Who wants to sit out in the cold waiting in line for the best in-store deals? I'm having flashbacks to growing up in Alaska, when it would often be 10F in November. We would take turns going to Starbucks for mochas to keep us energized and warm while waiting. Anyway,...
Berlin might just be the coolest city in the world right now. Everyone wants to visit Berlin or live in Berlin and everyone wants to know the top things to do in Berlin. But when you really think about it, it’s a bit hard to describe Berlin. Even though it’s in Germany, it has a unique feel all its own. The city is massive and multicultural. There are many distinct neighborhoods that feel and look very different from each other. The city was separated in two for almost thirty years, after all! Berlin is a city in which you can be a tourist and see and do everything there is, or in which you could just hang out for weeks and not feel like you missed anything. It has one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever used, especially for a city so big and busy. There is great food and nightlife and the people are friendly and welcoming. Even though it’s a bit rough around the edges, once you get to know Berlin, you’ll fall in love with it. I sure did.
In this destination guide to Berlin, you’ll find recommendations for things to do in Berlin, how to get around Berlin, and places to stay in Berlin.
- 1 things to do in Berlin
- 2 Berlin’s Best Food and Drink Options
- 3 Getting Around Berlin
- 4 Places to Stay in Berlin
- 5 Don’t Miss Out on Berlin’s…
- 6 German Things To Know
things to do in Berlin
Berlin has top-notch attractions. From art museums to historical monuments to beautiful parks, Berlin has something for everyone. Here’s a good place to start:
The Reichstag building is the meeting place of the German parliament government building in Berlin. It is an impressive building with both modern and traditional architecture. Once you climb to the top (through a gradually winding ramp), you’ll be able to see a super view of the city. You should reserve your free tickets online about a month in advance (or longer) to ensure you get your desired time slot.
The Brandenburg Gate
You should definitely go see the Brandenburg Gate. It’s an imposing and beautiful structure and makes for great pictures from either direction. I’d recommend walking down the Unter den Linden (one of the main streets in Berlin) to get to it, take some pictures, and continue under it to eventually reach the Reichstag. The walk from the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag is along a lovely tree-lined path.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
The major Holocaust memorial in Berlin is in this area as well. It’s called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a stunning, severe display. Cement blocks of different heights fill a square block. Walking through this space is like walking through a maze. Some of the blocks are so tall you can’t see anything else, but then they’ll decrease in height and the city will open up around you. It’s a moving experience and I’ve gone every time I’ve visited the city. Even though it may be an Instagram worthy spot, please be respectful and remember why it’s there.
Are you planning to explore more of Europe? Why not plan a European road trip?
Berlin Wall Memorials
There are three major Berlin Wall Memorials in the city. They are all in my list of top things to do in Berlin but I have listed them in order of my preference.
The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße is an open-air exhibit that runs for 1.3 km. As you walk down the street, you can stop to read or watch videos of stories of people who lived in a split city. At one end you can also get a view from above of what the divided city looked like, including the no man’s land section between the walls.
The East Side Gallery is a long stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing which was first opened as an art exhibit in 1990. You’ve probably seen pictures of the paintings, some of which are hopeful and some which are scathing political statements.
The Topography of Terror displays how the Nazi regime used propaganda, in addition, to fear to come to and maintain power.
Museum Island is right in the center of Berlin and is home to five of the most important museums in the city: Pergamonmuseum, Bode-Museum, Neues Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Altes Museum. You can buy a ticket to see all the museums in one day but that sounds a bit overzealous to me! I’d recommend seeing a maximum of two in one day.
Also on Museum Island is my favorite building in Berlin (possibly in the world) – the Berliner Dom. You can go inside to see the crypt or climb to the top for a view, but I’ve been content to just stare up at it from the grassy area outside.
Right across from Museum Island are two additional attractions I think are well worth a visit. The German Historical Museum is an incredible museum all about German history. You could spend several hours here. Neue Wache is a quite moving war memorial. It will only take a few moments of your time to visit, but it will stay with you much longer.
The Tiergarten is one of the biggest urban parks in Germany. It has everything you want in a city park: a zoo, ponds with ducks, paddleboats, huge fields, and (this being Germany) beer gardens. It’s a green oasis and a lovely place to spend an afternoon after exploring the museums and cultural things to do in Berlin.
Berlin’s Best Food and Drink Options
Eating in Berlin
Berlin is a multicultural world capital city, so you’ll be able to find pretty much whatever you want to eat. Berlin has it all: Michelin starred restaurants, schnitzel spots, cozy cafes, Vietnamese food, Turkish food, burgers, street food, and every chain imaginable. But in my humble opinion, there is one absolute must-try in Berlin: Döner Kebab.
Though kebab shops are now prevalent throughout Europe, the best are in Germany, and the best of the best are in Berlin. Many people believe that Döner Kebab was born in Berlin, having been created by Turkish immigrants. (Since the 1960s, there has been a large Turkish community in Berlin.) The Döner Kebab is like fusion cuisine – a mashup of Turkish and German street food. Piping hot meat, crisp fresh vegetables, and garlicky, spicy sauces are all nestled within the most delicious Turkish bread. At around 4 EUR, they make for an inexpensive lunch or late night, after drinks snack.
There are Döner Kebab shops all over Berlin. But if you want a dizzying array of options of traditional Döner, go to the Kreuzberg neighborhood. The most famous Döner Kebab shop in Berlin is Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab. I attempted to try it once, but after 10 minutes waiting in a line that didn’t move, I gave up. I’ve had too many delicious Döner Kebabs elsewhere in the city to wait that long!
Full disclosure, I’m a bit biased – I love Döner Kebab so much my husband and I even mentioned it in our wedding vows.
Drinking in Berlin
The first thing to know about drinking in Berlin is that you can drink outside in public. There are countless convenience stores (called Spätkaufs) throughout the city where you can grab a beer (from an impressive selection), pop it open, and go on your merry way. Exploring the top Berlin attractions is even better with a beer in hand! As such, the street or a park or a bridge are my favorite places to drink in Berlin. But if you’re looking for something a bit more stationary, Berlin has those too.
Certain places in Germany are known for their types of drinking culture. In Bavaria, you’ve got traditional beer gardens with women in costume serving liters of beer. In North Rhine-Westphalia, you’ve got surly servers doling out small glasses of Kölsch or Alt (depending on which city you’re visiting) until you tell (beg) them to stop. Berlin being Berlin, it doesn’t have any of that. Sure you can go to a beer garden, but at my favorite, Prater Garten, you serve yourself and no one is in costume. But if you just want a bar, you can easily find one. Berlin has trendy cocktail bars and dive bars and wine bars and craft beer bars… whatever you’re looking for as you’d expect in such a massive city.
Berlin is also known for its club culture. Berghain is the most (in)famous. But it takes a lot of waiting on line and acting like you don’t care to get in. And chances are, you won’t get in. But don’t take it personally. Just head on over to any of the other number of clubs in the city where you don’t have to try (or not try) so hard.
Getting Around Berlin
Berlin is huge. Luckily, Berlin has a wide-reaching, incredibly efficient public transportation system consisting of buses and trains. It is by far the best way to get around the city and the Berlin sights. The system is fully integrated into Google Maps so that’s the best way to get directions.
How to buy and use public transportation tickets in Berlin
There are ticket machines in every U-Bahn or S-Bahn station. You’ll need to use cash or a card that has a chip and pin. On buses, you can buy a ticket from the driver (cash only). There are single tickets or tickets for unlimited rides during a specific period of time. The week-long pass is a good deal and it also gives one companion free rides during the weekend and after 8pm. Whichever ticket you buy, you must validate it prior to boarding the train or as soon as you board the bus. And then keep your ticket with you in case it is checked.
Getting into Berlin from the airports
No matter where you’re flying into, it’s easy to get from the airport into the city center of Berlin. From Tegel (TXL), it’s fastest to take the airport bus and from Schönefeld (SFX), it’s best to take a train.
A cheaper bus tour in Berlin
The best way to see Berlin is by bus. But I’m not talking about one of those expensive, touristy hop-on-hop-off tours. Instead, take the public transportation tour! Bus 100 and Bus 200 will take you in a giant circle around the city – from Alexanderplatz to the Zoo – and will stop at most of the major landmarks. If you purchase a day ticket, you can actually hop on and off at your leisure. Try to grab the front seat at the top level so you have the best view during the drive.
A Segway tour is a great way to see all the best things to do in Berlin!
Places to Stay in Berlin
When thinking about places to stay in Berlin, I recommend thinking about what type of visit you want to have and what you want to be close to. Do you want to be near the main things to do in Berlin? Or do you want to be in a more local feeling neighborhood? Honestly, you’ll be fine either way – with Berlin’s extensive transportation system, you can easily get wherever you want to go.
Hotels in Mitte
If you want to stay close to the main Berlin sights, you can’t go wrong staying in Mitte. There is an enormous number of options and most of the big chains are there. You won’t get the most character during your stay, and you’ll have to venture a bit further afield to find cozy dining options, but you’ll be right in the middle of everything you want to see during the day.
Motel One is a German hotel chain with stylish, reasonably priced rooms. They have ten (!) hotels in Berlin – some in the center of the city and some in the outer neighborhoods, so you have plenty of options from which to choose.
Apartment rentals in Berlin
If my husband and I are staying in Berlin for more than a couple of nights, we like to stay in an apartment in our favorite neighborhood – Prenzlauer Berg. It’s pretty residential and there aren’t that many hotels, but we’ve had good experiences with Airbnb.
Don’t Miss Out on Berlin’s…
Berlin is a bit gritty, but there are a ton of places in the city itself where you can get out into a little bit of nature. In addition to the aforementioned Tiergarten, there are plenty of parks and even forests throughout the city including Mauer Park, Templehofer Feld, Volkspark Schöneberg-Wilmersdorf, and Grunewald. The River Spree also runs right through Berlin. You can enjoy it by crossing one of Berlin’s many bridges (did you know Berlin has more bridges than Venice?), relaxing at a cafe or makeshift beach on its banks, or taking a river cruise.
German Things To Know
Germans do not jaywalk. If you don’t want to stand out as a tourist, you will wait patiently at the corner of the street until the light turns green. Even if no cars are anywhere in sight and you feel somewhat ridiculous (especially if you’re a New Yorker like me!), you’ll stand there with all the other orderly, law-abiding Germans. While you’re waiting, have a look at the pedestrian street lights. The Ampelmännchen is a beloved symbol of the city.
Bread in Germany is delicious. I’ve discovered this isn’t a well-known thing, so I felt it’s important to include here. Go into any bakery or supermarket and pick from the wide variety of bread and enjoy.
Germans are punctual people. Being on time is sometimes considered late so best to get places five minutes early.
In a restaurant, if you want to pay with a credit card and you want to tip, say the total amount you want to pay (bill plus tip) when you hand the card to the waiter. They always bring the machine to the table so you’ll see and be able to confirm the entire transaction. But there’s no extra line to add a tip after the fact. Tipping in restaurants in Germany is common. Depending on the place, you can round up or add 10%.
Germans appreciate when you make a little effort to speak their language. Here are some key phrases for your trip to Berlin:
Bye (informal): Tschüß
Good day: Guten Tag
Good night: Gute Nacht
Where is the toilet?: Wo ist die Toilette?
Thank you: Danke
You’re welcome or please or excuse me: Bitte
Asking for the check: Die Rechnung bitte
Do you speak English?: Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Two beers please: Zwei Bier bitte
And take note, Germans will always get in the last word. When you leave a store and say “Tschüß” or “Danke,” they’ll say it back and if you say “Bitte,” they’ll say something else and if you don’t acknowledge defeat it could go on and on like that for quite a while.
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Sarah is one half of a traveling and blogging team. In 2017, she and her husband Justin completed a year-long trip around (some of) the world where they ate absurdly well, saw glaciers and fjords and puffins and elephants, and raised awareness for the rare disease Sarah has. They have been documenting their journey and sharing travel tips for others with accessible travel needs at their blog Travel Breathe Repeat.
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