You’ve scheduled a full day in Berlin on your whirlwind European trip, even though you know it’s not enough time in this amazing city. But it might be the only chance you get and you’re excited to make the most of it!
When your train arrives at Berlin’s Central Station, consider leaving your bags at the station's baggage consignment service -- first upper floor, east side. This 24-hour service costs just 3 euros, and no one wants to drag a bag while sightseeing. Moreover, dropping luggage at your hotel eats into precious sightseeing hours.
Next, grab breakfast, at Caffe Ritaza inside the station to fuel up for the day.
Berlin is a flat, walkable city, and walking adds to the experience. You’ll see more at your own pace. When you’re ready to leave the station, your first stop is a 12-minute walk down Friedrich-List-Ufer and across the river Spree.
Get online and reserve a ticket months before you arrive in Berlin to access the Reichstag’s rooftop terrace and glass dome. The rooftop has a 360-degree view of Berlin, and the walkway spiraling to the top of the dome is amazing -- and accompanied by a free audio tour.
You’ll learn the Reichstag opened as the seat of government for the German Empire in 1894 and in 1933 was engulfed in a mysterious fire. Hitler, the new German chancellor, blamed it on the rival Communist party, but its origins remain a mystery today. These stories and details of the Nazis’ rise to power are covered in the Reichstag’s audio tour and photo exhibit.
Outside, you’ll see the building’s bullet-riddled facade, caused by the Russian Army’s assault in WWII’s Battle of Berlin. Near the entrance to the Security building, there are 96 cast iron plates stacked upright. The Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag commemorates Parliament members who died unnaturally from 1933 to 1945 under Hitler's rule.
Why it’s a must-see: The history of this building is also the history of Berlin from the late 19th century through today. You’ll learn how the suffering of the people of Germany after WWI set the stage for Hitler’s ascent, the vigor of the Nazi party, and WWII.
Next stop: Brandenburg Gate. Cross Scheidemannstrasse to enter the 520-acre Tiergarten, one of the most extensive urban gardens in Germany. It’s the site of many memorials and monuments, including the iconic 1873 Victory Column -- visible from the Gate.
Walk inside Tiergarten, stopping first at the Memorial to the Sinti-Roma Victims of National Socialism in a corner near the Reichstag. Enter and read the poem “Auschwitz” by Roma poet Santino Spinelli, inscribed around the edge of the dark pool at the memorial’s center.
Then continue through Tiergarten and cross Ebertstrasse to reach Brandenburg Gate. The 18th-century gate once marked the entrance to Unter den Linden Boulevard, which led to the palace of the Prussian monarchs. In the other direction, you can see the Victory Column in the green oasis of Tiergarten.
From here, walk seven minutes down Ebertstrasse to find the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. At the corner of Hannah-Ahrendt Strasse, the Holocaust Memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, is a 200,000 square -foot field of concrete slabs in varying heights.
Walking between the slabs, the sounds of the city drop away as you experience the grade slanting so you're alternately dwarfed by or looking down on them. While you're left to interpret the meaning of the design on your own, the impact of the sorrow at the memorial is immediate.
Why these are a must-see: Brandenburg Gate and the WWII Memorials represent important elements of the German Empire and the impact of the Nazis. Post-WWII, the Gate was part of the territory of East Germany and ensconced behind the Berlin Wall. It’s the site of Ronald Reagan's appeal to Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” You'll leave the area with a feel for the layers of history in this beautiful city.
Head down Hannah-Ahrendt Strasse/Franzosische Strasse 12 minutes to Gendarmenmarkt. This 17th-century square, initially created as a marketplace, holds the Konzerthaus Berlin, French Church, and German Church and hosts one of Berlin's most popular Christmas markets. Grab lunch in a cafe near the square, then head to the Berlin Cathedral on Museum Island.
Make a quick stop at Bebelplatz square on the way and look for a group of people staring at a plate of glass in the ground. They're looking at the Sunken Library, a room full of empty bookshelves symbolizing the 20,000 books burned on May 10, 1933, by order of the Nazis.
Continue for eight minutes along Unter-den-Linden Boulevard to the Berliner Dom and Museum Island on the Spree River. You can spend an hour or two here, so choose one place to dive into.
Your options include the Berliner Dom, once the court church of the rulers of Prussia and German Emperors. For the 7 euro cost of admission, you can tour the main nave with its massive dome, the underground crypts, and walk up to the dome's outer walkway for panoramic views.
Alternatively, visit one of the five museums on the island: the Pergamon, Bode, Neues, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Altes museums. Each museum's collections are distinctive and unique, so pick the one that appeals to you most. One-day ticket prices vary by museum from 10 to 18 euros.
The Pergamon collection includes the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The Neues museum’s Egyptian collection includes the Bust of Nefertiti. You can also enjoy the gardens and sculptures on the grounds of the island.
Why these are a must-see: Berlin has invested large sums to the restoration of these buildings, including the Berliner Dom, after the extensive damage they suffered in WWII. Any of the collections on Museum Island would be amazing to see while you're in Berlin.
The final must-see -- the Berlin Wall Memorial -- is a 28-minute walk starting at the Friedrichsbrucke (Friedrichs Bridge.) Since this is the longest walk, treat yourself to a break mid-way at Barn Cafe Coffee Roasters just before reaching Koppenplatz.
The nearly one square-mile open-air exhibit runs along Bernauer Strasse on a former border strip and includes a 200-foot segment of the original outer wall. Created in 1998 by the city of Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany, the memorial commemorates the 1961 to 1989 division of Berlin and the deaths that occurred there.
There’s still a Watch Tower standing in the “death strip” between the inner and outer wall. You can see the escape tunnels East Germans dug to escape and the crumbling basement walls of a house that stood along the wall. The windows of buildings along the wall were eventually bricked over by the GDR to keep people from escaping.
There is a Wall of Remembrance filled with photos of people killed while attempting to escape, plus the Chapel of Reconciliation. The chapel was built on the site of the Reconciliation Church, which was once inside the inner and outer walls. Eventually blown up by the GDR, its foundation is still visible.
You can touch crumbling sections of the inner wall, now painted with colorful graffiti and covered in vines. It was between Bernauer Strasse and Eberswalder Strasse that the first segments of the wall came down in November 1989.
If your time permits, see the Visitor and Documentation Centers on the West Berlin side of Bernauer Strasse to learn more.
Why this is a must-see: When the wall came down it had a global impact that reaches to the present day. So, after seeing the Nazi and WWII side of Berlin, you need to see what came after: the wall. At the memorial, you can see, and maybe feel, the triumph of freedom when the wall came down.