12 Awesome things to do in Berlin
I’ve been on many weekend breaks in Europe over the years but Berlin is without a doubt one of my favourites! Germany’s capital is steeped in history from the time of the Prussian royal family, the Nazi regime in WWII, the Cold War and now its future as one of Germany’s most cosmopolitan and culturally diverse cities.
We spent four amazing days in Berlin for Mr Footsteps’s birthday and from a full itinerary I’ve picked 12 awesome things to do in Berlin.
1) Start at the Brandenburg Gate!
The Brandenburg Gate is a great starting point in Berlin as it marks the centre of the city. It’s hard to believe that this archway has such a colourful past but it has survived two world wars, an invasion from Napoleon and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. In other words this archway is a boss.
Built on the instruction of Prussian King Frederick William II in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate connects the former Emperor’s city centre palace with his hunting grounds, which is now the lovely public park, Tiergarten. It has been at the centre of major political and social events throughout its history, including Hitler coming to power in 1933 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 at which point the soviet flag still flew above the gate!
The Brandenburg Gate was designed as an arch of peace, with the goddess of peace represented in the sculpture placed on top of the gate at the reigns of a horse drawn chariot. However, she was later renamed Victoria after the Roman goddess of victory after she was brought back from the Paris Louvre having been stolen as a trophy by Napoleon in 1806 after his victories at Iéna and Auerstädt. The Berliners renamed the square that it sits on to Pariser Platz as a tongue in cheek way of commemorating their defeat over France in 1814, when the beloved sculpture was then brought home to Berlin.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Brandenburg Gate went on to became a symbol of unity between East and West Germany.
Tip: This is the most popular site in Berlin, so either get there first thing in the morning when there are fewer tourists or pass by when you are heading home for the night. It’s amazing no matter what time of day you go but it looks particularly puuurdy all lit up at night.
2) Go on a free walking tour with Sandemans
I’ve been on many free walking tours around Europe and I have to say Sandemans is consistent for their lively and knowledgable tour guides and quality tours. Their Berlin tour allows you to get your bearings on the city as you make your way through from the Brandenburg Gate to some of the best historic spots in the city centre. These include, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, site of Hitler’s bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, Luftwaffe Head Quarters (the former Nazi airforce) and Humboldt University.
You’ll also pass by Topography of Terror (more about that later), remains of the Berlin Wall and Trabi World, home to the East German cars that were voted one of the worst cars EVER made. It supposedly took 21 seconds for Trabi’s to go from 0 to 62 mph and its top speed was 70, they’re so cute and iconic though, they’ve become a favourite amongst Berlin visitors.
There is also a really cool little photo booth next to the Trabi World called Photoautomaten and for only €2, you can get old fashioned pictures taken.
Tip: Ask questions! Berlin has got so many diverse layers of history that it’s hard to believe they fit so much into a two and half hour tour but use the time you’re being taken from site to site as an opportunity to ask any questions you have as you go along.
3) Take a walk down the East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining strip of the Berlin Wall which divided East and West Germany during the Cold War. The 1.3 km wall is now a global memorial to freedom and covered in art and graffiti by artists from around the world.
Take your time to walk down and appreciate the different pieces as each painting documents a time of change and expresses the hopes for a better and free future not just for Germany but for the world. They’re all striking and thought-provoking in their own individual ways as each artist lends their particular style to each section of the wall.
Tip: Get there as early as possible as this popular tourist spot is swarming with people from sunrise to sundown and you’ll get gradually more frustrated as you wait for people to move out of your photo (as I did!).
4) Visit the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe is hard hitting but something you cannot miss whilst you are in Berlin.
On surface level, there is a memorial covering an area of 19,000 square metres made up by 2711 concrete blocks of different sizes. This extremely moving and poignant memorial is just two minutes walk away from the Brandenburg Gate and it’s presence in the centre of Berlin is one that is as much about remembrance as it is a warning.
Designed by North American Jewish architect, Peter Eisenman, the memorial evokes a feeling of unease and disorientation as you make your way through the maze of stones. It’s meaning though, is for you to decide and interpret for yourself.
I have enormous respect for Germany as they acknowledge their dark past but through education and remembrance are ensuring that this never happens again.
Tip: Don’t do anything too heavy after your visit. It’s very emotional and there is a lot of information to take in so take it easy for the rest of the afternoon.
5) ‘Check out’ Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie (or Checkpoint ‘C’) was the most well known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. There were several checkpoints which were named A, B, C etc, however Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous. After the wall came down in 1989, the checkpoint was removed but when tourists came to visit the site and found the checkpoint dismantled, it was recreated again as a symbol of that time.
Despite the crowds and the complete tourist trap that this spot now is, it is still really cool to see! There is also a museum worth visiting behind the checkpoint called, Mauer Museum, which actually played a role in the Berlin Wall coming down. Most memorable are the original artefacts from successful escapes in the museum, including a hot air balloon, a mini submarine, cars and planes.
There are also lots of interesting stories of people helping East Germans to flee that used the museum as a base to plan the escapes. There is a bit of an overload of information (even for a history nerd like me!) and the exhibitions seemly have no order to them as they’ve added to them over the years but it’s still worth a visit, just don’t get bogged down reading everything!
Tip: Get there first thing in the morning before breakfast! I tried getting a photo outside Checkpoint Charlie the entire time we were in Berlin but it is literally swarming with tourists every day and night. Before the tour buses and the actors dressed as soldiers arrive for the photo opps, quickly jump in to get your photo (there will probably still be a queue though!).
6) Go on a street art tour
Another awesome walking tour from Sandemans (I swear this post isn’t sponsored!) is the Berlin Alternative City Tour, which is a great way to see Berlin’s gritty underground graffiti art scene.
Kept behind the iron curtain for nearly 40 years, West Berlin developed its own unique identity and became a popular destination for non-conformists in search of an alternative lifestyle (including David Bowie!). After the fall of the Berlin Wall it moved East.
On the tour you’ll witness the clash between corporate expansion and urban development with this unique bohemian community of artists and musicians. Starting at the Bradenburg Gate, you’ll make your way through graffiti art and murals in the old Jewish Quarter and finish by the East Side Gallery.
Fun fact: graffiti and street art is actual illegal in Berlin and if you’re caught ‘redecorating’ anywhere, you can go to jail for up to 2 years so don’t feel inspired after this tour to pick up a spray can and join in the fun!
Tip: Have something to eat before you go on the tour because it is 3 – 3 and half hours in length and there is only one short break in between, which you spend most of that time queuing for a drink!
7) Get interactive at the DDR Museum
We visited the DDR Museum at the request of Mr Footsteps and it ended up being one of our favourite museums in Berlin!
This museum is a fun and interactive way of learning about what life was like in East Berlin whilst the Berlin Wall was still up when it was the DDR (German Democratic Republic). You can watch propaganda films, tour around a reconstructed East Berlin high rise apartment, learn about the education and law system and have a go ‘driving’ one of their infamous Trabi cars.
Tip: The DDR Museum is located in the former governmental district of East Germany, right on the river Spree which is a beautiful area of the city…especially on a summer day! Make sure to get the most out of your time there by having a stroll along the riverside, grabbing a bite to eat and walking around Alexander Platz.
8) Explore the Stasi Museum
Another great suggestion from Mr Footsteps (and one of his personal favourites in Berlin) was the Stasi Museum.
This delightfully depressing 60s building was the former headquarters of the GDR Ministry for State Security (MfS) and base for Erich Mielke, who served as Minister for State Security from 1957 until the end of the GDR.
This museum is a really unique experience because unlike other museums which house history behind a glass cabinet, this building literally is history. Inside, rooms and offices have been kept the same as they were during the GDR so it really feels like you are peeking into a secret headquarters.
The exhibition starts on the ground floor detailing how and why the GDR and Stasi were created using the array of rooms as information points telling the next part of the story. You’ll make your way through the rooms until you get to the third floor where you’ll learn what led to the Stasi demise when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
I would describe this museum as the flip side of the more light-hearted, interactive DDR Museum as it describes less about average, everyday life in East Berlin but shows you the dark underbelly of how they kept people from speaking out under the communist regime.
The Stasi would hire your own friends as spies, search your apartment without you knowing and bring you in for questioning if you so much as wore your hair in a style that may indicate you were a rebel!
9) Visit the Topography of Terror
The Topography of Terror is both an indoor and outdoor museum that focuses on the crimes of the SS (the major paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party) and Gestapo Police during the ‘Third Reich’. The museum was built on the former headquarters on Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse close to Potsdamer Platz.
The museum isn’t set out like an ordinary museum, the history of the Gestapo and SS is told through a series of information panels and documents and you’re led through a timeline of what happened between 1933 when Hitler came to power and 1945 when Germany lost the war.
There is a trench alongside the excavated segments of the former headquarter’s cellar wall which now makes up the outdoor section of the museum covered over by glass.
A bonus to visiting the Topography of Terror is that you can see the second longest stretch of what remains of the Berlin Wall. The holes in the middle of the wall are not from people trying to escape to the other side but by tourists!
Tip: The museum may only seem small but in order to absorb everything in there, it takes a while to work your way round. The outdoor part of the museum is open all hours though so if you knacker out retaining all the information on the inside you can always come back one evening when the museum is closed to visit the outside.
10) Rent bikes for an easy (and fun!) way to get around
During my four days in Berlin, I went from a person that hadn’t ridden a bike in 20 years (and had never ridden a bike around a city) to someone that was happily biking around as a main mode of transport…and loving it! It was so much cheaper and quicker than a taxi or waiting for the bus, if the weather permits it (i.e. it’s not pouring rain out!) I highly recommend it.
We used Nextbike and through their app we were able to activate bikes simply by entering the bike number and then using the four-digit code we received to unlock them. As soon as you’re finished, you lock them again and payment is taken through the app from your debit card. It’s roughly €1 per half an hour but to get from place to place you won’t cycle for more than about an hour and a half a day anyway, which still makes it cheaper than any other mode of transport.
If you’re going further out (more than half an hour bike ride away) then I would take the train but otherwise, these awesome bikes are scattered around the city and the app tells you when one is close by. Perfect!
Tip: If you’re the same as me and not been on a bike for a really long time but want to give cycling a go, start off in a quieter area of the city so you can get used to it first. Berlin has cycle lanes everywhere and is a really bike-friendly city so you’ll feel comfortable on the main roads in no time!
11) Watch the sunset from the top of Berlin’s TV Tower
Located in Alexander Platz, 203 metres above the city, Berlin’s TV Tower offers the best 360 views of Berlin and it’s not to be missed! I took Mr Footsteps for his birthday and we both enjoyed cocktails whilst watching the sunset over Berlin. The sunset also just makes for the best pictures; the night we went, the sky was super clear and it looked like it was on fiiiiire!
Tip: Prebook your tickets, as it makes it a lot easier and you get to skip the queues. Also! Time your visit just before sundown so you can see everything from the day AND night perspective. Timings of the sunset will differ depending on the time of year you go to Berlin so just google it before you book.
12) Explore the Old Jewish Quarter
Despite suffering from severe bomb damage during WWII (sadly like the rest of Berlin), many of Berlin’s Jewish Quarter’s most beautiful buildings survived and the area is still home to a rejuvenated Jewish community and thriving cultural scene.
One of the Jewish Quarter’s hidden treasures is the Haus Schwarzenberg, the last holdout in the heavily renovated area around the Hackescher Markt. In this tiny little courtyard, there is the Anne Frank Exhibition in remembrance for the young Jewish diarist, Anne Frank and The Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, which honours the memory of factory owner, Otto Weid (Berlin’s own Oskar Schindler).
During my time in this area of Berlin, I loved hearing the stories of the lesser known heroes like Otto Weid. His factory for the blind and deaf still remains in the Jewish Quarter as a testament to his bravery, protecting his Jewish workers from deportation and even hiding them for 10 months in a room at the back of his workshop. After the war he established an orphanage for survivors of the concentration camps but sadly passed away in 1947.
Also in this area, look out for the stumbling stones or ‘Stolpersteine’, which are touching tributes to Jewish residents that lived outside or near where the stones are found.
This stone reads: “Here lived Käthe Simonsohn. Born 1891. Deported 11.7.1942. Murdered in Auschwitz.” The artist who developed the idea for the stones, Gunter Demnig, said: “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”. So for only €120, anybody can sponsor a stone, its manufacture and its installation in remembrance for their family member, friend or neighbour.
Tip: The Jewish Quarter will take at least a day to get round so enjoy a guided tour, seek out all of its fabulous street art and visit its various museums but be wary of time as you want to make sure you see all the different sides to this wonderful area of Berlin.
Try some traditional German delicacies! Germany is famous for its beer, pretzels and currywurst, so make sure in the middle of this jam-packed itinerary I’ve given you, that you get a little down time to enjoy some of Berlin’s tastier things to do ?
Fancy watching this post? Check out my 12 Awesome things to do on my YouTube channel below ?
So what do you think of my 12 awesome things to do in Berlin? Have you been to Berlin? If you have, what else would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!