Berlin’s devastated, divided, and difficult past feels like such a distant memory, it’s a wonder more Europe vacations aren’t focusing on the German capital. Now reclaiming its former glories as Europe’s most vibrant, progressive, and happening capital, a Berlin vacation is a must, and every bit the worthy rival to Paris or London.
Nonetheless, Berlin’s vast sprawl and nonstop construction can intimidate and frustrate first-time visitors to Germany. While the streets are very pedestrian-friendly, don’t expect the charming core of cities like Paris or Madrid. Berlin is a city of neighbourhoods, and it’s best to approach your sightseeing the same way. If you have some time at leisure, here are four ideal one-day itineraries to get your Berlin adventure off on the right foot.
Meander Through the Icons of Mitte
Spend your morning ascending the Reichstag dome and admiring the Brandenburg Gate. Be sure to pre-book your Reichstag dome ticket a week in advance online, and bring your passport for entry. A short walk away, wander the haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and visit the informative free museum below ground in the southeast corner. It may leave you needing some time for reflection. Across the road in Tiergarten is an excellent place for that.
Return to Brandenburg Gate, then wander down Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s grandest boulevards. If you’re particularly interested in the city’s division, take a detour up Friedrichstrasse and visit the moving Tranenpalast, a former crossing point between East and West that is now a free museum detailing what the crossing involved. Then return to Unter den Linden, passing Humbolt University, which counts Otto Bismark, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx among its alumni. Rest your legs with a late afternoon cruise on the Spree or visit the imposing Berliner Dom.
As evening falls on your Berlin vacation, find a restaurant around Hackescher Markt, then take an evening walk along the Spree via Monbijoupark, where it’s not unusual in summer to see local ballroom dancers kicking up their heels alongside the river.
Ghosts of Past Empires (Ancient, and Not So Ancient)
Arrive early to Museum Island to minimize your wait for entry to the Pergamonmuseum, then indulge your amateur Egyptologist at the Neues. These are the most popular of the museums on Museum Island, but you can switch the Neues for the Altes Museum if you’re more interested in Greco-Roman art, or the Bode-museum if Byzantine art intrigues you. Whichever you choose, two of the museums here will easily take up your morning.
Afterwards, head up to Prenzlauer Berg to scope out lunch in the most fashionable district of the former East. If it’s Sunday (when most stores are closed), spend some time tasting treats and enjoying the markets in Mauerpark instead. Stop in at the Museum in the Kulterbrauerei for a taste of life in the GDR. Then if you’re still feeling energetic, take the tram up to the Visitor Centre of the Berlin Wall, which marks the beginning of the Berlin Wall Memorial along Bernauer Strasse.
Ready for a pint? Wander down Kastanienallee to Prater Biergarten Berlin. The oldest beer garden in the city, it’s open until midnight, and surrounded by good dinner options as well.
Harrowing History and Hip Berlin
Steel yourself for the darker side of German history, on your Berlin vacation, at the Topography of Terror. The outdoor exhibition trench will give you a good summary, or go inside if you want the grim details. Continue along Zimmerstrasse to see the tourist kitsch that has consumed Checkpoint Charlie, then spend a couple of hours at the Jewish Museum, one of the best of its kind in Europe.
Take your pick of local restaurants in Bergmannkiez for lunch, then either browse the local boutiques or take the U-Bahn to Schlesisches Tor. Cross the Spree to begin your walk along the East Side Gallery. This strip of the wall has been preserved with murals that perfectly capture both the grim realities and irreverent creative appetites of Berlin during the GDR years.
In the evening, return to Kreuzberg and the area around Kottbusser Tor. This is another of Berlin’s great nightlife and restaurant districts, particularly noteworthy both as a Turkish enclave, and as the home of SO36, the historic punk club where artists, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop, soaked up the local music scene in the mid-late 70s.
A Little Western Decadence
Head to leafy Charlottenberg for a morning exploring 17th Century Charlottenburg Palace, then swing back to Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s grand old shopping street. Here, you’ll find all the usual luxury brands, but there are some stops that are uniquely Berlin. Chief among these is Kaufhaus des Westens (aka KaDeWe), Berlin’s grand old dame of department stores. You can take the elevator to the excellent food court on the top floor for gourmet delights of every description.
Round out your afternoon in KaDeWe, or browse the many other shopping options in this area. If retail therapy isn’t your thing, turn your attention to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, or explore the city’s rich LGBT culture in nearby Schöneberg, off Nollendorfplatz, where Christopher Isherwood was inspired to write his famous Berlin Stories. If it’s Sunday and shops are closed, you can visit Zoo Berlin or pull up a chair at a beer garden in Tiergarten.
You can easily make a night of it in Schöneberg if you’d like to stay, or head back to the theatres and restaurants of Kurfurstendamm. Alternatively, make this your glamorous evening, on your Berlin vacation, in the Potsdamer Platz precinct, perhaps with tickets to a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic.