20 essential things to do in Berlin
Chug off on a Trabant Cold War nostalgia tour of the city – and 19 other ideas!
Wall to Wall Berlin
Start at Checkpoint Charlie and end with a brand new view of Berlin… on our walking tour of the Berlin Wall
Where to see art in Berlin
Crack open one of the most vibrant contemporary art scenes in the world
Best museums and attractions
There’s no other city like it. Here’s our spotter’s guide to the crucible of 20th-century European history
Street art paradise
Join us on an insider’s tour of the capital’s most striking street art
Sights and attractions
The Federal German Parliament was welcomed back from Bonn in 1999 with a new glass dome, a potent symbol of political aspiration, designed by British ‘starchitect’ Norman Foster. The Reichstag was built in 1894 to house the united German parliament; the terrible fire that was started there on 27 February 1933 not only gutted the building, but was used by the Nazis as a catalyst for withdrawing basic freedoms. Foster’s renovations aim to establish a ‘dialogue between old and new’. The glass cupola materialises aims for political transparency and is open to the public for tours to the heart of government. The dome, rising like a phoenix from the flames, sheds light on the governmental workings below, thanks to energy-efficient mirrors.
Albert Speer’s influence on the city may be hard to muffle in the expanse of Tempelhof, but amidst the woods of the Grunewald forest, another Speer creation remains silenced underneath a pile of rubble. The “devil’s mountain” of Teufelsberg was created due to the resilience of Nazi architecture, with Allied forces unable to demolish Speer’s Military-Technical College. The broken bricks and mortar of 400,000 decidedly more fragile Berlin buildings was used to cover up the college, creating Berlin’s largest mountain in the process. At the very top of the 375ft of Teufelsberg, another abandoned space remains – the former NSA (National Security Agency) listening tower, built in the 1960s during one of the many paranoid peaks of the Cold War. The audible tradition of Teufelsberg has since been replaced by the visual, with visitors to the hill treated to relative silence and a spectacular panorama of Berlin. The tower has become one of the city’s most famous abandoned sites, with regular tours (including one in English) of the tattered entrails of Teufelsberg established through a privately owned company.
With its commanding vantage point over Unter den Linden, the Brandenburger Tor provides a spectacular gateway to Berlin and its history. The classical arch was constructed in 1791 to celebrate the city’s status as Prussia’s capital and although initially known as the Friedenstor (Gate of Peace), it has had to survive stormy times. The Quadriga statue on top shows Victory driving a chariot, but fell victim to Napoleon when he conquered Berlin in 1806, holding it hostage in Paris for 12 years; come the 20th century the Quadriga was turned around to face west by the DDR. Victory was repaired after the major celebrations around the Tor when the Wall came down and now finds herself facing Mitte once again.
The rebuilding of the east in the 1960s happened along totalitarian lines – and rising up out of Alexanderplatz, the 368 metre-high Fernsehturm (‘Television Tower’) marked the centre of a new capital. As the fourth highest freestanding structure in Europe, on a clear day you can see as far as 42 kilometres from its top, while from the ground the ball-on-spike makes an excellent, if bizarre, compass point. It started life as a symbol of Communist ideals, looming high above the wall into the West – an icon straight out of the pages of science fiction novel. But political statement was marred by iffy engineering: only after construction was completed did it transpire that the sun was reflected in a cross-shape across the stainless-steel dome, earning it the nickname ‘the Pope’s revenge’. For a truly high-end experience, dine in the rotating restaurant at the top of the ball, which turns a complete revolution every half an hour. Handily, visitBerlin now has a Berlin Tourist Info Point at the tower.
From Potsdamer Platz, it is a short walk to the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). This field of concrete slabs takes up the entire area of a city block, arranged in rows but rising to various heights on uneven ground – echoing the crowded headstones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. Conceived in 1993, the controversial project was not opened until 2005, and just as there is no one single way of marking shared memory, nor is there any single view point to Peter Eisenmann’s winning design; to engage with the memorial you need to walk into it and experience its shifts in perspective, and the shifting effects of light, distance, isolation and claustrophobia.
Recommended Berlin museums
One of the world's major archaeological museums, the Pergamon should not be missed. Its treasures, comprising some of the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities; the rest is in the Altes Museum) and the Vorderasiastisches Museum (Museum of Near Eastern Antiquities), contain three major draws. The first is the Hellenistic Pergamon Altar, dating from 170-159 BC; huge as it is, the museum's partial re-creation represents only one third of its original size. In an adjoining room, and even more architecturally impressive, is the towering two-storey Roman Market Gate of Miletus (29m/95ft wide and almost 17m/56ft high), erected in AD 120. This leads through to the third of the big attractions - the extraordinary blue and ochre tiled Gate of Ishtar and the Babylonian Processional Street, dating from the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC). There are plenty of other gems in the museum that are also worth seeking out, including some stunning Assyrian reliefs. The museum is also now home to the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art), which takes up some 14 rooms in the southern wing. The collection is wide ranging, including applied arts, crafts, books and architectural details from the eighth to the 19th centuries. Entrance is included in the overall admission price, as is an excellent audio guide. There are temporary exhibitions too. Check website for details.
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.
Topographie des Terrors
Topographie des Terrors, or the Topography of Terror, provides a frank account of the Nazis’ Secret State Police Office, which occupied the site next to the Martin Gropius Bau in central Mitte between 1933 and 1945. The subterranean museum is itself located in the former Gestapo torture cells. Today, through its vast quantity of documentation, the museum serves to provide an overview not only of the Secret Service, but the wider story of the Nazis’ rise to power; it is a chilling exploration of the past. A short section of the Berlin Wall remains standing nearby, testament to another era of political dogma and repression.
Finally reopened in 2009 after extensive remodelling by the British architect David Chipperfield, this stunning building now houses the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and various artefacts from the Collection of Classical Antiquities. The museum’s most famous object is the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, which Germany refuses to return to Egypt despite repeated requests, and the skull of the Neanderthal from Le Moustier. The Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Prehistory & Early History), which traces the evolution of homo sapiens from 1,000,000 BC to the Bronze Age, has among its highlights reproductions (and some originals) of Heinrich Schliemann’s famous treasure of ancient Troy, including works of ceramics and gold, as well as weaponry. Keep an eye out also for the sixth-century BC grave of a girl buried with a gold coin in her mouth. Information is available in English. The Neues Museum has become such a hit that the museum authorities have had to limit visitor numbers by issuing timed tickets – book in advance if you can, and turn up within a half hour of the time you are given. You can sometimes buy tickets at the counter, but don’t count on it.
This is 'Ostalgia' in action. Touch screens, sound effects and even the 'DDR Game' mean that the more distasteful aspects of East German life are cheerfully glossed over. The museum is essentially a collection of DDR memorabilia, from travel tickets to Palast der Republik serviettes. Climb inside the Trabi or sit on a DDR couch in a DDR living room where you can watch DDR TV. Information on the Stasi gets the interactive treatment too - you can pretend to be a Stasi officer and listen in on a bugged flat.
Family-friendly things to do
Zoologischer Garten & Aquarium
Germany's oldest zoo was opened in 1841 to designs by Martin Lichtenstein and Peter Joseph Lenné. With almost 14,000 creatures, it's one of the world's most important zoos, with more endangered species in its collection than any in Europe except Antwerp's. It's beautifully landscaped, with lots of architectural oddities, and there are plenty of places for a coffee, beer or snack. Enter the aquarium from within the zoo or through its own entrance at Budapester Strasse 32 by the Elephant Gate. More than 500 species are arranged over three floors, and it's a good option for a rainy day. On the ground floor are the fish (including some impressive sharks); on the first you'll find reptiles (the crocodile hall is the highlight); while insects and amphibians occupy the second. The dark corridors and liquid ambience, with tanks lit from within and curious aquarian creatures floating by, are as absorbing as an art exhibit. Elsewhere, the baby polar bear Knut has become one of Berlin's major tourist attractions.
There were originally 14 covered municipal markets opened in the late 19th century to replace the traditional outdoor varieties and increase hygiene standards. Most disappeared and this listed building was going to be sold to developers in 2009 when a trio of local residents decided to launch a campaign to save it. A few years later, the Markthalle reopened to much fanfare, with stalls serving up beautiful heritage vegetables and locally sourced meats. It’s also home to the excellent Heidenpeters microbrewery, with its changing selection of hoppy pale ales, and the traditional Sironi bakery from Milan. Closely aligned with the Slow Food movement, they host regular themed events like Cheese Berlin, which sells a multitude of artisan European cheeses, as well as the popular Street Food Thursday evenings (Thursdays 5pm-10pm).
Germany is proud of its toy-making tradition, and puts an emphasis on alternative education for children. V.Kloeden is a charming shop in West Berlin that proves that educational toys don’t need to be boring. There are shelves of picture books, some handily in both German and English for bilingual families, and even Asterix comics in Latin for particularly adventurous parents. It’s rammed with toys of all sorts too – wooden Brio train sets, eerily lifelike Käthe Kruse dolls, Kersa puppets as well as more practical kit like rocking horses, detective sets and Little Prince suitcases.
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Berlin art galleries
König (half-brother of New York gallerist Leo and son of museum-man Kaspar) is one of Berlin’s bona fide iconoclasts. Upon opening his gallery at the age of 21, in 2002, he promptly eschewed convention by inviting his friend, artist Jeppe Hein to install a wrecking ball, which swung about perilously, knocking chunks out of the gallery walls whenever anyone entered the room. Amazingly, eleven years later, not only is König very much still in business, and is regarded as one of the leading lights in a gallery scene that’s certainly not short of willful, eccentric and obstinate characters. Today Konig’s main premisis at Dessauer Strasse has been augmented by his acquisition of a space at St Agnes Church, a must-see brutalist former church, if you can imagine such a thing. Across his venues, König continues to showcase regular shows which challenge, perplex and more often than not, reward the curious viewer with their eclectic positions and recherché choices of media. Alongside old König stalwarts such as as Jeppe Hein and Tatiana Trouvé, recent highlights included a lone, swinging lightbulb illuminating the vast interiors of the St Agnes space, by Berliner Alicia Kwade (‘Nach Osten’) as well as a welcome return for local girl Katharina Grosse. Other location: St Agnes, Alexandrinenstrasse 181-121.
Galerie Eigen + Art/Lab
Gerd Harry ‘Judy’ Lybke is one of the more idiosyncratic characters of the Berlin art scene. A charismatic, compact colossus in the post-Reunification German art scene, Lybke – along with Christian Ehrentraut and tutor Matthias Kleindienst – nurtured the so-called ‘Leipzig School’ in the early 1990s. Lybke, perhaps more than anyone, recognized the value of exporting the distinctive blend of figurative and abstract painting, executed at a time of unprecedented upheaval and change in the country, to collectors worldwide – making art stars out of the likes of Neo Rausch and Matthias Wiescher, artists for whom he once life-modelled, back in the early 1980s at Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Such was his conviction, even then, the life model began holding exhibitions in his tiny apartment, sowing the seeds for a colourful, peripatetic and hugely successful career which has brought the world Akos Birkas, Birgit Brenner, Marc Desgrandchamps, Martin Eder, Tim Eitel, Nina Fischer/Maroan el Sani, Stella Hamberg, Christine Hill, Jörg Herold, Uwe Kowski, Rémy Markowitsch, Maix Mayer, Ryan Mosley, Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Nicolai, amongst many others. Today, having achieved so much, Lybke remains a vital presence on the city’s art landscape through his two Berlin art spaces, which remain essential pitstops on any gallery tour of the city. Augustrasse 26 sees the gallery proper, which presents a selection of older and mid-career artists (many of his artists have stuck with L
KW Institute for Contemporary Art
Housed in a former margarine factory and sporting a social event-friendly courtyard designed by Dan Graham, Kunst Werke has been a major non-profit showcase since the early 1990s. Recently, the institution embarked upon a new phase in its 20-odd year history with a new Chief Curator Ellen Blumenstein, who took over in 2012. Incidentally Blumenstein, along with Klaus Biesenbach, was one of the curators behind KW’s controversial ‘Regarding Terror: RAF Exhibition’ in 1995, which caused such a public stink with its references to the 1970s German terrorist group that government funding was withdrawn. Today, Blumenstein promises more emollient, audience-friendly programmes, insisting that the institution move back from the realms of the (occasionally) utterly esoteric and baffling and return to engaging with the public. Always a lightning rod for the local art scene, the new, open approach sees KW engaging with other galleries and organized projects around town, from the recent ‘Berlin Art Week’ initiative, which saw the space co-host the multi-part ‘About Painting’ exhibition to hosting the annual and cheerfully never-less-than-controversial Berlin Biennale. A lively programme of exhibitions, film screenings, talks and presentations means that twenty years on, KW remains implacably at the heart of Berlin’s cultural agenda. The proximity to the Jüdischen Mädchenschule across the street has of late become another reason for making at least one trip to Auguststrasse absolutely essent
Launched in Kreuzberg in 2008, Chert’s multi-national aspect means that there’s always something of interest on show, from points right across the globe. With a current roster of around ten artists, including Mexico’s Alejandro Almanza Pereda, the British sculptor Carla Scott Fullerton and Swiss experimental installationist Jérémie Gindre, Chert is a small, perfectly formed and consistently rewarding experience.
This new arts centre is doing much to revive the somewhat moribund area by Revaler Strasse in Friederichschain known as the ‘clubbing mile’. The re-purposed industrial buildings are something of an adult playground, with clubs, concert venues, bars and even an outdoor climbing wall on offer, but has seen its popularity wane in recent years. Urban Spree, the new project from the French crew behind the much-missed HBC, houses an art gallery, concert hall, studio spaces and Bunsmobile food truck, with an emphasis on the experimental and DIY. There are frequent performances and concerts, ranging from freeform jazz, to acid-folk and improvised instrumental noise. Look out for gigs by far-out noiseniks Psychic Ills and ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki, as well as the occasional curveball like hip-hop mega-producer Swizz Beatz.