With probably the most infamous 20th-century history of any city in the world, Berlin is an absolute treasure trove for curious visitors. From Weimar-era delights to the horrors of WWII and subsequent decades of division, the city presents its unique story with a simple honesty and grace.
In its current guise as Europe’s buzzing capital of culture and tech, Berlin offers an abundance of world-class galleries, exhibitions and restaurants to be sampled at a typically leisurely pace, with charming green spaces punctuating the urban sprawl.
But what to see the first time you visit? Whether you’re a museum buff or clubbing fiend, there’s something to suit your every mood. Here’s our guide to getting started.
Let’s start at the beginning. This iconic building survived the bombardments of war and was later redesigned by British architect Norman Foster after the city’s reunification. These days, the distinctive steel and glass dome houses the German Bundestag (parliament), with guided tours available to book online in advance.
2. Brandenburger Tor
German landmarks don’t get more famous than this. Built in the 18th century to mark the gateway to Berlin, it has come to symbolise both national and European unity, remaining a hallowed hub for protest and celebration to this day. Let’s also not forget that Baywatch legend David Hasselhoff performed to an ecstatic crowd here in 1989, becoming forever synonymous with the fall of the wall.
3. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
It’s difficult to describe the feeling you get walking through this sombre memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Simultaneously imposing and welcoming, it’s a profoundly affecting experience and creates the perfect environment in which to reflect. Alongside the concrete slabs or ‘stelae’ there’s an underground information centre which offers the heartbreaking stories, names and faces of those lost.
4. Tempelhofer Feld
This 386-hectare former airport in the centre of Berlin has quietly become its heart and soul. Originally built in the 1920s and heavily used during Nazi rule, it took centre stage for the Berlin Airlift as Allied planes dropped essential supplies to the blockaded West. These days, skylarks nest in the meadow-like grass, cyclists and kiteboarders freewheel down the disused runways and families barbecue in the sun. It’s a space that truly belongs to everyone and reminds us how far we’ve come.
5. East Side Gallery
Running alongside the River Spree between Friedrichshain in the East and Kreuzberg in the West, this 1.3km stretch of the Berlin wall is now preserved as the world’s longest open-air gallery. Colourful murals celebrating peace and unity cover its surfaces, making it a firm Instagram favourite and great tip if you’re wondering what to see in Berlin.
Literally translated as ‘wall park’, Mauerpark is another must-see built on the site of a grim historical feature – this time the Berlin Wall and its adjacent ‘death strip’. Nowadays, it hosts picnics and parties galore, with the most notable a Sunday flea market packed with vintage stalls and tasty street food. After you’ve browsed the bargains and grabbed a beer, take a seat on the amphitheatre steps and prepare for some ‘bearpit’ karaoke. Genuinely entertaining stuff.
7. Museum Island
No ‚what to see in Berlin‘ guide would be complete without this UNESCO World Heritage site nestled on the River Spree. Housing 5 world-renowned museums and galleries, this little island has become a mecca for culture vultures keen to admire wonders such as the Bust of Nefertiti and the Pergamon Panorama. Combine with a boat tour up the Spree and take in the city from a unique – and lazy – angle.
8. Soviet War Memorial + Treptower Park
For a sight that’ll stop you in your tracks, don’t miss the memorial to 7,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the 1945 Battle of Berlin. As you approach the entrance, twin granite monoliths do an effective job of conveying the calibre of military might they’re commemorating. If that’s not enough to give you goosebumps, look to the far end of the memorial where a 12m-tall Soviet soldier stands, sword resting on a crushed swastika.
9. Food, glorious food
Although not thought of as a foodie capital, Berlin boasts a pleasing selection of weird and wonderful dishes that really ought to be tried. As well as traditional German highlights and the legendary Currywurst, the city’s sizeable Turkish, Lebanese and Vietnamese communities mean there’s something for everyone. For the ultimate hyped Berlin food experience, queue up with the tourists at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab to sample the best döner of your life.
10. Make a little lake trip
Depending on the time of year you visit, it’s well worth taking a trip out of town to reach one of the city’s surrounding lakes. Taking a dip in the cool, tree-lined waters is an integral part of Berlin summer culture, and many of the lakes are a short train or bike ride from the centre. For first-timers, the neighbouring lakes of Krumme Lanke and Schlachtensee are easily accessible to the south-west of the city, with both offering scenic walks through the nearby Grunewald forest.