When you think of Berlin, what springs to mind? Most probably its connections to twentieth century history; from WWI, the infamous period of Nazi rule leading up to WWII, to the Cold War and the collapse of the wall. Berlin is certainly a city full of history. However, the German capital is also home to beautiful architecture, vast green spaces, urban hangouts and plenty of shops! To help you plan your visit and if you only have a few days to explore, here is my list of ten things you must see in Berlin!
1. Brandenburger Tor
One of the finest examples of German neo-classicism, the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) is one of the best-known landmarks of Germany. Built in the 18th century on the orders of the Prussian king, the gate marked the start of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel, which used to be capital of a major principality of the Holy Roman Empire. Throughout its existence, the Brandenburg Gate was often a site for major historical events, including a crossing point during the Cold War, a site of protest during the period of division and also a site of celebration when the wall fell in ’89. Today the gate is widely considered not only as a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.
You can’t visit Berlin without paying a visit to the Reichstag, the seat of German parliament. Opened in 1894, the building has seen a turbulent history, beginning with the fire of 1933 when it was severely damaged. During WWII the building was further damaged and fell into disuse; the parliament of the German Democratic Republic met in the Palast der Republik in East Berlin, while the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany met in the Bundeshaus in Bonn. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag was finally restored, and after completion in 1999, the German parliament moved back in. It is well worth booking an appointment online to register a visit to the top of the glass dome for extraordinary views over Berlin.
3. East Side Gallery
Whether or not you are an art lover like me, the colourful East Side Gallery is another must-see attraction in the city. Stretching a distance of over 1.3 kilometres, the East Side Gallery is not only the longest single segment of the Berlin Wall still remaining, but it is the largest open-air gallery in the world. Shortly after the wall fell, 118 artists from all over the world visited the site and left their creations for all to see. The gallery features 105 paintings, all of which make a political commentary on events during the time, as well as spread messages of love and peace. You can find the gallery along Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.
4. Berliner Dom (Cathedral)
Located on Museum Island in the Mitte borough, the Berlin Cathedral is the most famous and largest church in the city. The current building was finished in 1905 and is a main work of Historicist architecture of the “Kaiserzeit”. With its striking green dome, the Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and most popular attractions in the city. During the summer months, why not take a picnic and lounge on the grass in front of the cathedral. If you are feeling more energetic you can also enter the cathedral and climb the 270 steps up to the top of the dome for beautiful views over Museum Island.
5. Alexanderplatz & Fernsehturm
Often referred to as Alex by the locals, Alexanderplatz is a large public square and transport hub in the city centre. Originally a cattle market outside the city fortifications, the square gained a prominent role in the late 19th century with the construction of the Stadtbahn station of the same name and a nearby market hall, followed by the opening of a huge department store in 1904. Nowadays the square is home to a number of large shops, fast-food restaurants and fashion discounters. You also do not have to look far to find some of Berlin’s historic buildings, as the traditional seat of city government, the Rotes Rathaus, or Red City Hall, is located nearby. Also in the vicinity is the Fernsehturm (TV tower), affectionately known as the ‘Eiffel Tower of Berlin’. For the best view of Berlin, take the elevator to the observation deck 203m up in the sky for an unparalleled vista.
6. Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie (or “Checkpoint C”) was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. It was here that a number of tense stand-offs took place, most notoriously in 1961 when US and Soviet tanks faced off against one another. The signage above the checkpoint ominously reads ‘You are now leaving the American Sector’, which up until the fall of the wall, signified the border between capitalism and communism, freedom and confinement. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum; on display are the photos and related documents of successful escape attempts from East Germany, together with a variety of escape apparatus: hot-air balloons, get-away cars, chairlifts, and even a mini-U-Boat.
7. Ku’damm & Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
The Kurfürstendamm, or Ku’damm, is one of the most famous avenues in Berlin, often considered the Champs-Élysées of Berlin. This very broad, long boulevard runs for 3.5km through the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf borough in western Berlin and is lined with shops, houses, hotels and restaurants. At the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the avenue merges with Tauentzienstraße, another major shopping street and home to the huge department store KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens).
8. Museum Island
Berlin has its fair share of museums, five of which are situated on a small island on the river Spree. These five world-renowned museums include the Pergamon Museum, the Bode-Museum, the Neus Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Altes Museum. Almost all of the museums were nearly destroyed during the war but have been beautifully restored. In 1999, the island was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
9. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
A short walk from the Brandenburger Tor will bring you to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Spanning an area of approximately 19,000 square metres and made up of 2,711 concrete slabs the memorial is a powerful tribute to the Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust.
10. Berlin Victory Column
The Victory Column or Siegessäule is one of the city’s major attractions, built to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian war. Following yet more victories against Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71, the statue was given a new purpose and inspired the addition of the bronze sculpture of Victoria atop the column. Berliners have given the statue the nickname Goldelse, meaning something like “Golden Lizzy”. The column’s viewing platform offers yet more views out across Berlin.
Have you visited Berlin? What other attractions you would recommend visit on a trip to the city?
Do let me know in the comments below!
Berlin was a stop on my Summer 2017 Interrail tour – you can read my post from my recent trip here.