Thanks to its abundance of cool galleries, attractions and nightlife venues, there is no end of things to do in Berlin.
Need a little help planning? Check out our bucket list of essentials in Berlin.
Take a stroll in the Grunewald forest
Grunewald is Berlin’s largest forested area, to the south-west of Charlottenburg and easily accessible via the S-bahn. Pack a picnic and head down there for a day to take a vitalizing break from the buzz of the city. Venture through the woods by foot, bicycle or even on horseback and, if weather permits it, take a dip in the clean waters of Schlachtensee or Wannsee, the nearest of the forest’s several freshwater lakes. Look out for Teufelsberg, a man-made hill rising above the woodland, constructed by the Allies after World War II from the city’s rubble. Although there’s no general access to the hill, you can get to the top of the hill by going on a guided tour: English tours start at 1.30 pm on Sundays (pre-booking required).
Spend a day on Museum Island
At the eastern end of Unter den Linden is Museum Island a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site lying in the middle of the Spree. It’s home to five of Berlin’s most important museums: two not to be missed are the Neues Museum, home to the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti and the spectacular Pergamonmuseum, one of the world’s major archaeological museums. Within you walk through a series of astounding structures, from a partial recreation of the Pergamon Altar (170–159 BC) to the two-storey Roman Gate of Miletus (29 metres wide and almost 17 metres high) and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, dating from the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (605–563 BC). Tucked away upstairs is the Islamic Art collection, a treasure trove. A day ticket is available permitting entrance to each museum.
Hunt down bargains in MauerPark
Berliners embrace their green spaces and the long strip of grass along the middle of Prenzlauer Berg’s Mauerpark (open daily from 8am–sunset) is best known not as a relaxing spot but a mecca for energetic market-lovers. The park hosts a massive flea market on Sundays, with vendors selling bargain bicycles, clothes, food, souvenirs, records, pianos and furniture.
Ascend to an iconic vantage point
Largely owing to World War II, Berlin’s architecture has a fascinating range, from the historical to high modernism and more controversial postmodern projects. A visit to the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament, provides the perfect overview. Opened in 1894, its renovation was masterminded by British super-architect Norman Foster and completed in 1999. The roof is an entirely glass structure, allowing for a panoramic view of the city right from the centre of government. Entrance to the roof is free but you must register in advance; once you’re in make this a totally informative experience by plugging into the audio tour and heading to the open roof for an overview of the sites all around. Alternative views can be found by taking Europe’s fastest elevator to the Panoramapunkt on the 24th and 25th floors of the Kollhoff Tower in Potsdamer Platz. Over in the east of the city is Fernsehturm, rising over 200 metres above Alexanderplatz. The iconic tower is Europe’s fourth tallest free-standing structure and the stainless steel sphere contains a revolving restaurant and viewing gallery. On clear days visibility can reach 40 kilometres.
Indulge in some DDR ‘Ostalgia’
Soviet occupation of East Berlin ended in 1990, and today the DDR Museum offers a snapshot of the life “back in the old days”. The interactive museum allows visitors a truly hands on experience for both children and adults alike: root through drawers of East German memorabilia, mimic a Stasi officer and listen in on a bugged flat. Out on the streets you can take a unique tour of the city by renting a Trabant, the classic car produced in former East Germany, now painted in bright colours by the Trabi Safari company.
Explore Berlin’s Jewish history
The Jüdisches Museum presents the story of Berlin’s Jewish population through the Museum’s own architecture. The newest and most eye-grabbing section of the building was designed by controversial Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind. Its shape is based on an exploding Star of David, with its interior spaces disappearing into angles, so the museum experience is more about the effects of the space than the documents and artifacts. Across Oranienburger Straße is the Neue Synagogue: built in the late 19th century this building survived World War II, and its golden dome stands out from far. For more of an emotional way into history, walk night or day through the “Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas” – also known as the Holocaust Memorial. This memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe takes the form of 2,711 blocks of varying heights arranged across the area of a housing block.
Walk the Berlin Wall
The Wall was mostly demolished between June and November 1990 although a restored stretch remains along the southern border of Wedding and Mitte. Visit Checkpoint Charlie, the famous east-west border control during the Cold War and now a tourist centre, for comprehensive display boards telling the Wall’s story. For more of a visual history, take a walk along the Wall by the Spree, where it runs between the Freidrichshain-Kreuzberg districts. Whereas graffiti has been removed from the northern section of the Wall, the one-mile stretch known as the East Side Gallery is dedicated to art and preserves the paintings made on the eastern side when the Wall was brought down. Although attempting to preserve the spirit of the time, an argument blew up when the restoration project of recent years was seen to overstep the mark, with original artworks being painted over without the artists’ permission.
East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall, “put up in a single night in 1961”, introduced a new and cruel reality: anyone trying to flee to the West risked being shot. The concrete part of the 160-kilometre Berlin Wall ran to 112 kilometres, of which the East Side Gallery is a 1.3-kilometre- long section on the Friedrichshain side of the River Spree. Over 100 artists from all over the world painted images on the Wall in the wake of its declassification, and in a city bursting with graffiti, this stretch is an oddity, being officially sanctioned. A colourful memorial to freedom and the outburst of jubilation of that period, it is fading fast, facing the effects of anything from weather to vandalism, and controversy reigns as to its restoration, with certain artists objecting to copies being painted over their originals. This memorial is a focus for the new tensions that have emerged in the post-Wall era, between ideas of ownership, officialdom and memory.
Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart
A counterpoint to the gritty end of Berlin’s gallery scene, the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station, is a spectacular repository of contemporary art, featuring some of the biggest names from the later part of the 20th century. 100,000 square metres are devoted to works from the collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin), alongside pieces from the renowned collector, Erich Marx, whose impressive stash counts Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Anselm Kiefer. The ground floor of the western side of the building is entirely given over to the eccentric genius Joseph Beuys, showing rare works and related ephemera.
Ask five German film enthusiasts about the state of contemporary German cinema and be prepared for five different responses. Local buffs agree, however, that the Deutsche Kinemathek gives a consistent account of the story of German cinema. Thirteen rooms contain over 1,000 films, scripts, documentation, props, costumes and other memorabilia – the exhibition takes us from cinema’s earliest, flickering manifestations to the industry’s Weimar-era heyday and through veering ideological extremes (via didactic Nazi and DDR-era propagandist productions) to the present day, with substantial coverage of Marlene Dietrich to boot. Situated in the unlovely neon and concrete environs of Potsdamer Platz, this expansive museum is an absorbing and entertaining experience.