For the first time visitor to Berlin, Germany, the stark contrast of the city compared with other German cities might throw you off. I tell you exactly what to expect, and what to see and do when visiting Berlin.
Germany’s Berlin isn’t going to be the prettiest of cities – something is probably always under construction. If I had to choose a colour for it, it would be grey. The dankest grey you can find.
Berlin’s unique grittiness is also its charm. The city felt very young, and its strong aptitude towards the underground indie art scene and culture is admirable. Berlin-ites also have the most progressive attitudes and considerate disposition.
For a hotbed for all things young and cool, Berlin is steeped in history. Berlin is the epicentre of Hitler’s regime, so nobody leaves without a little bit (or a whole lot) of WWII history. A lot of the sites listed here would have had some war narration attached.
Join a Tour
Joining a tour would mean that you can pretty much cover most of Berlin’s attractions in a day. Since Berlin’s attractions are littered all over the city, the bike tour proved most useful. A tour with a guide to give a proper history lesson at the war sites would put Berlin into better perspective.
Since Berlin is a bike city, I decided to join a bike tour. The tour I was on was called Fat Tire Tours, and I highly recommend it. They also have Segway tours, if that’s what you’re into.
I was on the tour on an especially cold day. It was made even worse when we’re riding thanks to the wind… something I was not prepared for. Bring gloves and ear warmers.
There are free tip-based walking tours available too.
Must-Visit Historical War Sites
Brandenburg Gate is Berlin’s most iconic landmark. The neo-classical design makes it one of the attractive sites in Berlin. The historical gate symbolised Berlin’s division during the Cold War. Today it signifies the peaceful reunification of Berlin and Germany.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Part of the tour included a stop at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or the Holocaust Memorial. We were given some time there, which I thought was nice. The memorial was located close to the Brandenburg Gate. I took some time to walk through the large memorial, weaving my way through the peculiar grey concrete slabs. Apparently the meaning of these structures are open to interpretation. They are also coated with some sort of anti-graffiti paint.
If you’re there in summer, the company also does tours to the nearby concentration camps.
Hitler’s Last Bunker
We visited the area where Hitler’s last bunker was located. Without a tour guide to recount his final days, the area wouldn’t have made much sense.
The area looked nonchalant – it was a parking lot with boring-looking apartment buildings surrounding. The government made it so to prevent today’s Nazi’s from doing any sort of demonstration or sit-in. That still did not stop some of them from still leaving flowers in the area on Hitler’s birthday… to this day. *chills.
Or perhaps, what’s remain of the Berlin Wall. This wall was a concrete barrier that divided Berlin 1961 to 1989. Most of the wall has already been demolished, but there are sections still left erect.
Checkpoint Charlie is the more well-known crossing point on the Berlin Wall during the war.
There were actors posing as guards for your phototaking pleasure… at the cost of a few Euros. I did not know this and passed my camera to a passing tourist to help snap a pic before I was stopped by the very-in-character actor: “Hallo! Take picture, pay money!” I’m cheap so I replied “NEIN WAY!” But right after he turned away, the lovely tourist quickly snapped a super awkward photo of me. Bless you, sir. Fun day at Checkpoint Charlie.
This was one of the last remaining guard’s tower from the Cold War. The observation tower is listed as an historical monument.
Gendarmenmarkt is a public square in the middle of Berlin, and considered one of the most prominent in the city. This square is also the location for Berlin’s yearly Christmas market.
Surrounding this square are gorgeous buildings including Deutscher Dom, Französischer Dom and the Konzerthaus. In WWII, most of the buildings were destroyed, but has since been beautifully restored.
Another public square, Bebelplatz is close-by too. The square, though beautiful today, was once the site of mass book-burning by Nazis. Look for a glass pane in the pavements which looks into an underground library. This room has empty bookshelves to commemorate the books that were burnt.
The Greener Side of Berlin
Stroll through Tiergarten Park
Tiergarten is Berlin’s famous park. We rode through here during the tour. Without the protection of buildings, the cold here was unbearable. I imagine the park would be gorgeous and green in the summertime.
Located in the heart of Tiergarten Park, the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, stood out with its golden statue perched on top. We weren’t given the time to do so during the tour, but you can definitely go up the tower for a nice view of Berlin city.
This zoo is located in Tiergarten. I did not visit the zoo – no interest to – but we rode past the zoo. That was quite nice actually, to hear the animals and sneak some peeks at them.
Other Iconic Berliner Attractions
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is the longest surviving part of the Berlin Wall. It is also an open-air exhibition to mix art and history. The bike tour didn’t cover the East Side Gallery, so I made my way down the next day.
It was easy enough by U-Bahn – alight at Ostbahnof station.
The gallery has some impressive artwork. The most famous is the “Fraternal Kiss” piece, which illustrated a make-out session between Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany’s Erich Honecker.
The East Side Gallery is about 1.3 km long, but I only walked a short section of the wall before I got uninspired. Unfortunately, most of the wall has juvenile graffiti scrawled all over the actual artwork. But that’s Berlin for you.
The Reichstag is where the German parliament currently resides and is one of the city’s most important buildings. We only did a quick photo pit stop for the outside.
The Berlin TV Tower
The Berlin TV Tower is another iconic sight of the city. I stayed very close to the centre of Berlin, so I passed by this tower almost everyday. I decided to visit this on the last night with a friend.
Once you purchase a ticket, you have to wait for a turn to get up the tower. I don’t remember it being a long wait. From the tower, you get to see a 360 degrees view of Berlin, and the city at night was nice… Although, we did have to view it through very grimy and dirty windows. I think we were done circling the tower in about 10 minutes?
There was a bar and restaurant up there as well, so we were able to maximise the use of our tickets a little bit more by hanging out at the bar. The restaurant required reservations, but it was expensive anyway.
Berlin’s Museum Island
Berlin interestingly has a so-called Museum Island. It is really a cluster of five museums on Spree Island in the district of Mitte in Berlin. Museum Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A ticket would get you entry to all five museums. I chose to explore the compound instead, since I didn’t have time to visit all five.
The Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral, is a gorgeous building near Museum Island. I didn’t enter, choosing to admire the church’s exterior while I hang out at “Lustgarten”, an open space on Museum Island.
For those REALLY Bored Out of their Minds
Primark at Alexanderplatz
Don’t laugh – but my last day in Berlin I walked all the way to Alexanderplatz station for my last doner, then I got too cold, and went into this huge store called Primark. What was suppose to be a 2-minute stay, became a 2 hour stay. Oops. It was my first time in a Primark, and they had bikini sets for 5 Euros.
Berlin seems to wake up at night, unlike other German cities that I’ve been to. Although I did not participate in any of this, I was graciously put on a guest list to a show where a superstar Japanese DJ was playing. There are many of such events happening at night, so make a couple of friends. As an old lady at heart and a solo female traveller, it’s just not my thing.
What to Eat
Berlin has a very diverse mix of good food and cuisines… unfortunately the places I visited were very subpar. And with terrible service. Worse in all of my time in Germany. However, there were two spots that I enjoyed.
Best Hot Chocolate – Fassbender & Rausch
After the tour, a bike tour buddy and I trudged our cold bodies over to Fassbender & Rausch for the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had in Germany. The cafe was easy to find – just make your way to the Deutscher Dom at the Gendarmenmarkt, and it’s right across the street. You can also take a U-Bahn to Stadtmitte station.
The first level of the chocolatier is all filled with chocolates – it’s unmissable. Ogle at the chocolate creations on the first level for a while. Then make your way to the second level where the cafe is, and enjoy a little piece of warm, chocolatey heaven.
The Doner Kebab at Alexanderplatz Station
Apparently Doner Kebabs were invented in Berlin… I had a lot of these while I was there, because they filled me up and was cheap. The best one I’ve had was at the basement of Alexanderplatz station, with an ultra-friendly dude at the counter. He was appalled that it was my first time having the meat-filled pitas that he took liberties to concoct the “best one” for me.
Getting Around Berlin
Berlin is extremely accessible. I arrived into Berlin city by train. At the central station, there is tourist information counter with an English-speaking guide. You can ask for directions here on the best way to get to your accommodation, etc.
Within Berlin, I’ve taken the bus and the U-Bahn. I only took the bus one time, to-and-fro the train station to my Airbnb accommodation. On the bus, there were screens telling you which stop you’re arriving at – always helpful for the non-local.
The rest of the time I travelled on the U-Bahn, since I stayed very close to Alexanderplatz station.
Where to Stay
I recommend staying close to Alexanderplatz. It was very central and I could walk to a lot of places from there. Otherwise, the U-Bahn connects to a lot of the main tourist sites. There were also so many food options available in the area. I also read recently that in 2019, the Berlin train station will finally link to the Alexanderplatz station.