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Even though it dates to the 13th century, it’s hard to find the Berlin of centuries past as a result of aerial bombings during World War II that decimated the city. So in short, visitors to the German capital and the country’s largest city will find it looking more modern than old, perhaps even more ugly than beautiful (especially when you compare it to the picturesque cities and towns along the famed Romantic Road). However, for better or worse, Berlin is and has always been the historical heart and soul of Germany. And so no trip to Germany is complete without a visit there. This first timer’s travel guide to Berlin will help you to prepare for an awesome visit to the German capital.
Hab Spaß! (Enjoy)
3 Must-visit neighborhoods in Berlin
Berlin has 12 boroughs or neighborhoods. Its most popular and well-known one is Mitte which is undoubtedly where visitors will spend the most time, being home to such iconic attractions as the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and Museum Island. It also has the distinction of being one of two boroughs which were formerly divided between East and West Berlin. It’s also the most central part of Berlin, hence its name (mitte means “central” in German).
Charlottenburg is more residential than touristy, but it is home to Charlottenburg Palace, a baroque palace dating from the 17th century.
Friedrichshain is a prime example of gentrification hard at work. Tourists come in droves to see traces of the former GDR, the German Democratic Republic, such as the East Side Gallery and Oberbaum Bridge (a checkpoint between East and West Berlin during the Cold War), but there’s also first rate ethnic restaurants, techno clubs, and urban art spaces.
Arriving in Berlin
Berlin has two major airports, Tegel in the north and Schoenefeld in the south. Both are international airports, however Schoenefeld is served primarily by budget airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair. Only six miles away, Tegel is the closest to the city center. A taxi ride (at non-rush hour times) will cost about 25 euros to get to the city center from the airport and vice-versa.
Trains arriving from and departing for other European countries will either originate or terminate at Berlin’s Central Station or Hauptbahnhof as it’s known in German. The city’s extensive public transportation system is also accessible from here.
If you prefer limiting your carbon footprint when you travel and enjoy train travel over flying, it’s roughly a 6.5 hour train ride to Amsterdam, around five hours to Prague, and a very long 12 hour ride to Paris.
Where to stay
Address: Marlene-Dietrich-Platz 2
I can’t recommend this hotel enough. Located in Mitte, the hotel is roughly a 12 minute walk to points of interest such as the Brandenburg Gate, Topography of Terror, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 12 minute bus ride to Berlin Cathedral and the DDR Museum.
Compared to hotel prices in other major European cities such as Paris and London, I found the rates at the Grand Hyatt Berlin to be exceptionally low in comparison, especially since my room was quite large and I felt I received a luxurious hotel stay without the luxurious prices.
The only negative (which will cease to be an issue after the fall of 2020), is that the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations nearest to the hotel (Potsdamer Platz), is currently undergoing extensive work and so two of the underground lines are not stopping there during this period. An annoyance but manageable since as I said above, you can walk to a lot of attractions and there are numerous bus lines you can access (and I really found the buses easy to use).
As a visitor, the most advantageous thing to do is to purchase the Berlin WelcomeCard, which offers discounts on a plethora of attractions but also means unlimited rides on all forms of the city’s public transportation (underground, buses, and trams). The validity period ranges from 48 hours to six days, and is available in two pricing tiers. Option A (the cheaper of the two) is best if you plan to stay strictly in the city center for public transportation zones A +B. Option B, if you plan to go further afield to Potsdam (home to numerous royal palaces), fly in or out of Schoenefeld Airport, or visit Sachsenhausen Memorial (a former concentration camp), costs slightly more but covers transportation zones A + B + C. You can purchase the Berlin WelcomeCard online or at various spots in the city. I actually was able to purchase mine at the concierge desk of my hotel and have it billed to my room (which meant accruing more Hyatt reward points).
Before you use your Berlin WelcomeCard for the first time, make sure you validate it (that’s when the countdown will start since the card is tied to a period of time). In underground stations, there is a machine for this (it’s separate from where you would purchase a standalone ticket or pass). On buses and trams, it will be the same.
The Honor System
Much to my surprise, when taking the underground in Berlin (either the S-Bahn or U-Bahn), there are no machines to “swipe in.” You literally just walk on. Of course, this is all on the assumption that you have a ticket and if randomly asked, could produce your fare immediately, for the fine for not having one is steep. I found this shocking since Berlin is SUCH a large city (second in population in Europe after London). When getting on the bus the first time, I naturally had my Berlin WelcomeCard (it serves as your transportation pass) to show the driver and he could have cared less. But the bottom line is, do the right thing and don’t try to play the system.
My personal thoughts
Normally I love metro systems in other cities. In Berlin not so much. I found it a little exasperating to use at times and had a few mishaps. I’ve been to other cities where once you descend underground, suburban and city lines are at least connected in some capacity (usually through intricate tunnels and paths). In Berlin, there are separate stations for each and every U-Bahn and S-Bahn line even if the station name is the same. I also had never had a situation where going down one flight of steps meant the platform was only for that direction. When I discovered this, I had to go back up to the street level, cross the street, and then descend. Not a huge deal but if it’s your first time there, just little things to be aware of. I much preferred the buses in Berlin (which for me is normally never the case).
What to see & do
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less interested in art museums and more interested in having other types of experiences (namely in the form of food tours and searching out random historical sites of interest). But in Berlin there’s Museum Island, in which five world-renowned museums are located on the northern half of an island in the Spree River.
I’m pretty knowledgable on the history of Germany and the Holocaust. When it comes to the history of the 41 years when there were two Germanys, I’m much less so. The DDR Museum shows what everyday life was like for people living in the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or German Democratic Republic as it’s known in English. It’s an interactive museum which makes it perfect for exposing children to history. However, just try to time your visit accordingly. I would recommend going nearer to closing (Saturdays the museum is open until 10PM) as my visit there was marred with a most obnoxious and out of control group of German school kids. Going later might also mean fewer children in general.
Address: Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1 (a five minute walk to Berlin Cathedral)
Topography of Terror
I first heard about this history museum through Sarah over at the Wanderblogger through this post of hers. Located on the former site of the SS/Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin, it was a museum I knew I couldn’t miss even though, like my visit to Terezin and my seeing the names of all the Czech victims of the Holocaust in Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, it would be a difficult visit. And it was. It tells the story of the Nazis and all of the evil they perpetrated from their very beginning to the infamous war crimes trials following World War II. There’s significant reading involved and also due to the adult-level content in general, it’s not a museum I would recommend taking young children to. The outdoor exhibit shows excavated cells where prisoners were held and tortured/executed by the Nazis.
Admission is free
Address: Niederkirchnerstraße 8
No visit to Berlin is complete without visiting the world famous Brandenburg Gate, both a landmark and symbol. Built in the late 18th century by the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II after the temporary restoration of order during the Batavian Revolution, it was a symbol of the division between East and West Germany during the Cold War (people in West Berlin used to be able to climb a ladder to peek over the gate and see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain). Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it has also become a symbol of the unity of Germany once more.
Address: Pariser Platz
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This outdoor memorial, only a five minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate, commemorates all the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It’s open 24/7; however, the underground museum attached to it is closed on Mondays.
Address: Cora-Berliner-Straße 1
East Side Gallery
Located in what was once East Berlin, the East Side Gallery consists of a series of murals painted directly on a 1,316 m (4,318 ft) long remnant of the Berlin Wall. There are a total of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world and it was completed in 1990.
Address: Mühlenstraße 3-100 (the one side is quite close to the Warschauer U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations)
The “green lung” of Berlin, Tiergarten is the city’s largest and most popular park. The park is also home to the Berlin zoo, the Victory Column with its winged statue, and the lively, lakeside Café am Neuen See.
It’s located in Mitte, near to Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe-you can’t miss it
The most famous of all the Berlin Wall crossing points between East and West during the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie received its name from the Western Allies. Although the wall was opened in November 1989 and the checkpoint booth removed in June of the following year, the checkpoint remained an official crossing for foreigners and diplomats until German reunification occurred in October 1990. Today it’s one of Berlin’s most popular attractions.
Address: Friedrichstraße 43-45
Berlin Wall Memorial
The Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer commemorates the division of Berlin by the Berlin Wall and the deaths that occurred there. The monument was created in 1998 and the open-air exhibition on Bernauer Strasse, a street that had tumultuous ties to the construction of the wall, tells the history of the division of the two Berlins.
Address: Bernauer Str. 111
Other sites of interest
If you enjoy visiting European palaces, then you’ll need to check out Charlottenburg, a Baroque palace that was built at the end of the 17th century, expanded significantly during the 18th century, but then heavily damaged during World War II and constructed anew in the decades that followed. On display are lavish decorations in baroque and rococo styles. The palace is home to lovely gardens in the back that would be ideal to visit in the warmer months.
Personal note: I found the staff of Charlottenburg Palace slightly rude/not at all nice, really the only time I found this to be the case during my time in Berlin. (For starters, I was told I would have to check my small tote bag although at various points throughout the self-guided tour, I saw women with bags of the same size carrying theirs.) Had it not been winter and had I felt better (I was suffering from a bad head cold), I probably would have ventured to Potsdam instead and toured the royal palaces there and hoped for friendlier staff who didn’t seem miserable working.
Address: Spandauer Damm 10-22
The Reichstag dome
Serving as the meeting place of the German parliament, visitors, through prior registration, can visit the roof terrace and dome of the Reichstag which offers incredible 360 degree views of the parliamentary and government districts as well as other famous sights. It’s free to visit the dome, however, you have to request a time and date in advance. Click here to access the website to register to visit.
Address: Platz der Republik 1
Located on Museum Island and completed in 1905, Berlin Cathedral is the city’s largest and most important Protestant church. It was badly damaged during World War II and was closed during the DDR years, but today is an absolutely beautiful place to visit with its striking interior. Another added bonus are the beautiful views of Museum Island offered from the dome.
Address: Am Lustgarten
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Built at the initiative of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the turn of the last century in honor of his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, the church was seriously damaged during a bombing raid in World War II. Rather than rebuild, it was deliberately left a ruin to serve as a permanent reminder of World War II. (The damaged spire of the old church is what was retained and its ground floor serves as the memorial hall that visitors can enter.) A new church was built around the remains of the old one in the 1960s.
Joseph Roth Diele
This is probably one of the most cramped restaurants you’ll ever dine at (if you dine there at peak times like I did), but the wood-paneled interior takes you back to another time, the 1920s to be exact when the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth-Diele lived next door and is whom the restaurant is named for. The Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad was superb.
*Open Monday through Friday, only*
Address: Potsdamer Straße 75
I happened upon Schlögl’s by chance after visiting the nearby Berlin Cathedral. It’s set back a little from the street but thankfully there was a marker which listed some menu options and was enticing enough for me to venture in. Prices were extremely reasonable and the portions enormous. I had the beef rouladen which is meat rolls filled with bacon, onions, and pickles. It came accompanied with bread dumplings and purple cabbage.
Address: Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 9 (across from Alexanderplatz)
Unfortunately I dined here the same day I ate at Schlögl’s so I wasn’t up for another huge meal. The menu had your tried and true German favorites including schnitzel, currywurst (my newfound favorite), pork knuckle, and more. To be on the slightly lighter side I ordered another German (appetizer) favorite, Potato Soup “Berliner Art” which came with bacon, diced sausage, onion, and sprinkled with fresh herbs.
Address: Wilhelmstraße 77
I know what you’re thinking, donuts…in Germany? The ones at Brammibal’s were delicious. And the deal of a donut and cup of coffee or tea for 5 euros was terrific and also where I got my breakfast each morning (a location was right across the street from the Grand Hyatt). The flavors were varied and the three I had were all delicious. And unbeknownst to me the first two times I dined there, the donuts are vegan. So there’s that (they still tasted sweet and decadent).
Address: Alte Potsdamer Str. 7