Berlin, the capital of Germany, is a quirky mix of history and vibrant modern life.
If you’re looking for elegant restaurants, upscale shopping, and lively bars, Berlin offers an abundance. Potsdamer Platz has all of that, right in the center of the city.
But everywhere in Berlin are stark reminders of the violence of World War II, the wrenching reality of the Holocaust, and the oppression of a regime that built a wall to divide the city, cruelly separating families and friends. Sometimes the history is so dense that it converges, such as at the Topography of Terror museum. Here you can immerse yourself in World War II and the Cold War, and then walk around the corner to the famous Checkpoint Charlie that was once a guard post on the Berlin Wall.
Despite its dark history, Berlin is a beautiful place. Green areas and more than 100 miles of waterways cover the city. Take a boat ride on the Spree and glide along peacefully. Settle on a park bench under a canopy of trees. But be aware that sooner or later, you will be drawn into the streets where that history happened.
It helps to know in advance what you will be seeing and where you want to go, especially if you have only a short time to explore Berlin. Fortunately, the city is home to an efficient transportation system and many choices to get from point A to point B, so you’ll be able to fit a lot of sightseeing into a short visit.
Here are nine things to know before your first trip to bustling Berlin.
1. The Reichstag Should Be At The Top Of Your List
If you have even a limited time in Berlin, put the Reichstag at the top of your itinerary. So much of the city is represented in this stately building, with its layers of old and shiny new. Built in 1894, the Reichstag housed the government until a fire in 1933 destroyed part of the building. During World War II, it was the scene of fierce fighting as Russian troops moved to conquer the city.
The damaged structure languished during Soviet rule. After the Berlin Wall fell, the unified German government moved into the Reichstag, and the interior of the building was modernized. As you tour, you will see the original parts of the structure — including a wall where Russian bullet holes are on display — and the contemporary rebuilt areas. A huge glass dome added in 1995, a symbol of transparency and beauty, dominates the Berlin skyline.
Pro Tip: You will want to order tickets before you leave home. Go online and submit your request for either the current or following month. If you wait until you arrive in Berlin, you will likely be disappointed. After a 90-minute tour of the interior, you will be free to enter the dome and enjoy the views of the city.
2. The Brandenburg Gate Symbolizes The City
The Brandenburg Gate symbolizes Berlin. It towers above the center of the city, and you can walk under it from either direction. It dates to 1791 and was modeled on the Acropolis in Athens. In recent history, the gate was damaged during World War II and then caught in no-man’s-land when the Berlin Wall went up. For years, the historic gate stood with its passage blocked, visible but abandoned. Now it’s repaired and open once again to the public.
Pro Tip: You will see the Brandenburg Gate from many vantage points in central Berlin. If you want to get up close and take your time studying this marvel, plan to go early in the morning before the crowds arrive. You can get a fantastic view of the sculpture atop the gate when you visit the Reichstag dome.
3. You’ll Be Moved By The Berlin Wall Memorial
The infamous Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Cold War, stood for about 28 years, dividing East Berlin and West Berlin. The city, split as a result of World War II, was in the middle of Soviet East Germany. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to isolate the Americans, French, and British in the western part of the city. The double line of the wall zigged and zagged for 96 miles. A guard tower that once stood in the no-man’s-land between the two parallel sections is a chilling sight you can still see today.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, marking the end of East German oppression and making reunification of the city possible. Most of it was knocked down right away by jubilant Berliners, but a section along Bernauer Strasse was kept intact and is known today as the Berlin Wall Memorial. This is where you will want to go to understand better what happened here. Photos of those lost in their bid to escape the East line the street. You can still see indentations in the grass where a 230-foot tunnel was dug to provide an escape for dozens of people.
Visit the open-air memorial, and then cross the street to the five-story observation tower to get an overview of the wall’s history. A documentation center across from the memorial has exhibits on the construction of the wall and other details that may interest you.
Allow at least 2 hours to peruse the remnants of the wall and the various memorials, such as the twisted metal cross from a church that burned because it was caught in no-man’s-land. You will be moved, and your time here may be emotional, but you will certainly want to visit.
4. You’ll Find Traces Of The Berlin Wall Throughout The City
Pieces of the Berlin Wall sit scattered throughout Berlin, and the route of the wall is marked along some streets by a double row of cobblestones.
Notice the crosses and photos that pay tribute to those who died trying to escape. One of these memorials is on the sidewalk across the river from the Reichstag. This one is in remembrance of those who jumped into the river, thinking they were leaping to freedom. The line actually went through the middle of the river, though, so they were killed in the water.
5. Museum Island Offers Cultural Experiences
Five world-class museums occupy Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The most visited is the Pergamon Museum, which displays classical Greek and Roman art. The Roman Pergamon Altar is the museum’s most famous holding. This frieze depicts a battle between giants and gods.
Read up on the museums and what they have to offer before your trip. You will likely want to choose one to focus on and spend a half day there. The smaller museums in this area are also worth visiting. For example, the DDR Museum detailing daily life in Soviet East Berlin is weird and fascinating.
Pro Tip: I chose to spend some time at the German Historical Museum next to Museum Island. The displays on World War II were excellent. Know before you go what interests you most so that you don’t get museum overload.
6. The Berlin Cathedral Is One Of The City’s Finest Works Of Architecture
A visit to the impressive Berlin Cathedral is a great way to see architectural splendor in Berlin. With its magnificent dome, the cathedral is a landmark in the city. It’s located at the border of Museum Island, with the Spree flowing nearby.
The baroque-style Berlin Cathedral dates to 1905. Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to build a cathedral to rival Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London — and he did. The Berlin Cathedral is the largest Protestant church in the area, and it’s well worth touring.
Pro Tip: If you are able to handle stairs, climb the 267 steps to the dome. Then take in breathtaking views of Berlin as you wind around the outside platform.
7. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial Is A Must-Visit
Plan to spend at least a half hour at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which is down the street from the Brandenburg Gate. It’s made of plain cement blocks, or stelae, laid out in neat rows on undulating ground. Officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, this unusual site is a must-see in Berlin.
Walk up and down the rows of blocks, and then make your way to the farthest point off the street and tour the underground information center. Unless you know it’s there, it’s easy to miss. This museum offers a look at the Holocaust and is dedicated to the Jews who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
8. The Tiergarten Is The Perfect Place To Relax
After a day spent at some of the more sober sights of the city, plan to refresh in one of Berlin’s many parks. When you think of Berlin, you probably think of imposing historic architecture mixed with gleaming contemporary buildings. But nearly a fifth of the city is covered with trees, lawns, and plants. Berlin boasts more than 2,500 public parks and gardens.
The largest of these parks, the Tiergarten, is the perfect place to relax. It is an oasis of greenery and ponds amidst modern buildings of glass and chrome. The Tiergarten is also home to the Berlin Zoo. It’s located near the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, so you may find yourself walking along its borders as you sightsee. At some point, head inside along the pleasant paths, sit on a bench, and relax.
Look for the tall Victory Column with its winged statue, as well as the memorial to composers Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.
9. There Are Many Great Transportation Options
Berlin offers a variety of transportation options, all clean and efficient. Many of the major sights are within walking distance of each other. But you can venture out from the center of the city easily. Choices include the S-Bahn (train), the underground, buses, and trams. Check the official Berlin website for more information on each of these.
When I visited, I arrived by S-Bahn. I then took various kinds of transport to get to different places in the city. I bought a Berlin Welcome Card, which provides access to free transportation on all of these options. It was simple to figure out the fastest way to get somewhere and hop on it.
Be sure to purchase tickets or have your Welcome Card ready, even though the trains, trams, and buses have no barriers. Once you are on, ticket takers may come by, and the fine is hefty if you are caught without a ticket.
If you are coming in or leaving by plane, you can enjoy the new airport opened in the fall of 2020, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport. S-Bahn trains run from the airport to the center of Berlin and back, making getting to and departing from the city very easy.
Berlin has a rich heritage and an unmistakably trendy vibe. You could easily fill several days with fascinating activities. Or you could hit the ground running and see all you can in a weekend. If you have more time, plan a day trip to lovely Potsdam and its palace. History buffs should take the short train ride to Sachsenhausen to spend a day at its Holocaust memorial and museum. With all the comforts of a modern city and countless ways to delve into the past, Berlin is a place to make memories that will stay with you for years to come.