It also has a long and tumultuous history that has left its fingerprint on the streets, buildings and culture of this great city. Berlin’s first historical documentation dates back from 12th century, but during the Second World War is when Berlin went through it toughest times After Germany was divided, the capital was also split in two, which significantly changed its landscape and its culture.
In 1961, East Germany began building the Berlin Wall that divided an entire city into two different worlds. From that moment on, the two sides of the city begun to develop in two different directions, until the end of the Cold War when the Wall fell and Berlin was unified once again.
After 1989, the city started to blend the culture of East and West Berlin. In just a few years the capital of Germany became the hotspot for great art, science and culture.
Because it’s such a large city, the best way to actually see it is by using its very efficient public transportation system. Whether you choose the bus, the train (S-Bahn), the underground (S-Bahn), the tram or even the ferry, you won’t have any problems understanding it. Basically the U-Bahn operates between the city’s borders, while the S-Bahn is mostly for commuters and rapid transit.
However, if you want to drive around the city, make sure you get a special environmental sticker called Umweltplakette so that you’ll be able to get into the green zone which is basically the metropolitan area of Berlin. You can get the sticker at any garage or even order it online.
Berlin has six districts, each with their own architecture, culture and many things to see and experience.
The historical center of the city is called Mitte and is also the former center of East Berlin. The East Central district is known as the noisier one but also as the trendier part of town more popular among artists and students. The City West has the main shopping streets but also some of the main touristic attractions like Tiergarten and Charlottenburg Palace.
The East district was part of Eastern Berlin and here you can really discover the history of that city, while the North district is more of a quite area, very different from the busy city center. And finally, the South district is an eclectic borough which mixes the entire culture and history of all the remaining districts.
1. Brandenburg Gate
Berlin’s best known symbol is definitely the Brandenburg Gate. The Neoclassical Gate is swarmed by thousands of tourists each year and is one of the most photographed monuments in Europe.
Built between 1788 and 1791, this is not only the last gate of the city, but also the spot where some of the most famous political leaders in the world held inspiring speeches and announced key moments in the universal history. After the wall was torn down, the Brandenburg Gate became a symbol for the new and unified Berlin.
The gate marks the entrance in Unter den Linden, one of the main boulevards of the Mitte district. The gate was designed by Prussian architect Carl Gotthard Langhans after it was commissioned by the King of Prussia, Frederick William II.
The design of this monument was inspired by the gate at the entrance of the Acropolis in Athens, known as the Propylaea. The triumphal arc has twelve Doric columns, six on each side and on top there’s chariot drawn by four horses called the Quadriga, designed by Johann Gottfried Schadow in 1793. The chariot was dismantled and was shipped to Paris when Napoleon occupied the city. When Paris fell under Prussian occupation a little over a decade later, the Quadriga was put back in its rightful place.
Besides its architectural importance, the Brandenburg Gate is also the place where some of the most important historical moments took place. The gate was a symbol for the Nazi party and one of the few monuments that survived the Second World War bombings. After the war, the monument was restored and for several years, people and cars were able to pass through it, until the Berlin wall was erected. Though at beginning this was one of the official wall crossings, the checkpoint was quickly closed after Berliners from the western side started to organize protest nearby.
Just two years after the wall was erected, the American president John F. Kennedy held his now famous ”I am a Berliner” speech right next to the Brandenburg Gate on the West Berlin part. In 1987 another American president, Ronald Reagan, choose this location to give another famous speech in which he urged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.
During those crucial days in 1989, when the wall was dismantled, the West German chancellor walked through the Brandenburg Gate to meet with the East German prime minister.
Nowadays, the Brandenburg Gate has an important place on every tourist’s must see list, and there’s nothing like taking a stroll through Pariser Platz and walk right under the famous arch. Make sure you spot the twin buildings by the gate, Sommer house and Liebermann house. In fact the entire plaza is lined with beautiful townhouses and buildings like the American or French Embassy. After admiring all this beautiful architecture, make sure you
2. Museum Island
Museum Island (Museumsinsel), the center of culture and history of Berlin, is an actual island on Spree River in the Mite district of the city. In the northern part of the island tourists can spot five world famous state museums hence the name for this area. Part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, this little island is a true playground for history and art buffs. From the antique collections of the Altes Museum and Neues Museum, to the vast art collections housed by Pergamon and Bode Museums and Alte Nationalgalerie, visitors will need several days in order to discover all the treasures that are being kept here.
If you are planning on visiting each museum, the best way to do it is by purchasing a Museum pass Berlin, which will allow you to enter to about 50 museums in Berlin, including those on Museum Island, for three consecutive days.
Each museum on the island is housed in one or more historical buildings and the edifice alone is of great importance, not to mention the treasures from around the world that are inside.
Altes Museum (Old Museum), one of the most popular one, was designed in 1830 and, despite being destroyed during the war, at the moment is one of the most beautiful buildings in Berlin. The permanent collection is comprised by antique Roman and Greek art and sculptures, but the most beautiful part of the building is the two-story high rotunda.
After discovering the incredible history housed in Altes Museum, tourists usually spend a few moments on the beautiful green lawn in front of the building, admiring not just the beautiful museum, but also another famous Berlin landmark nearby – the Berlin Cathedral. Built in 1451, the cathedral, also known as the Berliner Dom, has gone through many renovations in different architectural styles, as the affiliation of the church changed. Nowadays, the Berliner Dome is United Protestant and it’s a beautiful and eclectic mix of Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical style.
After discovering the ancient cultures of the Greeks and the Romans, the next stop has to be the Neues Museum where one of the largest Prehistory, History and Egyptian collection in the world is being kept. The most famous item here is the Nefertiti bust which is the Mona Lisa of this museum.
The Pergamon Museum is the most visited museum in Berlin, with more than a million people stepping into this world renowned building. The three winged institution houses famous monumental edifices that were reconstructed inside the museum like the Pergamon Altar or the Ishtar Gate. At the moment, due to reconstruction, the altar is closed to the public until 2019. The museum also houses vast collections of Islamic and Middle Eastern art, not to mention an enlightening Antiquity Collection.
Bode Museum, probably the most eclectic one in Berlin, has a mix of art collections, from Byzantine art to early Renaissance sculptures and a vast array of medals and coins. Named after its founding director, Wilhelm von Bode, the actual building of the museum is an historical preserved institution that recently went through massive renovations which took more than a decade to complete.
Finally, the Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie), houses many works by famous nineteenth-century German artists as well as a collection of French impressionist paintings. Since it was first established in 1861, the museum’s art collection was enriched with many works by Classic and Romantic artists as well as early Modern artworks.
After such a large dose of art and history, the best way to let it all soak in is by taking a stroll among all the other beautiful buildings on the Museum Island. Those who venture outside the actual island can find a lesser known treasure, right next to Schlossbrücke, Neue Wache. A former guardhouse built in 1816, nowadays it’s a memorial for the victims of war and dictatorship. The neoclassical hall houses a pieta-like statue called “Mother with her dead son” created by Käthe Kollwitz. Above the statues there’s an oculus which exposes the sculpture to the elements. The best time to see this monument is while it’s snowing and flakes tumble down through the oculus giving the entire area an even more dramatic feel.
3. The Berlin Wall
Another famous symbol of Berlin and a very important landmark in Europe’s history is the Berlin Wall. Built in the middle of the night in August 1961, the wall physically divided the Easter and Western Berlin as well as the two Germanys. In the next 28 years, what was at the beginning a barbed wired fence became a 3.6 m meters high (12 ft.,) wall that separated a once thriving city. Until it was demolished in 1989, the only way to cross the Berlin Wall was through a handful of checkpoints, the most famous being Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstraße. The name of this checkpoint was given by the Allied forces since this was the only crossing point that was used by foreigners.
In almost three decades between 100 and 200 people are believed to have died while trying to climb the wall to West Berlin. After the announcement was made that people from East Germany can relocate into the western part, people begun to climb the wall and tear it down. In just a few days what was once the symbol of the division between the two parts of Berlin was turned into small pieces of concrete. Many of them are still kept in museums all over the world and in private collection.
Today, there isn’t much left of the Berlin Wall except for three sections. The most popular one is near the Topography of Terror, a history museum with collections that feature the history of the Gestapo and its propaganda. The museum is housed in the former Gestapo headquarter on Niederkirchnerstraße. Near the museum, an 80 meter log part of the wall is still standing, and has become the background for many photos. The entire wall is covered in graffiti and messages, some of them dating back when the wall was still guarded, but only those from the western side. Two other large parts of the wall can be seen on Bernauerstraße and along the Spree River near Oberbaum Bridge.
Close to the Topography of Terror, tourists clamor to take photos at Checkpoint Charlie with the actors dressed in allied military policemen uniform. Near this landmark there’s a Checkpoint Charlie museum that feature the entire history of this crossing point.
Those who have enough time and physical condition choose to take a hike or a bike ride along the Berlin Wall Trail, which traces the entire course of the former wall. The entire trail is 160 kilometers long and has plenty of signs that mark the course.
Berlin’s largest park, Tiergarten, is the place where most of locals spend their weekend outdoor, enjoying the fresh air. Not to be confused with the locality with the same name in the Mite district of the city. Often compared with Central Park in New York, this huge park is over 200 hectares wide and at the beginning used to be a hunting area. It became popular in the past two decades thanks to its central location and the reconstruction of the buildings around it. Today, Tiergarten is a beloved spot for local and tourists alike, where they enjoy having a picnic or playing different sports.
Though the entire area was redesigned many times throughout its five centuries of existence, the most important change took place during 1833 – 1838 when the landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné transformed Tiergarten into an English style park.
After area was populated with thousands of species of trees, flowers and other plats, the park became famous for its legendary rhododendrons that fill the entire park with color. Whether you are in search for a place to meet friends for a friendly game of football or for a few hours of quiet, Tiergarten is the perfect gateway from the busy streets of Berlin.
The best way to explore this large park is by renting a bike, Berliners’ favorite means of transportation. From here there is a short distance to the most popular landmarks in Berlin which means cycling is not just the best way to discover Tiergarten, but the entire city center as well.
Berlin’s most famous park is also the home of some of the best beer gardens. Beer is the drink of choice for most locals, and what better way to enjoy a frosted mug than in a beautiful park. The most popular beer garden is Cafe am Neuen See near a small lake called Neuer See. During winter the lake freezes and it becomes a wonderful ice skating ring.
Don’t forget to discover the famous gas lanterns near Tiergarten S-Bahn station. As the sun sets, this area turns into an unlikely collection of gas lanterns from all over Europe. Look closely and you’ll see that each lamp post has a label which states its date and origin. Of course, the best way to discover this open-air museum is at night when the alleys of the park are engulfed in the lanterns’ warm light.
Alexanderplatz is one of the best points to start your journey through Berlin, especially since here is one of the largest S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations in the entire city. Once a cattle market and an exercise ground for the military, the plaza became the city center of East Berlin as soon as the city was divided. As the cityscape in the western side begun to change including large buildings, East Berlin tried to keep up and so Alexanderplatz went through major reconstruction.
One of the largest buildings in Europe was built here at the end of the ‘60s, the TV tower also known as Tele-spargel. Even today the tower is one of the highest structures on the continent and at the top it has a revolving restaurant that spins 360-degres in half an hour and an observation deck that offers an excellent viewing point of the entire city.
During the same time, two more landmarks were added. The Fountain of Friendship quickly became a popular venue which nowadays is mostly covered in colorful graffiti. Nearby, the World Time Clock, a round installation, shows the time in several cities from around the world.
Before 1989 Alexanderplatz was the main shopping district with several department stores built around the plaza. Though most of them are still standing, today Kurfürstendamm is the main shopping avenue in Berlin.
With the largest train and underground station in proximity and many important touristic attractions like Berliner Dome and the Rotes Rathaus (the Berlin City Hall, distinguishable by its bright red hue), Alexanderplatz is the most logical spot to start exploring the city. Around the plaza there are several bus stations and bike hiring venues.
6. The Reichstag
Though Berlin offers numerous places from where tourists can take in the amazing cityscape, the best place to see the entire metropolis is from its own heart – the Reichstag building. The meeting place for the German parliament, the building has been an important political venue for more than a century.
Finished in 1894, the Reichstag building was designed as a meeting place for political leaders, but after it was destroyed during the war, the building was only partially renovated and mostly forgotten. After the reunification of Berlin, the Reichstag was completely restored and it became the official Parliament building.
During the restorations the edifice was expanded and a new glass dome was added. The dome sits right above the plenary hall and visitors can walk all the way to the top on a spiral walkway.
While the building itself is quite impressive and having a look from the ceiling down to the plenary hall can certainly give you chills, the best views are outside. From the glass dome visitors can have a 360-degree view over the entire Berlin with spectacular landscapes over Tiergarten, the famous skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburg Gate and even the TV Tower and the Berliner Dome.
Don’t be discouraged by the long queues that usually form at the entrance of the Reichstag building. Every visitor has to go through a security check before entering the Parliament but the entrance is free, though visitors have to book a tour beforehand. Keep in mind that visitor hours are influenced by parliamentary sessions.
The best way to take in the gorgeous view over Berlin’s rooftops is, of course during a sunny day. After breathtaking landscapes, tourists prefer to relax on the beautiful green lawn in front of the Reichstag building waiting for the sun to set. The building itself becomes so much more imposing once the night falls and the Parliament is beautifully illuminated.
7. Berlin Zoo
One of the most famous zoos in the world, the Berlin Zoo in Tiergarten had an increase in popularity once Knut, the awfully cute polar bear, was born there. The zoo was opened in 1844 on the south-west corner of the Tiergarten Park and it was the first Zoological Garden in Germany thus making it also one of the oldest ones in Europe.
With an area of 34 hectares, the zoo houses more than 20,000 animals and over 1,500 species. During the Second World War the zoo was almost completely destroyed and most of the animals died, but soon after that the Zoological Garden was reconstructed following modern principals and trying to reconstruct the natural habitat of every species. Several architects designed different enclosures that closely mimic the animals’ natural habitat so they are not just on display, but they truly have their own home.
The zoo complex also has a large Aquarium that spans over three stories and which houses twelve basins and a large collection of tropical and native fishes, crocodiles and other sea creatures.
Though the many animals attract a couple of millions visitors each year, the actual star of the Zoo was the media phenomenon that was Knut, a polar bear that was born at the zoo in 2006 and who was rejected at birth by its mother. Zookeepers took care of the cub and it soon became the most popular inhabitant of Berlin Zoo. Unfortunately, the cub died four years later, but may other wonderful animals still attract a large number of tourists and locals alike. In fact Berliners love to be kept up with any news concerning the animals here.
Since the Berlin Zoo is so large it has two main entrances fitly named after two of the most well-known mammals. The Elephant Gate, in Olof Palme Platz, is also the main one, where two giant elephant statues guard the Asian inspired architecture of the gate. The second entrance is the Lion Gate in Hardenbergplatz.
Berlin Zoo offers guided tours with different themes, from the garden’s architecture to animals from different regions of the globe. Also visitors can take part in the feeding process of different species.
8. Charlottenburg Palace
The largest royal palace in Berlin, Charlottenburg Palace offers its visitors a large garden so beautiful that almost outshines this amazing landmark. No too far away from the city center, the enormous palace was completed in 1713 after 18 years of constructions and it was commissioned by Sophia Charlotte of Hanover the first Queen consort of Frederick I, the King of Prussia. The palace was originally named Lietzenburg, but Queen Sophia Charlotte died 8 years before the grand inauguration, so the palace was named in her memory.
Nowadays Charlottenburg Palace is one of the largest royal palaces still sanding in Germany and has kept its original Baroque style, despite the fact that numerous royal families that lived here throughout history changed it and modeled it according to their preferences. The newer wing, finished in 1742, has a strong Rococo influence, while the vast garden was inspired by those of a very famous French palace – the Versailles.
Visitors are mostly interested in admiring the beautiful baroque state rooms, the Porcelain Cabinet or the Oak Gallery, while the rococo wing features the apartments of Frederick the Great. The palace also displays the largest collection of 18th century French paintings outside France.
After all the opulence, visitors are treated with a relaxing walk through the gardens where those who have enough time and patience will discover other treasures. The garden itself was enlarged many times throughout the centuries, and several buildings were added along the way.
The mausoleum of Queen Louise designed in a neoclassical style as a tomb for Queen Louise is probably the most famous building outside Charlottenburg. The mausoleum was enlarged several times and today is also the final resting place for Friedrich Wilhelm III, Wilhelm I and his wife Augusta. Visitors also enjoy discovering the Belvedere building which used to be a viewing-tower and now houses a great porcelain collection, the Orangeries, one of which was transformed into a restaurant and a café, while the Grosse Orangerie hosts classical concerts during the summer months. The Neuer Pavilion was designed as an Italian style summer house for King Friedrich Wilhelm II, by the Prussian architect Karl Schinkel. The pavilion eventual was named after its designer and today tourists can admire an extensive collection of arts and crafts from the 17th century.
The palace is also exquisite at night, when the statue of the goddess of happiness Fortuna on top of the doomed tower is brightly illuminated, along with the equestrian statue of the Great Elector at the entrance of the palace. The statue has its own tumultuous story. It was designed in 1689 by Andreas Schlüter and it was revealed in front of the City Palace on Museum Island. During the Second World War the statue was submerged at the bottom of Tegeler Lake, one of the largest ones in Berlin, so that the statue won’t disappear during the war. Decades later, the statue was recovered from the bottom of the lake and placed at the entrance of Charlottenburg where it remains to this day.
While visitors must pay for a ticket at the entrance of every wing of the palace, the Charlottenburg gardens remain open to the public for free and are a popular destination for locals in search for some fresh air, alongside Tiergarten.
9. Shopping in Berlin
Berlin is not only one of the major cities in the world of arts, music and education, but also a thriving economical center where some of the most important brands have set up their headquarters. Though there are several boulevards and shopping areas throughout the city, Kurfürstendamm, or as the locals call it Ku’damm, is one of the largest boulevards in Berlin famous for the shops, flagship stores of numerous international brands, cafes and hotels that line the avenue. Not too far from Tiergarten and the Berlin Zoo, the 3.5 kilometers long avenue also has a long history.
During the 17th century, the boulevard was extended, and several buildings were added along it. After the war, the avenue was reconstructed and quickly became the main hotspot for leisure and shopping of West Berlin. Though after the reunification, Kurfürstendamm had to compete with more central placed department stores, but, as upscale brands opened exclusive boutiques, Ku’damm turned into the Champs Elyse of Berlin with the most luxurious fashion brands, main car manufacturers’ show rooms and expensive restaurants.
The shopping avenue extends into Tauentzienstraße, where the largest and most expensive shopping center in Europe, KaDeWe, was opened in 1905. The abbreviation stands for The Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West) and throughout the years the ownership of the shopping center changed several times. The store was partially destroyed by Allied bombing during the war, but it was completely restored and reopened 1956 as a symbol for the West Germany’s economic boom.
With 60,000 square meters of selling space over eight stories, KaDeWe has become a true institution. Each story features a different type of merchandise. The ground floor is famous for it’s so called “Luxury Boulevard” with some of the most luxurious fashion brands and jewelry stores, while the third floor is known as “The Loft” and is the largest luxury shoe store in Germany. The sixth and seventh floors are one of the largest food departments of any other shopping center in the world and features several delicatessen sections with delicacies from all corners of the world. The top floor is a restaurant topped with a glass dome from where patrons get to enjoy a gorgeous view over the Schöneberg neighborhood.
Though Kurfürstendamm and KaDeWe are truly every shopaholic’s paradise, Berlin has many other department stores and many farmers’ markets. In the former East Berlin, Friedrichstraße was the most important shopping avenue, though not as popular as Ku’damm. Today, expensive department stores like Galeries Lafayette and Quarties 206 open their doors for thousands of shoppers every day.
On the other hand, those who don’t want to spend a small fortune while shopping can choose Hackischer Markt, more popular among students and young people. Here, shoppers can find everything from affordable brands to a flea market and many delicious and cheap restaurants.
10. Berlin’s Skyscrapers
Though Berlin is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the world, in the past few decades, the cityscape has undergone through many changes and the shiny steel skyscrapers have forever changed Berlin’s horizon.
The city’s tumultuous past, especially in the last century, has significantly transformed the architecture of the entire Berlin. Each government tried to leave its own mark over the city by designing and erecting buildings taller and taller as symbols of their power. However, many were destroyed by raids during the Second World War, and others were demolished after the wall was built and Berlin was divided.
Even though the TV tower is the tallest construction in Berlin, Potsdamer Platz is the best example of new architecture. The entire plaza is surrounded by tall buildings and skyscrapers and it was reconstructed a few years after the wall was torn down. Three steel and glass skyscrapers dominate what was once a large wasteland around the Berlin Wall. Potsdamer Platz was redesigned in the mid ’90s and by 2004 the three giants were piercing the sky. The first building, Daimler City, was finished in 1998, two years later the Sony Centre was inaugurated, and finally, Beisheim Centre was built.
The spot for this plaza that became a symbol for the new Berlin was chosen not for just because that’s where the wall used to be, but also for its close proximity to the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstad building and Tiergarten Park. The plaza was named after another German city, Potsdam, which is 25 kilometers outside Berlin.
There were many debates about the way this area should be rebuilt and in the end Potsdamer Platz became a mix of American architecture with large steel skyscrapers and European influences, mostly seen around the large, tree lined avenues that cross the plaza.
Though Potsdamer Platz is definitely the most striking area, Berlin is not short in tall buildings. Charlottenburg district also has its own signature skyline with skyscrapers over 100 meters. The most popular structure here is Berliner Funkturm (Berlin Radio Tower), the second largest in Berlin, after the TV tower. The building was inaugurated in 1926 and is basically a very large steel framework tower, very similar to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It has an observation deck 126 meters above the ground, and a restaurant 55 meters high.
The tallest building in Berlin is actually the Park Inn Berlin, near Alexanderplatz. Inaugurated in 1970, the hotel was located in East Berlin, and it was part of the redevelopment program of Alexanderplatz. Even today the 125 meters high and 37-floor building still remains a hotel, though, throughout the years, it was acquisitioned by several groups. On the roof there’s a viewing platform that is opened to the public that offers beautiful views over Alexanderplatz, and Museum Island.