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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrGermany’s capital city is its most populated hub and renowned as a thriving metropolis, boasting a vibrant nightlife, incredibly arty vibe, interesting history, and unparalleled cultural persona. With a multitude of bars, clubs, museums, palaces, and more, Berlin would have to rate as the most varied of all of Germany’s major cities. Berlin is certainly the most multi-cultural city of all and offers visitors a glimpse into Germany’s tumultuous history. From Medieval ruins to wartime icons and modernist buildings, this eastern German city offers a very unique perspective into this most enticing country. If you’ve ever wanted to experience the then and now, in one of Europe’s most prominent nations, then Berlin is where you’ll need to head to.
An effervescent hive home to 4.5 million people, Berlin boasts a wealth of historical and cultural attractions, and a near endless array of trendy bars, cool cafés and enticing eateries, not to mention hotels, hostels, and guesthouses to suit all tastes and budgets.
Brief HistoryBerlin is best known for being home to the Berlin Wall, a 79 miles long partition built in 1961 which divided East from West and, in essence, communism from democracy. The wall crumbled under much international pressure in 1989 in what became one of the most pivotal historical events in our modern times. The complete transformation of Berlin, since then, has been nothing short of miraculous. Nowadays, Berlin is considered one of Europe’s trendiest cities, with its laid-back and accepting populace often considered examples worth duplicating. In fact, Berlin boasts one of the most enviable quality of living standards in the entire continent.
Yet it is quite the travesty that Berlin is mostly known for its post-war struggles. This very old and interesting city is not only fascinating, but also extremely beautiful. With no less than five rivers meandering their way through the city’s (almost) every suburb, Berlin is an exceptionally stunning city, with striking nature and glorious architecture completing the postcard-picture.
Berlin also boasts a healthy amount of Medieval attractions and landmarks which have, surprisingly, stood the test of time. Over eight centuries of German history are still palpable in Berlin, a city that’s been able to reinvent itself time and again.
- The historic city center dates back to the 13th century.
- Berlin boasts 1,700 bridges, three times more than Venice.
- There are more than 180kms worth of navigable waterways within the city limits.
- Berlin is approximately nine times larger than Paris.
- Head to Potsdamer Platz and you can see a replica of the very first set of traffic lights ever built in Europe. It was placed here in 1924.
- The recently refurbished Central railway Station in Berlin is the largest and busiest railway hub in Europe.
- Among the local population, there are almost 190 countries represented, making this the most multi-cultural city in Germany.
- Berlin is Germany’s largest university city, with four unis, four art schools, and a dozen technical colleges calling this city home.
- You’ll find over 170 museums in Berlin.
- This is the only city in the world home to three, still-active Opera Houses: Berliner Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin , and Komische Oper.
- More than 30% of Berlin is made up of lakes, waterways, parks, and forests.
- Continental Europe’s largest Department Store is in Berlin. The Kafthaus des Westens offers 60,000 m² of retail therapy, spread out over eight floors.
City OverviewBerlin is quite the sprawling metropolis but, fortunately, it can easily be subdivided in six districts, each offering a certain scene and array of attractions. Getting out and about is very easy here, thanks to a very precise public transport system. So pick where you’d like to stay first and foremost and then, without further ado, head off and explore every nook and cranny of this great city.
Following are the three most popular areas in which to stay:
MitteThis was the heart and soul of East Berlin and, with the passing of time, is swiftly becoming the main city center. The most convenient location in the city, this arty area, formerly run down and home to countless squatters, has been gentrified in recent years and now offers quite the plush experience whilst still maintaining the Berliner hip-and-happening vibe. In the city’s most historic center is where you’ll find Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, the Berlin Cathedral, and Friedrichstraße , the main shopping drag in these parts.
WestHome to the superlative Berlin Zoo, Charlottenburg Palace, and Olympic Stadium, the western area of Berlin (centered around Kurfürstendamm) is the recognized GBT-friendly part of the city and home to many gay bars and clubs. Luxury shoppers ought to head to Tauentzienstraße to stock up on designer gear. Stay in boutique hotels in Wilmersdorf to see how the upper-class live, or opt for Moabit if you prefer to have Turkish and Arabic eateries outside your front door. If Berlin could be said to have a true ‘wild side’, then this green area would certainly be it.
North-EastPrenzlauer Berg is popular with young artists and hippie families who prefer a more alternative and less conforming lifestyle. It’s here that you’ll find the trendiest boutiques, cafés, and best value-for-money hostels. The Jewish Museum, Berlin is here, as well as the city’s massive Science and Technology Museum and the unnerving Topography of Terror Museum. This area of Berlin may not boast the greatest amount of landmarks yet its scenes of everyday life, easily observed from one of the many street cafés, is arguably its best asset.
HighlightsOne could spend years living in Berlin and literally never see the same site twice. Yet among the near infinite choice of historic buildings, museums, palaces, and parks, a few stand out for their pivotal importance to the city, and the country at large.
Here are Berlin’s most unmissable attractions:
Reichstag BuildingOriginally built in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet (Reichchstag, or ‘Parliament’ in English), and greatly remodeled after the reunification of the city, the Reichstag Building is one of the city’s most prominent edifices, brimming with historical importance. Entry and self-guided tours are free of charge, although you must book your visiting time online beforehand. The views of the city, from the top floor, are quite breathtaking.
Berlin Wall MemorialNo visit to Berlin would ever be complete without a trip to the Berlin Wall, a landmark which shaped the city, country, and continent for more than three decades. The museum built on this site is both sobering and extremely interesting, where you can learn all about the concept behind the construction of the wall, the enforcement of separation and the endless efforts to escape, made by locals hoping for a brighter future. Many of whom never made it to the other side. The memorial is tastefully done and walking around the info boards and remnants of the wall itself grants a most realistic impression. This attraction requires no entry fee although if you wish for a deeper understanding of this site, we’d highly recommend organizing a tour with an expert local guide.
Brandenburg GateThis most triumphal of arches dates back to the late 1700s when it was built as a symbol of peace, and is about as iconic to the city as the Berlin Wall. Brandenburg Gate is one of Germany’s most renowned landmarks and a stupendous one at that. The gate has managed to survive through all of the country’s trials and tribulations (it was even stuck in no-man’s land during the era of separation) and now stands resplendent as testament to the resilience and fortitude of this great nation. In a much wider, European context, this arch is seen as a symbol of unity amongst many dark periods of conflict. Brandenburg is huge yet does not require a lot of time to visit. The crowds here can get quite overwhelming but it matters not; visiting it is an absolute must.
Museum IslandThere isn’t much to dislike about a city which makes museum-hopping so excessively convenient. Berlin’s Museum Island, found in the heart of the Mitte District, is home to five world-class museums and has been UNESCO Heritage-listed since 1999. For history and art lovers, no corner of the city could be any more appealing. Not only is the art on show of utmost importance, but each and every building is historic, striking and well worth a visit.
On an average day-long visit, most people can only manage three of the five, before museum-fatigue takes over, so do attempt to prioritize your visit. At time of print, Museum Island is undergoing renovations and an underground walkway, linking all the five museums, is currently being built.
Here are the treasures you’ll find here:
Altes MuseumOriginally opened in 1830 to showcase the impressive collection belonging to the Prussian Royal Family, Berlin’s ‘Old Museum’ is nowadays revered for both its contents (classical antiquities at their best) and the historical neoclassical building in which they are housed. The priceless relics here date back to the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans.
Neues MuseumThe bust of Nefertiti may be the crown jewel of this museum, yet every single one of its collections are quite exquisite. The extensive Egyptian, prehistoric, and ancient collections are housed in an award-winning building, which was remodeled just a few years ago. The Neues Museum was originally built to house the excess pieces which did not fit in the Old Museum, yet has now surpassed in both size and quality. Expect a visit here to take a quite a few hours.
Alte NationalgalerieThe Old National Gallerie was built to accommodate the private art collection of a local philanthropist banker, and has grown to include Neoclassical, French Impressionist, and the largest collection of 19th-century German paintings and sculptures. Some of the most famous artists represented here are Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Rubens, and Cézanne.
Bode MuseumFor history lovers, this is arguably the most interesting of all the museums, as the basis of its foundation is an eclectic mix of art from various historical times. On show are artwork and relics, dating from the byzantine period, up until first millennia BC (In Asia Minor) up until the present day. Prominent experts have, since its restoration in the last decade, rated this as the largest and most comprehensive 3D history lesson Europe has ever seen.
Pergamon MuseumThe ‘youngest’ museum of the lot, the Pergamon Museum was built in the early 1900s and is utterly unique in both form and content. Home to an awe-inspiring collection of Islamic art, the Pergamon houses life-sizes monuments (such as the famous Pergamon Altar and Market Gate of Miletus) reconstructed in their entirety from what remained of their original masterpieces. This is Germany’s most visited museum and often rated, in the Middle Eastern antiquities genre, as one of the world’s best.
Topography of Terror MuseumYou may feel museum-ed out by the time your visit to Museum island is over, yet if you do have some historical curiosity still left, do visit this most enlightening museum. The Topography of Terror is an indoor/outdoor museum constructed on the site of the old Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Although the original buildings were all but demolished after the war, a plan to construct a permanent exhibition, aimed at educating the public on the horrors which occurred here, was undertaken in the early 1990s. Finally inaugurated in 2009, this is one of the city’s newest and perhaps best historical museums. The museum does an excellent job of retracing the disturbing steps of WWII, teaching more in an hour or two, than most school books do in years.
OtherOf further interest are the Jewish Museum, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, The German Museum of Technology, Deutshces Historisches Museum, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
Charlottenburg PalaceBerlin is home to more than a dozen historic, opulent and UNESCO-listed palaces, all built by monarchs and spanning from the 16th to the 20th century. The largest and most magnificent of all is the Charlottenburg Palace, the absolute must-see-palace if ever there was one. It may not be as breathtaking as Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, but when it comes to city abodes, this one’s pretty hard to beat. The main palace and three nearby ‘add-ons’ are spread out among perfectly manicured gardens. The interior, brimming with 18th-century French artwork and furnishings offer a brilliant look into the flamboyant life of the aristocracy at the time, and leave no one in doubt as to why they were ever deposed. With extravagant staircases, halls, galleries and chambres, the stupefying experience of Charlottenburg is second to none.
Berlin ZooThe Berlin Zoo holds the trifecta in Germany for being the oldest, the most-visited, and the animal sanctuary with the most exhibits. The last criterion actually rates it as the best and most inclusive zoo in the world. Although Berlin Zoo has been a crowd favorite with Germans for decades, it reached international superstardom at the turn of the 21st century, when its most popular resident, polar bear cub ‘Knut’ was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Knut may be long gone nowadays, yet fellow polar bears, giant pandas, great apes, and rhinos keep over 3 million visitors entertained, every single year.
Berlin CathedralBattered and bruised during the Second World War, the 16th-century Berlin Cathedral is still in desperate need of a facelift, yet nevertheless remains one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. The largest church in Berlin is seen as the most prominent Protestant mecca in Germany and, despite its rundown facade (or because of it) it is one of the most photographed buildings in the city’s center. Climb to the top of the tower to enjoy sweeping city views and, if you have time, do take a guided tour of the church’s interior. This is arguably one of the most impressive churches in all of Germany.
Berlin Victory ColumnBuilt by the Prussians as a celebratory monument at the end of three major wars (against the Danish, Austrian and French), the Berlin Victory Monument is a 59m-high column, topped with a gilded statue of Victoria (the Roman goddess of victory) found in the heart of the city’s Tiergarten Park, from where five major roads diverge to all corners of the city. The climb up to the top, via more than 300 steps, is as breathtaking as the views you’ll enjoy once you do reach the top. Combine a visit here with one at the Brandenburg Gate nearby.
SquaresBerlin is home to at least half a dozen important and quite historic squares, yet two of these, Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, should really not be missed. Potsdamer Platz was probably the oldest square in Berlin and what makes a visit here so astonishing is that, nowadays, it would have to rate as one of the most modern. This was a major trading thoroughfare for centuries before being almost completely annihilated during WWII and finally utterly destroyed when the Berlin wall was built right through it. Today, this crazy busy square is home to many super modern office buildings, shops, restaurants and cafés. Alexanderplatz, on the other hand, was the site of a major farmers’ market and is nowadays one of the most popular meeting spots in town. Much prettier and less ‘business’-oriented than Potsdamer Plats, here is where you’ll find a gorgeous Neptune fountain, manicured lawns, the TV Tower Fernsehturm Berlin (the second-tallest building in Europe), a World Clock, and many food & souvenir stalls. This square’s most important role, however, occurred in 1989, when it hosted the largest demonstration the country had ever seen. The Peaceful Revolution was the first in what would become the comprehensive reunification of Germany and what led, eventually, to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Visitor PassBerlin is not a particularly expensive city to visit, although fees for museum, landmarks and park visits can certainly add up to a small fortune. Moreover, finding out ticket prices, how/when/where to buy them and queuing up at ticket booth scan easily take up hours every day. If you plan to do some serious sightseeing then we suggest you purchase a Welcome Berlin Card, which offers numerous options depending on your preferred attractions. Cards range in price from €22 ($25), which includes all public transport plus free or discounted entry into 200 attractions for 48 hours, of €46 ($53) for the Welcome Card + Museum Island which is very good value if you plan on visiting more than one museum on the island. This pass is valid for 72 hours. Five ay passes are also available.
CuisineIf there’s one place where Berlin really shines, aside the cultural and historical attractions that is, it would have to be in food! This city is a foodie’s paradise and rates as one of the most diverse gastronomic destinations in Europe. The fact that the city is so multicultural certainly helps a lot. Much like London, Berlin offers a different gastronomic experience at every turn. Luckily, this is also a rather inexpensive city to eat it, making an all-rounded splurge very enticing indeed.
Restaurants and cafés follow the lead of their respective suburbs, so where you find the young, arty scene, in the north-east for example, is where you’ll also discover a plethora of inexpensive but very good eateries. In turn, head to Mitte, the newly re-polished center of town, to find the more upmarket restaurants. Turkish kebab joints, along with currywurst stands (selling sausages topped with ketchup and curry powder) are the most ubiquitous street-foods which you’ll find all over Berlin.
Along with the above-mentioned two, here are some more delectable treats you ought to look out for:
- Bockwurst: A sausage which contains about five different kinds of meat (no joke) usually served on a paper tray, along with a dollop of mustard and a crusty bread roll.
- Senfeier: This dish translates to ‘mustard egg’ and although the name may not be appetizing, the dish itself really is! Here you’ll enjoy a generous serve of mashed spuds, topped with boiled eggs, spinach and smothered in a tangy mustard sauce.
- Eisbein: The Berlin version of pork-knuckle is usually served with potatoes, sauerkraut and mushy peas.
- Königsberger Klopse: This ancient Prussian meatball recipe is one of the most delicious (and filling) meals you could enjoy in Berlin. The meat balls, usually made with veal, pork or beef, are seasoned with spices and boiled, before being drowned in a tangy white sauce seasoned with lemon and capers. You can expect to find your meatballs served with either boiled potatoes or steamed rice.
- Berliner: This is without a doubt the most confusing part of the local cuisine. While everywhere else in Germany, jelly filled doughnuts are called ‘Berliners’, in Berlin they are called ‘pfannkuchen’ which, everywhere in Germany, means pancake. Here, pancakes are called ‘eierkuchen’. You with us? Luckily, the bakeries in Berlin have a wonderful habit of displaying their delicious sweety treats so, in order to avoid confusion and to ensure you end up with the dessert you actually desire, simply point and smile.
NightlifeBerlin’s nightlife is what has helped the city cement its spot as one of Europe’s most vibrant and happening cities. From clubbing to rave parties, concerts, live music gigs, and theater shows, having a boring night out here is nay impossible. And that’s not even mentioning the trendy wine bars, authentic beer gardens, outdoor street soirees, and underground parties so obscure no one actually seems to know where they’re held until the last minute. The downside to this, however, is that Berlin is a very difficult night-time destination to navigate for foreign visitors. Knowing where the latest/coolest/hippiest par-tay is held is near impossible to ascertain, without the help of a local friend. Apparently, advertising events in a tourist-friendly brochure does not make one so trendy.
Much like the dining and shopping scenes in Berlin, the nightlife is also subdivided by district, with each section of the city offering its own micro-cosmos of fun and entertaining after-dark pursuits.
Dance ClubsMitte used to be the grungy part of town after sunset, but as it’s been cleaned up in the last few years, it has spawned some more mainstream clubs and bars. The Weekend, a techno haven on the 13th floor of a building in Alexanderplatz is the most famous and long-standing dance clubs in this area. For more popular dance clubs check out Berlin Clubs.
Night-toursGiven the city’s tremendously diverse night life it’s no wonder that ‘guided tours by night’ have taken off here with a vengeance. From underground twilight tours, to alternative, food, walking and even bicycle tours, heading out for an evening out with a trusty local is one of the most popular activities in town.
ShoppingMaxing out the credit card when visiting Berlin is superbly easy, with the city’s vast array of markets, shopping malls and shopping-oriented avenues showcasing the very best the local retail scene has to offer. Here’s where to head to, for fantastic shopping expeditions:
Mall of BerlinWithin walking distance to Potsdamer Platz, this latest addition to Berlin’s shopping mall world is home to more than 270 dedicated stores, selling everything from clothing to electronics, accessories, cosmetics, and everything else you fancy. There’s nothing exceptionally unique about this brand new mall, but if you happen to suffer a rainy day in Berlin then it would definitely be a great place to check out for a few hours.
Hackischer MarktThe student and struggling artist market of choice, Hackischer Markt is more of an area rather than a bona-fide outdoor market, although among the many inexpensive shops and eateries you will find a few stalls selling flea-market type goodies. The S-bahn runs a line with a stop directly below the market.
FriedrichstrasseOne of Berlin’s more renowned shopping streets, Friedrichstrasse is probably the nicest looking retail strip in town, although that’s probably because it is home to the most expensive designer brand boutiques. Nevertheless, the proximity to cultural attractions makes this a very popular strolling strip.
KurfürstendammIn Charlottenburg is where you’ll find yet another popular street in Berlin, home to many shopping malls (KaDeWe in particular) and hundreds of unique street-side shops. When you get the nibbles, head up to the top floor of KaDeWe, which boasts a particularly revered selection of international food stalls.
Winterfeldt MarktFashionable gear may be all well and good, but nothing beats an authentic farmer’s market. When in Berlin, don’t miss your chance to taste your way through the Winterfeldt Markt, a delectable shopping spot offering mouth-watering, bite sized snacks of fresh and ready-made local food. Amazing fresh cold cuts, infinite array of dark breads, delicious spreads and sausages (of course), as well as Italian, Vietnamese, and plenty of Turkish delights.
Do keep in mind that every single district in Berlin boasts fantastic flea and farmer’s markets, so rest assured that, no matter where you stay, you’ll have one of each within walking distance.
How to Get Out and AboutIt may be a sprawling city and several times larger than Paris, but Berlin’s incredibly effective public transport system makes getting around the city very easy. Moreover, taxis are not all that expensive here, so using a combination of the two, along with plenty of walking around the main tourist areas of interest, makes navigating the city quite hassle-free. The underground metro system connects almost every corner of Berlin, with an extensive system of buses in place to pick up the slack. Visit the respective government websites for more info, and don’t forget to download public transport maps before visiting.
AccommodationBerlin is one of Germany’s most visited cities, thus offering a wide array of accommodation choices, from plush 5* palaces to cheap and cheerful guesthouses.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Jun 24, 2015