Berlin’s storied past and diverse cultural landscape can make planning a well-rounded itinerary here seem rather daunting. Long weekend spent getting lost among the Museum Island hordes? Marathon shape-throwing sesh at a 24-hour club? Gastronomic odyssey down Neukölln’s Sonnenallee? Ugh – there’s simply so much to do. And unlike many smaller European cities, the German capital doesn’t have much in the way of an ‘Old Town’ you can use as HQ. That means it really is best to go in with a game plan – lest you spend a day wandering around Alexanderplatz asking yourself if this really is the über-cool city everyone raves about.
Our advice? Hit up these top attractions and things to do in Berlin, and follow the weather. There’s no sense in splurging on a multi-day museum pass when the sun beckons you to one of the city’s many green oases. And, ideally, start planning that return trip sooner rather than later.
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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 now book in advance by filling in an online form at visite.bundestag.de, including three possible time slots you can make, at least three working days in advance.
Make like a Berliner and stretch your legs with a stroll, jog or cycle through the city’s most famous park, which comes into its own during spring and summer. 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 5km (three-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 Second World War Stuka dive-bombers took off and where, during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 after the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, the Western Powers dropped 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, 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.
Brandenburg, the north-eastern state surrounding Berlin, is known as the land of 3,000 lakes. Starkly beautiful in winter and especially appealing in the warmer months, many lakes are easily accessible by public transport and each has its own character. While some may be better for swimming and others for sunbathing, you’ll certainly be able to find one that’s right for you (just like the locals). Such idyllic scenes offer the perfect antidote to a hard night’s partying in the centre.
Discover the best bathing lakes in Berlin
Founded in 1951, the Berlinale (officially called the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin) is the world’s most popular film festival in terms of sheer numbers in attendance. A major fixture on the global cultural calendar, it sees Potsdamer Platz transformed into a glittering stage that plays host to major film-industry names each February. Screenings also take place in other areas of the city, including Alexanderplatz, at the Zoo Palast cinema in Tiergarten and in a renovated crematorium (silent green Kulturquartier) in Wedding.
Germany is the world capital of avant-garde theatre, and the most renowned of its many, many lavishly state-funded theatres is the striking Schaübuhne am Lehniner Platz. A former cinema – built in 1928 in a Bauhaus style – it became home to the radical Schaübuhne ensemble in the late ’70s and has been run since 1999 by influential director Thomas Ostermeier. The Schaübuhne plays host to first-rate leftfield names from Germany and beyond – Switzerland’s Milo Rau and Britain’s Katie Mitchell are notable regulars. As with most German theatres, it operates a rep system, with productions from years back frequently popping back into circulation – Ostermeier’s gloriously anarchic 2008 ‘Hamlet’ is a regularly-revived oldie well worth catching. Performances are mostly in German, but every month a solid smattering are surtitled in English or French.
Mauerpark is one of the biggest and busiest Sunday flea markets in Berlin, selling everything from clothes by local designers to cardboard boxes brimming with black-market CDs. Even if the market’s massive popularity means prices keep creeping up, you can still stumble upon rare records and eye-catching vintage clothes. It’s also the venue for the immensely popular weekly outdoor singing session, Bearpit Karaoke. Thousands flock to the mobile soundsystem, the brainchild of karaoke courier Joe Hatchiban, to have a go on summer Sundays.
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 are offered by Stern und Kreis, Reederei Winkler and Reederei Riedel.
When it comes to Berghain, forget everything you know about clubbing and go with an open mind. The queue can last for hours, the door staff can be intimidating and the general attitude is bolshy, but brave it all and you’re in for the night (and morning) of your life. This dystopian legend is a techno temple. Don’t show up too drunk or be disheartened if you’re turned away: the club is immensely popular, and the bouncers limit how many partygoers are allowed in to comply with fire safety regulations. There’s no shortage of excellent clubs nearby, either.
During the late-19th century, 14 municipal covered markets were opened to replace traditional outdoor ones and improve hygiene standards. Local residents saved this one from closure in 2009, filling it with stalls serving locally sourced veg and 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 the trip.
During the summer months, the city’s largest public parks – including Volkspark Friedrichshain, Hasenheide in Neukölln and Rehberge in Wedding – unveil their freiluftkino (open-air cinemas). Grab a beer and some snacks, relax in the sun and enjoy the summer evening Berlin-style. Titles are mostly bigger hits from the previous season, so try the likes of Neues Off, Odeon Kino or Moviemento for a more arthouse experience.
Cycling through Berlin with the wind in your hair is an experience not to be missed. Flat, with lots of clear routes, parks and canal paths, the city is best explored 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.
In recent years, Berliners have slammed down their forks and demanded more for breakfast than the traditional cold cuts and bread with jam. Brunch may have taken off, making way for some mouth-watering hangover cures, but that doesn’t mean that every café serving avocado toast is worth your while. Try Isla in Neukölln for a gorgeous breakfast with a good conscience (the cafe aims for zero waste and uses seasonal, sustainably sourced ingredients) or the rightfully-hyped Rocket + Basil in Tiergarten.
The first ‘premium cinema’ in Germany offers a luxury cinematographic experience, complete with a welcome cocktail, doorman and valet parking. The cinema dates back to 1948, when a café was converted into a small screening room called the Kino im Kindl or KiKi for short. It was later redesigned and renamed the Filmpalast and became 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 film.
Frederick the Great’s summer grounds make for an unforgettable day out in Potsdam, the state capital of Brandenburg, just an S-Bahn ride south-west from central Berlin. As well as touring the palace itself, guests can spend hours getting lost in its gardens and the ornate Bildergalerie and Neue Kammern (‘new chambers’). A trip to the lush grounds is very welcome after a few days’ pavement pounding in urban Berlin.