Berlin is one of those big cities that are impossible to capture in just one blog post. So, I’m not going to try to.
Instead, I’m going to share 10 things to do in Berlin.
These activities were some of my favourites during the month I spent living in Berlin last year during my 8 months in Europe. Since that was a hard time for me – probably the second worst period of my trip – I want to revel in the positives.
And in a city like Berlin, there are a lot of positives!
- 1 1. Eat German Food
- 2 2. Walk Through History at Bradenburg Gate
- 3 3. Wander through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
- 4 4. Expand Your Mind on Museum Island
- 5 5. See a New Side of the Wars at the Berlin Zoo
- 6 6. Stand on Top of Politics at the Reichstag Building
- 7 7. Cross Between East and West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie
- 8 8. Listen to the Berliner Philharmoniker for Free
- 9 9. Head Away From Downtown to Visit Charlottenburg Palace
- 10 10. See What Remains of the Berlin Wall
1. Eat German Food
I’m a total food lover, so it’s not surprising this is my first tip. But honestly, I had no idea what German food was before I went to Germany.
I remember one of my favourite comedians, Danny Bhoy, doing a bit about Germans eating liver for breakfast.
That put me off even looking into German food.
But oh my god was I ever missing out!
Germans make amazing sausages (though not quite as good as the Czech Republic). They have rich soups, hearty sandwiches and THE BEST BREAD. I literally bought quarter loaves of brown bread the size of stock pots weekly when I lived there. I would just eat it with butter and watch as my pants got harder to button with glee.
You have to try German bread when you visit Berlin (and maybe send me a hunk or two!).
2. Walk Through History at Bradenburg Gate
One of the first things I did when I actually broke away from my horrible work experience in Berlin was to visit the monumental gate.
The gate is called Bradenburger Tor in German. It was built in the 18th century on the site of the former city gate. Friedrich Willhelm II of Prussia ordered it built to celebrate peace after reclaiming the land from the British.
Bradenburg gate has seen its fair share of history. From Napoleon’s victory procession through it to surviving WWII with only one horse head remaining, it has known more history than most of us ever will.
Seeing it lit up at night gives you a glimpse of the majesty of this monument. View it from Pariser Platz for the best shot of Victoria with her chariot. During the day, stroll beneath the gate to wander Unter den Linden, a beautiful main street with some great cafes.
3. Wander through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
We all know the horrors of the Holocaust.
In 2005, this artistic memorial was erected just one block south of the Bradenburg Gate. It’s an incredible artistic feat that carries so many meanings.
At first glance, the coffin-esque cement blocks look all the same. But when you wander through, you notice the differences in their shape and size.
Walking between the structures gives you a feeling of disappearing into their depths, of a maze you can’t escape, of the bleakness of your surroundings.
The memorial is surprisingly powerful and definitely worth a visit during your time in Berlin.
4. Expand Your Mind on Museum Island
Museum Island was without a doubt my favourite spot in all of Berlin.
Not only is it the most picturesque, it’s also the most mentally stimulating.
I’m not a big museum or art gallery person. I love the stories behind the artifacts and the art, but I’m not very good at wandering through it all for hours.
Except on Museum Island.
I bought the 3-day pass and spent 8 hours a day for all 3 days soaking up as much knowledge as I could.
Of the 5 museums on Museum Island, Pergamon was easily my favourite. That’s not just because I later went to the city of Pergamon in Turkey. It’s because it really made you feel like you were inside history with the reconstruction of the Ishtar gate.
Unfortunately, the Pergamon Altar was closed for renovations when I visited.
On the island, you can also find the Berlin Cathedral. It’s worth the effort of climbing its stairs to get a wonderful view of the city. It’s cheaper and most interesting than paying to go up the tower in Alexanderplatz.
5. See a New Side of the Wars at the Berlin Zoo
I know zoos are a bit of a touchy subject with animal rights issues. But a visit to the Berlin zoo isn’t just about seeing animals in captivity.
It’s also about learning how zoos began and how the World Wars affected this zoo.
The fact that’s stuck with me the longest (and may be my favourite party fact – which explains why I don’t get invited to a lot of parties) is that the workers got trapped in the aquarium due to the bombings. In order to survive, they had to eat the very animal they cared for day in and day out in order to survive: a crocodile. It might be a myth, but I heard that they even boiled it into soup (or maybe I just read that book too much as a kid).
It’s heartbreaking to think of the animals that died due to a war they never entered.
I highly recommend visiting the Berlin zoo to find out more.
6. Stand on Top of Politics at the Reichstag Building
The Reichstag building is actually the German parliament. I know it might seem weird to visit the parliament of a country responsible for the Nazis, but their politics have changed for the better since then.
The Reichstag is best known for the large glass dome atop the building. It has a glass floor, allowing visitors to see into the main hall of parliament. This represents the transparency the politicians must have with the people and serves to remind the politicians of the people they are meant to serve.
But most people focus on the panoramic view of the city.
Book your time slot to visit online so you can skip the line.
7. Cross Between East and West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie
I expected some grand checkpoint, but Checkpoint Charlie is actually quite simple. In fact, I wandered past it at first by accident.
For a location that marked the division between the East and West of Berlin, you’d think there’d be more hubbub.
If you actually pay attention to your surroundings, you’ll see what looks like a toll booth in the middle of the road and a sign that expresses that you are crossing between East and West Berlin.
It’s not a big, scary guard house. It’s actually pretty small and grey. It hardly looks intimidating now, but I’m sure it had more menace back when the wall stood around it.
Seeing a famous site like this helps you realize how much of the power of a place comes from the people and not from the structure alone.
There are usually a couple of men dressed in old uniforms hanging around for photos, but there’s barely any information on the checkpoint itself. If you’re interested in the historical significance, make sure to research beforehand or visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
8. Listen to the Berliner Philharmoniker for Free
Every Tuesday, the Berlin Philharmonic treat an audience to a free lunchtime concert. There’s even food for those who haven’t eaten before the program.
Get there early, especially if you need or want a seat, as these 1pm events fill up quickly. Luckily, you don’t really need to see the orchestra to enjoy the performance.
I don’t know much about music, so I can’t speak to the skillful playing or the extensive range of songs that were played. But I can say the room was absolutely silent, a thousand people focused on every note the orchestra played.
There was none of the pomp that comes with going to see an orchestra (I’m guessing. I’ve never seen one because pomp sounds like a nightmare). Everyone was very casual. There was a mix of tourists, elderly people, professionals and students all experiencing the music together.
Why not be one of them?
9. Head Away From Downtown to Visit Charlottenburg Palace
I love a good castle. Medieval, Victorian, whatever; I want to see it.
So of course I think everyone should head over to see the baroque- and rococo-style palace just outside of downtown Berlin.
A quick train ride will have you at the entrance to the 17th century compound that includes the palace, a theatre, a pavilion, a mausoleum, a belvedere and extensive gardens. Even in winter when the garden wasn’t in bloom, you could feel the opulence.
But the real beauty is inside the palace. Take your time to go through the rooms and marvel at the almost over the top fabulous interior. There are literally rooms called the Porcelain Room, the Golden Gallery, the Amber Room and the White Hall. Could it possibly get any fancier?
Unfortunately, the palace was damaged during World War II. It has since been restored, but you can still see the scars within the building.
10. See What Remains of the Berlin Wall
I left this as the last point, not because I’m saving the best for last. The Berlin Wall didn’t really impress me. Maybe it’s because it isn’t as intimidating now that it’s been chopping in pieces and posed around the city with information boards. Or since most of it is now an open-air art gallery.
Seeing the wall, touching it, didn’t evoke the feelings of horror or awe that much of the rest of my experience in Berlin did. Honestly, if it wasn’t such a well-known attraction, I’d suggest you skip it.
But it has sort of become a “must do” activity when you visit the city. Many people even buy a piece to take home.
So, I suggest you visit to figure out your own feelings on the bits of metal and concrete that once cut through much of the city.
To get a real sense of the breadth of the divide between the two parts of Berlin, follow the off-coloured brick path that circles the city like a less munchkin-y yellow brick road. It traces the path of the original Berlin wall. I tried walking the length of it, but realized that was a bad idea when a large chunk ran through a busy road.
Definitely don’t follow it into traffic!
Berlin and I have a complicated relationship. The city has come to mean a lot to me since I overcame a fair amount while living in a studio apartment in Wedding. I spent my first Christmas alone there and figured out how to continue on my trip when I felt incredibly homesick.
Exploring the richness of the city helped me overcome some of the darkness in my mind (which is weird since a lot of the history and culture I experienced were very dark themselves). It helped keep my bad mood from turning me against Berlin.
I hope you have a brighter time in the city than I did and that you get to see some of the beauty of Berlin for yourself.
What city is special to you?