Best things to do in Berlin
This neo-Baroque edifice housing the German Bundestag (Parliament) survived wars, Nazis, fire, bombing and the country’s division, only to return as a symbol of a new era in German politics. A trip to the top of this open, playful and defiantly democratic space, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is a must, but note that you can’t just rock up any more: following a series of terrorist threats in 2010, you must book in advance by filling in an online form at visite.bundestag.de and suggesting three possible time-slots at least three working days in advance.
Make like a Berliner and stretch your legs with a stroll, jog or cycle through Berlin’s most famous park, which comes into its own during spring and summer particularly. Whether you’re hunting famous monuments, a beer and a sausage, or a spot to sunbathe naked, you’ll find what you’re looking for. This 5-km (3-mile) circuit will return you to your starting point ready for your next adventure within an hour or so. Don’t worry if you get lost, the park is full of maps with “You Are Here” markers.
Famous for its Nazi and Cold War history, Tempelhof Airport ceased operation in 2008. Now you can stroll down the runways where World War II Stuka dive-bombers took off and where, during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 when the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, 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—among others—walkers, kite-surfers, cyclists, runners, skaters and goshawks. There are designated sections for dogs to run free, basketball courts, a baseball field, beer gardens and even small allotments where Berliners can grow their own veg.
However, the future of the Feld is far from secure. Berlin needs money, and developing at least part of the land would bring much-needed funds to the city’s coffers. Controversially, Berliners voted against building on this vast space in a 2014 city-wide referendum, despite promises of affordable housing and a new library. In 2015, the airport buildings became temporary shelter for up to 3,000 refugees seeking sanctuary in Germany; the numbers have since dwindled to a few hundred. By 2018 it was unclear whether the huge hangars would return to hosting concerts and trade fairs, such as fashion extravaganza Bread & Butter, or be re-purposed to house a proposed creative district, visitor centre, rooftop gallery and a museum about the Berlin Airlift.
Brandenburg, a north-eastern state that surrounds Berlin, is known as the land of 3,000 lakes for, well, you can probably guess why. A vision that's starkly beautiful in winter and effortlessly alluring in summer, the lakes are mostly accessible by public transport and each has its own character. While some lakes may be better for swimming and some for sunbathing alongside, you'll be able to find your favourite (just as locals do). Besides, the idyllic landscape is a remedy to the (delicious) vices of Berlin: hoppy tankards of beer and endless amounts of fleshy sausage.
If you aren't short on time and don't mind venturing out a little further, then you'll be rewarded with some slightly more serene lakes that feel like a secret retreat. The Tonsee south of Berlin, Liepnitzsee in the north and Straussee in the east, all make lovely day trips. The municipal bathing beaches—Strandbäder—are run by the city. Usually, one end of the beach is favoured by nudists. Freikörperkultur (FKK), German for nudism, has a long history in these parts. Berliners are untroubled by the sight of a naked body, and at most lakes no one will care if you suit up or not.
Mauerpark is of the biggest and busiest Sunday flea markets in Berlin, selling everything from local designer clothes to cardboard boxes of black-market CDs. Even if the market’s massive popularity means prices creeping higher, you can still stumble upon a trove of rare records or vintage clothing. It’s also the venue for the immensely popular weekly outdoor singing session, Bearpit Karaoke, brain child of karaoke courier Joe Hatchiban. Thousands flock here on summer Sundays to have a go on the mobile sound system.
Winding through the centre of Berlin, the River Spree offers a different perspective on this once-divided city. There’s no shortage of tour operators offering trips along the river, the Landwehrkanal or across the lakes, and some services are included on the city travelcard. There are also multiple kayak rental services for the DIY sightseeing types.
A range of city-centre tours is offered by Stern und Kreis, Reederei Winkler and Reederei Riedel. Circular tours of the Spree and the Landwehrkanal usually last three to four hours and take in the city’s top sights, including the Reichstag and Museum Island; they also pass under Berlin’s numerous bridges, including the picturesque Oberbaumbrücke. Passengers can hop on and off at landing stages en route, and basic food and drink is served on board.
Founded in 1951, the Berlinale (or Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin, to use its official title) is the world’s most popular film festival, in terms of audience attendance figures. A major fixture on the global cultural calendar, it sees Potsdamer Platz transformed into a glittering stage of glamour, excitement and major movie stars each February.
Although Potsdamer Platz is the focus of the festival, screenings take place around the city, including at Alexanderplatz, in the Zoo Palast cinema in Tiergarten and in a renovated crematorium (silent green Kulturquartier) in Wedding. In this way, the Berlinale offers the chance not only to watch undiscovered movies and rub shoulders with fellow film buffs and industry leaders, but to experience Berlin’s unique architectural and cultural heritage. In recent years, the festival has taken on more of the glamour and celebrity of its two major rivals, Cannes and Venice. What remains the same, however, is the chance to see arguably the widest and most eclectic movie mix of any film festival anywhere.
The first “premium cinema” in Germany offers a luxury cinematographic experience, complete with a welcome cocktail, doorman and valet parking. The building dates from 1948, when a café was converted into a small cinema called the KiKi (Kino im Kindl). It was later redesigned and renamed the Filmpalast and become one of West Berlin’s classiest Kinos. After thorough renovations and another name change, it’s still a grand example of 1950s movie-going luxury, with an illuminated glass ceiling, comfortable seats and a gong to announce the show.
Hour-long queues, intimidating bouncers and being told “nicht heute” (“not today”) are all part and parcel of your initiation to this infamous temple to techno. If you run the gauntlet and get in, be prepared for a night, day and night again of dancing in a Matrix-esque, post-apocalyptic setting… with regular smoothie breaks, of course. There are plenty of near-ish clubs if you’re turned away, or call it a draw and head for the döner stand.
During the late 19th century, 14 municipal covered markets were opened to replace traditional outdoor markets and improve hygiene standards. Local residents saved this one from closure in 2009, filling it with stalls serving heritage veg and locally sourced meats. It’s also home to the excellent Heidenpeters microbrewery and the Sironi bakery from Milan. The themed events, including the hugely popular Street Food Thursday, do get crowded but are well worth it.
Cycling through Berlin with the wind in your hair is an experience not to be missed. Flat, with lots of cycle routes, parks and canal paths, the city is best seen by bike. That said, caution is required. Cobbles, tram lines, aimless pedestrians, other cyclists and careless drivers all pose hazards. Few locals wear helmets, but you’d be wise to get your hands on one, especially if you’re used to riding on the left.
Cycling around Tempelhofer Feld, along the Landwehrkanal or through Treptower Park to the site of the Soviet Memorial (see p162) all make for unforgettable rides. If you’re feeling more ambitious and you’ve a couple of days to spare, it’s possible to cycle the whole 160-km route of the Berlin Wall.
Political demonstration or street festival? In Berlin, it’s often hard to tell. Whether lighting firecrackers on Silvester (New Year’s Eve) or swarming Görlitzer park on the first of May, Berliners love to exercise their rights to drink in public, demonstrate and, in an entrepreneurial spirit, hawk homemade shots at tourists. Beware of patchy cell service and defunct ATMs on big holidays, and be careful—fireworks are more fun when you get to keep all your fingers.