‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’
The capital of Germany is a city steeped in history, much of it tragic. Following the horrors of the second world war it was literally divided. The Berlin Wall standing as a symbol of the barrier between East and West. This lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. Now Berlin has transformed itself into one of the most vibrant cities in Europe and is a top destination for any traveller exploring Europe. There are loads of things to do in Berlin including visiting historical sites and enjoying its modern culture.
I’ve written this post based on my own experience of visiting Berlin. I had an awesome time in the city and regard it as one of my favourite’s in the world. Its a city great for a European city break or as part of longer European jaunt. The wide variety of things to do in Berlin means you can keep yourself occupied for several days. Its definitely worth the time, it a really fun city to explore.
My top things to do in Berlin
Constructed between 1788 and 1791, the Brandenburg Gate’s original purpose was to represent peace. It’s history since then however has been a mixed one. After Napoleon’s victories in 1806, he used the gate as part of a victory march. Then after his defeat, in 1814, it became a Prussian triumphal arch. The First World War saw returning German soldiers marching through the gate. The Nazi’s used the arch as part of their party propaganda during their rule. During the cold war when the Berlin Wall separated the 2 sides of Berlin the gate was used for political visits by the US presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. When German reunited in 1990 it was used as part of the ceremony. It still used on occasion for political significance as a symbol of peace and unification. As you can see it really is major landmark in European and World History.
East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, when the Soviet Union closed the border between their section of Berlin (East Berlin) and the areas run by the Allies (West Berlin) following Germany’s defeat at the end of the Second World War. It stood until 1989 when a series of events began its dismantlement. What remains of the Berlin Wall along the Spree river today has been transformed into an open air art gallery. In 1990 artists from across the globe painted it with 105 paintings. Whilst there has been degradation (largely due to graffiti) there has also been restoration to keep the wall as a monument to freedom. You’ll find it the near the Oberbaum Bridge. You check out my photos of the wall here.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial)
This memorial was built in memory of the nearly 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. It is located next to the Tiergarten near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. You can find a museum that tells of some of the horrors of the holocaust below the memorial. Its a very moving place and I feel it’s a suitable memorial.
If like me you are a history geek you will love Museum island! This museum complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses 5 different museums. Berlin Cathedral is located here too. You can see it in the above photograph.
The Neues Museum is home to a collection of artifacts from Egyptian and Nubian culture as well as European and Asian artifacts from the prehistoric age upwards. It’s a very impressive collection! The most famous attraction here is the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The Pergamon Museum has a focus on the Middle East and Islamic art. It’s big highlight is the The Ishtar Gate which dates from 575 BCE Babylon.
The Bode Museum is the home of a collection of sculptures, coins and Byzantine art. The Alte Nationalgalerie focuses on art from the nineteenth century and the Altes Museum on ancient art and sculptures. The latter also has a gold treasury.
Opening in 1894 the Reichstag was at the centre of German politics until 1933. Then it was damaged by fire as the Nazi’s used a supposed arson attack by a communist as a tool in their seizure of power. Of course it’s likely that the Nazis set the fire themselves and then blamed the communist who was arrested, but we don’t know for sure. After World War 2 the building was rarely used, and it wasn’t until after German reunification that it became a seat of parliament again. It has been hosting the German Bundestag since 1999.
You can arrange tours to go inside, but I haven’t done that myself. You have to register in advance if you want to go inside the dome. Nearby Tiergarten is a good place to wander around and relax for a while too.
The Soviet War Memorial (Treptower Park)
The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower park was opened in 1949 is one of 3 war Soviet memorials built in the city. They also act as graveyards for Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle Of Berlin in 1945. It’s a vast site and an interesting look into Soviet architecture and how they blended remembrance of their war heroes with communist ideology. The above picture I’ve used is one of several statues around the park. The largest is the centrepiece that features a Soviet Solider holding a child whilst standing on a crushed swastika. Its definitely worth checking this place out if you have any interest in World War 2 and/or Communist history.
What you see when you visit Checkpoint Charlie today is a reminder of what was once. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 this point became the most well known crossing between West and East Berlin during the Cold War. US and Soviet tanks had a stand off here in October 1961, a demonstration of just how tense the situation was. What you see now are replicas of the guardhouse and signpost. They act as a good visual reminder of how tense the situation was during the cold war.
Topography of Terror
This museum is built upon the site used by the Gestapo and SS as their headquarters from 1933 to 1945. It has several exhibitions concerning the crimes of Nazi Germany and their victims. I think that’s a fitting use for the site. It has both indoor and outdoor exhibitions, the latter using part of the Berlin Wall that remains in the area.
Whether or not you regard Zoo’s as an ‘attraction’ will depend on your personal views about them. I have mixed somewhat contradictory feelings but I’d be remiss to leave Berlin Zoo off this list as it is, to quote their website, ‘the most species-rich zoo worldwide’.
Berlin nightlife is an attraction in itself. The city has many bars and clubs that can make for a great night out. I was fortunate to celebrate a birthday in the city once, the hangover the next day was hard to manage but it was a great night! The assumption when talking about German nightlife is that it’s all techno and electro, and sure there’s plenty of that, but you can find stuff to everyone’s taste across the city. German beer is legendary and of course a big part of the culture here. There is definitely a more relaxed attitude towards drinking than in my own country, the United KIngdom.
If you’re a fan of street art then Berlin has an active well known scene. Keep an eye as you wander around the city for some interesting pieces of work.
German National History Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum)
Whilst the Museum Island focuses on European and Asia history, this museum specifically focuses on German history. I really enjoyed my visit here as it has a lot of items on display from throughout the centuries. There are all kinds of things here from books to armour to flags and propaganda posters. It gives a really good look at the way Germany has developed throughout the ages.
Fernsehturm de Berlín
Otherwise known as the Television Tower this was built by the GDR (East German Communists) in the 60’s as a symbol of communist power. You’ll notice it as you walk around central Berlin, it’s near the central Alexanderplatz. It is the tallest structure in Germany and the second tallest in the European Union. It also hosts a restaurant and observation deck.
Information for exploring Berlin
Get around the city:
Using the Berlin U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (overground) is very slick and efficient way to explore the city. You can walk between some of the sites in the centre fairly easily (use google maps or maps.me) but some of the distances can be quite far so the underground is recommended. The S-Bahn serves the Schönefeld Airport and is a cheap and easy way to get from there to the city and back.
In addition there are always plenty of taxi’s available in Berlin. However they are fairly expensive, so I recommend walking or using the U-Bahn and S-Bahn whenever you can.
There are a whole range of accommodation options in Berlin, from cheap hostels to luxury hotels. I definitely recommend you book in advance here as the accommodation is spread far and wide. It’s not easy just to turn up and find somewhere. There is no real backpacker district in Berlin. When I visited I stayed at Wombats City Hostel Berlin. The location was its main selling point, it’s central and close to the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz underground stop. Berlin is a large city therefore staying centrally is beneficial, it will help cut down the amount of time you spend travelling around to get to all the tourist sites.
As far as European cities go, Berlin is very safe yes. You should follow the same precautions as other cities. For example avoid walking in unlit areas alone at night, keep your possessions secure and so forth.
Yes, English speaking tourists are well accommodated for.
Personally I spent a week in Berlin and loved it. If you just want to see the highlights, 3 nights should be sufficient. But if your keen to explore further and enjoy the nightlife, a week felt like the right amount.
Yes, there are loads of options across Berlin for vegetarians and vegans.
Firstly, yes Germans love football! And secondly, there are in fact 2 ‘main’ teams in Berlin. There are Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin.
Enjoy your trip! If you have been already and have your own recommendations of things to do in Berlin please leave a comment below!