Germany is known for its historical significance, its contrasting liberal and conservative mindsets, its prosperity and its love for beer, wine & football. Its edgy, vibrant capital reflects all those things.
Berlin is definitely poised to be Europe’s next international “destination city”. The revered platform that holds cities like London and Paris needs to make room for one more! Filled with history, rich with culture & progressively liberal, Berlin’s versatility is attracting more and more travellers each year. The mounting number of young dwellers and visitors are testament to the fact that this once dull capital of Germany has quickly become a hub for all the things that make big cities popular- shopping, partying, arts by unconventional artists, youth culture, studying etc. And of course, everything here is conducted with perfect German efficiency!
But this was not always how it used to be. Remnants of Germanys’ troubled past are still scattered around the city. Berlin has been united and divided a number of times through history. It was first the capital of 2 merged trading posts (Brandenburg-Prussia) in 1701, as a result of which it flourished. More success was seen in 1871, during the industrial revolution, as commercial giants emerged, and it was proclaimed capital of a united “Deutschland”. In 1900 after WWI, Berlin suffered a massive set back, along with the rest of Germany in the form of a huge economic crisis. Just when it was getting back on its feet, WWII struck in the 1930’s and Berlin served as the seat of Nazi power. As a result, the city suffered greatly from Russian invasions, British bomb attacks and feuding nations who hoped to establish their rule there. In 1945, the city was split and allotted to 4 victorious countries. The three western allies, Britain, USA and France, introduced a separate state of sorts in West Berlin, with its own currency and administration. In response the Soviet Union, who was in power in East Berlin, blockaded West Berlin, leaving airlifts as the only way to get food and supplies into the city. However, the economic conditions in the west were far superior to that of the east due to huge influx of capital from its allies. The famous wall was built in 1961, to avoid the drain of skilled labor from east to the attractive west, but it quickly became a symbol of cold war between the opposing ruling countries. And so this state of tension existed until the people of Berlin, who had had enough, finally tore down the wall in 1990. In 1991 a unification treaty was signed and unified Berlin was made the official capital of Germany.
Today it is no longer shackled by its past, it works hard to overcome its set backs and continues to reinvent itself as THE city of the future.
What to See & do
There is a LOT to see in Berlin. Therefore, I recommend taking one of the open bus, hop-on-hop-off tours. They cover all the important sights and are fairly flexible, featuring different routes, which take you to different parts of the city, beyond that which is easily accessible. The passes are usually valid for 2-3 days, which leaves you enough time to investigate, in detail, all the places of interest you wish to explore. If you do not wish to cover it all, and would like to stay local to a specific area there are plenty of walking tours available. Specific sights of interest include (in order of my preferences):
- The Brandenburg gate: possibly the most famous symbol of Berlin, the neo-classical gate stands on what used to be the East-West divide. It served as a crossing point during the time of the Berlin Wall. On top of the monument, there is a beautiful statue of a crowned, winged goddess in a horse drawn chariot. See it at night too, when the gate is lit up dramatically. On the east of the gate is Unter den Linden and on the west is Strasse des 17 Juni, both great avenues to walk down.
- Unter den linden: my favorite avenue in berlin! The name means “lined with lime trees”, this beautiful avenue is packed with important sights and buildings all along it. It starts from the east of the Brandenburg Gate and as you head down it, you pass numerous shops, embassy buildings, operas, the Deutsche Guggenheim museum and the Humboldt University with Bebeplatz and the book burning memorial right opposite it. The avenue stretches to the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) in the Spree River and ends at the needle shaped TV tower and World Clock in AlexanderPlatz.
- A piece of history: to get a feel of berlin’s past visit:
- East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain: which has the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall (1.3kms). The wall is filled with graffiti with interesting interpretations and messages.
- Berliner Mauer Dokumentationszentrum: a memorial containing somber reminders of the days of the Wall. It has a section of the wall, clippings of newspapers, old radio station listening bites, photos of the surrounding areas before and during the life of wall, as well as eyewitness testimonies. Climb the tower to look down on the re-creation of no man’s land.
- Check point Charlie: this used to be the site of a US check-post between the American and Russian sectors of Berlin. During the Cold War, Russian and U.S. troops stood at this divide with cannons facing each other, ready to fire, for days on end! Today the area is a lighthearted re-creation of what it used to be. You can have your passport stamped here, to say you visited and crossed Checkpoint Charlie. The Haus em Checkpoint Charlie has tales of spectacular escape attempts made by locals during the time of the Wall and is definitely worth a visit.
- Hitler’s bunker and Topographie des Terrors: Built on the former site of the SS and Gestapo head quarters, the latter is definitely not for the faint hearted, as the museum displays shocking texts and graphic images of the monstrosities that occurred during Hitler’s reign.
- Museumsinsel: an island on the Spree River, which has all of Berlin’s important museums. One could spend an entire day visiting all the museums here, but if you have time to do only 1 or 2, I recommend the Berliner Dom (berlin cathedral), the Pergamonmuseum and the Neues Museum with the Egyptian exhibit containing the famous bust of Nefertiti. Other museums include the Old national Gallery (altes Nationalgalarie) and the German History Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum).
- Reichstag area: the glass dome of the House of Parliament (Reichstag) is a huge attraction to visitors. The building itself is gorgeous too. You can visit the top of the dome but be prepared for long queues (alternatively if it’s the view your after, book a table at the Kafer roof top restaurant to avoid the queues. The food is average for the price they charge). The Holocaust Memorial near the Reichstag consists of 2711 differently shaped concrete columns, spread over 19,000 sq meters. It can be entered from anywhere to get different perspectives; it’s like a somber maze as you walk through. Be sure to visit the underground information center, which usually has English tours on Sundays at 4pm.
- Tiergarten: walking distance from Reichstag, this is berlin’s central park- only larger with more points of interest. The garden in the middle of the city has many museums and exhibition centers like the House of World Cultures (Has der Kulturen der Welt), the Bauhaus Archiv displaying modernist objects from the Bahuas School of art and the Museums of Medieval and Modern Art (Gemaldegalerie and Nue Nationalgalerie). If you are short on time however, I wouldn’t recommend visiting these, as the museums on Berlins museum island are far more interesting. The Tiergarten is also home to the berlin zoo and the Victory Column (Siegessaule), at the mouth of Strasse ded 17 Juni, with its golden angel on top. You can climb to the top to see the view.
- Other sites include: Hackescher Markt (complex of shops, lively cafes, restaurants and apartments), Potsdamer Platz (with the Sony center, Europe’s fastest lift to the 100M high Panorama observation deck, filmmuseum, casinos restaurants and office buildings), the Jewish- German history museum and the Stasi Museum.
Where to Stay, Eat and Party
- Personally I am not a big fan of German food and for all those who share my sentiment there’s good news, Berlin isn’t restrictive at all! Berliners love to eat out and the culinary experiences in the city reflect that. Multiple international cuisines are easy to find; the food is affordable and the atmosphere relaxed. It is also a snackers delight- Turkish kebab, Currywurst (Berlin’s special sausage roll), Greek gyro, Chinese Imbiss and Italian food stalls line the city in good weather. Restaurants are easy to find and should usually depend on the area you are in for the day. Some recommendations include (in order of my preference):
- My number 1 pick is the food court at the KaDeWe ($$). You’ll find everything from a high-end oyster bar to authentic French Crepes and Swiss chocolate. It can get really crowded so it’s best to go on off hours.
- Cookies Cream ($$): a must try for vegetarians serves delicious and creative veg food like Parmesan dumplings with cilantro and carrots etc.
- Facil ($$$): high end fine dining by Michelin star chef Michael Kempf. Great location.
- Mo’s falafel ($): hole in the wall but excellent falafel.
- Curry 36 ($): infamous Berlin currywurst
- Monsieur Vuong ($): excellent Vietnamese food
- Bar Raval ($$): Spanish. Best Spanish omlette!
- For your stay you can choose between the east and west sides. Although Mitte (city center) is the center of all the action and is where you’d want to be. The hotels are a little more expensive here but with good searching you can find great deals. We stayed at the Arcotel John F Berlin, which is located right opposite Museum Island (that would make it the east side) and is walking distance from all the main attractions and tourist hot spots. It offers superb 4 star type accommodation for a phenomenal value (rooms start from 70 euro per night in winter!). The Hotel itself is a sleek, cosmopolitan business hotel with nearly 190 rooms but yet has a boutique feel. The room designs are modern, well designed and snazzy, fitted with the latest technology and great arty furniture. The service is excellent and the Town Bar is a good place to have an evening drink. The breakfast served at the Foreign Affairs restaurant is also excellent and well thought through, with most international breakfast requirements on the menu. There is a Starbucks across the back. The location of this hotel also makes it a winner as it tucked away in a quiet by-street yet close to most interesting points.
- If its clubs and bars your after Berlin is the right place for you. There’s a club or bar for every night of the year here! Music is mainly techno and house but there are also plenty of other options available. Check local listing to know what’s on. Try
- Watergate: Watergate is a 3 floor techno music club which enjoys a terrace overlooking the river Spree.
- Cookies: right on top of cookies cream restaurant this glam club has underground house and disco in its central room, plus a more varied playlist, from indie to hip-hop, in its smaller second room.
- Ashpalt: New York style chic club…plays some hip hop.
- Soju- Korean micro bar
- Bar Tausend- one of Berlin’s hottest bars
Where to shop
Berlin’s shopping scene way out did any expectations I had of it. Every well-known, big brand has a flagship store here. The malls put some of London and Paris’s biggest names to shame! Stuff is not as expensive as the rest of Western Europe, and everything is VAT refundable. My favorite places to shop include:
- KaDeWe: over 100 years old, this place is an institution in Berlin. It is to Berlin, what Harrods and Selfridges is to London. The largest department store in continental Europe, it stocks quite an impressive range of high-end designers and fun young fashion labels. The food court on top is the main attraction and I haven’t seen or tasted anything like it in all my travels!
- Galleries Lafayette: the chic Parisian mall chain has a branch in Berlin. Think Bloomingdales NYC, only with a more European feel. Check out its basement for Department Store CABINET.
- These two should cover all your shopping needs but if its boutiques you are after you can try SOTO for excellent men’s street wear, Happy Shop for great clothes in happy colors J, LaLa Berlin for women’s wear, Darklands for men’s clothing- it’s the exact opposite of the happy shop- there’s not a glimmer of color here.
- It has 2 major airports so make sure you know where you are landing
- It is well connected to all of Europe by train.
- Berlin is cheaper than most of Western Europe but more expensive then most of central and Eastern Europe, so plan accordingly.
- Getting around in Berlin is easy. Cabs are easily available and can be called by any museum, hotel and restaurant (spotting one on the street may be difficult at certain times of day, but there are taxi stands next to popular attractions). The Berlin Welcome card offers free public transport through its excellent metro, tram and bus systems. Getting around on bicycles is also a fun and easy.
- Internet access is mostly free and easy to find
- Party your heart out! Don’t expect too much sleep