Best Berlin attractions
Berlin’s long-suffering victory arch, the Brandenburg Gate, served as a visual flashpoint for much of the trauma to have beset Germany in the 20th century—standing alone in no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin for 30 years during the GDR era and providing the backdrop to the euphoria of 1989. Restored to its rightful place at the heart of the city, this monument to unity is a must-see on any Berlin itinerary.
It’s hard to pick just one of the five museums on Berlin’s UNESCO listed Museumsinsel, but the Neues Museum is an unmissable highlight. David Chipperfield’s award-winning redesign is a suitably stunning home for a treasure trove of artefacts from pre-, early and ancient history, including the Ancient Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti.
Architect Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is intentionally disorienting: it is a striking sculptural statement that invites visitors in, only to create a feeling of unease. There’s no vantage point or overview; to fully engage with the structure you need to walk into it. It’s haunting in places, especially on overcast days and near the middle of the monument, where it’s easy to feel a sense of confinement as you lose sight of the outside world; other visitors to the monument are seen in glimpses as they pass between the stelae, only to quickly disappear. Early criticism often focused on the monument’s lack of specificity—there are no stars of David here, no obvious symbolism or recognition of German culpability—but it has since won grudging recognition from many former critics. It is rightfully at the forefront of the city’s attempts to come to terms with its past.
Daniel Libeskind’s beautiful, yet deliberately oppressive building houses a masterful museum devoted to the turbulent history of Judaism in Germany.
The idea of a Jewish museum in Berlin was first mooted in 1971, the 300th birthday of the city’s Jewish community. In 1975, an association was formed to acquire materials for display; in 1989, a competition was held to design an extension to the Baroque Kollegienhaus to house them. Daniel Libeskind emerged as the winner, the foundation stone was laid in 1992 and the permanent exhibition finally opened in 2001.
The permanent exhibition struggles in places with such powerful surroundings. What makes it engaging is its focus on the personal: it tells the stories of prominent Jews and what they contributed to their community, and to the cultural and economic life of Berlin and Germany. After centuries of prejudice and pogroms, the outlook for German Jews seemed to be brightening. Then came the Holocaust. The emotional impact of countless stories of the eminent and the ordinary, and the fate that almost all shared, is hard to convey adequately in print. The museum is undoubtedly a must-see, but expect long queues and big crowds.
Famous for its Nazi and Cold War history, Tempelhof Airport ceased operation in 2008. Now, you can stroll down the runways where WWII “Stuka” dive bombers took off and where, during the famous Berlin Airlift when the Soviets blockaded West Berlin in 1948, the Western Powers landed supplies for the city’s 2.5 million residents in one of the greatest feats in aviation history. Today, the 368-hectare open space of runways and grasslands is much enjoyed by walkers, kite-surfers, cyclists, runners, and skaters alike.
First the site of a canteen for the Nazi social welfare organisation, the building formerly housing remand prison was turned into “Special Encampment No.3” by the Soviets before being expanded by the Stasi. Excellent and highly personal guided tours are led daily by ex-prisoners; their personal testimony adds chilling immediacy to the bureaucratically spare interrogation rooms, the concrete “tiger cage” in which 30 minutes of walking per day was permitted and the cramped cells where prisoners were forced to sleep in a mandated position. The museum houses a permanent exhibition, which reveals the stories of former prisoners during their incarceration, and there are temporary exhibitions which change throughout the year, often curated from the memorial’s own immense collection of 15,000 historical artefacts from the GDR.
One of Berlin’s most impressive public monuments, this memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II (one of three in Berlin) and military cemetery is located in a peaceful park in the east of the city. It’s as bombastic and intimidating as you would expect. Treptower Park covers a huge area and is visit-worthy in itself, so combine your stop with a bike ride along the Spree or a stroll to the nearby Karpfenteich (carp pond). In the summer, you can enjoy a riverside coffee at one of a handful of the park’s restaurants and cafés.
Berlin’s most famous concert hall, home to the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, is also its most architecturally daring: a marvellously puckish piece of organic modernism. Designed by Hans Scharoun, the golden building with its distinctive vaulting roof opened in 1963. Its reputation for superb acoustics is accurate, but it does depend on where you sit. Behind the orchestra, the acoustics leave much to be desired, but in front (where seats are much more expensive), the sound is heavenly. The Berlin Phil gives about 100 performances in the city during its August-to-June season, plus 20 to 30 concerts around the world. Some tickets are available at a discount immediately before performances, although it is notoriously difficult to snap one up.
KaDeWe, the legendary department store, is more than a century old and has stood at the heart of the city’s shopping scene through thick and thin. KaDeWe stocks an impressive range of high-end designers and has tried to shed its stuffy image by bringing in upbeat, younger labels such as Alice+Olivia and London shoe brand Buffalo.
As opulent as ever, the space is also home to the quintessential luxury food-hall experience in a city otherwise teeming with budget supermarkets. With counter after counter of delicatessens, butchers, pâtisseries and grocers, and plenty of prepared foods to take away, the olfactory experience as you move between sections is an experience in itself. Head up another level to reach a cavernous glass-roofed restaurant with a fine view of Wittenbergplatz below.
Running along the River Spree for 1.3km (0.8 mile) from Oberbaum Bridge to Ostbahnhof is one of Berlin’s most photographed tourist sights. This is the largest remaining section of the Wall still standing, and it is decorated with 101 paintings by international artists from 1990. Dmitri Vrubel’s striking portrait depicting Brezhnev and Hönecker’s kiss—a Soviet sign of great respect—is easily its most iconic image. In 2017, in an attempt to prevent the sort of vandalism that had plagued it in years past, a metre-high (three-foot) metal fence was erected around the perimeter of the Wall, an irony not lost on visitors.
The riverside views are great, too, and best enjoyed with a cold späti beer. There aren’t many places in Berlin where you’re encouraged to engage in shameless, unironic photo-taking, and this is definitely the place to whip out the selfie sticks.
Across the busy shopping street of Karl-Marx-Strasse in Neukölln is the historic and charming village of Rixdorf, centred around Richardplatz. Buildings dating from the original early 18th-century Bohemian settlement include a blacksmith and farmhouse, as well as the older 15th-century Bethlehemskirche. There’s even a horse-and-carriage business still in operation, and the square regularly holds traditional events including a Christmas craft market.
The Berlin Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum was landscaped at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, it’s home to 18,000 plant species, 16 greenhouses and a museum. The gardens make for a pleasant stroll, but the museum is a bit dilapidated and there’s no information in English. Every Monday, they run a wild mushroom advice workshop, so feel free to forage away in the nearby forests.
Berlin’s recently renovated Natural History Museum is a real trove. The biggest (literally) draw is the skeleton of a Brachiosaurus dinosaur, which weighed 50 tons at death and stands proud at four storeys high. Don’t miss the creepy “research collections,” which show off some of the museum’s store of over a million pickled animals suspended in jars of alcohol. Berlin’s most famous polar bear, Knut, who died in 2011, is now stuffed and on display.
In the mid-16th century, brewing beer during the summer was outlawed in Bavaria due to the drink’s rapid deterioration in the heat. Instead, brewers were encouraged to build cellars next to the River Isar in which to store beer for summer drinking, and thus, the Biergarten was born. Situated in leafy Prenzlauer Berg, Prater Garten is decidedly more Münich than Berlin, and lures in an appreciative crowd with beer, sausage and pretzels.
Once the flashpoint between East and West, today the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing offers tacky souvenir stalls, coach loads of trippers and actors pretending to be US and Soviet guards, but it also features this intriguing little museum which is sure to please children and adults alike.
The founder of the museum, Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt, opened it as a nonviolent protest against the Wall, with the purpose of recording the events that were taking place at this, the best-known crossing point. He believed that it was essential to be "as close as possible to the injustice itself, where human greatness fully unfolds." Haus am Checkpoint Charlie is not just a testament to the unfolding of history but played an active role in planning and assisting escapes.