Berlin is a beautiful city and one of my favourite places to travel in Europe. It is a city that feels very real, and it offers visitors a heady combination of both glamour and grit.
My fascination with Berlin stems largely from the fact that I am a history buff, and Berlin is a city with a rich cultural heritage. But it is also a city that has something to offer to people with all kinds of different interests.
If you’re looking to party, for fashion and shopping, to eat a wealth of gastronomic delights or even for a luxurious spa experience, you will find all of these things in Berlin too.
Here are some of my favourite things to see and do in Berlin, which will turn a great visit into one that you’ll never forget:
Bounce to Berlin Zoo
Want to see more than 20,000 different animals in one place in just one day? Zoo Berlin is Germany’s oldest zoo and it is also home to the world’s largest variety of species. If you want to see animals in captivity then there is no better place to visit in Europe.
Berlin zoo is one of the only place outside of China where it is possible to see the rare Giant Panda bear, and whilst many people don’t agree with the concept of zoos, what makes Berlin stand out is the size of the open air natural areas for each animal to live in.
They are all afforded a generous amount of space that closely recreates their natural habitat. If you’re travelling to Berlin with kids then there is no better place to visit to educate them about the world around them and for them to let off steam in an open and safe outdoor environment.
Check Out Check Point Charlie
Interested in the Cold War? Then a visit to Check Point Charlie and the Mauer Museum is an absolute must when you’re in Berlin!Checkpoint Charlie was the main entry point for visitors wanting to cross the infamous Iron Curtain to East Berlin during the division of the city. This also makes this a wonderful starting point if you want to learn more about the Berlin Wall.
Checkpoint Charlie came to the attention of the world in 1961, because it was here that Russian and American tanks lined up against each other in, what was believed at the time, to be a show of strength and aggression that might start another world war.
The original look and feel of the checkpoint has been sustained, meaning that when you visit it will look just as it would if you were trying to cross into east Germany during the Cold War.
The attached museum is also a fascinating place to visit, as it shares tells of individuals who escaped (or attempted to escape) across the wall, and a whole host of memorabilia associated with this.
Visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Although Berlin is a wonderful city with a welcoming and friendly people and a vibrant night life, it would be impossible to talk about its cultural heritage without mentioning the impact that World War II had on the city.
One of the most fascinating and sobering historical experiences I ever had during my time in Berlin was taking a visit to Sachsenhausen concentraction camp in Oranienburg, which is just 30 minutes away from the centre of the city.
It’s location close to the nation’s capital meant that Sachsenhausen was largely used to house political prisoners. However between 1936 and 1945, more than 100,000 Jews, communists, intellectuals, gypsies and homosexuals were killed here.
The camp remains largely intact, providing an opportunity for visitors to see exactly how those who were housed here lived and died. Some of the buildings have been preserved in their original form including barracks, and a pathology department where Nazis performed medical experiments on the inmates.
Whilst it is difficult to describe a visit to a concentration camp as a fun or pleasant experience, it is certainly one that you will never forget, and something I believe everyone should experience. It is in understanding how such attrocities were allowed to happen in the first place that enables us to prevent them from ever happening again.
Learn More About the Second World War
Want to learn more about the impact of the Second World War on the citizens of Germany and wider Europe, but without travelling out of the city? The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe sits in the very heart of Berlin just moments away from the Brandenburg Gate and is a fascinating modern memorial.
The memorial was designed by artist Peter Eisenman and was considered to be massively controversial when it was first erected. It comprises of 2,700 concrete slabs which have been arranged in a seemingly endless grid across 200,000 square feet of concrete.
Each of the huge slabs has been deliberately constructed of a varying height. This is to keep the visitors in a sense of confusion and disorientation, helping them to appreciate the confusion and lack of control that comes from being victimised.
In the corner of the memorial is a huge underground information centre, where you can learn more about the lives of the Jewish people who lived in Germany before and during the War, and what happened to their families. It is overwhelming, awe-inspiring, and wildly educational.
Take a Ride Around the Brandenburg Gate
It might not be the kind of activity that locals would enjoy, but if you want to explore the heart of historic Berlin in style then why not take a horse and carriage ride around the Brandenburg Gate?
The Brandenburg Gate has long been considered the most iconic monument in the city. Located in the no-man’s land between East and West Germany during the Cold War, The Brandenburg Gate is considered to be a defining symbol of Berlin and both the city’s division and unification.
The Brandenburg gate was built during the 18th-century reign of Friedrich Wilhelm II, and is constructed of a host of neo-roman columns. It really is a stunning piece of architecture, and the scale of it can’t be properly appreciated in photographs.
One of the very best ways to see this monument is be securing the services of one of the many horse and carriages that tout for business on the pavements alongside it.
Why not enjoy your ride at dusk? During the winter months the carriage is loaded with heavy wool and fur blankets, meaning that as well as taking in the sights you can also wrap up warm from the cold winter chill. It is a really lovely experience!
Sail to Museum Island
One of the best things about visiting a new city, particularly a capital city such as Berlin, is having the opportunity to enjoy their unique museums and the range of historical artefacts that they have chosen to protect and display.
In Berlin, three of the country’s most famous museums – the Pergamon, the Altes and the Bode – are all located on a small island in the heart of the city. Their convenient location, and the museum pass that is available to all tourists, means that it is possible to enjoy all three attractions in one day.
Here you’ll enjoy a wonderful range of impressionist art, one of the greatest collections focusing on Eygptology in Europe, and a wealth of local history too. The buildings were damaged during the war, and it is also fascinating to see areas where this damage remains as it has deliberately not been repaired.
Even if you don’t choose the visit the museums, museum island is a great place to go to enjoy a walk, to see the vistas of the city, and to appreciate some truly great architecture.
Embrace the Nightlife
Berlin has a well-deserved reputation for its ‘anything goes’ nightlife, and if you’re spending at least one night in Berlin then this is definitely not the time to stay in your hotel room with a DVD. It’s time to get out and start partying!
It doesn’t matter what kind of nightlife you’re into, you’ll find it in Berlin. The diversity of the city’s offering is so wide it’s almost overwhelming.
From old school and traditional pubs serving excellent beer to smart trendy wine bars. From grungy independent bars to live music venues of all different kinds. And if you’re looking for something really different, you’ll even find parties so underground even the organisers don’t know where they’re going to take place until an hour before they start.
Looking for something wild, different, and distinctly German? One of my favourite hedonistic night spots is Berghain. This is a huge former power station which can old up to 1,500 people and an uncompromising industrial design ethic. Oversized, no nonsense, hardcore. Head to Berghain and you will party ’til dawn.
Hit the Shops
Since the wall of the wall, Berlin has become a Mecca for those seeking high end and distinctive fashion. The city is home to a huge number of chic boutiques selling independent German designers, as well as the high end international labels that you will already know and love.
Shopping in Berlin though is very different from shopping in other big European fashion centres, such as London and Paris. The city is more committed to its own sense of style and the shopping districts tend to be more eclectic.
As the sign above shows, you’ll find boutiques selling high end fashion alongside bicycle repair shops and stores selling low price souvenirs to tourists. This actually makes shopping in Berlin a lot of fun, as you never know what you’re going to find or see next!
Looking for some shopping inspiration during your trip? Head to Kurfuerstendamm, which is located to the west of the city, where you’ll find street after street of well known high street and high end fashion labels.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a one stop shop that will cover all of your shopping needs then try KaDeWe (Kaufhaus de Westens), which is the largest department store in mainland Europe, and is situated right in the heart of Berlin.
As well as finding collections from designers such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, KaDeWe also offers a delicious food court perfect for resting your legs and enjoying a bite to eat. You’ll also find the instore gourmet supermarket a delight, offering a wealth of wonderful delicious German treats and foodstuffs perfect for bringing home.
Eat Your Way Around The Christmas Markets
Germany is a country that really comes alive at Christmas, largely thanks to their world famous markets. Whilst the temperatures are low (and it’s likely to snow) the Christmas markets held across the city means that Christmas remains my favourite time to be in Berlin.
The first Christmas market was held in Bautzen in 1384, before spreading across the country and then ultimately around the rest of the world. There are now a dozen different Christmas markets across Berlin.
The traditional German Christmas market is a place for people to get together and enjoy warm glasses of delicious spiced mulled wine or steins of traditional German beer. You’ll also find row after row of stalls offering delicious authentic foodstuffs.
Visit the Christmas market with an empty stomach and a big appetite, and don’t make any plans for dinner! Delicious German sausages, candied nuts and authentic gingerbread, deep fried frites dipped in huge vats of spiced mayonnaise.
It may not be particularly healthy, but this is German comfort food at its very best, and once you’ve tried it you’re going to want to keep going back for more again and again. On my last Christmas trip to Berlin I ate at the city’s Christmas markets every night, and didn’t manage to eat inside a restaurant once. No regrets!
Some modern Christmas markets incorporate high speed and thrilling fair ground rides which are a perfect way for adrenaline junkie adults and children alike to let off some steam and build up an appetite. Riding the big wheels at dusk is a great way to enjoy the skyline of the city (and look out for the next snack stall!)
The Letter of the Law
Finally, it’s important to make a note on the etiquette and rules that are in force in Berlin as understanding and following these will make your trip much more pleasant. Germany has a reputation for both its efficiency and its dedication to following the rules, and both of these cliches are very much true.
A great example of this is public attitudes to what might be considered minor annoyances in other countries, such as jaywalking and recycling. Littering the streets or crossing the road whilst a red light is still showing may well provoke stern looks and comments from local Berliners, and may even attract the attention of passing officials.
Public transport in the city also operates on an honesty system: barriers are open and you can pass straight through, but you are expected to buy a ticket before you board on both local buses and the U Bahn (the Berlin underground system).
Be warned: inspectors can issue on the spot fines of up to 60 euros if they catch you without a ticket.
On a positive note, Berlin is a country that is incredibly welcoming and tolerant to people from all different backgrounds, and these rights and freedoms are also protected by law. You’ll notice this most when you head out for the evening: Berlin nightlife has a very much “anything goes” attitude that is both fun and refreshing.
I love Berlin, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather visit for a mini break, particularly during the winter months. Whilst other European cities seem to go to sleep when the weather turns cold, Berlin simply comes to life.
If you’re planning a trip to Berlin then there is so much to see and do in the city that we recommend you make a rough itinerary and plan the things you want to see and do as much as possible: otherwise you just won’t fit it in!
Even if you’re not interested in history, be sure to carve out some time to visit Berlin’s historical attractions. You’ll be amazed by what you learn, and by the new perspective that this knowledge gives you of the world.
Above all, don’t forget to have fun! Because having fun and embracing who you really are is what a trip to Berlin is all about.