No tour of Germany is complete without a visit to the reunited and revitalized Berlin. Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the rebirth of a great European capital. Today, as we enjoy the thrill of walking over what was the Wall and through the well-patched Brandenburg Gate, it’s clear that history is not contained in some book, but is an exciting story happening today.
As I walk to Berlin’s long-dreamed-of “Kulturforum.” Here the city’s vast collection of art treasures — scattered awkwardly between east and west for 50 years — is reuniting. The Kulturforum’s Gemäldegalerie is Germany’s top collection of 13th- through 18th-century European paintings (over 1,400 canvases), beautifully displayed in a building that is a work of art in itself. These days, Eastern Berlin’s newest attraction is a stroll along this pedestrian-friendly riverbank, as the city incorporates the river thoughtfully into a people-friendly cityscape.
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The last 20 years have taken Berlin through a frenzy of rebuilding. While the emerging new city paves over much of Berlin’s past, the fascinating Museum of The Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, featuring the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors, throws a thoughtful searchlight on the country’s troubled times. A few yards away from Checkpoint Charlie, on Zimmerstrasse, a double row of cobbles marks where the Wall once stood. These innocuous cobbles run throughout the city, tracing the former Wall’s path.
A very long block away is a surviving stretch of Wall on Wilhelmstrasse. When it fell, the Wall was literally carried away by the euphoria. What survived has been nearly devoured by more than two decades of persistent “Wall peckers.” The park behind this chunk of Wall marks the site of the command center of Hitler’s Gestapo and SS (explained throughout by English plaques). It’s been left as rubble as a memorial to the tyranny once headquartered here.
The best things to do in Berlin:
1. Check out the art in Tacheles
This colourful building has an equally colourful history. It was once a Trade Union HQ, a department store, and a Nazi prison. The run down building was weeks away from demolition when it was taken over by an artists’ collective. Its walls are now covered in the work of hundreds of artists, and its grounds filled with an unbelievable collection of reclaimed objects (including a military helicopter). Aside from art you’ll also find cool bars and regular music and theatre events.
2. Visit the Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate
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To get an idea of Berlin’s Prussian past, it’s definitely worth visitng Unter den Linden. This tree-lined avenue is home to many grand buildings including the Staatsoper, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the famous statue of Frederick, and the imposing Neo-Classical pillars of the Humboldt University. At the western end you will also see one of Berlin’s most famous views; the great green expanse of the Tiergarten framed by the iconic Brandenburg Gate (which once separated the East and West).
3. Grab a coffee (or a cocktail) in Hackesche Höfe
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These painstakingly restored courtyards are the place to be seen in Berlin. Popular with both tourists and hip locals, the aesthetically pleasing complex of courtyards are the largest of its kind in Germany. The complex was built in the late 18th/early 19th century and now it’s Moorish inspired main courtyard is home to stylish bars and cafes and is a great place to kick off a fun night out. Also try the other courtyards for more great bars and restaurants, boutique shops, a cinema and a theatre.
4. See the Reichstag
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Being positioned at the centre of Germany’s tumultuous 20th century naturally gives this highly controversial building a huge historical interest, in addition to its aesthetic appeal. Now fully restored, the entrance is free and you can even peer down from the dome onto the debates below. It is a very popular attraction so get there early if you want to look inside as the queues can get eye wateringly long.
5. Try the food
The food in Berlin is hearty fayre and when here you’ll want to sample some of the local delicacies. For a quick snack try the ever present Currywurst (Geman sausage with curry sauce) or one of the fresh giant pretzels which seem to be sold at every street corner. If you sit down at a restaurant you’ll be treated to lovingly prepared and exceptionally presented meals mostly consisting of meat, potatoes, cold cuts, cheese and fresh fruit and salad. Oh and don’t even think about leaving without trying the German sweet potato pancakes.
Also read: Where to eat in Berlin
6. See the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
In the east of the city you’ll find many older buildings still pock-marked with bullet holes and shrapnel scars. This striking church on the Kurfurstendamm acts as both a fascinating reminder, and a poignant memorial of Berlin’s recent troubled history. Dating from the 1890s the church was severely damaged by allied raids in 1943, and its bombed spire has been left standing as a pacifist monument, while a new, and spectacular, church was built around the ruins.
7. Visit Museum Island
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When you find your flights to Berlin you will definitely want to add this place to your list. This internationally renowned museum complex is located on an island in the middle of Berlin’s river, the Spree. There are, incredibly, five museums, each of them worthy of many hours of wandering, covering the entire history of Western art. Absolutely essential is the Altes Nationalgalerie, which has a knockout collection of German Old Masters; Dürer, Cranach and Holbein (the Mattaus, Sammer and Beckenbauer of Medieval painting). All are well represented, and there is no better place to see the highest points of the nation’s art.
8. Visit Checkpoint Charlie and Checkpoint Charlie Museum
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An essential stop on the Berlin tourist trail, the former and most infamous city checkpoint is a fascinating and poignant visitor attraction. The check point was the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point which divided East Berlin and West Berlin during the cold war and tragically many people’s lives were lost here trying to cross the barrier. The Checkpoint Charlie museum is also worth a visit and exhibits an extensive collection of real-life stories, propaganda and memorabilia from the time of Berlin’s occupation and division by the Allied Forces.
9. Experience the East Side Gallery
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The East Side Gallery is the longest preserved stretch of the former Berlin. The Berlin Wall East Side Gallery is a 1.3km-long section of the famous wall located near the centre of Berlin. Artists from all over the world have covered the memorial for freedom in 106 paintings, making it the largest open-air gallery in the world. Although some of the gallery paintings have seen better days it’s still definitely worth a visit.
10. The Topography of Terror exhibit
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They illustrates SS tactics (in the ruins of the former SS/Gestapo headquarters, near what was Checkpoint Charlie. The adjacent four small “mountains” are made from the rubble of the bombed-out city. The chilling Book Burning Monument commemorates the 20,000 books that were burned on Berlin’s Bebelplatz at the order of the Nazis. Glance into the glass floor in the middle of the square (on Unter den Linden) to see a huge underground room with empty shelves. The gripping Käthe Kollwitz Museum is filled with art inspired by the horrors of Berlin’s Nazi experience. Berlin’s New Synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht in 1938, but has since been restored. The excellent Jewish Museum Berlin, which focuses on Jewish culture, was designed by the American architect Daniel Libeskind. The zigzag shape of the zinc-walled building is pierced by voids, symbolic of the irreplaceable cultural loss caused by the Holocaust. In nearby Wannsee (near Potsdam), you can tour the house where Hitler’s cronies came up with the “Final Solution” of the Holocaust.
12. Berlin’s Jewish Memorial
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The memorial consists of 2,711 gravestone-like pillars. Completed in 2005, it is the first formal German government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. The pillars are made of hollow concrete, each chemically coated for easy removal of graffiti. The number of pillars, symbolic of nothing, is simply how many fit on the provided land. Is it a labyrinth…symbolic cemetery. Inentionally disorienting? The meaning is entirely up to the visitor. The memorial’s location — where the Berlin Wall once stood — is coincidental. It’s just a place where lots of people can easily experience it. The bunker of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was discovered during the work and left buried (under t The Wall’s most iconic sight, of course, is the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1791, it is the last survivor of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin, and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. It sat unused, part of a sad circle dance of concrete and barbed wire, for more than 28 years. When I’m there, I like to pause a minute and think about struggles for freedom — past and present; there’s a special room built into the gate for this very purpose.The northeast corner of the memorial). Hitler’s bunker is just 200 yards away, under a nondescript parking lot.
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Open in 1936 for the Olympics, the 74,000-seat stadium underwent a major and long overdue refitting for the 2006 World Cup, including better seats and a roof over the whole lot. Home of Hertha BSC, it also hosts the German Cup Final, Transport U2 Olympia-Stadion or S5 Olympiastadion The Olympiastadion Berlin is one of the most popular sites in Berlin. The Olympiastadion Berlin holds many surprises for you. Our specially schooled tour guides will show you areas of the stadium that are usually not open to the public and elaborate on the history, architecture and technology of the Olympiastadion at close range.
Where to stay
Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin, Elegantly Restored on the Pariser Platz – Berlin, Germany Film fans will enjoy this slice of German history; the original hotel was where Greta Garbo met MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, launching her American film career. The 304 rooms and 78 suites were refurbished in 2006, and present guests with spacious, sleek and comfortable spaces, all equipped with satellite TV, internet facilities and cell phones rather than land lines.
Tip: With so many things to do in Berlin, there’s no excuse for staying in at night. The capital is renowned for its nightlife and offers everything from banging techno to traditional live German bands. In fact it’s impossible to walk through Berlin without finding a pub, a bar, a theatre, a cinema or a disco. The trendy Mitte District (which is also home to many great Berlin hotels and also plenty of excellent Berlin Holiday Apartments) is a good place to start but other areas offering lively nightlife include Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, and Kreuzberg.