With its unique history, Berlin is a city like no other. A broke metropolis at the end of the First World War, Berlin began to thrive in the Twenties leading the way in avant-garde art, music and literature. With Hitler’s rise to power, the city became the base for the Third Reich. After the Second World War, Berlin found itself occupied by the Allies and embroiled in the Cold War. The city was further divided with the erection of the Berlin Wall that cut it through its heart. From a crumbling city after the Cold War, Berlin rose from its ashes as the Wall fell in 1989. The iconic images of Berliners celebrating the reunification are famous around the world representing the dawn of a new era for Germany.
Even with its rich history, Berlin is a budding city in so many ways. Its youthful energy and free education programs draw enthusiastic millennials across the world; leading to many innovations in art and science. Whether you’re coming for the history or culture, or you are attracted by the uber cool underground art scene, there is a lot to do. In fact, the city is massive and it’s hard to cover it all in a few weeks let alone a few days. We tried to make the best of our four days there by focusing on the landmarks around the central borough; the rest will have to wait for another trip. Here are a few things we did while in Berlin:
1. Walking Tour – Start your visit off with the Sandemans FREE walking tour. We had a great tour guide who showed us the major landmarks like the Brandenburg gate and the Holocaust Memorial around the central area. The guide was funny and informative, providing us a condensed version of the city’s history along with many hilarious anecdotes. It really is a great way to see and learn about a new city.
Cost: Free + tip
2. Oberbaumn Bridge – This double-decker bridge over the River Spree is one of Berlin’s prettiest bridges with its unique towers and arched walkways. Today the bridge is an important symbol of Berlin’s unity linking Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, two boroughs that were divided by the Wall. The renovated bridge has traffic and pedestrians on the lower level, while the U-Bahn trains run across the top. Take a stroll across the bridge on your way to see the East Side Gallery.
3. East Side Gallery – There are a lot of street arts in Berlin, and most of it is concentrated in the infamous East Side Gallery; the last remaining section of the wall that divided the city. Now this area acts as a canvas, drawing artists from all over the world to the German capital, leaving their mark. Take a walk along the open air gallery and admire the vibrant and stirring works on display.
4. Hug a Bear – When visiting Berlin, you’ll quickly discover these adorable bear statues throughout the city. What started as an idea of bringing art into the streets of Berlin, blossomed into something so much bigger. Each Buddy Bear has its own individual design created by artists around the world. Kim and I decided to play a game to see how many bears we can spot while walking around Berlin. The first one to spot the bear got to take a picture with it.
5. Neue Heimat – Venture out a little further to the raw urban space of Neue Heimat. Transformed out of an old railway station, this old industrial area is so much more than just a flee market; it is gritty, interesting, and down to earth. Follow the sound of music down the abandoned alleyways, and you’ll find many hidden bars and beer gardens filled with comfortable lounge chairs and bean bags. It’s a chill atmosphere and great place to relax and hang out with your friends. When you are hungry, walk over to the many food stands serving anything from currywurst to tacos.
6. Tiergarten – Located in the middle of Berlin is Tiergarten, the largest urban public park. Like other great parks, this green space serves as an important escape for people in the city to immerse themselves in nature. Berliners often meet here to relax, picnic, and play games. We eventually made it to Tiergarten on our last day in Berlin. We walked for an hour, and only made it about a third of the way through. During our stroll, we found a small pond where we proceeded to pose for silly pictures with the umbrella.
7. Lecture at the Reichstag – The Reichstag is the seat of the German parliament and one of its historical landmarks. The most famous feature of the building is the large glass roof dome at the top with a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The public are allowed to visit the building if they’ve registered in advance for a tour. Amongst the options for our visit was a 45 minute lecture held in the visitors’ gallery overlooking the plenary chamber followed by a visit to the dome. The lecture gave a brief history of the building and some background on the German government.
This spectacular building has quite a storied and controversial past from its contentious renovation to the the famous Reichstag fire that helped usher Hitler to power. Interestingly, Hitler never used the building, preferring to hold his parliamentary sessions elsewhere. During the war over a million bullets were fired at the building, and you call still see the walls pockmarked by bullet holes and covered in Cyrillic graffiti—faded but meticulously preserved. Sitting in the plenary chamber, one of the things you’ll notice is all of the natural light from the roof that radiates into the parliament below, it is supposed to symbolize transparency in governance.
A few things to keep in mind: make sure you sign up months in advance, the tour fills up quickly. Don’t forget to bring a photo ID and confirmation letter when you visit. Even though you can just sign up for the dome visit, the lecture is worth the time. Our lecturer was very funny with trademark dry German humor.
8. BERLINER FERNSEHTURM – The TV tower, located in Alexanderplatz is the tallest building in Berlin and also one of its most popular attractions. A quick elevator ride to the top will give you uninterrupted views of the entire city below. For decades, this tower stood as the symbol of socialism in East Germany, now it is the center of the unified country. Make sure to buy tickets ahead of time to avoid the long wait times. While waiting for your allotted time to go up the TV tower, walk over to the Panoramic Inn and have a drink on the rooftop.
9. Museum Island – The Museum Island, a UNESCO heritage site at the northern tip of Spree Island is the cultural heart of Berlin. The museums are designed in a way to connect the buildings with the art it houses. The five museums are renowned worldwide containing many magnificent works of art from the Pergamon Altar to the Ishtar Gate of Babylon to the infamous bust of Queen Nefertiti. Even if you’re not a museum buff, a walk around the island is a must. There are many market stalls around where you can buy handmade crafts.
10. Berliner Dom – The Cathedral of Berlin is the largest church in the city attracting thousands of visitors every year from Germany and abroad. The exquisite exterior is modeled in baroque style architecture with a large dome tower as the focal point. Visitors can pay a small entrance fee to visit the interior and climb up the 270 steps to get a spectacular view of Museum island and the surrounding areas. You can also lie out on the lawn and take in the the view and listen to the bells toll.
Cost: €7.00 entrance fee
11. Festivals – Berlin has many festivals throughout the year. We were there during the Karneval der Kulturen (Carnival of Cultures), a four-day urban festival celebrating diversity. During KdK, the public spaces get transformed into a stage for world-renowned and up-and-coming bands, artists, and performers. The streets are shut down and thousands of people came out to enjoy the food and live music. If you don’t mind the crowd, come out and celebrate like a local.