The city is known for many things: some good, some great and some rather disturbing. And let’s be honest, Germany’s capital is not exactly easy on the eyes. The city has been scarred by a devastating war and subsequently divided by a 155-kilometre long wall. The post World War II construction transformed the historic city centre into a jungle of concrete and glass high-rises. Regrettably, it has none of the Gemütlichkeit that one finds in many other German places.
No, Berlin has a different appeal.
It has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for many artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers – Bertolt Brecht, Ian McEwan, Paul Greengrass, Lou Reed, U2, David Bowie and Nina Hagen to name a few. So what is it that makes this city their muse?
I am going to trace these artists´ footsteps to find out what makes this metropolitan so special, bearing in mind that after Moscow and London it is the third largest city in Europe. With 3.6 million inhabitants it is just too big to see all the city has to offer in a couple of days. Below you’ll find my choices with some of the most important sights, highlights, activities with and without children, the best places to experience ‘the Berlin Wall’ and where to shop, sleep and eat.
Thankfully most of it is completely free of charge.
The Berlin Wall
Close to Checkpoint Charlie you’ll find a panorama created by Yadegar Asisi. It is a depiction of a Kreuzberg neighbourhood divided by the wall, in the eighties. This breathtaking panoramic image is probably the most haunting place of all ‘the wall’ sights. This grey post-war world can be viewed from a platform. Dark moody light accompanied by depressing music creates a sense of being there in the thick of the cold war.
Friedrichstraβe 205/Zimmerstraβe Berlin-Mitte
Topography of Terror
The topography des Terrors on Zimmerstraβe contains 200 metres of the original Berlin Wall. It also has a permanent exhibition of the Nazi regime.
Admission is free.
A bit more cheerful than the other wall sites is Checkpoint Charlie. And yes, it is a big tourist trap, where one can take a picture posing with ‘American soldiers’ against the background of the world’s most famous border crossing with KFC on one side of the ´border´and McDonald´s on the other.
You will find Checkpoint Charlie at the beginning of Kochstraβe. Looking is free, taking a picture is not.
East Side Gallery
The Eastside is with its 1.3 kilometres the longest surviving section of the wall. Nowadays it is the world’s longest open-air gallery. Ironically a large part of this wall is now securely locked behind a fence. Presumably to protect the artwork against graffiti and tourists. Too much freedom is apparently not in everyone’s interest.
There is no charge. You will find the gallery along the River Spree in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg on the Alte Jakobstraβe 124 – 128.
Sex and the city
Just behind the Eastside Gallery, crossing the Oberbaumbrücke you’ll find Little Istanbul or the ‘Soho of Berlin’ in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood. Here are the vegan restaurants, art galleries, second hand and multicultural shops. Continue to Oranienstraße for an abundant choice of restaurants, bars and a taste of the Berlin nightlife.
Shop till you drop
In Berlin, one can’t go wrong shopping as the whole inner city is one big commercial centre. Close to Potsdamer Platz you’ll find the City Mall. Walk down Kurfürstendamm to Wittenerplatz to visit the famous KaDeWe, also known as the legendary Kaufhaus des Westens. Make sure not to miss the chocolate department on the sixth floor, nor the rooftop restaurant on the seventh.
Schwules Museum LGBTIQ
Not tried, nor tested but I am intrigued, to say the least. What is there to see at the LGBTIQ museum in Berlin? According to their website, the museum has been researching and communicating the history and culture of lesbian, gay, trans-, bisexual and queer communities. It is definitely going to be on my list next time.
This museum is on Lützowstraße 73.
Museum für Fotografie
The foto museum is located opposite the Zoo station on Jebenstraβe 2. The collection is a must for those interested in photography and contains some eye candy for those with an interest in naked women. The first floor houses the private collection of Helmut Newton and his wife June, also known as Alice Springs. The second floor mainly portraits taken by the couple. Here you’ll I find the most interesting part of the collection: those of a youthful (and fully clothed) Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Sorry guys, no picture here as taking pictures from pictures is unfortunately not allowed in this museum.
Till January 2017 works of Bernard Larsson are exhibited.
For a pleasant stroll under the cover of trees head to the ‘Unter den Linden Boulevard’, till you hit the Brandenburger Tor, continue over the Ebertstraβe till Potsdamer Platz for more high rise buildings – or as the tourist office euphemistically calls it ‘the contemporary design of the glass facades´ – and then walk back to the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt to recover from too much modern Berlin.
When in need of some clean air go to Tiergarten, the green heart of the city. One can stroll for hours between the trees, waterworks, only to stop at one of the restaurants for a drink or a bite. The Teehaus in der Englischen Garten is particularly nice and serves excellent food. The restaurant is also opened at night, the entrance through the park is illuminated.
Visit the circus
The Chamäleon theater is located in the heart of Berlin, in the Mitte district. Here you can see contemporary circus. There is a new show every few months. The combination of acrobatics, theater, storytelling, dance and music ensures a sparkling show every time.
If you want to see the city at a leisurely pace whilst enjoying some local bites, try a food tour from Bitemojo.
This is a self-guided tour, using an app on your mobile. The app prompts you to visit places, gives information about the food and the places that you will see in this tour, shows the route and asks for immediate feedback.
You stop six times, at least on the tour that I did, for a snack or a drink. The snacks are small – bite size – but together they form a complete meal.
This app is user-friendly and integrated with Google Maps, therefore it is easy to follow to trail. The walk is only a couple of kilometres and you can stop anytime and pick up on another day.
Mauer Park flea market
The flea market in Mauer Park is one of the busiest and best flea markets in Berlin. This takes place on Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm. People, things and food from all over the world come together here.
Bernauer Str. 63-64
Next to the train station in the Mitte district is a square with during daytime a lively market. Restaurants and cafés on the square have outdoor seating. And of course you can take the train here.
Children and teenagers
Truth be told, I hated the zoo, the children loved it, if only for the hunt for Disney characters out of Jungle Book, the Lion King and Ice Age. They found Bagheera, King Louie, Timon the Meerkat, Sid the Sloth and Scrat. Seeing these animals in small cages is not something that I would recommend for adults only. This has to be under strict children’s supervision to enjoy a visit to this animal prison.
Address Hardenbergplatz 8
Deutsche Spionage Museum
The German spy museum casts a light on the shadowy world of espionage. The exhibition contains picture displays recounting the history from ancient times via the cold war right to the age of Facebook. It has some interactive games. The laser room, in particular, is interesting for children and adults alike.
Address Leipziger Platz 7
Wait, there is more
The following places I have not been but I’ll mention them anyway as these might be of interest to you.
- For the sports addicts: tour through the Olympiastadion, the venue of the 2006 FIFA World Cup and the 12th IAAF World Championships.
- Do Berlin on two wheels; either go cycling with your kids or take a Segway tour. There are plenty of places to hire a bicycle for the day or take part in a city tour.
- For a rainy day go to Legoland Discovery Centre, an indoor playground located in the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz, recommended for children from three to ten years old.
- The Museum für Naturkunde boast collections of dinosaurs, the solar system, evolution, insects and more.
- And of course, if everything else fails, there is always Madame Tussauds.
Big, bigger and biggest. The Berlin monuments were built to impress. There is no entry fee to the sites listed below, apart from Charlottenburg.
Charlottenburg Palace was built as a summer residence for the Prussian Queen, Sophie Charlotte and was subsequently expanded by different owners. It was the most important Berlin residence to the Hohenzollern family. Even if you don’t enter the palace, do go and visit the lovely gardens (f.o.c.) and have a beverage on one of the terraces in the park.
To visit the Schloss one has to buy a ticket and be prepared to pay to take pictures.
Address Spandauer Damm 10-22
The entrance to the ‘Unter den Linden’ Straβe is marked by the 18th century Brandenburg gate. It is one of the most defining landmarks in the city centre. During World War II Brandenburg Gate was damaged but not destroyed by allied bombing, this is the only one out of the eighteen gates that survived the war.
Address Pariser Platz 1.
Close to the Kurfürstendamm, on the Breitscheidplatz is the Gedächtniskirche, which was partially destroyed during World War II. The ruins have been converted into a war memorial. Next door you’ll find the new church with an octagonal hall and a bell tower.
There are daily guided tours, these are free of charge. Be aware you might get locked in to take part in the praying ritual.
The Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden is a haunting monument to the Holocaust, dedicated to the Jewish victims of World War II. It was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and completed in 2005. The 2711 rectangular blocks look like tombstones, but they are just concrete slabs. The memorial is open 24/7.
Address Cora-Berliner Straβe 1
The Reichstag is the home of the German parliament. It has a vast glass dome or cupola. The roof terrace and dome of the Reichstag Building can be visited by members of the public and offers spectacular views of the parliamentary and government district and Berlin’s sights. Unfortunately, visits tend to be booked out far in advance, as I found out to my dismay.
Information for visitors who have not booked in advance
If you would like to visit the dome but have not booked in advance, you can register at the service centre run by the Visitors’ Service near the Reichstag Building, next to the Berlin Pavilion on the south side of Scheidemannstraße.
To book your visit to the dome, you will need to provide the following information: your last name, first name and date of birth. The booking confirmation is issued to you personally and is non-transferable. You will be asked for proof of identity both upon registration and at the main entrance for visitors.
Admission is free, advance registration required.
Address Platz der Republik 1
The Gendarmenmarkt is one of the few places in the city centre where one can get a feel for the old Berlin. The square is lined by monumental buildings. Note, this is also the place where one pays ridiculous prices for a drink.
If you are into shopping make sure to be there when the Christmas market and ice rink open for the festive season, from the middle of November.
It is hard to miss the Fernsehturm (television tower) in the centre of Berlin, Germany, close to lexanderplatz in Berlin-Mitte as it towers above everything else in the area.
The tower was built between 1965 and 1969 by the then DDR government as a symbol of communist power. Nowadays you can have lunch or dinner upstairs in the tower, or just enjoy the view from the platform. Tickets are relatively expensive (from 21.50) but you get a 360∘ view.
Address Mauerstrasse 81/82 Berlin
Accommodation Hotel Gat Point Charlie
We stayed at the über cool Gat Point Charlie hotel staffed by friendly personnel who are fluent in German, English and Spanish. The family-owned hotel is part of a small chain with headquarters in Barcelona. It is cat themed, with a bright green and black colour scheme. The friendly atmosphere makes it hard to believe that previously the building functioned as a Stasi headquarter.
These days it features a funky bar, bright comfortable rooms and free Wi-Fi. The main difference between the more budget-friendly standard rooms and the pricier superior rooms is the amount of space. If you are looking for even more space, the hotel also has suites and triple rooms.
The luxury rooms welcome the visitor with a fruit platter, a bottle of water and nice smelling Portuguese amenities in the bathroom. All rooms have a safe, colour TV, full-length mirror, ensuite bathroom, hairdryer and desk. Rooms on the higher floors can get a bit hot in the summer heat as there is no air-conditioning. On request, reception staff provides a fan, which helps a lot to cool down.
With its central location, right between two metro stations, one could not find a better place to start exploring the city. The underground stations are Kochstraβe and Stadtmitte. Look for the ‘U’-sign.
It is an easy walk to many of the tourist attractions, but if you prefer to bike, the hotel has rental bicycles at your disposal for twelve euros a day.
The hotel sports a breakfast buffet with healthy options, rolls, different types of croissants, yoghurts, fruits, homemade delicious carrot cake and biscuits, choice of eggs and sausages. Next door you’ll find a very reasonably priced Italian restaurant, La Via del Muro. If you prefer Asian food, the Avan restaurant serves Asian food at the Gat Point Hotel.
Address: Mauerstrasse 81/82 Berlin
The Gat Point Charlie hotel is part of the Gatrooms chain with branches in Lisbon and Barcelona (coming soon). To find out more about this hotel or to book, click here for the Gatrooms website.
To use the words of a great German-speaking poet:
“I’ll be back!”
Holiday Inn Hotel
This hotel is a few minutes walk from Alexanderplatz in the Mitte district. The luxury breakfast buffet has everything a Western heart desires. The rooms are spotless, albeit a bit small and the beds comfortable.
To view availability and rates, click here.
The train to Schönefeld airport arrives here and there is a direct bus connection with Berlin-Tegel airport.
Transport in Berlin
- Berlin’s inner city is blissfully quiet as a 2006 anti-air-pollution law began a process that now requires drivers in Germany to have a special environmental sticker (Umweltplakette) on their car in order to enter the “green zone” of many German cities and towns.
- Luckily you don’t need a car as public transport is excellent. You’ll never be far from a train (S-Bah), metro (U-Bahn) or bus connection which run frequently.
- With the Welcome to Berlin card, one travels hassle-free on all public transport. One adult can take three children up to 14 years old for free. With the pack comes a very handy street map, booklet with most of the tourist attractions, routes and discounts on most attractions and some restaurants. Always ask at the entrance how much the discount is: in some museums and attractions a family ticket (two adults – two children) is cheaper than the discount with the Welcome card. The card is valid from two to a maximum of six days.
- Take note that there are different zones in the public transport system. You will be able to visit most sights within the AB zone. The SXF airport is in zone C, you will need to buy an additional ticket to get there.
Post published in august 2018
Updated in March 2019
Disclaimer –this Berlin city break was in partnership with Gatrooms Hotels, the Berlin Tourist Office, Bitjemojo Food Tours, Chamäelon theatre and Holiday Inn.