The complex modern history of Germany’s capital city provides a frame of reference for most American travelers. Whether you remember Berlin divided by its infamous wall, or when that wall came down, this iconic city requires deeper exploration.
With so many group tours following the flow of the Danube in the southern part of the country, you may need to make special plans to get north. Here’s why it’s worth it.
What to See
An incredibly deep history runs throughout Berlin. Plenty of companies offer free, and very good, walking tours of the city. If you opt to go at it alone, The Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate is a must-see. Wandering up Unter den Linden, take a brief stop at the Gendermanmarkt, a large, beautiful square with Berlin’s Konzerthaus in the middle of two grand churches.
Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the south east corner of the Mitte, is home to the German History Museum as well as the Pergamon Museum. Head west on Unter den Linden to explore Humboldt University, Einstein’s old haunt; and Bebelplatz, the site of the Nazi book burning in 1933.
Or, follow the boulevard east from Museum Island toward Alexanderplatz. There, you’ll see the well-known TV tower, known for its sunlit cross—the Pope’s revenge. You can visit the tower’s observation deck for panoramic views of the city. Throw in a Spree River cruise and lunch around the Platz, you have a full day booked already!
Berlin has great public transportation that runs on an honors system. No one really checks your ticket, but you are expected to have it if security stops you. When you buy your ticket, either from a machine or a human, validate it in a yellow box outside the metro stairs. Validated tickets are good for two hours.
While sprawling, Berlin is walkable and pedestrian friendly, especially in the tourist zones. Weather can be finicky in every season, so always be prepared with an umbrella. Berlin is also a great city for biking—pay extra attention to the bike lanes you’ll see clearly marked red in many places.
Get Your Camera Ready!
Top spots for photos include the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Reichstag (Germany’s Parliament building). You’ll find lesser-known gems, too, such as the small bridge over the Spree River behind the Reichstag, with an excellent and abstract view of the monument.
If you want burn off a few extra vacation calories, hike up almost 300 stairs to the top of the Victory Column. The view from here is more than enough of a reward. Finally, visit the colorful murals of the Eastside Gallery. This remaining section of the Berlin wall is over three quarters of a mile long, and provides the perfect backdrop to any selfie.
Two boulevards can claim Fifth Avenue status, ranging wildly in price. A stroll up Kufurstendamm, also known as the Ku’Damm, will take you to the KaDeWe, a 7-floor department store that sells everything from winter coats to high-end Italian olive oil. Unter den Linden, “Under the Linden trees,” resembles Paris’s Champs-Élysees with shops, cafes, and restaurants galore. The boulevard ends at the Brandenburg Gate and Tiergarten Park, a great place to grab a bratwurst and curry fries for a picnic lunch.
Potsdamer Platz is a modern square with theatres, nightclubs, a casino, and the Arkaden shopping mall. Looking for boutique shopping? Do not miss Hackescher Markt, a collection of quaint shops and cafes in the middle of the Mitte District.
Traditional German food is heavy, with lots of sausage options and sauerkraut on the side. Bread is delicious and abundant, and having a beer as you walk home from work is a normal, daily occurrence. A huge Turkish population also means plenty of kebabs for sale, and quality Indian restaurants pepper the city.
Visit the Nikolai Quarter for typical German fare and beer gardens located along the river. Prenzlauer Berg is chockfull of great eating establishments from brunch to late night. As a cutting edge city, Berlin also enjoys an evolving culinary scene and fancy restaurants like Grill Royal in Mitte will impress the most sophisticated foodie.
If you extend your stay from a land tour, or make a special trip from a river cruise, consider staying in Mitte. As the central and most touristic zone, Mitte contains most of the highlights you could see in a day, including the Museum Quarter, shopping, and a variety of restaurants. Hotel John F is well located, just a 4-minute walk from public transportation.