Although it’s been Germany’s modern capital for only about 30 years, the German capital has come of age. And there are a lot of things to see in Berlin…
By Jim Ferri
Following years of war, devastation and reconstruction, Berlin’s amazing rebuilding program has transformed the city into one of the top destinations in Europe.
Much like Paris attracted a new generation of artists and writers during the 1920s, modern Berlin has attracted a new generation of creative people. They’ve infused the city with an energy and vitality that’s evident almost everywhere you look.
Today travelers come to Berlin for a variety of reasons…to experience its new vitality, of course, but also to experience the meld of its historic and modern cultures, its heralded international restaurants, trendy architecture and easy-going atmosphere.
Most also come to visit and experience some or all of these 10 places to see in the city.
One of the Most Popular Things to See in Berlin: Brandenburg Gate
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 the signature attraction is Brandenburger Tor.
Built in 1791 as one of the gates of the city, the 12-columned triumphal arch links the stylish Unter den Linden with the popular Tiergarten city park. Over the past two centuries numerous notables – including Prussian emperors, Napoleon and Hitler – marched through it. Following World War II it was walled into the Russian sector of the divided Berlin. Now, with the wall gone, it once again stands in all its triumphal splendor.
A Can’t Miss in Berlin: The Reichstag
Walk through Brandenburg Gate in the direction of the Tiergarten, turn right and you’ll come to the neoclassical Reichstag, constructed in the late 19th century to house the German Parliament. It was bombed in World War II and then abandoned during the Cold War, before being restored and modernized when the seat of government returned to Berlin after reunification in 1990.
Its modernization included the addition of a remarkable glass dome on its roof, that has become so popular one must first schedule a visiting time at a kiosk across the street. Entry, including an elevator ride to the roof, is free. Click here for a 20-second video of inside the dome of the Reichstag.
A Don’t Miss in Berlin: The Berlin Wall
Although it’s one of the most-visited sights in the city, very little of the Berlin Wall still remains. The longest existing stretch is the East Side Gallery, so named for the murals painted on it by more than 100 international artists. It has been preserved as 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, a GPS-integrated “wall guide” that traces its path through the city. The device, which costs €10 per day to rent, includes 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.
Über Culture on Museum Island
Berlin is one of the world’s great cities for museums, with more than 170 institutions. Many of the most famous are grouped together on small Museum Island in the River Spree, which is a UNESCO World heritage Site.
On the island 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). Several bridges span the Spree allowing access to the island, one of the most popular being on Unter den Linden.
If you enjoy museums, Museum Island is one of the top things in Berlin you should see.
Kurfüstendamm, or Ku’damm as it’s often called, is one of the top places to see in Berlin. In fact, it’s the most upscale (and expensive) address in all of Berlin. It’s also the city’s longest shopping street, along which you’ll find many of the world’s most exclusive brands. This includes, on Tauentzienstrasse, an extension of Ku’damm, the hugely popular KaDeWe department store, whose food store, including several gourmet restaurants and wine/champagne bars, is well worth a stop for lunch or dinner.
The most poignant building along the boulevard, if not in all of Berlin, is the Kaiser-Wilheim Church (Gedächtniskirche) that was bombed in the war but left standing as a reminder of the absurdity of war. Be sure to visit the little museum at its base.
A baroque palace, Schloss Charlottenburg was built in 1699 as the summer villa of Sophie-Charlotte, wife of Friedrich III. Over the centuries succeeding Prussian rulers continued to make so many additions to the palace that today it is only about 200 feet less long than Versailles. Inside you can take a tour of the beautiful rooms and see a good collection of paintings and china. It’s one of the great places to see in the city.
Set on the bank of the River Spree, the place sits in an English-style garden around which are several outbuildings including a Belvedere (that now houses a porcelain collection) and a royal mausoleum. Across the street from the main entrance to the castle is the Berggruen Museum, home to the permanent exhibition “Picasso and his Time.”
A Place to Walk in Berlin: Unter den Linden
Berlin is a stunning city to walk about just to view its beautiful buildings. If you’re going to wander, the fabled Unter den Linden is a good place to start.
Originally named for the lime trees that were planted along it, it’s still one of the most famous streets in the city, not only because of the many cafes and shops, but more so for its many historic buildings that have been rebuilt since the war.
A stroll along it is one of the top things to do in Berlin. The street takes you past Humboldt University (where Einstein once studied), the Schinkel Museum (housing the National Gallerie’s Permanent sculpture collection), the Berliner Dom (a cathedral severely damaged in WWII and now restored in a simpler form) and Museum Island.
Potsdamer Platz was the heart of Berlin prior to World War II and then became a no-man’s land after the division of the city following the war. Following the fall of the wall the rebirth of the area has been nothing short of incredible.
What was once a wasteland has once again become the center of urban life for Berliners. Today, the area – at one time Europe’s largest construction site – is filled with restaurants, stores and cinemas, a city within the city, much of it focused on the architecturally fascinating Sony Center.
Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, officially named the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” is an impressive memorial that occupies a 4.7 acre site between Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz.
The heart of the memorial, and which is most recognizable, is the “Field of Stelae,” more than 2,700 concrete slabs (stelae) of varying heights and angles arranged grid-like on undulating ground, giving people walking about them a disoriented feeling. An underground museum contains the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims. It’s a block away from Brandenburg Gate.
Berlin Television Tower (Fernsehturm)
While the Brandenburg Gate may be the most famous emblem of the city, Berlin’s television tower is the most visible since you can see it from anywhere in the city. It was built in the 1960s in an attempt to show the world how technically advanced East Germany was. Ironically, although East Germany has collapsed, the tower still remains the tallest building in Berlin.
Although it may seem to be an odd tourist attraction, more than 1.2 million people visit it every year…perhaps lured by the bar, restaurant and spectacular 360° view of Berlin more than 1200 feet below.
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy The Top 10 Places in Germany, Train Trips in Europe – 15 That Are Great Day Trips, Things To Do in Munich
If you go:
German National Tourist Office
122 East 42nd Street, 52nd Floor
New York, NY 10168
Tel: (212) 661-7200