The best things to do in Berlin
Take a stroll in the Grunewald forest
Grunewald is Berlin’s largest forested area, to the south-west of Charlottenburg and easily accessible via S-bahn. Pack a picnic and head down here for a day of tranquil respite from the bustle of the city. Venture through the woods by foot, bicycle or on horseback and, if weather permits, take a dip in the clean waters of Schlachtensee or Wannsee, the nearest of the forest’s several freshwater lakes. Look out for Teufelsberg, a man-made hill rising above the woodland, constructed by the Allies after World War II from the city’s rubble. Although there’s no general access to the hill, you can get to the top of the hill by going on a guided tour: English tours start at 1.30pm on Sundays (booking essential).
Spend a day on Museum Island
At the eastern end of Unter den Linden is Museum Island, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site lying in the middle of the Spree. It’s home to five of Berlin’s most important museums: two not to be missed are the Neues Museum, home to the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti and the spectacular Pergamonmuseum, one of the world’s major archaeological museums. Within it you walk through a series of astounding structures, from a partial recreation of the Pergamon Altar (170–159 BC) to the two-storey Roman Gate of Miletus (29 metres wide and almost 17 metres high) and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, dating from the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (605–563 BC). Tucked away upstairs is the Islamic Art collection, a treasure trove. A day ticket is available permitting entrance to each museum.
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Hunt down bargains in Mauer Park
Berliners embrace their green spaces and the long strip of grass along the middle of Prenzlauer Berg’s Mauerpark (open daily from 8am–sunset) is best known not as a relaxing spot but a mecca for energetic market-lovers. The park hosts a massive flea market on Sundays, with vendors selling bargain bicycles, clothes, food, souvenirs, records, pianos and furniture.
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Ascend to an iconic vantage point
Largely owing to World War II, Berlin’s architecture has a fascinating range, from the historical to high modernism and more controversial postmodern projects. A visit to the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament, provides the perfect overview. Opened in 1894, its renovation was masterminded by British super-architect Norman Foster and completed in 1999. The roof is an entirely glass structure, allowing for a panoramic view of the city right from the centre of government. Entrance to the roof is free but you must register in advance; once you’re in make this a totally informative experience by plugging into the audio tour and heading to the open roof for an overview of the sites all around. Alternative views can be found by taking Europe’s fastest elevator to the Panoramapunkt on the 24th and 25th floors of the Kollhoff Tower in Potsdamer Platz. Over in the east of the city is Fernsehturm, rising over 200 metres above Alexanderplatz. The iconic tower is Europe’s fourth tallest free-standing structure and the stainless steel sphere contains a revolving restaurant and viewing gallery. On clear days visibility can reach 40 kilometres.
Indulge in some DDR ‘Ostalgia’
Soviet occupation of East Berlin ended in 1990, and today the DDR Museum offers a snapshot of life in the old days. The interactive museum allows visitors a truly hands on experience for both children and adults alike: root through drawers of East German memorabilia, mimic a Stasi officer and listen in on a bugged flat. Out on the streets you can take a unique tour of the city by renting a Trabant, the classic car produced in former East Germany, now painted in bright colours by the Trabi Safari company.
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Explore Berlin's Jewish history
The Jüdisches Museum presents the story of Berlin’s Jewish population through the Museum’s own architecture. The newest and most eye-grabbing section of the building was designed by controversial Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind. Its shape is based on an exploding Star of David, with its interior spaces disappearing into angles, so the museum experience is more about the effects of the space than the documents and artifacts. Across Oranienburger Straße is the Neue Synagogue: built in the late 19th century this building survived World War II, and its golden dome stands out from afar. For more of an emotional way into history, walk night or day through the Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas – also known as the Holocaust Memorial. This memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe takes the form of 2,711 blocks of varying heights arranged across the area of a housing block.
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Walk the Berlin Wall
The Wall was mostly demolished between June and November 1990 although a restored stretch remains along the southern border of Wedding and Mitte. Visit Checkpoint Charlie, the famous east-west border control during the Cold War and now a tourist centre, for comprehensive display boards telling the Wall’s story. For more of a visual history, take a walk along the Wall by the Spree, where it runs between the Freidrichshain-Kreuzberg districts. Whereas graffiti has been removed from the northern section of the Wall, the one-mile stretch known as the East Side Gallery is dedicated to art and preserves the paintings made on the eastern side when the Wall was brought down. Although attempting to preserve the spirit of the time, an argument blew up when the restoration project of recent years was seen to overstep the mark, with original artworks being painted over without the artists’ permission.
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Take a Photoautomaten selfie…
Posing for four shots in Berlin’s Photoautomaten is an almost obligatory activity. These black and white photo booths are open all hours and scattered across the city. The photos only take a few minutes to print and provide a brilliant souvenir of your time in the city. Draw back the curtain and pose for posterity or cram in your friends for a fun set of snaps.
Peruse the Bauhaus Museum
You’ll find out that everyone can be a designer at the Bauhaus Archiv, which offers a total insight into the development of the utilitarian art school that came out of Weimar Germany. The school’s founder, architect Walter Gropius, drew up plans for the elegant white building that now houses the museum. Its permanent exhibition displays furniture, ceramics, prints, sculptures, photographs and sketches, all created in the workshop. Active from 1919, the school was pressurised to close in 1933 by the incoming National Socialist government, fearful of the institute as a breeding ground for subversive ideas and ‘degenerate art’, as they deemed it. You might want to join a free tour of the collection (every Sunday at 3pm) or take a bit of history home and leave via the gift shop, which stocks Bauhaus products such as Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s iconic lamp.
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See the sights by bike
If you’re hard-pressed for time, get on two wheels for a quickie tour of the must-do sights. Central Berlin is well supplied with bike-rental outlets, and the city has a welcoming cycle culture, complete with cycle lanes and cyclist signs at the traffic lights. This route covers a micro tour of the big sights clustered conveniently close to each other, beginning and ending with sites of power. Start at the Reichstag and its adjacent complex of nineties Parliamentary buildings, then head across to the leafy paths of Tiergarten, up to Brandenburg Tor, the Holocaust Memorial, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie and end with the Topography of Terror – an outdoor museum on the site of the wartime SS and Gestapo offices.
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