By Jim Ferri
Berlin has seen war and devastation, rebuilding and reunification, and non-stop development. For years it’s been a city in constant flux.
Today, though, it’s all come together. As the capital of Germany, Berlin has blossomed into one of the most exciting places in Europe. In fact, it’s now surpassed Rome as Europe’s third most-visited city, after London and Paris.
But numbers don’t tell the full story – Berlin is also one of Europe’s most creative and vibrant capitals. Much as Paris attracted artists and writers during the 1920s, Berlin has now become a magnet for creative people. Not only has it attracted artists but also many entrepreneurs who are turning the city into Europe’s “Silicon Allee.”
If you’re visiting Germany, here is a curated list of what to do in Berlin. The capital is a city for all seasons so you can always enjoy these Berlin attractions.
Best of Berlin, Germany: Unter den Linden
Berlin is a stunning city infused with vitality and I enjoy walking around just viewing its beautiful buildings. If you’re going to wander, the fabled Unter den Linden is the right place to start. You’ll find many of the best places in Berlin on or near it.
Originally named for the lime trees planted along it, it’s still one of the most famous streets in the city. Visit its many cafés and shops, popular even in winter, and also its many historic buildings rebuilt since the war.
Stroll along it, and you’ll pass Humboldt University, where Einstein once studied. Not far away is the Schinkel Museum, which houses the National Gallerie’s Permanent sculpture collection. And there’s the Berliner Dom, a cathedral severely damaged in WWII and now restored in a simpler form. Across from it is the street’s most visited place, Museum Island.
With more than 170 institutions, Berlin is one of the world’s great cities for museums. You’ll find many of its most famous museums on a small Museum Island in the River Spree. Here you’ll find the Bode (sculpture and Byzantine art), the Pergamonmuseum (one of the best collections of antiquities in Europe), the Altes (Etruscan, Roman, and Greek antiquities), the Neues Museum (best known for its Egyptian collection) and the Alte Nationalgalerie (modern art).
There are also more than 400 galleries spread across the city, many up in the Mitte District of the city.
Adjacent to Museum Island is the fascinating DDR Museum that documents daily life in the former East Germany. Privately owned, this fascinating hands-on museum will mesmerize you with its exhibits. It’s at Karl Liebknechtstraße1, on the Spree opposite the Berlin Cathedral.
Although it’s quite small, it does a great job educating you about life in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik. For starters, you’ll find out about East German’s living conditions, their occupations, education, and income. Also, the ways the state indoctrinated children (learning to count by counting tanks in kindergarten, for example), And take a look into the Prime Minister’s Volvo, with its curtained windows and blue upholstery.
Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag
Certain buildings and sights become emblems of a country. In Rome it’s the Colosseo, in Paris La Tour Eiffel and in London Big Ben. In Berlin there’s no sight more emblematic than Brandenburger Tor.
Brandenburg Gate is an imposing structure, but the entire area about it is quite interesting. Walk through the arch towards the park and turn left and you’ll come to the Holocaust Memorial. It’s simple, just 2,711 concrete boxes or steles of varying heights running across uneven ground, but quite impressive.
Turn right, and you come to the neoclassical Reichstag, constructed in the late 19th century to house the German Parliament. Bombed in the war and left abandoned during the Cold War, it was restored when the seat of government returned to Berlin from Bonn after reunification in 1990.
Tours of the roof terrace and its iconic glass dome are free. But it’s become so popular that you now have to register for your visit in advance.
Yes, it’s now become a tourist trap but you still must see Checkpoint Charlie. It provides a better understanding of how the years of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall impacted the city.
Charlie was the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between the West and East side of the city. It is the site of the famous stand-off between U.S. and Russian tanks in 1961. A good place to star is at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (Friedrichstraße 43-45).
The East Side Gallery / The Berlin Wall
Although it’s still one of the most-visited sights in the city, very little of the Berlin Wall remains. The longest existing stretch is the East Side Gallery, so named for the murals painted on it by 100+ artists. It’s now an open-air art gallery.
Today you can see the Berlin Wall via car, tour bus, bike, Segway or by foot. If you choose the latter and want to walk the wall, you can rent the popular Mauer Guide.
It’s a GPS-integrated, touch-screen “wall guide” that traces its path through the city. It provides historical film and sound clips on 22 points of interest, with stops at the five key locations, and allows you to zoom in and out on a digital map.
You can rent them at the silver, round booths Mauer-Guide booths at Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, or at the Berlin Wall Memorial. The cost is €8 for four hours / €10 per day, plus a 50€ security deposit.
Following the collapse of the Wall, the Mitte District became one of the most popular gallery areas in the city. You’ll find many of the galleries on Auguststrasse. An influx of chic restaurants has also added to the street’s popularity.
Not far away is the Fernsehturm, the TV tower that is the tallest structure in Germany. You can see it from almost any point in the city. There’s a revolving restaurant in the middle of its sphere.
Adjacent to it, on Alexanderplatz, is the Park Inn hotel where you can get a panoramic view of the city (the best in Berlin) from its rooftop. The hotel charges €3 per person entry to the roof but on days with good sunsets the view is spectacular.
The rococo 17th-century Charlottenburg Palace, in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf District, is the most significant palace in Berlin. Initially outside the city, It was the summer palace of Sophie Charlotte, the first Queen consort in Prussia.
Surrounded by beautiful gardens, the palace is incredibly beautiful both inside and out. In the Old Palace visit the just re-opened Porcelain Cabinet with its collection of elegant blue-and-white porcelain. In the New Wing, there’s beautiful gold, silver, glass and porcelain tableware in the Silver Vault as well as many other exhibits.
Most stunning, however, is the maze of staterooms and beautiful artwork. The Prussian crown jewels and other family treasures are also on display.
If the weather is good, leave time to wander through the palace’s beautiful park and gardens.
The city boasts a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants and thousands of others. The latter run the gamut from delightful to near dreadful. Still, you’ll find a lot of variety to tempt your taste buds.
One street food you see a lot of is currywurst, the city’s best-loved fast food. It’s often sold on food carts and by men carrying little portable grills for about $2. It’s a small sausage about eight inches long that’s smothered in a curry-flavored tomato sauce and usually accompanied by either a roll or French fries. Sample it on the street or at the Currywurst Museum (Schützenstraße 70), a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie.
At the other end of the city’s unique culinary spectrum is KaDeWe (Tauentzienstraße 21-24). It’s a famous department store sometimes described as “the best delicatessen in the world.” Among everything else you’d expect to find in a high-end department store, its 6th-floor gourmet food hall offers an incredible amount of food including 1200 different types of sausages and 100 different types of vinegar.
What’s best about its food hall though, is its dozen or so counter-style specialty restaurants. Each specializes in a different food.
It’s an excellent place for lunch and much less expensive than many upscale Berlin restaurants. On the other hand, you could just spend the afternoon at its Champagne bar.