History, Culture, Graffiti and more – here are some ideas of how to make the most of Berlin.
Berlin is a gritty city that is bursting with history, education and reflection. The numerous memorials make this a city that honours those affected by Berlin’s past. But it also allows the new habitants to express their views and celebrate their culture and passions. It might not be a top choice for a romantic getaway, but Berlin has a passionate heart that will touch any visitor.
The city of Berlin stands in a low and marshy area of Northeastern Germany. With the river Spree running through the city, you’ll find canal networks, parks and a wide low-rise feel to the city.
Berlin, North Eastern Germany, Europe
Germany's capital city is perfect for history and culture lovers
Spring and Autumn are perfect to visit Berlin. The summer can be very hot and the winters very cold - so dress accordingly
A very large, walkable, flat city with great U Bahn, S Bahn and Tram systems
There is no real city centre but lots of Kieze (communities)
The River Spree runs through the city - boat tours are available
Yes, in Berlin there is a whole island dedicated to museums. Five large museums sit proudly on Spree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Berlin’s historic Mitte district. The Pergamon, Bode, Neues, Alte Nationalgalerie and Altes Museums offer you art, and antiquities on a grand scale. If you are a museum lover – then you might want to invest in a Museum Pass Berlin. Even if time doesn’t permit museum meanderings, the Museum Island area is one of the most attractive areas to visit in Berlin and definitely worth a walk around. (The Pergamon Museum is closing for extensive renovation on 23rd October 2023 so check before you visit).
There’s debate about whether Checkpoint Charlie should be on your to-see list because it’s now considered a tourist trap. I understand as the site is – well, small and a little underwhelming. Plus you have to dodge traffic to get a good photo. But this Berlin wall Crossing point symbolises the Cold War and was the scene of the brief but potentially future-changing face-off between Soviet and American tanks. So go and visit and get the photo!
This much loved German landmark is built on the site of a former city gate that started the route to Brandenburg an der Havel. A symbol of Geman division during the Cold War, it now offers a national symbol of unity and peace. It’s located in a pedestrianized area often used for large public shows and events. There are some fabulous photo opportunities here before moving on to the Reichstag.
If you are heading from the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag, do take a short detour to take in the sombre but beautiful holocaust memorial / Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In 19000 square metres, the 2711 concrete stelae wave abstractly through the space – a very unique place of remembrance.
The Reichstag is a short walk away and is the current home of the German parliament. You can sit outside on the grass for a picnic – or make a reservation in the rooftop restaurant. You can even enjoy panoramic city views from the glass dome.
The Wall – or Walls!
It feels surreal to me that in my lifetime, there was a wall that kept a whole population in. The 27-mile-long wall was 2 walls, with a ‘Death Strip’ in between. For some, removing the wall after its demise, was essential to remove the painful reminder of a sad past. Others argued that parts of the wall be left intact in remembrance of the historic events and perhaps as a stark reminder to us all of how fragile peace can be. The Berlin Wall is still very visible in parts of the city – as too is the double cobbled strip with brass Berliner Mauer markers that you will find if you keep looking down to the ground across Berlin. Experience the Wall for yourself at Berlin Wall Memorial, Mauerpark, a small section near Checkpoint Charlie and most prominently at the East Side Gallery.
East Side Gallery
One of my favourite sites in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. If like me you are walking around Berlin, you might find its location a bit of a trek from the famous Checkpoint Charlie, Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. Despite the walk, it is SO worth a visit. On one side of this 1.3m long stretch of wall, you will find the familiar graffiti that really is everywhere in Berlin. But the other side of the Wall is remarkable. 118 artists from 21 countries were commissioned to paint murals that would become the longest open-air gallery in the world.
Between 1961 and 1989 thousands of East Germans risked crossing the border to get to the West. Before August 1961, up to 1700 people daily, were leaving through Berlin. The German Democratic Republic officials decided to close the border to stop the drain. Escapes became a focus of those determined to seek out a life in the West. Tunnels were popular between 1962- 1964, with serious planning involved to consider reinforcements, lighting and ventilation. Berliner Unterwelten offers a unique underground tour where you will learn more about the tunnels, underground Berlin and experience both first-hand.
Eating around Berlin
There are some absolute classic dishes to try in Berlin. A Currywurst from Curry 36 is a must – although maybe once will be enough. Flammekueche with its toppings of creme fraiche, onions and lardons is a delicious lunch. Then there are the popular Turkish and Syrian dishes which you will find all over the city, including a Shwarma or the hummus/baba ganoush style Mutabal dish. For drinks try a Fritz Cola, Berliner Weisse Cocktail or a Radler for a refreshing lemony beer drink. Authentic German cuisine is served at the Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt. It’s got a great atmosphere and a delicious menu from Wiener Schnitzel to the crispy knuckle of pork (be warned that it’s big enough for 2!).
Book ahead for a bonus glass dome tour
Unlike the roughly €25 trip up the Berlin TV Tower, you can enjoy panoramic views from the Reichstag glass dome for FREE. Go online well in advance of your trip (bookings were being taken for 2 weeks time when I checked). Alternatively, you can visit the ticket booth situated to the side of the Reichstag, and make a reservation if spaces are available, for the same day or later in your trip. PLEASE remember to take ID for all of your party as you cannot book in person without it. Book in advance here – Reichstag Building and Dome Tour
A great way to make the most of Berlin is to understand some of its history before you visit. My favourite way to research a city is by listening to podcasts. With a podcast, I can search for episodes, download them and then listen when I’m driving. If I’ve got time I’ll try and get my hands on a few books before I go too. I have to admit that I didn’t finish the Checkpoint Charlie book before my visit. But honestly – it felt pretty great to be sitting in a cafe directly opposite the actual border crossing that I was reading about!
My top tips to read and listen to before you go:
- Book – Tunnel 29 – Helena Merriman
- Book – Checkpoint Charlie – Iain MacGregor
- Podcast – BBC – Tunnel 29 (10 episodes)
- Podcast – The Rest Is History – No. 83 The Berlin Wall
- Podcast – Short History – Season 2, E29 – The Berlin Wall
- Podcast – History HIT – Escaping the Berlin Wall
One of the most culturally diverse European cities, you’ll notice and appreciate German and international influences on what you see, taste and enjoy. Berlin will educate you and make you reflect on the past. What it lacks in romance, it makes up for in history, diversity and culture. Enjoy making the most of Berlin.