The first-timers guide to Berlin
A unique combination of grittiness and glamour epitomises the kaleidoscopic, history-steeped city of Berlin. From its cutting-edge architecture and vibrant culture, to its tantalising cuisine and mesmerising nightlife, Berlin is a multicultural, multi-faceted metropolis full of free-wheeling spirits, where the past is still unashamedly present wherever you go.
Museums & Galleries
Venture towards the eastern end of the Unter den Linden Boulevard and you’ll find the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of Museum Island. Smack bang in the middle of the Spree River, it is home to five of Berlin’s most important museums, including the Pergamon Museum, which contains a number of astounding structures, including the two-storey Roman Gate of Miletus, the Pergamon Altar (dating from 159 BC) and the extraordinarily tiled Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which dates back to around 563 BC. Don’t miss a visit to the southern wing where you’ll also find the fascinating Museum of Islamic Art.
A confronting snapshot of the country’s turbulent history awaits at the Topography of Terror museum, which can be found on the site of the Nazi headquarters in Niederkirchnerstraße and the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg, where you’ll find a few thousand-year’s worth of cultural insight in the form of documentaries, artwork and interactive exhibits.
Creative types should head for the Filmmuseum Berlin, for a wander through thirteen rooms filled with over 1000 props, costumes and scripts, that highlight the early pioneering years of silent films through to its contemporary Germanic cinema offerings.
For a glimpse into photography in all its protean forms, the Museum of Photography is also worth a visit, particularly for fans of the provocative works of fashion imagery giant, Helmut Newton.
Galleries abound in Berlin, but one of its most talked-about, the East Side Gallery, is a 1.3-kilometre-long section of the Berlin Wall that features images from over 100 artists from around the world.
For a bit of younger sass, head to the NGBK Gallery in Kreuzberg for work from some emerging Berliners or the Hamburger Bahnhof, which houses a contemporary art museum, in the bowels of a former 19th-century railway station.
A legacy of King Frederick the Great, Sanssoucci Park is a bit of a mish-mash of attractions that includes, not only the remnants of Freddy’s palace (the Palace Theatre and the Grotto Room are amazing), but also the Orangery (another palace), the Spielfestung (a toy fortress with a firing canon), a Chinese Teahouse and the Dragonhouse, which comes complete with its own pagoda-style café.
Tiergarten is an 210-hectare expanse of sublime greenery, located smack bang in the middle of the city, which is perfect for picnics and a spot of cycling (in summer) or ice-skating (in winter), and for a left-field take on an urban landscape, Tempelhof (the site of a former airport) offers mini-golf, kite surfing and the chance to dirty up in a community garden or two.
South-west of Charlottenburg you’ll find Berlin’s largest forested area, Grunewald, which is perfectly explorable by bicycle, foot or horseback and even better come summertime, is the perfect outdoor haven for a picnic and a dip in the calming waters of Schlachtensee Lake.
Speaking of watery stuff, probably the most charming of Berlin’s ‘lake beaches’, the Strandbad Grünau is tucked away in the most secluded parts of east Berlin. Unlike the posher and more popular versions found elsewhere about town, the waters here are deep enough for up-to-your-armpits swimming and it’s infinitely less crowded in the warmer months.
Yes, it’s landlocked, but Berlin still contains a fair bit of H20, particularly with the Landwehrkanal Canal and River Spree meandering their way through the city’s interior. Lake Müggelsee on the city’s eastern fringe, is a particularly popular choice on a sunny day, especially for sailors and canoeists, and if you’re partial to a bit of ‘optional clothing action’, head to Müggelsee Strandbad and its adjacent FKK (Free Body Culture) beach.
History and Culture
A short walk from Potsdamer Platz is the controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an entire city block’s worth of concrete slabs that was constructed to echo the crowds of headstones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. This is an in-your-face, thought provoking statement, as is the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie (which was the site of the east-west border control during the Cold War), which now houses a tourist centre full of comprehensive displays that recount the history of the Berlin Wall.
One of the more iconic landmarks of the city and one of the finest examples of German classicism, the Brandenburg Gate is the perfect spot for some selfie action, and if you’re after a testament to this country’s fierce determination, visit the Reichstag. Burned, bombed and eventually rebuilt, this must-see features a glorious glass dome and is the modern home of the German parliament.
Palace envy will reign with a tour of the sublime Schloss Charlottenburg, a breathtaking baroque palace that evokes the fleeting grandeur of the Prussian royals, and for a modern twist on architecture (and a somewhat fascist one), don’t miss a tour of the Olympiastadion. What was meant to be an Aryan symbol of white supremacy, turned out to be the site of black athlete Jesse Owens’ four-gold-medal triumph in the 1936 Olympics.
Other fun stuff
A quirky, touristy adventure that’s worth a go is the 368 metre-high Fernsehturm (‘Television Tower’), which rises up out of the iconic Alexanderplatz and offers 42 kilometres worth of views on a clear day. Starting its life as a symbol of Communism, its statement was eventually marred by a bit of ironic engineering – after construction it was discovered that the sun’s reflection on its stainless steel dome resulted in a cross-shape pattern, earning it the nickname of the ‘Pope’s revenge’.
Zoos are fun, right? Especially when they take the form of Germany’s oldest, the Zoologischer Garten & Aquarium. An urban home to around 14,000 creatures (many of them rare and/or endangered), get ready to embrace your inner kid as you gander at three floors of animalistic delight.
Shoppers unite! With a heap of world-class retailers at your Berliner doorstep, Alexa wins gold stars for its convenience. Walking distance from Alexanderplatz, this indoor centre features 180-odd stores and over 56,000 square metres of retail nirvana. Kurfürstendamm is worth a stop off for its top-name department stores (like KaDeWe), Berlin’s ‘Mall’ is a great choice for brand addicts (think Armani and Hugo Boss) and for edgier retailers, head to Hackescher Markt for brands like Diesel and Pepe.
If you prefer a more ‘organic’ experience, check out the Sunday flea markets at Prenzlauer Berg’s Mauerpark, which offers everything from souvenirs and clothes to furniture and bargain bicycles.
And finally, it goes without saying that Berlin has an uber-awesome nightlife. In fact, many would argue that Berlin actually pips New York at the post in terms of embezzling the title of ‘The City that Never Sleeps’. However, there are far too many options to go into here, so enjoy researching that one on your own.