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The Top 10 Things to Do in Berlin

I was born and grew up in Germany. Having lived in Italy since the 1990s, I now enjoy visiting my former home country on vacations.

Once a divided city, Berlin today stands for freedom and diversity. Whether you happen to be in the German capital for business or for leisure—and regardless of the season—you'll always find something to do. There is an abundance of green space, like the famous Tiergarten Park (Berlin's largest inner-city park) and plenty of other parks and lakes. Enjoy Berlin's rich cultural landscape, attending events and festivals or visiting its museums. It is a city that never sleeps, with clubs and bars for all kinds of people and all ages. An efficient public transport system makes it easy to get around.

When in Berline, make sure not to miss out on these top attractions.

Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)

Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)

1. Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)

The Brandenburg Gate is Berlin's signature attraction and reflects the country's past like no other landmark. The neoclassical monument was built in 1791 by the Prussian king Frederick William II on the site of a former city gate. During the Cold War era, the gate notoriously stood on the border of the divided city and was a symbol of the division of Berlin, Germany as well as East and West in general. When the wall fell in 1989 and Germany was reunified, it became a symbol of unity and peace instead.

Historically the gate is the monumental entry to the renowned Unter den Linden boulevard, which led to the royal palace of the Prussian monarchs and still links many of Berlin's sights. A short walk away are the Reichstag building (parliament) and the Holocaust Memorial.

German Flags Flying Outside the Reichstag

German Flags Flying Outside the Reichstag

2. Reichstag

The Reichstag is the historic edifice constructed to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. It opened in 1894 and housed the Diet until 1933, when set on fire under circumstances never fully clarified. Despised by the Nazis as a symbol of democracy, the Reichstag was never fully repaired nor used for their (few) parliamentary sessions. On 2 May 1945, a Soviet flag was hoisted over the Reichstag, symbolizing victory of the USSR over Germany. Visitors today can still see Soviet graffiti on the walls preserved during the reconstruction.

After 1945 the Reichstag was essentially a ruin. Some reconstruction work was done in the 1960s, but the building regained only minor significance. All that changed with the reunification of Germany in 1990 and especially after a memorable session of parliament a year later, in which it was decided to move government (and parliament) from Bonn back to Berlin. The reconstruction contest was awarded to architect Norman Foster, who added the shimmering glass dome to the new design. The new Reichstag was finally completed in 1999 and parliamentary sessions resumed that year.

From the Reichstag's glass dome, visitors get a spectacular view of the city.

3. Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer)

From 1961 until 1989, a large wall separated East and West Berlin, preventing people from fleeing from East to West. While Berlin’s most famous monument is now largely gone, a 1.3 km-long stretch known as the East Side Gallery has been preserved as a testament to freedom over oppression. When the wall finally fell in 1989, artists from around the world flocked to Berlin to transform the gray wall into a piece of art. Two of the best paintings include the brotherly kiss between former leaders Brezhnev and Honecker and the iconic Trabant car breaking through the wall.

Furthermore, visitors can still get a feel of the former border facilities by heading to the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), the last surviving full-depth section of the wall (including a watchtower). The site includes a documentation center and a memorial to the victims and is located between districts of Mitte and Wedding on Bernauer Strasse.

One church, two architectural styles at the Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche)

One church, two architectural styles at the Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche)

4. Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche)

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is a Protestant church on the Kurfürstendamm (colloquially Ku'damm), Berlin's posh shopping avenue. The original church in Neo-Romantic style dates back to the 1890s and was badly damaged during air raids in 1943, when the top of the main spire broke off.

In the postwar era, by the time the church was to be rebuilt, the ruin had so become a part of the heart of Berlin that it was decided it had to be incorporated into the new design. Around the old church with the broken spire were built a modern octagonal church with foyer and an hexagonal belfry. The new church in modern design is characterized by thousands of stainless (predominantly blue) glass inlays. Because of its distinctive appearance, the new church by Berliner's is nicknamed “lipstick und powder box (“Lippenstift und Puderdose”). Inside worshippers find elements from churches in Coventry and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), as a sign of reconciliation and peace. If you want to find a moment of calm in bustling Berlin, step into the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and immerse yourself into its very special atmosphere.

View of the Fernsehturm from the Museum Island

View of the Fernsehturm from the Museum Island

5. Television Tower (Fernsehturm)

Constructed from 1965–69 by the government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Television Tower is not only a broadcasting tower, but a landmark and tourist attraction. With its height of 368m, it is the tallest building in Germany and visitors get a superb bird's eye view of the city from its platform. Tip: plan ahead and skip annoying waiting lines by booking a fast view ticket.

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The Television Tower is located in close proximity to Alexanderplatz, the large square in Berlin Center named after Tsar Alexander I. While there, make sure not to miss the Urania-Worldclock (Weltzeituhr) and the beautiful Red City Hall (Rotes Rathaus).

6. Museum Island (Museumsinsel)

The Museum Island, a Unesco world heritage site, is an ensemble of five world-class museums clustered together on a sliver of land in the middle of the Spree river: Old Museum (Altes Museum), New Museum (Neues Museum), Bode Museum, Pergamon Museum, Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie).

Time travel through ancient Babylon and Greece until modern times by walking through artifacts and architecture of 6,000 years of human history. Special highlights are the original-sized reconstructions of the Gate of Ishtar and the Market Gate of Miletus in the Pergamon Museum.

Tip for history buffs: get the 3-Day Berlin Museum Pass at a special discount.

The Museum Island further comprises the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom), a 19th-century architecture, and a park.

Musicians playing outside the concert hall at the Gendarmenmarkt

Musicians playing outside the concert hall at the Gendarmenmarkt

7. Gendarmenmarkt

Located in the central district near the exclusive shopping street Friedrichstrasse, the Gendarmenmarkt is likely Berlin's most beautiful square. It gets its name from the cuirassier regiment Gens d'Armes, which formerly had stables there. The Gendarmenmarkt is surrounded by three of the capital's most impressive pieces of architecture: the neoclassical Concert House and the twin-dome monuments of the German and French churches (Deutscher Dom and Französischer Dom).

Most of the buildings were badly damaged during World War II, but all of them have been restored. If you happen to be there while a violinist is performing, sit down on the stairs outside the concert hall and enjoy a moment of magic!

High rise at the Potsdamer Platz

High rise at the Potsdamer Platz

8. Potsdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz is an important star-shaped traffic intersection and, commonly speaking, also includes the adjacent octagonal-shaped Leipziger Platz. In its heydays before World War II, it was the pulsing heart of the city, on par with London's Piccadilly Circus and New York's Time Square. During the Cold War era, it became a wasteland, especially after 1961 when the newly erected wall passed directly through Potsdamer Platz (there is still a former watchtower left to visit). After the reunification in 1990, it became Europe's biggest construction site and emerged again a vibrant shopping and nightlife center.

If you happen to be around in February, you might get a chance to see one of your favored movie stars. The Berlinale, the world's most popular film festival, transforms Potsdamer Platz in a glittering stage of glamour.

9. Holocaust Memorial

As the former center of power of the Third Reich, Berlin is undoubtedly a fitting place for a memorial remembering the Holocaust. Inaugurated in 2005, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a massive 4.7-acre sculpture park located just a block away from the Brandenburg Gate.

It consists of 2,711 concrete pillars of varying height arranged in a grid pattern. Walking through the unevenly sloping field of stelae, the visitor is consumed by the pillars gradually getting taller. According to architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial is designed to produce a confusing atmosphere and aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.

The memorial includes an underground information center that holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims and recounts some individual fates.

10. Jewish Museum

The first Jewish Museum in Berlin was founded in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, while the current Jewish Museum opened in 2001 and is the largest in Europe of its kind. It consists essentially of two buildings: an old baroque building (the “Kollegienhaus”) and a new, deconstructivist-style building designed by Daniel Libeskind. The two buildings are not (visibly) connected above ground, with the new twisted zig-zag only accessible via an underground passage from the old building.

In addition to curating Jewish history and art, the new design aims to stress the enormous cultural contributions made by Jewish citizens of Berlin, then and now. To remind the new generation of the traumatic era of the Third Reich, a line of empty spaces (voids) slices through the entire building, voids meant to remind “that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity reduced to ashes”.

The complex also includes the Garden of Exile and the Holocaust Tower.

© 2019 Marco Pompili


Lorna Lamon on April 26, 2019:

This is an excellent article well written with lots of wonderful photos. I spent five years living in Germany and am a frequent visitor to Berlin - there is no other city in the world quite like it. Thank you for sharing.

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