Travel tips: practical information about public transport, costs, and money-saving
Culture: learn more about the Berlin Wall, the little traffic men and bears
Things to see: Brandenburg gate, GDR museum, and many more
Activities: a free tour and a walk along the river Spree
Food: currywurst, pretzels and the best Vietnamese restaurant
As Germany’s capital and cultural centre, Berlin is diverse, full of things to discover, and overwhelmingly rich in reminders of the city’s turbulent past. In this ultimate guide to Berlin, I’ve tried to include all the exciting places I discovered, along with helpful cultural and foodie tips. As always, remember the list is not (and will probably never be) exhaustive. Keep your eyes open for interesting new things and let me know when you find them!
Working hours: Shop and supermarkets are open on weekdays and closed on Sundays. Museums close on Mondays.
There are two main airports close to Berlin – Tegel (TXL) and Schoenefeld (SXF), both accessible by public transport, car or taxi. Google maps does a great job at suggesting routes and transport modes. Alternatively, you can use the DB Navigator app – available on both Android and iOS
Public transport is widely available, frequent and the best way to explore the city. There are three tariff zones – AB, BC, ABC. AB covers the main urban area and is the one you should be looking for unless you’re travelling to/from Schoenefeld airport or Berlin’s surrounding area. There are ticket machines at every station. Remember to purchase and validate your ticket before you get on. If you are planning to use public transport more than two times in a day, I would recommend the day pass which costs €7 (€19.90 for a group of up to 5 people).
If sightseeing is your thing, consider the Berlin Welcome Card. The card offers discounts at around 200 sights including the Berlin Cathedral, the DDR museum, the zoo, and the TV tower, as well as a daily public transport pass and a handy map and guide. The validity varies between 48 hours and 6 days. For an additional €16, the 72h option could also include access to 5 museums on Berlin’s Museum Island, which is probably the best bargain available. You can buy the card online, at designated places or the tourist offices.
There are a number of similar cards. The Museum Pass is another option if you plan to focus on museums. It includes free entry to 30+ exhibitions on three consecutive days for €29. Entrance to the most famous museums tends to cost more than €10 so as long as you visit more than 3 you should be saving money. It’s important to note that those cards don’t allow you to jump queues. It might be worthwhile to reserve free timed admission tickets earlier in the day at the museum or in the Tourist offices.
Students benefit from significant discounts everywhere, so do take advantage of your student card if you have one.
CULTURE & HISTORY
After the end of World War II, Nazi Germany was divided between America, France, Britain and the Soviet Union with each nation occupying a part of the country. What began as a temporary division, soon became a permanent fact as the views of the former allies started to diverge. Western powers believed in liberal market economies and capitalism. They poured investments into rebuilding West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany), while the Soviet Union sought to exploit all resources left in East Germany (German Democratic Republic).
Berlin was officially within the boundaries of Eastern Germany, but the post-war agreement gave the former allies joint administration. As the economic conditions in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) worsened, people fled to West Germany simply by walking to Berlin’s unguarded Western districts. This hole in the otherwise closed border between the East and the West caused a massive brain drain.
By 1961, around 3.5 million people (20% of the population) had left the GDR. To prevent further losses, the Berlin Wall was erected in 24 hours. At first, the initial border consisted of wired fencing. As it expanded, concrete blocks were added, topped with a pipe to prevent climbing. The final security stip was several hundred meters wide and included tank barriers, watchtowers, dog patrols, an electrified fence and a 100-metre strip covered with sand. Guards were ordered to shoot any non-authorised passers on the spot.
Although the border stabilised the GDR’s economy, the Berlin Wall became a global symbol of repression. 138 people lost their lives in attempts to cross the wall, which didn’t fall until 9th November 1989. The Soviet Union started to lose its powers and eased its grip on satellites. In an attempt to defuse tension, East Germany made travel permits for West Germany easier to obtain. The announcement brought thousands of people to the border points forcing guards to open the barriers. Germany was officially reunified in October 1990.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll expect to go to Berlin and walk along a mini China Wall spanning across the whole city. In reality, only a few sections of the Berlin Wall were not demolished and are still standing – Eastside Gallery and Topography of Terror. Embedded stones in the road commemorate the rest of the wall. Make no mistake, history has not been forgotten. The division between the East and the West can still be quite visible in some places around the city and is a bitter reminder of what borders and repression can achieve.
P.S Most souvenir shops tend to sell a card/magnet with a piece of the Berlin Wall. Since a lot of tourists seemed interested in them, I wanted to understand whether they are authentic. FYI turns out that the pieces themselves are real, but the paint has been added artificially.
The bear is a city symbol and part of Berlin’s coat of arms. How and why the bear became, Berlin’s mascot remains a mystery. However, over the years, it became an indispensable part of the urban landscape. Wherever you go, there is a bear – it’s on the mugs, on the t-shirts, it’s everywhere, and Berliners love them. The colourful life-size bear sculptures spread across the city are part of a separate art project which started in 2001. Their popularity grew so fast that there must be hundreds of them now – all hand-painted. The Buddy Bears are ambassadors of Berlin. Some of them have even been part of a tour promoting tolerance, peace and harmony around the world.
Try crossing any street in Berlin, and you will notice something interesting about the pedestrian traffic signals. Instead of the traditional shaped traffic man, a funny looking male figure with a hat would let you know if it is safe to cross. East German legacy, of course. The creator – Karl Peglau – a traffic psychologist in the German Democratic Republic, wanted to design a character to “appropriately provoke the desired pedestrian behaviour through emotion”. When passing his proposal for approval through the traffic commission, Karl was anxious that it might get rejected because the hat was too bourgeois. To his surprise, the Ampelmännchen passed the test. However, the little traffic man had to face left, not right as it was in the initial design.
The Ampelmännchen or “little traffic light men” quickly achieved cult status in East Germany and are one of the few symbols to have survived in the post-reunification era. It nearly disappeared in the 90s when pedestrian lights were to be replaced by ‘euro-lights’. The decision faced a public outcry, and a committee called ‘Rescue the Ampelmännchen’ was created. The government eventually gave up and decided to leave the beloved Ampelmännchen alone. In present days, the Ampelmännchen is one of the most famous symbols of Berlin and an essential part of the city’s legacy.
THINGS TO SEE
The gate is Berlin’s most famous landmark. The Prussian king Frederick William II commissioned it in the 18th century as a critical entry point to the city and symbol of unity and peace. The Quadriga (the statue with the horse) was transported to France as victory trophy by Napoleon. After defeating Napoleon, the Germans brought the sculpture back, and the gate became a monument of victory. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan made his famous speech calling for Soviet leaders to open up the barrier dividing East and West Berlin in front of the Brandenburg gate. “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” is probably one of the most memorable lines of this speech.
Currently, the gate is home to a vibrant piazza and a number of embassies. It is meters away from the ultra expensive celebrity hotel Adlon. On the piazza, you can also find a tourist office offering free maps, Berlin Welcome Cards and other useful information.
The German parliament is another important building for German history. Just so you know both Bundestag and Reichstag refer to parliament but reichs- means imperial while bundes- means federal. The Reichstag refers to the parliament of previous regimes like the German Empire and the Third Reich. However, the building itself is still known as the Reichstag, which is home to the Bundestag, so don’t get confused by the terminology (as I did).
Anyways, the Reichstag building was officially completed at the end of the 19th century. It is most famous for the fire in 1933, which gave Hitler an excuse to cause mayhem and seize power. It is still unknown who started it, but the Nazis accused the Communists and vice versa. The fire helped Hitler in two ways – a state of emergency was declared, resulting in censorship of the press and personal communication. At the same time, the anti-communist movement enabled him to secure a majority in the elections.
Even if you are not interested in history, the building itself is quite impressive. The Reichstag has free tours of its rooftop terrace which offers a magnificent panorama view of Berlin. You have to book the session in advance in place or online. Don’t forget your passport/ID as there are security checks. When at the top, make sure you grab a free audio guide just after you exit the lift.
The Berlin Cathedral is situated on one of the banks of the river Spree. The building is magnificent from both outside and inside. If you decide to visit, make sure you check out the view from the Dome. You can spend some time in the museum where you can find loads of info about the history of the cathedral. Even if you don’t want to pay for entrance, the park in front is an excellent place for a relaxing break.
The DDR was one of the highlights of my trip to Berlin! The museum gives you a unique insight into what the daily life behind the Berlin Wall looked like. The most fun part about it was its interactivity. You can try driving a Trabant through a simulation of East Berlin or learn some typical dance moves. The museum is home to a full-size replica of an Eastern German apartment, which by the way looked like my grandmother’s house.
EAST SIDE GALLERY
If you want to get an authentic feel of the Berlin Wall, this is the place to go. The East Side Gallery is the longest open-air gallery in the world and the largest remaining piece of the wall. The 101 murals are painted directly on the 1.3km long wall. One of the most famous paintings there is called “The Kiss”. The mural depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany President Erich Honecker. You might think it’s a caricature, but in reality, it is based on an actual photograph. It was taken on the 3oth anniversary of the GDR when Brezhnev and Honecker engaged themselves in a not-so-unusual “socialist fraternal kiss”.
Also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. All of the 2711 blocks designed in 2004 by architect Peter Eisenman are unique. Visitors are invited to discover and assimilate the monument at their own pace and get lost in the network of corridors specifically designed to produce an atmosphere of uneasiness and confusion. Next to the Memorial, is a free museum. The exhibition is about the persecution and extermination of the Jews during World War II and includes heartbreaking personal documentation about individuals and families.
The traces of the division between East and West are visible even in Berlin’s zoo, or should I say zoos. There are two of them – the Zoological Garden founded in 1844 and known as one of the most species-rich zoos in the world, and Tierpark which opened during the GDR. The most significant difference between the zoos is their size. The Tierpark is an actual park, four times bigger than the zoo, which makes it a perfect place to spend a full day. The Berlin Zoo, which I visited, is more condensed with animals closer together. There are daily feeding sessions free to attend – the schedule should be on the map you get at the entrance. Unfortunately, they are only in German, and the same goes for the information signs. For an additional €3, you can visit the aquarium building and learn more about fish, reptiles, and amphibia and insects.
TOPOGRAPHY OF TERROR
The museum and ruins known as ‘Topography of Terror’ are built on the former site of the most important institutions of Nazi terror – the headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the SS leadership, and the Reich Security Main Office. Besides seeing the exhibition depicting the history of the Nazis and their administrative and political tools, you can also walk along the cellars of Gestapo where political prisoners were questioned and tortured.
Residents of West Berlin were allowed to visit East Berlin provided they had a pass, and they underwent several security checks. Checkpoint Charlie was the best-known crossing border between the East and the West because of its location on Friedrichstrasse and the fact that only diplomats were allowed to cross there. It was one of several crossings – there were checkpoint alpha and bravo as well. Checkpoint Charlie was the scene of a famous face-off between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The original setting was demolished in 1990 at an official ceremony after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite its curious history, currently, the place is nothing more than a tourist trap. Nothing there is authentic, including the intrusive ‘American security guards’ with whom you can take a picture for a couple of euros.
The Tiergarten was previously a hunting place and is now the largest urban park in Berlin and a great place to take a break from the busy streets. Here, you can find the Sinti and Roma memorial erected to commemorate those who suffered under the Nazi rule. The monument is a round pond with a triangle made of stone in the middle. The Nazis used symbols to distinguish their prisoners, and in the case of Roma, it was a brown triangle. Every day a fresh flower is put on the platform.
Gendarmenmarkt is a picturesque square initially built as a marketplace. It is home to three buildings – the concert hall (the Konzerthaus) and the twin French and German cathedrals. In the middle of the square is a statue of Friedrich Schiller, a famous German poet.
Must see next time
The once beautiful Protestant church was heavily bombed during World War II. Its bells were melted for munitions. The remaining ruins were deliberately left as a bitter reminder of the destruction caused by war. Plans to completely demolish the church faced public outcry so as a compromise a new modern building where services are currently held was integrated into the old church.
This is the northern half of an island in the Spree river in the central Berlin. The whole area is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Museum Island is home to five renowned museums: Pergamonmuseum, Bode-Museum, Neues Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Altes Museum. Some of the highlights in the fascinating exhibitions include the bust of Nefertiti (Neues Museum) and the Ishtar Gate (Pergamonmuseum).
FREE WALKING TOUR
A simple Google search comes up with a dozen free tours in Berlin. I chose Brewer’s Berlin Tours because of the time and the place, but feel free to explore other options as many companies have good reviews. The 2.5h tour led by Sam, was a great introduction to the history of Berlin and set the context for further exploration of the city. The route included the Reichstag, Tiergarten, Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, Hitler’s bunker, the Topography of Terror, and Checkpoint Charlie. Sam himself had studied history, which meant he included lots of interesting facts and stories.
For example, he told us about the People’s Hall (Volkshalle) – a colossal Nazi dream that was never built. The building was designed from Hitler’s sketches. The dome would have been so large, that it would be capable of creating an atmosphere of its own. When the 180,000 people it was designed to accommodate came together, clouds capable of producing rain would form.
WALK ALONG THE RIVER SPREE
The river running through Berlin is called the Spree. The banks of the river are pedestrianised, allowing you to explore the river by foot. I would recommend focusing on the eastern part of the river as it is more peaceful and less touristy. I walked from the Berlin Cathedral to the East Side gallery, and the route is full of picturesque views and cafes along the river. Be warned it is a good 40-minute walk. If you are feeling lazy, boat trips are offered every 5 meters, especially in the area near Museum Island.
If you are into meat in every imaginable form, German cuisine is right for you. Wurst, schnitzel, kebab, you name it. As Germany’s capital and cultural centre, Berlin is a great place to explore not only traditional dishes but international cuisine as well. There are hundreds of restaurants and cafes to satisfy even the most pretentious.
The currywurst is sold at every corner of the city. It was created in Berlin by Herta Heuwer who got the ingenious idea to mix… ketchup and curry. Since then, the smoked pork sausage seasoned with the sauce is an institution for Berliners and even has its museum. The pretzel is another favourite street food and an excellent option for those of you, who like me, are not very fond of meat. Pretzels can be sweet and savoury. My favourite is the one covered with cheese but feel free to experiment. Bear in mind that most street vendors target tourists and sell overpriced food. I wouldn’t recommend paying more than €2 for a pretzel unless you are starving.
1990 VEGAN LIVING
Having survived on pasta and pretzels while my friends were trying gazillion varieties of sausages, made the experience at 1990 Vegan even better than it was. The restaurant offers Vietnamese food and is located in a quirky neighbourhood which by the way has a great variety of restaurants and bars. The happiness bowl is pure happiness in a bowl, and the cocktails were simply delicious.
Address: Krossener Str. 19, 10245 Berlin, Germany
The Augustiner is a typical Bavarian-style restaurant offering authentic German food and beer, located minutes away from Gendarmenmarkt. If the weather permits it, the tables outside provide a great view of the German and French cathedrals, especially at sunset. Overall, the atmosphere was very relaxed. The menu included Bavarian sausages, pretzels, Schnitzel, and Schweinshaxe (roasted pork knuckle). The cheese pasta was the only vegetarian main dish on the list.
Address: Charlottenstraße 56, 10117 Berlin, Germany
HUMMUS & FRIENDS
I saw this place recommended on a couple of websites online. I decided to give it a try since I kind of survive on hummus and cheese in general. The staff were extremely friendly. However, I expected more given that I paid €10 for a not-so-big portion of hummus with an egg.
Address: Oranienburger Str. 27, 10117 Berlin, Germany