind-catching location. If you want to live as locals live, prep a picnic basket and spend a few hours romping around the fields.
Explore Berlin via a Bike Tour
Cruise along Berlin avenues and narrow lanes alike on two wheels for a unique city tour. Taking you through the eclectic neighborhoods to piece together older parts with the modern, you’ll ride past historical houses, the cultural Museum Island, under the wide pass of the Brandenburg Gate and contemporary architectures of the new government district. Guided tours are best as you get quick history lessons to supplement your dynamic travels.
Wandering around Alexanderplatz
Berlin’s largest public square welcomes you as an important transportation junction and linchpin to the attractions network. Alexanderplatz, once a military parade and exercise ground, is now the center of Berlin’s commercial activity. Lined with restaurants, cinemas and shopping comforts, it is also an ideal starting place for sightseeing due to its close proximity to many major attractions.
Hang out with the animals at Berlin Zoo
The oldest zoological garden in Germany, Berlin Zoo also breaks world record with approximately 1,300 species of animals within its 33 hectare grounds. Hop between enclosures to get up close with hippos and apes, or walk among your feathered friends along a treetop canopy trail. The carefully designed Penguin World and Panda Garden posits these rare sights in comfortable environments. To maximize your experience, the zoo offers feeding and animal shows as well as guided sessions, where you might even be able to pet your favorite animal (under trained eyes, of course).
Excavation collections at Pergamon Museum
Pergamon Museum deserves its own mention due to its extraordinary original reconstructions of the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus and more ancient monuments. It is also precisely these archeological treasures that slapped a controversial sticker on the museum, as some argue that the collection should be returned to Turkey. Similarly, some artifacts taken during World War II still remain in Russia today, prompting more discussion on where they belong. Still, other marvels like the Ishtar Gate lure in millions of visitors. After all, it’s not something you’ll be able to see anywhere else.
Climb up to The Prussian National Monument
Sitting proudly above an elevated platform is the Neo-Gothic spire that honors German military successes at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Titled the Prussian National Monument for the Liberation Wars, this cast-iron structure features 12 sculptures in commemoration of the 12 battles fought. The hill it graces offers scenic views over the diverse neighborhood of Kreuzberg, whose community tones are in direct contrast to this military monument.
Walking the Kurfurstendamm
If Paris has Champs-Elysees, then Berlin has Kurfurstendamm. An infamous boulevard that stretches out over 3.5 kilometers, it runs through the city between Grunewald and the ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Lined with hotels, upscale residences, shops and restaurants, it is perhaps most frequented for its luxury boutiques, featuring names such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Versace, Valentino, Cartier and more.
Go clubbing at night
Known for some of the wildest (and most welcoming) clubbing scenes in the history of night-out fun, Berlin will have you staying out until early hours in the morning. Mixing up the local techno and Berghain beats with international hip hop and R&B jams, expect a long night of slick dancing. Some clubs are strict on dress codes, or just strict in whom they let in, but you can generally expect relaxed outfitting.
Out of Berlin: Sanssouci Palace
Sanssouci Palace: Comfort and beauty delineates the lavish Sanssouci Palace which has somehow withstood the test of political upheaval. This 1740s masterpiece still retains its ornate reliefs, yellow coating, colorful tapestries and other artworks. What is most stunning however is the sprawling excess that makes up the rest of its complex; a tiered gardenscape dotted with fountains, colonnades and statuary.
Out of Berlin: Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial: One of the prototypes of the terrifying concentration camps we would come to know by name, Sachsenhausen was originally slated for political opponents. By 1945, over 200,000 prisoners have seen its walls and forced into labor in either brickwork, or a peculiar counterfeiting operation.
Out of Berlin: Spree Park
Spree Park: Tremulous history marks the now abandoned Spree Park, including a scandalous park administrator who smuggled cocaine on its grounds. A number of arsons, time and repurposing plans mean the removal and loss of many (haunting and bizarre) attractions, but a few down-trodden and kitschy rides remain; the Ferris Wheel, the Spreeblitz rollercoaster, parts of the English Village, the Cinema 2000 and cup carousel are some.