It is quite simply, one of the world’s great cities. Its colourful, turbulent, chequered recent past adds to the mystique, vibrance and cutting edge cool modern Berlin exudes.
And it is vast. At nine times the size of Paris, it can be a daunting prospect to navigate. Armed with a little inside knowledge though, you can get right to the heart of what makes the second largest city in the European Union really tick.
Let’s start with the must-sees and right at the top of the list has to be the city’s three global icons; the Wall, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie.
The big three are standout landmarks of the city and pivotal to its modern story.
While Berlin has its roots in the 13th century, it’s the last few hundred years where most tumult has occurred. The story of the Brandenburg Gate best symbolises the upheaval the city has endured, its divisions and ultimate reunification.
First commissioned by Frederick William II in the late 1780s, the one-time entryway leading toward the Prussian Palace, the Gate and its fortunes played a leading role in the occupation of Berlin by Napoleon’s armies, it featured in Nazi propaganda and it was ultimately where President Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the 160-kilometre barrier that divided the city from 1961 to 1989.
The end of the Cold War ultimately saw the end of the Wall and November 2019 marks 30 years since its emblematic destruction reunited East and West Berlin. Today, traces of the Wall and memorials to it can be found right across the city.
Its most famous point, Checkpoint Charlie, was the crossing between East and West and you can see it today on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße. The control booth and sandbags that were featured in so many political thrillers are still there.
Added to the must-see list of this enthralling city is the thriving central Potsdamer Platz, the Cathedrals of Gendarmenmarkt square, the world famous German parliament building, the Reichstag, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and if you’re lucky enough to be travelling in December, you must add Christmas markets to the list. Berlin is famous for its festive spirit and boasts around 60 different markets to choose from. The most famous are the Berliner Weinachtszeit at Roten Rathaus as one of the oldest and most celebrated and the WeinachtsZauber at Berlin’s most beautiful square, Gendarmenmarkt. Here, on the ancient trading post lying below stunning cathedrals and a famed concert hall, the spirit of Christmas is something to behold.
Whichever Christmas market you visit or are lucky enough to just stumble upon, expect the smell of mulled wine and roasting chestnuts to fill the air in a magical setting.
Museum Island is yet another place you must experience while you’re in this endlessly entertaining metropolis. On the river Spree, a small island boasts no less than five world class museums that warranted UNESCO to declare this unique location a World Heritage site. Heavily damaged during World War Two and later fully restored, within easy reach you can tour the Alte Nationalgalerie, Pergamonmuseum, Neus Museum, Bode-Museum and the Altes Museum.
If you are keen to venture into Berlin’s neighbourhoods to sample life as a local, start with groovy Wrangelkeiz with its funky cafes, hip bars and street art framed by gorgeous architecture. For a sense of very early Berlin, visit medieval Nikolaiviertel on the river Spree, and for the best walking trails, Alt-Treptow is flanked by forests and dams within easy reach of the major attractions.
Berlin is essentially flat so if you want to take in the views, climb 66 metres above sea level at Viktoriapark for some sweeping vistas. You can also climb to the top of the Reichstag building for inner city views and it’s worth the climb to see the dome itself with its 360 mirrors reflecting light in all directions.
For shoppers, the Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf is a magnet – a four kilometre boulevard of both upmarket retailers and downbeat boho to explore and for foodies, you can’t go past Friedrichshain in east Berlin where epicureans abound.
Why not make the most of Berlin by combining a guided small group tour of this amazing city with ample free time to go exploring on your own as well?
We have two fantastic options that showcase the best of the German capital and also include other European gems like Dresden, Leipzig, Prague, Bamberg, Nurnberg and Rothenburg.
To find out more, see our Small Group tour or Christmas Markets tour.