16 Things to Do in Berlin
If you love art, architecture and history, you’re in for an amazing experience. The history of the Second World War remains very much a part of Berlin. Today, as two generations of pent-up creative energy continue to be unleashed, it is one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Ever-changing and evolving, there are plenty of things to do in Berlin for everyone. Below, a few of our favourites.
The Berlin Wall
The iconic Berlin Wall—put up in a single night in 1961—introduced a new and cruel reality that rapidly acquired a sense of permanence. The city’s centre of gravity shifted as the Wall cut off the historic centre from the west, suspending the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz in a no man’s land, while the outer edge followed the 1920 city limits.
Little of the Berlin Wall remains today, most of it having been demolished between June and November of 1990. What had become the symbol of the inhumanity of the East German regime was prosaically crushed and re-used for road-fill.
Checkpoint Charlie Museum
Perhaps a little tacky, this private museum is nonetheless essential for anyone interested in the Wall and the Cold War. It opened not long after the German Democratic Republic erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, with the purpose of documenting the events that were taking place. The exhibition charts the history of the Wall and gives details of the ingenious and often hair-raising ways people escaped from the East to the West.
The Berlin Museumsinsel (Museum Island)
A must-see, this self-contained museum complex in the centre of Berlin lies at the northern point of the Spreeinsel (Spree Island). Exhibits include late Antique and Byzantine art, a painting gallery, a coin collection, a collection of antiquities, a Near Eastern museum, a museum for Islamic art, European art of the 19th century, an Egyptian museum and a museum for pre- and early history:
The Bode Museum
Located on the island’s northern tip (and pictured above), the Bode Museum opened in 1904 (under the name of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum). Today it features sculpture collections and late Antique and Byzantine art.
Altes Museum (Old Museum)
This was the first part of the complex, and was built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1830.
The Neues Museum (New Museum)
Finished in 1859 under the direction of Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Schinkel, the museum was destroyed in WWII. It was later rebuilt and re-opened in 2009.
Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery)
The Old National Gallery reopened in December, 2001, after three years of careful restoration. With its ceiling and wall paintings, it provides a sparkling home to one of the largest collections of 19thC art and sculpture in Germany.
One of the world’s major archaeological museums, the Pergamon should not be missed. (Note that the museum is currently undergoing a significant renovation and will be closed until 2023. More info here.)
Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz
Built in the late 1960s at a time when relations between East and West were at their lowest point, the 365 metre (1,198 foot) television tower was intended as a show of Communist dynamism and modernity. Take an ear-popping lift to the observation platform at the top—it’s a great way to get your bearings on a visit to Berlin; the view is unbeatable day or night.
German and Jewish histories are deeply connected in Berlin. Sites that testify to the blossoming of Jewish life are often woven alongside those bearing witness to its destruction.
The Holocaust Memorial, or Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman rests in the immediate vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate. The placement of the enormous 19,000-square-metre memorial in the city’s historic centre serves to emphasize its orientation toward the civilian population. Visitors are permitted to walk unrestricted through the field of stelae at any time, day or night.
Jewish Museum Berlin
The Jewish Museum has been among the most prominent institutions in the European cultural landscape since it opened in 2001. The spectacular building by American architect Daniel Libeskind has become a landmark of the city. The historical permanent exhibition, covering 3,000-square-metres of floor space, presents two-thousand years of German-Jewish history with interactive and multimedia components.
Alter Jüdischer Friedhof (Old Jewish Cemetery)
This cemetery is found on Grosse Hamburger Strasse where it meets Oranienburger Strasse. Defaced in 1938, the Nazis ran an irrigation ditch through the cemetery, using most of the 3,000 tombstones to shore up its walls. Only 20 original gravestones remain, one of which marks the burial site of the famous Berlin philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.
Jüdischer Friedhof Weissensee (Jewish Cemetery Weissensee)
The largest Jewish cemetery in Germany lies in the suburb of Weissensee in northeast Berlin. Many of the 120,000 tombstones carry more than one name, representing those who lost their lives in concentration camps.
The interior of functioning synagogues may be viewed only by attending a service. Guests are requested to announce themselves to the Jewish Community in advance. You can obtain more information by contacting the department of religious affairs in the Jewish Community of Berlin.
Topography of Terror
The site of the Topography of Terror, next to the Martin-Gropius-Bau and not far from Potsdamer Platz, was the headquarters of the National Socialist regime of terror from 1933 to 1945: among them, the secret police (Gestapo) with their own prison, the leadership of the Nazi party Schutzstaffel (or SS), and the Central Office of Homeland Security for the German Reich.
The exhibition “Topography of Terror” is located on a walkway that leads you through a ditch past the excavated ruins of several buildings along the Niederkirchnerstrasse (formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse). It documents the history of these institutions of terror, situated in close proximity to the Nazi government sector.
Sachsenhausen (just outside of Berlin)
Many Nazi concentration camps have been preserved and opened to the public as memorials and museums. Sachsenhausen is the nearest to Berlin, and provides a sombre, yet moving, experience. Oranienburg is at the end of the S1 S-Bahn line (40 minutes from Mitte). From the station, follow signs to Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen, for about a 20-minute walk. It’s a good idea to hire an audio guide (available in English) at the gate.