Berlin is a city with a dark past. When you consider the part it played in the Nazi atrocities of the Third Reich and the building of a wall that divided the city during the Cold War, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a depressing place to head for a break.
You’d be wrong though as, despite its past, it’s a truly fascinating city in which to spend a long weekend. We visited twice in 2019 and barely scratched the surface of what Berlin has to offer. On our first visit we were there for three days and could have filled every waking moment with museums, galleries, and general sightseeing. On our second visit it was almost Christmas, so our days (and nights) were spent wandering round some of the 80 festive markets around the city.
With so much to see and do, it was impossible to fit in everything we wanted (even over two trips) but these are some of my highlights.
Berlin Wall Memorial
There are still some small sections of the wall standing around the city but to see one of the best preserved sections we headed to the Berlin Wall Memorial, an almost mile-long stretch of the wall with an open-air exhibition showing how the wall was built and expanded on over the years.
I was at university when the wall came down in 1989 and I remember watching the news footage of cheering Berliners climbing on the wall in celebration. What I didn’t realise until I visited the Memorial was that the Berlin Wall actually consisted of two barriers, so anyone who attempted to escape would find themselves in what was known as the ’death strip’ between both walls. This space was guarded by watchtowers, floodlights, patrol dogs, trenches and trip-wire guns which meant escape was unlikely – although it didn’t deter people from trying. The Window of Memorial is a tribute to the 130 people who were shot or who died on the Berlin Wall trying to escape to the West, including some who were killed just months before the wall finally came down.
The Visitor Centre was closed on the day we were there but the viewing platform which overlooks a stretch of the border crossing and the death strip was open and was a fascinating insight into just how difficult it must have been for those living in Berlin at that time.
The Memorial and Visitor Centre are on Bernauer Strasse. The Visitor Centre is open daily except Mondays from 10am until 6pm. Admission is free.
East Side Gallery
For an alternative view of the Berlin Wall a visit to East Side Gallery was a must for me. I love street art so was keen to see this mile-long stretch of wall which has been painted by artists from over 20 countries and is now an open-air gallery with protected status.
Probably the most recognised and celebrated painting is Dmitri Vrubel’s depiction of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev in the snappily titled ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’.
East Side Gallery is on Muhlenstrasse and is easily reached by public transport.
Dead Chicken Alley
Berlin is renowned for its street art but, unfortunately, we didn’t really have time to take a proper tour. However, we did head to Hackescher Markt for a stroll around the courtyards and alleyways where we stumbled across the fantastically named Dead Chicken Alley. There’s graffiti on just about every surface imaginable – it’s as far removed from the upmarket boutiques of the rest of Hackesche Hofe as you can get. One for the hipster crowd!
You’ll find the entrance to Dead Chicken Alley on Rosenthaler Strasse.
For an insight into what life was like in East Germany we visited the DDR Museum on the river Spree opposite Museum Island and the imposing Berlin Dom, the city’s Cathedral. This is a great hands-on museum with interactive displays on everyday life during the Cold War.
There’s also a fantastic reconstruction of a typical apartment where lounging on the sofa in front of the TV, rummaging through the kitchen cupboards and rifling through wardrobes is actively encouraged.
The DDR Museum is on Karl-Liebknecht Strasse and is open daily from 9am until 9pm. Admission is €9.80 (Welcome Card discount available).
Yes, it’s very touristy with actors dressed as soldiers who’ll happily pose for photos, but it also acts as a stark reminder of a once divided city. One of nine crossing points between the East and West, Checkpoint Charlie was restricted to Allied armed forces and foreigners.
Checkpoint Charlie is located on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse.
Topography of Terror
Less a museum and more a memorial, the Topography of Terror is built on the site of the headquarters of the Gestapo and SS headquarters and the Reich Security Main Office.
There are three permanent exhibitions here (both indoor and outdoor) which cover the history of the Nazis rise to power and the extent of the Third Reich’s reign of terror.
When we visited there was also a temporary photographic exhibition detailing the persecution of the Jews during the German occupation of the Netherlands where over 100,000 Jews living in the Netherlands were murdered by the SS or succumbed to the conditions in which they were forced to live and work.
Part of the site is home to the longest stretch of the Berlin wall in the city centre.
The Topography of Terror is at Niederkirchnerstrasse. Opening times are 10am until 8pm and admission is free.
At 368 metres high the TV Tower (or Berliner Fernsehturm) dominates the Berlin skyline and was a good focal point for getting our bearings pretty much wherever we were in the city.
Building of the tower was completed in 1969 to transmit East German television signals as well as demonstrate the power of the communist state.
For a bird’s eye view of Berlin we headed to the viewing platform which is 203 metres above the city (and which only takes 40 seconds to reach in one of the super speedy lifts!).
There’s a bar at the viewing platform level as well as a revolving restaurant on the next level. We had a drink at the bar while we picked out the main focal points of the city as it spread out beneath us.
The TV Tower is on Panoramastrasse. Tickets cost €18.50 (Welcome Card discount available) and it’s a good idea to book them in advance to avoid any queues.
For an alternative aerial view of Berlin we climbed the 270 steps to the viewing platform of the Victory Column.
Significantly smaller than the TV tower at just 67 metres high it was built in the 1860s to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian war (the golden statue on the top is Victoria, the Goddess of Victory). Originally located in front of the Reichstag building, it was moved to its current location in 1938.
From the top we had great views of Tiergarten (a huge park and home to Berlin Zoo) down to the Brandenburg Gate.
You’ll find the Victory Column in Grosser Stern. As it’s on a busy roundabout it’s reached via a pedestrian underpass. Admission is €3.00 (no discount).
From the Victory Column it’s a pleasant stroll along the river towards the Brandenburg Gate. Built at the very end of the 18th century the Brandenburg Gate is probably Berlin’s most famous landmark. During the Cold War it became a symbol of a divided Berlin and part of the Berlin Wall and it was here, in June 1987, that Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech demanding that the Berlin Wall be torn down.
The Brandenburg Gate is on Pariser Platz.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial was opened in 2005 as a place of remembrance of the close to six million Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust.
Covering an area of 19,000 square metres, the memorial is made up of 2,711 concrete blocks of varying heights. The concrete floor is uneven, and the blocks get higher the further into the memorial you walk which means you can lose all sense of time and direction. As with many of the places we visited, it was a sobering experience.
The memorial is situated on a stretch of former ‘death strip’ at Cora-Berliner-Strasse. There’s no admission charge.
This is the German parliament building, an imposing edifice topped by a huge glass dome. As with many buildings throughout Berlin, the Reichstag has had a turbulent past including a fire in 1933 which led to it being unused after World War II. Following German reunification in 1990 it was fully restored and reconstructed in a project led by the British architect Norman Foster. All building work, including the dome, was finished in 1999.
It’s possible to visit the roof terrace and access the dome of the Reichstag building but you do need to book well in advance as tickets are extremely limited. If you haven’t booked you can take your chance at the Visitor’s Centre outside the building in case there are any available spaces.
The visit to the dome was one of my favourite things to do in Berlin – I love the architecture of it plus the fantastic views over the river and across the city.
The Reichstag building is on Platz der Republik. Entrance to the dome is free.
Where we stayed
Both times we stayed at the Ibis Hauptbahnhof. It’s right opposite the central railway station (hence the name) on Invalidenstrasse, which means that you can catch the train straight from the airport to the station and be checked in to your room within an hour of arriving in Berlin (assuming you only have hand luggage).
Although the rooms are small (it is a budget hotel after all) they had everything we needed including free wifi. The highlight for me (as with most hotel stays!) was the breakfast – excellent coffee, a lovely selection of both hot and cold food, plus, the piece de resistance, a waffle station. We definitely got off to a good start each day!
Where we ate and drank
They say you can’t come to Berlin and not have one of the famous Currywursts – essentially a sausage in curry sauce. Well, you can, and I did (not that being a non-meat eater is an excuse as it’s now possible to buy vegetarian/vegan versions). Instead, I left this delight to Mark who enjoyed it but wasn’t convinced to have more than one!
If I can only recommend one place in Berlin to eat it would be Peter Pane. I know a burger joint (and part of a chain to boot) doesn’t sound much in a capital city full of top-class restaurants but trust me on this one! In fact, over our two visits we went three times!
As a non-meat eater there’s never usually much choice in a burger bar but here, I had eight options to choose from, plus you choose the type of bread you want and there’s also a good choice of side dishes. I certainly wasn’t disappointed and, as well as burgers, they do a good line in cocktails too! No photos as I was too busy eating!
For a drink with a difference we headed to the Ice Bar on Spandauer Strasse where the tables and chairs, sculptures of Berlin landmarks, and even the glasses we drank from were all made of ice. Well, it was -10c in there.
It’s advisable to purchase tickets in advance. For €22.50 you get admission to the ice bar at a specified time, all the protective gear (gloves and a fur lined jacket) and three drinks of your choice (either beer or vodka).
If it’s hot chocolate and cake you’re after I’d recommend a visit to Rausch on Charlottenstrasse. With a chocolate shop, a small manufacturing area where you can watch the chocolatiers at work, plus the café it’s a chocolate lover’s dream. From a seat in the café on the second floor there are views over Gendarmenmarkt which was especially lovely at Christmas with the market in the square. There are even chocolate sculptures of some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks.
Our second visit was for the Christmas markets so most of the time on that trip we ate and drank typical Christmas market fayre – delicious.
Germans are renowned for their love of beer so, if you’re in Berlin during the summer months, a lovely way to spend some time is having a drink in a deckchair on the banks of the river Spree.
If you’re thinking of a trip to Berlin here’s all the practical information you’ll need.
Berlin is currently served by two airports, Schonefeld and Tegel, although a replacement, Brandenburg, is due to finally open in late 2020. We flew in to Schonefeld, less than 20km from the city centre. There’s a railway station within the airport with regular trains into the city centre.
The official currency is the Euro. There are currency exchanges at the airport and some of the main stations, as well as cash points all over the city. I recommend getting a Revolut card as it means you can switch currencies easily and generally at better rates than you’d get at a bureau de change.
Although it’s possible to easily visit most of Berlin’s sights on foot, we bought a Berlin Welcome Card which gave us free train, bus and tram travel around the city, in addition to discounted admission to a huge selection of tourist attractions. The Welcome Card also comes with a handy guidebook outlining several suggested itineraries. The price of the Welcome Card starts at €20 and varies depending on the number of travel zones and the length of time you want it for.