The Best Things to Do in Berlin

Berlin’s unique history, including the legacy of World Wars I and II and the Cold War, has given the city an enormous variety of things to do and see: the rebuilt Reichstag, reminders of the Berlin Wall, terrific museums, and surprising green spaces. Take tours guided or self-guided to search out the city’s street art, to explore Checkpoint Charlie, or to pop around all that Museum Island has to offer. Berlin gives a good amount of space over to try and teach people to keep history in mind as time gets in the way: the Jewish Museum is a must-visit as is the German Resistance Memorial Center near Potsdamer Platz.

Museum Island, Berlin, Germany
Visiting at least one of the five museums that make up Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must for any serious culture-seeker in Berlin. A pioneering concept, this ensemble of public institutions brimming with exquisite artworks and historical artifacts traces its origin back to 1810 and King Friedrich Wilhelm III’s decision to open a museum for his personal collection of royal treasures. Today, the original Altes Museum—located opposite the former Royal Palace—is joined by the Pergamon Museum, with its jaw-dropping Middle Eastern antiquities; the Neues Museum and its treasures from ancient Egypt; the Alte Nationalgalerie’s collection of 19th-century European masters; and the Bode Museum, which hosts one of Europe’s most important sculpture collections.
Cora-Berliner-Straße 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany
Occupying a prominent space between Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, this memorial (also known as the Holocaust-Mahnmal, or Holocaust Memorial) has almost 3,000 gray oblong pillars (stelae), arranged at varying heights, that form a kind of labyrinth intended to reference the disorientation felt by Europe’s hunted Jewish population. Designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman, it opened in 2005. The effectiveness of the labyrinth is arguable; you may see groups of teenagers playing tag and picnicking on and among the blocks. However, there’s no denying the power of the site’s underground information center, which relates some of the life stories of Holocaust victims. Several other smaller but related memorials are nearby, dedicated to homosexuals, gypsies, and victims of National Socialist euthanasia killings.
10969 Berlin, Germany
When Berlin was divided, Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous of the border crossings between the eastern and western halves of the city. It was here that Allied soldiers registered before crossing over into the Soviet-controlled sectors. Thanks to its appearances in Cold War thrillers from Bond movies to John Le Carré novels, it has become a symbol of that era in the city’s, and world’s, history. A small museum nearby includes a replica of the guardhouse that once stood here.
Pariser Platz, 10117 Berlin, Germany
Napoléon and his armies marched through it; revolutionaries and Nazis gathered beneath it; the Berlin Wall ran right behind: It’s safe to say that Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, completed in 1791, has pretty much seen it all. Designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, who drew inspiration from the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens, the gate is best approached via Unter den Linden, the tree-lined boulevard that runs between the gate and the former Royal Palace. You can combine a visit here with nearby sights such as the Reichstag, Tiergarten Park, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Since 2016, an impressive high-tech museum at the gate has offered a history of the city through the perspective of the iconic structure.
Knesebeckstraße 1-2, 10623 Berlin, Germany
Bauhaus—the German design, crafts, and architecture school founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius—is one of the most famous design movements of the 20th century, and this Berlin museum shows its impressive breadth and influence. Designed by Gropius himself and completed in 1979, the building holds a wealth of Bauhaus items such as furniture (lamps, chairs, tables), ceramics, photography, and theater pieces by an array of the movement’s most famous teachers and practitioners, including Gropius, Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (Note: The museum is temporarily located in the Charlottenburg district while the main building is being renovated and extended to pay tribute to the movement’s centennial.)
Mühlenstraße 3-100, 10243 Berlin, Germany
The most famous remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall gets its name from its location on the east side of the Spree River, as well as from its collection of political and satirical murals. Originally painted just after the wall fell, the murals were repainted (or in some cases painted over) in 2009 as a way of cleaning up the increasingly decayed originals and in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Today, a fence partly protects the gallery to prevent vandalism of the murals, but people throng here nonetheless, especially in summer. A museum at the site tells the fascinating story of the structure through interactive displays, original newsreel footage, and filmed interviews with Berliners who lived on both sides.
Berlin isn’t exactly short of impressive parks, but the 520-acre Tiergarten, stretching westward from Brandenburg Gate, is one of the city’s largest, most central, and most historic. The area, originally a royal hunting ground, became a park in the 18th century, and prominent landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné redesigned it in the 19th century with some English garden elements. Largely destroyed during World War II, the park was subsequently used to grow potatoes and other food for starving locals. Today’s replanted garden attracts strollers, joggers, bladers, and cyclists with its landscaped meadows, lakes and gardens, and winding paths. There are also several historic monuments and a couple of excellent beer gardens such as the Café am Neuen See and Schleusenkrug, both perfect stops for pre- or post-stroll sustenance.
Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin, Germany
The architecturally striking Jewish Museum is the best place in Berlin to get an overview of German-Jewish relations and to understand the nature of the integration of the two cultures before the Holocaust’s horrors. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the building is clad in polished silver metal and features severe angles and thin window slits that create a deliberately jarring impression. The interior is equally intriguing, especially the three long, intersecting corridors that lead to installations addressing aspects of the Holocaust: a garden of pillars meant to disorient; a windowless Holocaust Tower; and a space filled with thousands of grimacing iron masks that grind together as you walk on them. Across the street, the Jewish Academy (open to the public) has a related research center, library, and educational institution.
Platz der Republik 1, 11011 Berlin, Germany
Built by Kaiser Wilhelm I in the late 19th century as a gesture to parliamentarians, Berlin’s famed Reichstag came into its own during the Weimar era—Germany’s first attempt at democracy. The parliament building burned under mysterious circumstances in 1933, leading to the suspension of civil rights and Hitler’s ensuing dictatorship. Seized and shot to pieces by Soviet troops in 1945, then abandoned during the city’s division, the traumatized building reentered public life when the German government returned to Berlin following reunification. Today the Reichstag stands proud, topped by a glass dome designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster as a symbol of political transparency. Going inside the dome is very popular; you can look down on plenary sessions as well as admire sweeping city views.
Teufelsberg, 14055 Berlin, Germany
Deep in Berlin‘s Grunewald Forest, Teufelsberg (literally, Devil’s Mountain; the name comes from the nearby Teufelssee, or Devil’s Lake) was once the site of a Nazi technology college. After the war, it was decided that the school would be buried beneath rubble and debris left in the city after the war, and the resulting man-made hill rose to more than 300 feet; during the cold war, American troops built a base on top from which to spy on East Germany. Since the wall fell, the base’s radar domes have become graffiti-spattered ruins and a haunting pilgrimage for urban explorers, street-art fans, and those seeking great views over the Grunewald and the Havel River. The hill is also used as a ski slope and sled run in winter; paragliding aficionados and picnickers enjoy it in summer. The website has official tour options.
Bernauer Str. 111, 13355 Berlin, Germany
The city’s official memorial to the Berlin Wall is along Bernauer Strasse, where the wall once divided the eastern districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte from the West Berlin district of Wedding. The half-mile stretch functions as a kind of open-air museum, peppered with large-scale photos showing how the wall once looked at relevant intersections; a reconstruction of the so-called Death Strip that ran between the wall’s two main barriers; and maps displaying escape tunnel routes. A touching shrine honors the 139 lives cut short by the wall’s existence (some while attempting to escape), and a documentation center has a platform with views over the whole memorial and an exhibition about the wall’s development and downfall. An associated bookshop is farther along the street.
Berlin is surrounded by lakes, and the star of the show is undoubtedly the Wannsee. Its waters lap at the Grunewald Forest and are dotted with yachting clubs and interesting cultural sights such as the House of the Wannsee Conference (where the Nazis planned the Final Solution) and the former villa of impressionist painter Max Liebermann, which exhibits his work and has a lovely garden café overlooking the lake. Nearby is the Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), a former royal playground that’s now a pleasant park accessible by ferry. The most popular destination in summer, though, is the Strandbad Wannsee, a half-mile-long sandy beach jam-packed with locals and visitors.
Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße 1, 10785 Berlin, Germany
It’s hard to miss the distinctive tent-shaped, yellow Berlin Philharmonic Hall, considered by many to be one of the world’s best concert halls. Designed by Hans Scharoun, it was built in the 1960s as a replacement for one destroyed in World War II. Scharoun’s forward-thinking design ensures not only excellent acoustics because of the sloping walls and specially constructed ceiling, but also stellar views since the orchestra is democratically positioned in the center of the main auditorium. The hall is home to the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s most sought-after orchestras. It also offers free lunchtime and online concerts as well as educational projects that seek to make classical music more accessible.
Stauffenbergstraße 13, 10785 Berlin, Germany
Berlin’s German Resistance Memorial Center, close to Potsdamer Platz, recounts the city’s tales of resistance against the Nazis. The center is in the Bendlerblock, a historic military building where the expansion of the German navy was planned during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the role of the German army was reassessed during the Weimar Republic. In addition, several of those involved in the July Bomb Plot to murder Adolf Hitler and bring down the Nazi regime in 1944 were executed in the building’s courtyard. A permanent exhibition, spread across a couple of atmospheric floors, documents the bravery, as well as the diversity, of those who fought against the Nazi dictatorship.
Molkenmarkt 2, 10179 Berlin, Germany
Opened in 2018, this contemporary museum showcases the notorious decade that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in the city: one that saw the joy of an unexpectedly sudden German reunion merged with a rush of young artists and techno ravers taking advantage of the capital’s slew of empty, cheap (sometimes free!) spaces. The organizers have reflected the hedonism of those years with a heady, sometimes chaotic mix of multimedia installations accompanied by specially commissioned street art, video interviews with those who were there (photographers, politicians, DJs, club owners, punks)—and a bass-heavy soundtrack throughout. The one moment of sobriety comes with a large room, deliberately ice-cold, that memorializes those who lost their lives to the brutality of the Wall itself.
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