Everyone can name those beloved European cities frequented by world travelers: London, Rome and Paris. It’s about time we add Berlin to this esteemed list. With a population over 3.7 million, Berlin is the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany and the largest city in the European Union with an endless list of best things to do in Berlin.
This central European capital is not only renowned for its political clout in the EU and on the world stage, it’s also a recognized center for science, culture, sports, education and research, with world-class research centers, universities, sporting events and museums.
A thriving urban center, Berlin embraces varied lifestyles with an energetic daytime pulse and a vibrant nightlife richly deserving its nickname as “the city that never sleeps.”
I visited Berlin less than a decade after reunification of both the city and the nation of Germany. It was a joy seeing it teem with life, free of the barriers dividing East from West.
While there are a host of venues to take in while visiting, there are also activities that should be almost mandatorily enjoyed if you really want to experience the Berlin that captivates the heart. Here are my recommendations for the best things to do in Berlin.
Visit the Jewish Museum
Berlin’s Jewish Museum opened in 2001 as the largest Jewish Museum in Europe. Covering over 3,500 square meters of floor space, the museum provides a new focus on the history of Jews in Germany from the Middle Ages to the present using a variety of media including scenography.
A visit to this poignant museum should not be missed as it’s a study of Jewish culture in Germany that highlights their artistic and cultural contributions as well as their tremendous sacrifices. Elements of two of the connected three buildings are specifically designed to provoke emotional and contemplative acknowledgement and understanding of the thee paths of Jewish life in Germany: their continuity in German history, emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust.
Explore Museum Island
Museum Island sits in the historic center of Berlin in middle of the Spree River and is aptly named for the for the number of museums and historic structures on the island. The Altes, Neues, Bode, and Pergamon Museums, Berlin Cathedral, Lustgarten, and the Alte Nationalgalerie make up the Museum Island complex.
Several museums have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.
The name of this museum translates as New Museum and was completely renovated over the past few years after being destroyed in 1945 in the fall of Berlin.
The Neues was the second museum built on Museum Island, serving as an extension of the Altes Museum. Here you can admire interesting treasures from different and distant historical eras such as objects from Troy, the remains of European Neanderthals and Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
The name literally means Old Museum. This Karl Friedrich Schinkel building was built from 1825 to 1830 and is considered a major work of German Neoclassical architecture. It is encompassed by several iconic structures: the Berlin Cathedral to the east, the Zeughaus to the west, and the Berlin Palace to the south.
Since 1904, the museum has solely housed the collection of Classical Antiquities known as the Antikensammlung. For the past 24 years, this collection has represented Ancient Greek antiquities including the treasury.
Together with the Altes collection, the Alte Nationalgalerie contains works of Neoclassical and Romantic movements, French Impressionism and early Modernism.
As part of the Berlin National Gallery, the Alte is the largest gallery in Berlin. The museum showcases one of the most extensive collections of 19th-century sculptures and paintings in all Germany. The architectural style of the building is a mix between late Classicism and early Neo-Renaissance, intended to express ‘the unity of art, nation, and history.’
This impressive museum was established to host ancient art and archaeological treasures from excavations of ancient Fertile Crescent Civilizations, Greece, and Egypt. Other items displayed include German post-antiquity art, Middle Eastern and Islamic art.
Its naturally sized models and original components of various ancient monumental buildings, such as the Pergamon altar, the Market Gate of the City of Miletus, the Pergamon Altar, Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way are awe-inspiring.
Walk Through the Brandenburg Gate
The most important icon of Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate. This 18th century neo-classical Prussian monument consists of 12 Greek pillars built in Doric style, six on each side. Atop the gate stands a Qadri, made up of the gods of peace who ride a chariot with four horses. The towering gate stands an impressive 26 meters high.
During the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate was sealed off within Communist East Berlin. When the Berlin Wall fell, the reopened gate symbolized freedom and a hope for unification of Berlin and Germany.
The Gate was refurbished on 21 December 2000, at a cost of six million euros serving as the main venue for the 20th-anniversary celebrations with the Festival of Freedom in November 2009.
Celebrate German Reunification at the Berlin Wall
No trip to Berlin or accounting of the best things to do in Berlin is complete without a trip to the Wall. This historic barrier separated Communist East Berlin from free and democratic West Berlin. Constructed in 1961, it prevented East Germans from defecting to the West. Before the Wall’s erection, nearly 3.5 million East Germans had fled to the West.
In late 1989, the Iron Curtain crumbled and joyous crowds of East Berliners crossed the border for the first time. Thousands climbed onto the Wall, joining West Germans celebrating the historic moment. By 1994, the Wall had been nearly torn down with only small sections maintained to commemorate the German reunification.
Today, little is left of the Wall as other portions have been removed for museum displays, but isolated wall sections, lampposts and a few watchtowers are still scattered along its footprint. Three long sections still stand, one halfway between Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz.
Re-Experience the Cold War at Check Point Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point in the Berlin Wall in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood. It was the single designated vehicular and pedestrian crossing point for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. As an active-duty military officer, it was a stark reminder to me of the profound difference between a Communist repressive East Berlin and a free and democratic West Berlin. Check Point Charlie’s history will be forever linked with the Berlin Wall.
Check Point Charlie was disestablished upon the reunification. The guard house on the American side is now on display in the open-air Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf. Today, a replica of the guard house and the sign that once marked the border crossing was later reconstructed on roughly the same site.
Near the guard house location is the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie opened in 1963. The museum tells the Wall’s history, the Checkpoint, and documents successful escape attempts showcasing various inventive escape devices such as a hot-air balloon, compartmentalized cars, and even a mini-submarine.
Tour the Berlin Zoologischer Garten
The Berlin Zoo is a world-famous zoological garden located in the Berlin Tiergarten, Berlin’s most popular city park. It is Germany’s oldest surviving zoo and is the most visited zoological park in Europe. During the Second World War, this garden was destroyed and unfortunately, only 91 animals survived the carnage. Today, with over 1,380 different species and 20,000-plus animals, the zoo sports one of the most impressive collections of species in the world.
Animals are housed in natural habitat enclosures and regular animal feedings are among its most famous attractions. The zoo collaborates with universities, research institutes and other zoos around the world in European breeding programs to safeguard and if possible, reintroduce endangered species.
Enjoy Street Art
Berlin has long been considered the capital of European Street Art. Artful graffiti is everywhere. Simply stroll through the streets of Berlin and you’ll be amazed at the phenomenal artwork decorating the high walls, buildings, bridges and tunnels.
Take a few hours wandering the streets to fully enjoy this artistry, architecture, and street culture. With any luck, you may come across an artist at work and no one will mind if you pause to admire creativity in action.
Enjoy the Bizarre with Monsterkabinett
Aptly named, this somewhat unsettling attraction is part of the independent Berlin-Mitte art scene, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before. ‘Monster Cabinet’ is a fantastical warehouse of massive robotic creations, clanking metal sculptures and insect-like beasts. Filled with strange art, malformed sculptures and costumed revelers, this eerie venue puts on a show each Thursday and Friday night where the real and unreal blend into the stuff of nightmares.
Created and maintained by an art collective known as the Dead Pigeon Collective, the Monster Kabinett is not for the faint of heart. Access is down a dank alley off of a bustling city street where patrons are often unsure if they’ve reached the right location until greeted by an odd, but good-natured member of the collective.
Take in the Progress at Potsdamer Platz
Before World War II, Potsdamer Platz had grown into Berlin’s main plaza. But the bustling hub of German commerce was left ravaged by the war. It remained largely vacant until the end of the Cold War. Several major global corporations like Sony and Daimler established new headquarter complexes on the Platz. German commerce returned, further rejuvenating the area.
Today, Potsdamer Platz is home to attractions like the Deutsche Kinemathek, a museum dedicated to German film and TV industry and Theater am Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s largest stage show. Also in the Platz is the Boulevard der Stars – Berlin’s version of our Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berlin’s largest movie theater complex, a casino, a LEGOLAND Discovery Center, and more.
Postdamer Platz stands as a testimony to Berlin’s rebirth as a modern revitalized city.
Enjoy the Views at Schloss Bellevue
Beautiful Bellevue Palace is the principal residence of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. It sits on the edge of the Tiergarten Park near The German Bundestag and Federal Chancellery. This stunning palace consists of a main section and two side wings constructed in the late 18th century in the early Neoclassical style.
The palace has clean lines reminiscent of the U.S. White House, but it is much larger and surrounded by a spacious park and beautifully landscaped grounds. The entire area is a photographer’s dream with picturesque vantage points throughout.
Celebrate Berlin Life at a Festival
Sightseeing aside, Berlin stands toe to toe with other great cities like New Orleans and London when it comes to its celebrating life with its many festivities and celebrations.
The Carnival of Cultures on June 8th transforms streets into a multi-cultural stage with thousands of official participants and spectators enjoying ethic foods, concert music, dancing and street parade performances.
The list of festivals seems endless: Love Parade, The Festival of Lights, Berlin International Beer Festival, Cherry Blossom Festival, and Berliner Festwochen.
Taste Berlin While Dining Out
Jaw-dropping has become standard fare in Berlin despite the German capital never being seen before as a serious foodie destination. But that has changed though Berlin isn’t trying to be the next Paris or Barcelona. Berlin is content being Berlin.
You won’t hurt for a good meal here and you’ll find an impressive array of foods from Thai to Turkish and of course, plenty of good German cuisine. Try going local and enjoying dishes like currywurst, döner Kebab, senfeier, eisbein, or take a sweet break and have one of the Berliner Pfannkuchens, the ever-popular German donuts.
From bargain to pricey, whatever your budget you’ll be able to find something to match your palate and pocketbook from neighborhood haunts and candlelit bars to fine-dining establishments.
For the young or the young at heart, if you can hardly wait for the sun to go down, then Berlin’s nightlife is unsurpassed. Clubs here do not open before midnight and the party starts only after 2:00 AM with no closing time. If New York City never sleeps, neither does Berlin.
Public transportation is open all night on weekends. Dress codes are rare and elegant clothing is only required for some of the more serious and sophisticated venues.
Shop and Play at Berlin Markets
Berlin’s markets are among the best in Europe. Here you’ll find everything from jewelry, footwear, clothing, bikes, carpets, furniture, paintings and books.
Mauerpark is the most popular Berlin market. The main shopping day is Sunday when thousands of Berliners and tourists gather here to browse, dine and enjoy their city. Karaoke parties are especially popular on Sunday afternoons.
Guaranteed you’ll run out of time long before you run out of things to do in Berlin. You’ll leave utterly surprised that your visit was so unforgettable and you’ll want to return. Step aside, London, Paris, and Rome. You have company.
Where to Stay in Berlin
5-star luxury through communal hostels, Berlin has accommodations for visitors regardless of your preference. Use the map below to search by price or location.artBerlindestinationhistoricmuseum
What do you think?