Berlin is one of my favorite cities in the world, and easily my favorite city we visited during the three weeks we spent in Germany. The city has it all – fascinating history, beautiful architecture, fantastic food, and is pretty affordable for a major European city. I could easily imagine myself living here one day if the opportunity ever arose.
When looking for a place to stay, I recommend staying on the east side – it’s more affordable, has more interesting sites (in my opinion), and has some really cool artsy neighborhoods. The west side is a bit more commercial and has more conventional city attractions like the zoo.
If renting an airbnb, one thing to keep in mind is that the city of Berlin recently passed a law banning people from renting out entire apartments, so you can only rent a private room. We rented the largest private room we could find in our budget (under $50/night), and it worked out great!
After spending a week in Berlin, here are the highlights from our trip:
1. Visit the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building
The Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are two of the most famous sites in Berlin. I lumped these together, as they are really close to one another (about a 5 minute walk).
The Brandenburg Gate was built in 1791 by the Prussian king Frederick William II. The gate later became part of the Berlin Wall and served as the backdrop of several famous Cold War moments, including Ronald Reagan’s call to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”
The Reichstag building is the home of the German parliament. It has a pretty interesting place in Nazi history. Hitler used the famous Reichstag fire to consolidate his power in Germany, and some historians believe that the Nazis themselves were behind the fire.
If you want to take a tour (free to the public), book ahead online — especially in the summer, when tours get booked up early. We failed to do this and missed out. I later heard that you might be able to get a ticket after you arrive if you go through the security check process and wait in line, but I’m not sure how reliable that is. Be safe and book in advance!
Even if you don’t take a tour, the architecture of the building alone definitely warrants a stop!
2. See the East Side Gallery
I talked about the East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie (next on this list) more extensively in my post The Berlin Wall: a photo essay. Without repeating myself too much, the East Side Gallery is an absolute cannot miss when coming to Berlin.
About a mile long stretch of the Berlin Wall was painted by artists from all over the world, making it one of the largest open air art galleries in the world. It’s also the longest intact stretch of the wall.
3. Visit Checkpoint Charlie and its museum
Although the original checkpoint was torn down, there is a recreation of the famous Berlin Wall crossing in its place today. It’s guarded by two fake American soldiers, where cheesy tourists like me can pose for pictures.
There’s a really cool little museum next door that documents the many escape attempts – some successful and some not – of East Germans over the wall. It’s a bit cluttered, and there is more documentation than you could ever read, but it was worth the visit! There’s also a great second-story view out over the entire street.
If you’re not that interested in the history, however, I’d say skip the museum, but still visit the checkpoint. The gift shop on the ground floor is also a great place to buy pieces of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs. Lots of tourist shops around town sell them as well, but the authenticity of many of those is questionable. You don’t need to pay the entrance fee to visit the gift shop!
Museum admission cost: €12.50
4. Take a Fat Tire Bike Tour
Berlin is ideal for biking. The city was built on a swamp and is flat almost everywhere. It is also fairly spread out, so biking enables you to see much more of the city than you could just by walking. The city is also incredibly bike-friendly. Even having very limited experience biking on roads, I felt completely safe.
I cannot recommend the Fat Tire bike tours enough. Our guide Ronan was so knowledgeable about Berlin’s history, but also super funny and entertaining. The first tour we went on was so amazing (Berlin Wall & Cold War Tour), we decided to do a second (Third Reich & Nazi Germany Tour).
Both tours were great, but the Cold War tour was my favorite. Many of the sites associated with the Cold War are still standing – unlike WW2, when most of the city was destroyed. Ronan pointed out a lot of things I would have never noticed on my own, like Soviet propaganda art on the sides of buildings. Both tours also stopped at really great (and inexpensive) local restaurants for lunch. Fat Tire also offers a general city bike tour and some other specialty tours.
Sure, it’s a more expensive than renting a bike and doing a self-guided tour, but these two tours were among our favorite things we did not only in Berlin, but on our entire trip to Germany. I enjoyed the tours so much that I’ve booked a Fat Tire tour in London for when I visit next month.
5. Shop and dine in the Gendarmenmarkt area
The Gendarmenmarkt area has a bunch of great restaurants and shops. One of our favorites was Rausch Schokoladenhaus, a specialty chocolate shop that has chocolate sculptures of some of Berlin’s most famous sites.
The square itself has a German church on one side, a French church on the other, and a concert hall in the middle.
6. Try different international restaurants
We visited Berlin on the third week of our trip to Germany. By that time, we were pretty tired of sausage and schnitzel.
Luckily, Berlin is known for its variety of international cuisine. We had some of our favorite meals of the entire trip in Berlin, most notably at Turkish and Cuban restaurants.
Most of the restaurants we ate at were also pretty reasonably priced too.
7. Visit the Soviet war memorial
The Soviet Union suffered the largest causalities of any nation in World War II. In the Battle of Berlin alone, 80,000 Red Army soldiers were killed. The memorial is located in Treptower Park and is quite striking. The vast spaces of the monument, as well as the statues, give you a sense of the great magnitude of the loss.
It was originally the largest war memorial dedicated solely to Soviet losses during the war, until the late 1960s when a bigger one was built in Russia.
Because the memorial also serves as a cemetery for several thousand Soviet soldiers killed in battle, remember to be respectful.
8. Take a Spree river cruise
Taking in Berlin on the water is a great way to spend an hour. There are several places on the river you can hop on a cruise, no need to book in advance. I recommend looking for one that has a tour guide. Some have only pre-recorded audio tours that are a little bit hokey.
Cost: around €15, but could be more depending on length and company
9. Relax by Weisser See
Weisser See is a lake on the East side of Berlin. You can swim in the lake, or just relax at one of the cafes on the lakefront.
Our airbnb was really close to this lake, and we enjoyed getting sandwiches and milkshakes at a cafe and watching the sun go down from the patio.
10. Take a day trip to Potsdam or Dresden
Berlin is a great launching point for a day trip to Potsdam or Dresden. Potsdam is about 15 miles from Berlin and used to be the home of Prussian Kings and the German Kaiser. With several beautiful palaces and gardens, Potsdam is known as the “Versailles of Berlin.”
If you want to venture a little further out, Dresden is about two hours from Berlin by car or coach. Dresden is a cultural hub, has beautiful architecture, and a fascinating history.