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Trip List by SummerVagabond

Historically Hip - The Best of Berlin in Less Than a Week

24 Jan 2010  I fell in love with Berlin during a solo visit there in March 2008. I returned in June 2009 with a group of high school students in tow, and went back again in November 2009 for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. I condensed the best experiences from those three visits into this list in hopes of helping others get the most out of this amazing city!
4.5 of 5 bubbles based on 7 votes

I'm a history buff, and as a result this list is probably biased in favor of historical sites. But how can you understand and appreciate Berlin, of all places, without knowing its history?! That said, there are a couple of shopping suggestions thrown in for good measure. I've also mentioned which of these attractions you can skip if you're running low on time, and (at the very end of the list) some you can avoid altogether.

IMPORTANT: The sites are grouped more or less geographically-- NOT in order of importance! --so you can economize on time and travel. Always have a good city map with you; I give you enough information to get close to each place, but not step-by-step directions.

  • Category: Best of
  • Traveler type: Culture, Sightseeing, Shopping, Never been before, Repeat visitors
  • Appeals to: Business travellers , Couples/romantics, Honeymooners, Singles, Families with teenagers, Large groups, Seniors, Students, Budget travellers , Active/adventure, Tourists
  • Seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • 1. Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe)

    (Free) This 9-story, century-old department store is world-famous and expensive. A local told me that when the Wall came down it nonetheless became an instant mecca for East Germans, whose cars choked the surrounding area and brought traffic to a standstill. One entire floor is devoted to gourmet foods of every variety, where visitors can buy as much or as little as they please. You will pay a premium here for the same souvenirs available elsewhere, and given the current exchange rate, you will likely pay a lot more for name brands than you would in the States. Still, some people feel they HAVE to go here. Personally, I think you can skip it. Note: If you're in the market for soccer jerseys, go to Karstadt Sport (U-bahn: Zoologischer Garten) at 5-6 Joachimstaler Strasse, about a 10-minute walk from KaDeWe. There you'll find a wide assortment of authentic ones from Germany and around the world.

    U-bahn: Wittenbergplatz / S-bahn: Zoologischer Garten

  • 2. Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

    (Free) Located just a very short walk up Tauentzienstrasse from KaDeWe (away from the Wittenberg U-bahn station) is what remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church after multiple bombing raids during WWII. Locals decided to preserve the partially standing church tower as a reminder of the destructive power of war, and instead built a new, very modern church alongside it. The juxtaposition of old and new makes for an interesting photo, especially at dusk, but I did not go inside. I wouldn't make a special trip to see this, but if you're already in the area, you might as well have a look.

    U-bahn: Kurfurstendamm / S-Bahn: Zoologischer Garten

  • 3. Potsdamer Platz

    (Free) This was a bustling area until WWII laid it to waste. It remained a no man's land until the Wall came down and since then has been developed into a bustling commercial area. There is a small segment of the original Berlin Wall on display on one street corner, and the Sony Center is worth a look for its unique architectural design. Otherwise, there is little to distinguish the area from any other modern, urban, commercial center. It is conveniently located, though, near several points of interest on this list, and because of its U-bahn and S-bahn stops, it is likely to be your launching point for several attractions.

    U-bahn: Potsdamer Platz / S-bahn: Potsdamer Platz

  • 4. The Bendler Block (German Resistance Memorial Center)

    (Free) Fans of the 2008 Tom Cruise movie "Valkyrie" and anyone who has ever wondered about internal, German resistance to Hitler's regime owes it to him/herself to visit this memorial site and its very informative, well-organized museum--an easy, 15-minute walk west of Potsdamer Platz. In 1944, in the very rooms that now house the museum's exhibits, Nazi officers plotted a failed coup against Hitler and top officials of the Third Reich. As depicted in "Valkyrie," the schemers were executed in the courtyard through which you enter the museum; be sure to see the memorial plaque on the wall at the spot where they died. The museum offers a free and very worthwhile audioguide in English. You will discover there was far more German resistance to Hitler than most people realize. Tip: Watch the movie "Valkyrie" before you go.

    U-bahn: Kurfurstenstrasse or Potsdamer Platz / S-bahn: Potsdamer Platz

  • 5. The Reichstag Dome

    (Free) Go after dinner for a shorter line and an awesome nighttime view of the city. The dome itself is an engineering marvel, with an indoor spiral walkway that takes you to the very top and lets you look down into the Bundestag. An audioguide is available in English with interesting facts about the dome's design. You can also go outside onto a large, rooftop patio for views of the city in nearly every direction. The dome typically stays open until midnight, although you have to enter the building by 10:00pm. (Check the website, as hours may be seasonal.) I enjoyed the dome on two separate occasions, and it was a hit with my students, too. Dress appropriately, and skip this if visibility is poor or the line to enter the building extends beyond the bottom of the steps (unless you're OK waiting for an hour or more).

    U-bahn: Brandenburger Tor / S-bahn: Brandenburger Tor

  • 6. Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)

    (Free) Take a short walk south from the Reichstag for a must-do photo op at the Brandenburg Gate. Napoleonic and Nazi troops alike have marched under the gate, which was heavily damaged during WWII. It survived, only to be sealed off from the West by the Berlin Wall. The adjacent Pariserplatz is home to a handful of coffee/snack shops and some swank hotels (including the Adlon, where Michael Jackson dangled one of his children off the balcony). The American embassy is nearby.

    U-bahn: Brandenburger Tor / S-bahn: Brandenburger Tor

  • 7. The Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe)

    (Free) A short walk south from the Brandenburg Gate is an outdoor, Holocaust memorial of unusual design. The maze-like park is roughly the size of a small city block, and consists of rectangular stones, variously sized and set at different heights. There is a free, indoor museum with which I am not familiar, but more information about it is available at the website. The outdoor memorial alone is not worth a special trip, but if you're at the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie anyway, you might as well have a look.

    U-bahn: Potsdamer Platz or Mohrenstrasse / S-bahn: Brandenburger Tor or Potsdamer Platz

  • 8. Berlin Wall Museum (Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie)

    (Adults: 12,50 Euros) The Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie is devoted to the history of the Wall itself and in particular to the many successful and unsuccessful attempts to cross it. You will see the actual, creative devices people used to escape to the West--underground, underwater, and in the air--and some interesting documents and photos. I wanted to like the place, given my fascination with the Wall, but when I last visited the museum a second time in June 2009, it still felt cramped, disorganized, and confusing. (My students quickly grew impatient and wanted out.) I understand it may have expanded to new quarters just up Friedrichstrasse, in time for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in November 2009, so maybe it deserves another chance. (Check the latest reviews to see what people are saying.) Just outside, in the middle of busy Friedrichstrasse, is a recreation of the famous Checkpoint Charlie border crossing at its original location; even if you skip the museum, you still may want a photo with the "guards" on duty at the checkpoint.

    U-bahn: Kochstrasse / S-bahn: Friedrichstrasse

  • 9. The Berlin Story Bookstore

    (Free) Walking east from the Brandenburg Gate and Pariserplatz, continue to 26 Unter Den Linden and spend some time in the Berlin Story Bookstore. (Many people feel that a walk along the entire length of Unter Den Linden is well worth the time--in nice weather, I agree.) It has the best selection of reasonably priced souvenirs I found anywhere in Berlin, and hundreds of English-language books about every conceivable aspect of Berlin and its history. If you're headed there from Checkpoint Charlie, you'll need to go north on Friedrichstrasse to Unter Den Linden, and then go left/west; the bookstore will be on the far side of Unter Den Linden.

    U-bahn: Brandenburger Tor / S-bahn: Unter Den Linden

  • 10. Bebelplatz

    (Free) Not far from museum island, at the far end of Unter Den Linden from the Brandenburg Gate, is Bebelplatz--the open square where the Nazi book-burning took place in 1933. At the center of it is a glass plate in the ground through which you can look down into a memorial room filled with empty bookshelves, which are illuminated at night. The square opens directly onto Unter Den Linden and is bordered by the State Opera, St. Hedwig's Cathedral, and the Old Library.

    U-bahn: Franzosische Strasse / S-Bahn: Friedrichstrasse

  • 11. Museumsinsel (Museum Island)

    (Cost Varies) Several of Berlin's most popular museums are conveniently concentrated in this small area along the Spree River, a reasonably short and pleasant walk from Alexanderplatz. In 2009, the Neues Museum became home to the famed bust of Nefertiti--which in my book is reason enough to go there. Nefertiti's former home, the Altes Museum, still houses a stunning collection of Greek artifacts, among other classical antiquities. The equally impressive Pergamon Museum, which remains open in 2010 while undergoing renovations, boasts an ancient near east, an Islamic art, and a classical antiquities collection. Note: The Berlin Card offers discounted admission to selected museums and other attractions, but if you plan to see more than one museum, the 3-day museum pass may be the better deal.

    U-bahn: Alexanderplatz / S-Bahn: Hackescher Markt

  • 12. Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

    (Adults: 5 Euros) Perpendicular to the Altes Museum is the Berlin Cathedral, a frequently photographed landmark. It's reasonably attractive inside, but not as spectacular as many other European cathedrals. I don't see much reason to pay and go inside--instead snap a photo from the square and continue eastward across the river.

    U-bahn: Alexanderplatz / S-Bahn: Hackescher Markt

  • 13. Alexanderplatz

    (Free) Head for the instantly recognizable TV tower (Fernsehturm) behind the Berliner Dom and you'll find yourself at Alexanderplatz. (Along the way, on the right hand side of the street after you cross the river, look for the park with the statue of Marx and Engels at its center.) In many ways the hub of the former East Berlin (and still a public transportation hub today), Alexanderplatz is a likely stop on every tourist's itinerary. The TV tower offers unrivaled, 360-degree views of the entire city, including a bird's eye perspective on Communist-era architecture. But at 10,50 Euros the admission seems steep to me--especially if the observation windows are as dirty as they were when I visited in 2008! Back on the ground, look for the famous world clock at the southeastern end of the plaza--over the years it has been a meeting point for clandestine associations and mass protests and appeared in a movie or two. If you're feeling energetic, transport yourself to the Communist era by talking a walk down Karl-Marx-Allee, just off Alexanderplatz, to see unmistakably Soviet buildings and murals.

    U-bahn: Alexanderplatz / S-Bahn: Alexanderplatz

  • 14. East Side Gallery

    (Free) Here in the former Communist sector, see the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall--now covered with dozens of amazing murals painted by international artists. The murals were all new or refreshed (from their original state in 1989-1990) for the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall in November 2009. At the far end of the gallery is a neat souvenir shop, where you can buy purportedly authentic pieces of the Wall (the owner has photographs of himself hacking away at it!) and even have your passport stamped with a DDR visa. A must-see!

    U-bahn: Ostbahnhof / S-bahn: Ostbahnhof

  • 15. The Stasi Prison (Berlin-Hohenschonhausen Memorial Center for the Victims of the Ministry of State Security)

    (Adults: 5 Euros) A visit to this stark former prison of the East German secret police, in the general vicinity of the East Side Gallery, is vital to a thorough understanding of life under the Communist regime. The tours, led mostly by former political prisoners, are fascinating if not a bit creepy--but the history lessons are unbeatable from a human rights perspective, in particular. My students and I all considered this tour a highlight of our trip in June 2009. Tours in English are currently offered only on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons unless you make other arrangements online in advance.

    From Alexanderplatz S-bahn station, Tram M5 to the Freienwalder Strasse stop, then a 10-minute walk to the end of Freienwalder Strasse.

  • 16. Stasi Museum

    (Adults: 4 Euros) In the general vicinity of the Stasi (secret police) prison, this museum was THE Stasi headquarters building. On display is a wide assortment of spy equipment and Communist-era relics; there's even a prisoner transport van disguised as a delivery truck. You can walk into the director's suite, the situation room, etc.--all preserved exactly as they were found when the people stormed the building after the regime collapsed. You feel as though you've stepped back in time. The displays were only in German when I was there in November 2009. A guided tour in English can be scheduled online in advance at no additional cost. Most of the displays are self-explanatory even without translation; I think they're well worth seeing if you have any interest in genuine "Communist kitsch" or how the Stasi operated. Tip: Watch the movie "The Lives of Others," or read the book "Stasiland" by Anna Funder, before you visit for a greater appreciation of life under the Stasi. Short on time? See the Stasi prison first.

    U-bahn: Magdalenenstrasse / S-bahn: Frankfurter Allee

  • 17. Berlin Underground Tours (Berlin Underground Association / Berliner Unterwelten)

    (Adults: 9 Euros) This company offers several fascinating, 90-minute tours of unusual, mostly underground sites (e.g., WWII bunkers, WWII flak towers, nuclear fallout shelters) in Berlin, all of which can be booked online in advance. (Be sure to request a tour in English.) Plan ahead, since tour dates and times vary by season-- specific tours may be available only once or twice a week. In June 2009 I took my students on Tour C, a combination of Tours 1 and 3, and EVERYONE liked it-- many said it was the highlight of our trip. (Tour C may be offered only to groups of 20+, though, so if I had to pick, I'd probably pick Tour 1.) Our tour oozed history and was as authentic as you can get--leading us through the very shelters and bunkers used either during WWII or in preparation for nuclear war. We saw lots of WWII-era fixtures, furniture, signs, foodstuffs and other supplies along the way, and our guide did an outstanding job of explaining how things worked and what conditions were like during the bombing raids. I highly recommend it, and will be booking the firm's other tours on future trips.

    U-bahn / S-bahn: Follow the company's tour-specific directions

  • 18. Rediscovering the Wall Tour (Grenzpuren am Flutgraben)

    (Adults: 10 Euros) The "Rediscovering the Wall" tour is offered only on Fridays and Sundays at 2:00 pm. An English-speaking tour may be requested online in advance at those same times- be certain to reserve in advance. There are two primary reasons this tour appealed to me in spite of seeming too long at nearly 2 hours. Firstly, the tour takes you through an original East German factory, one side of which was incorporated as part of the Berlin Wall. Consequently, you see where the windows along that side of the building were bricked in; where the building's facade was shaved smooth to remove potential toeholds and handgrips for those trying to escape to the West; where the East German guards wrote graffiti on the interior walls to pass the time; and the remains of surveillance systems and sentry points. Nothing else like it exists, to my knowledge, anywhere in Berlin--similar places have long since been destroyed or renovated to erase unpleasant memories. The second reason? Directly across the street is an intact watchtower, formerly used by East German border guards, that stands where the Wall once was; for a voluntary donation you can go inside and climb to the top for an eerie glimpse of what it was like to stand watch at the Wall. Short on time? See the East Side Gallery and the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie (for a broader understanding of the Wall's impact) first.

    U-bahn: Schlesisches Tor / S-Bahn: Treptower Park

  • 19. Topography of Terror

    Skip it. It's an outdoor series of enlarged, photographic displays with explanations only in German. It stands on the site of the former SS headquarters, but there's nothing left of that to see. An old section of the Wall runs alongside, but you're better off seeing the larger, more interesting section at the East Side Gallery.

  • 20. DDR Museum

    Skip it. I have an unusual curiosity about life under Communism, and even I found the place small and very cramped. I was anxious to leave.

  • 21. Berlin Wall Documentation Center & Memorial Site (Bernauer Strasse)

    Skip it. Although many of the better-known stories and images of the Wall emanate from the section along Bernauer Strasse, the short section you see here is a reconstruction, albeit a faithful one. It is best viewed from an elevated platform across the street. See the real thing at the East Side Gallery instead.