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Things to Do in Berlin

Berlin is a bewitching, charming city. In less than a lifetime, the German capital has gone through the trials of a World War and been split down the middle during the Cold War, only to make a comeback as one of the world’s trendiest cities. Shaped by figures as diverse as David Bowie and Karl Marx—and with world-class architecture, mythic nightlife, delicious food, and buzzing culture—the city has an irresistible pull on travelers. There are a variety of ways to discover Berlin. Walking tours offer on-the-ground context to understanding the city’s past, while a Segway or bike tour can cover more terrain in a shorter period of time. Historical highlights include walking the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) and visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial); the rebuilt Reichstag, the famous The Berlin Television Tower (Berliner Fernsehturm); and Checkpoint Charlie. Local guides also offer off-the-beaten-path visits, specializing in Potsdam, East Berlin food tasting, Jewish heritage tours, and more. The Berlin Wall is, of course, one of the fundamental elements of the city, and part of it has been turned into the East Side Gallery memorial. The old blockade covered with street art sits at the edge of the alternative neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. Here, creatives have sparked a wave of galleries, start-ups, and a laid-back lifestyle that’s made the city a cultural trendsetter in Germany and an irreplaceable part of modern Europe.
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Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)
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The Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburger Tor) is one of Berlin’s original city gates, erected in 1791. It marks the entry to the Under den Linden avenue as part of the ceremonial boulevard that led to the Prussian monarchs’ royal seat.

The classical monument is topped by a chariot driven by a winged goddess, which was briefly carted off to Paris by Napoleon as booty.

During the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate could not be accessed from East or West Germany, making it a particularly poignant symbol after reunification.

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Alexanderplatz
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Alexanderplatz remains the largest urban square in all of Germany and is a central meeting place in Berlin, located in the Mitte District. At its center is the large railway station (Alexanderplatz) with connections to many subway (U-Bahn), tramway (Strassenbahn), city trains (S-Bahn) and buses.

Named after the Russian Czar Alexander I, who visited the capital of Prussia in 1805, ""Alex"" became a traffic hub when a train station was established there in 1882.

Alexanderplatz took on its present form in the 1960’s after being ravaged in World War II. After the war it became the center of East-Berlin and used as a showcase of socialist architecture. This resulted in some unattractive buildings like the former Centrum department store and the Berliner Fernsehturm (TV Tower). In 1969 two more monuments were added to the square, the Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock) by Erich John and the Fountain of International Friendship.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial)
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The Holocaust Memorial, also known as The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is an urban tribute to remember and honor up to six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Located within walking distance between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, the Memorial consists of the Field of Stelae designed by Peter Eisenman and the underground Information Center. Eisenmann set up 2,711 concrete pillars - so-called stelaes - of varying heights to create a grid-like structure that can be approached from all angles. You can feel the unmarked and harrowed suffering as you walk through the pillars that rise as you continue through them. The underground and modern information center complements the outdoor memorial, where visitors can learn more about the victims of the Holocaust and deepen understanding about this tragedy.
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Topography of Terror
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The Topography of Terror exhibition and documentation center covers the history of terror during the Nazi era. The centers of this national-socialist terror between 1933 and 1945 were the Gestapo and its prison, the SS headquarters, the SS Security Service (SD) and the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Main Office for State Security). These institutions were located in the immediate vicinity of the Nazi government district, and the history of the crimes originating there is featured at Topography of Terror. There is also a second exhibition that focuses on the role of Berlin as the capital of the Third Reich.

Also on site is one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, formed part of the border between the U.S. and Soviet sectors of Berlin, and the boundary ran along the south side of the street.

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Reichstag
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Topped with an acclaimed glass dome designed by British architect Norman Foster, the Reichstag parliamentary building is home to Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag.

The classically pedimented and columned building was built in the 1890s, and seriously damaged by fire in 1933 and subsequent air raids. In the 1990s the building was restored to host the parliament of the newly reunified Germany.

Visitors can step inside the multi-tiered glass dome and onto the roof terrace for 360 degree views of Berlin’s government district and the Tiergarten.

Take an audioguide tour to learn about the parliamentary goings on in the Bundestag and the history of the famous building. After taking a stroll, relax in the rooftop restaurant.

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Checkpoint Charlie
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"You are leaving the American sector."

Memorialized in film and print, Checkpoint Charlie is the most famous symbol of Cold War era Berlin.

Marking the border crossing between the American Sector (Kreuzberg) and East Berlin (Mitte), only allied personnel and foreign visitors could pass through the checkpoint. Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous security point in the Berlin Wall, but for most of its life it was little more than a wooden shack and boom gates. Today a replica shed stands in the middle of Friedrichstraße.

While you’re here, drop into the Mauer Museum (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie) to learn about the history of Checkpoint Charlie, and the audacious and often tragic attempts made by East Berliners to escape from East to West.

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Führerbunker
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The Führerbunker, translated to English means "Leader's bunker" was part of a subterranean bunker complex which was constructed in two major phases, one part in 1936 and the other in 1943. This bunker was a defensive military fortification designed to protect the inhabitants from falling bombs or other attack; in this case, the Führerbunker was to protect Adolf Hilter during WWII, and was the center of the Nazi regime. Hitler married Eva Braun here during the last week of April 1945, shortly before they committed suicide.

The Bunker can be found at Wilhelmstrasse 77 near the corner of In den Ministergärten and Gertrud-Kolmar-Strasse, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz. It may be difficult to find independently as it is located in a grey apartment block backed onto a desolate car park, bordered by small wooden posts. You will find an information sign detailing the history of the site, which replaced a plaque that was there in 2006.

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Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter)
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The Lilliputian Nicholas Quarter is an area that was developed around Berlin’s oldest parish church, the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’s Church), dating from 1230. The area now tries to maintain its medieval character; its cobblestoned lanes worth a quick stroll if you are in the surrounding borders of Rathausstrasse, Spandauer Strasse, Mühlendamm and the Spree River. Though there are many gift stores, cafes and restaurants in the quarter, you will find locals elsewhere.

The main attractions, in addition to the St. Nicholas church, include the Ephraim Palace, a masterpiece of palace architecture of the 18th century Berlin. Equally beautiful is the Baroque style Knoblauch house built in 1760, which offers insight into world of the upper middle class world through its rooms and valuable furniture.

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Berlin TV Tower (Berliner Fernsehturm)
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The Berlin Television Tower,or the Berliner Fernsehturm is the city’s tallest structure at 368 metres high. It was inaugurated on 3 October 1969 just before the 20th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). For Walter Ulbricht, who was the State Council Chairman of the GDR at the time, it was one of the most important symbols demonstrating the superiority of socialist societies. The construction of the Berlin Television Tower illustrated that a better future was being built in East Berlin.

With over 1.2 million visitors a year, come early to beat the lines to go up the tower at the panorama level at 203 metres. This point offers one of the best views of Berlin on a clear day. You can look for your favourite Berlin landmarks here or at the upstairs rotating cafe, which makes one revolution every 30 minutes.

VIP ticket holders can visit at any time without waiting in line and are guaranteed the next available free seat in the Tower’s restaurant.

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Berlin Wall
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The notorious wall that divided Berlin for nearly 30 years was erected by East Germany at the height of the Cold War in 1961. The barrier isolated West Berlin within a heavily armed barrier of double concrete walls and gun turrets and was constructed to stop disaffected East Germans escaping to the west; it was part of a strictly enforced military fortification that separated communist East Germany from capitalist Europe.

Guards patrolling the wall’s watchtowers and mined "death strip" were ordered to shoot East Berliners attempting to escape to the west, and increasingly the wall became a canvas for protest murals and memorials.

With the thawing of relations between east and west and the downfall of communism in Poland, the Czech Republic and other central European countries, the Berlin Wall was ceremonially torn down in November 1989 with the world’s media as witness.

Sections of the wall remain as permanent reminders of the days when Germany was split.

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More Things to Do in Berlin

Potsdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz

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The huge Potsdamer Platz has been a major focal point for Berliners since the 19th century, the busy meeting point of half a dozen major thoroughfares.

Historically, the square was dominated by the enormous Potsdamer train terminal, and at the turn of the 20th century it was a major dining, hotel, entertainment and shopping hub. Potsdamer Platz was destroyed by Allied raids during World War II. Before reunification the barren area was a militarized no-go zone cut in two by the Berlin Wall; this no man’s land was one of the first areas to be breached in November 1989. Since the 1990s, Potsdamer Platz has undergone a total rebirth as the new heart and inspiring symbol of the reunified Berlin. Take in the surroundings from the Panorama Observation Deck, and seek out the only pre-WWII building, the Weinhaus Huth.

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Unter den Linden

Unter den Linden

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Named for the lime trees lining its central pedestrianized strip, Unter den Linden is one of Berlin’s most famous thoroughfares, and the former hub of historic Berlin. Many of the avenue’s once palatial buildings are being restored, and it’s a popular location for embassies, shops, outdoor cafes, museums and educational institutions. A walk along the Unter den Linden is especially magical at night, when the trees are lit up, and during the autumn colors of fall.

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Museum Island (Museumsinsel)

Museum Island (Museumsinsel)

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Located on the northern tip of Spree Island, Berlin’s Museumsinsel (Museum Island) is an ensemble of five world-renowned museums. In 1830, King Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned the construction of the Royal Museum - now the Altes Museum - to allow the general public to view the royal art treasures of Germany. The idea for the island was devised in 1841, when Friedrich August Stuler wanted to create a cultural center, which later became Museum Island.

Almost 70% of the buildings were destroyed during World War II, where the collections were divided between East and West Berlin. Since 1999, the museum has been the only architectural and cultural ensemble that was honored world heritage status by UNESCO.

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Gendarmenmarkt

Gendarmenmarkt

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Located in the Mitte district, the Gendarmenmarkt has gone through a few name changes. After being used from 1736 to 1782 by the military for sentry duty and housing their horses, it was known as the Gendarmenmarkt. After being damaged in the war, the square was renamed “Platz der Akademie” in 1950 in honor of the 250th anniversary of the Academy of Science. In 1991, it got its original name back.

The Gendarmenmarkt is arguably Berlin’s most magnificent square. It is best known for the triple architectural force composed of the German and French cathedrals (Deutscher und Französischer Dom) and Schinkel’s Konzerthaus (concert hall). The ‘domes’ refer to the domed tower structures erected in 1785 by architect Carl von Gontard were mainly intended to add stature and grandeur to the two buildings. Some of the most high-end restaurants, businesses and hotels are located around the Gendarmenmarkt, especially around the streets of Charlottenstrasse.

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East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the East Side Gallery was the result of what remained. It is longest segment of the Berlin Wall that is still standing and the world’s largest open-air gallery, showcasing over 100 murals over 1.3 kilometres along the Mühlenstrasse, which is parallel to the River Spree. Artist interpretations are a mix of optimistic and political statements.

Some of the more famous and most photographed images on the wall include a boxy East German Trabant car that appears to burst through the wall called “Test the Best” by Birgit Kinder; and “The Mortal Kiss,” a fraternal communist kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German boss Erich Honecker. Many of the images became weathered from taggers and tourists adding their own graffiti to their favorite pictures on the wall. In 2009, forty of these works of art were restored.

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Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

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With its many green domes, the baroque Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) is the city’s largest church. The classical building was built in the mid-1700s, and was extensively restored following bombing during World War II.

Audioguide tours provide in-depth information about the building’s history and artworks. Highlights include the Hohenzollern Crypt, with its royal tombs, and the monumental pipe organ. The centerpiece of the building is the soaring dome, with its stained glass and mosaics. The original dome was destroyed by Allied bombs, and its restoration was particularly painstaking.

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Berlin Victory Column (Siegessäule)

Berlin Victory Column (Siegessäule)

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Standing 67 meters (220 feet) high and topped with a 35-tonne gilded figure of Victoria – the Roman goddess of victory in battle – the Berlin Victory Column was inaugurated in 1873 to commemorate Germany’s (or Prussia, as it was called then) victory over Denmark in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864. Lovingly nicknamed ‘Golden Lizzie’ by Berlin locals, the sandstone memorial was designed by German architect Heinrich Strack and sits on a red granite base adorned with columns; it originally stood in Königsplatz, which is today’s Platz der Republik. In the run up to World War II, the column was moved to the center of the Tiergarten park as part of Hitler’s plan to rebuild Berlin as the grandiose capital city of the Third Reich.

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Bebelplatz

Bebelplatz

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The Bebelplatz is a public square in the central ‘Mitte’ district of Germany’s capital city, Berlin. Today it is best known for being the site where some 20,000 newly banned books were burned by bonfire in 1933 on order of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, because they conflicted with Nazi ideology. The square is surrounded by notable historical buildings, including the German State Opera (Staatsoper); St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (built in 1747 and modeled after Rome’s Pantheon, it was the first Catholic church built in Germany after the Protestant Reformation); and the former Royal Prussian Library (Alte Bibliothek) which is now part of Humboldt University.

All of the buildings on the Bebelplatz were destroyed in World War II and reconstructed afterward. An easily overlooked monument in the center of the square simply contains a pane of glass, which the visitor can look through to see many rows of empty bookshelves underground.

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Tiergarten Park

Tiergarten Park

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Berlin’s Central Park is Tiergarten, a huge stretch of parkland, formal gardens and leafy walkways in the city’s west.

Until the 1830s the parkland was used as a hunting ground. Today it houses the home of the German President, an array of public sculptures and memorials, canals and lakes, and a network of lovely shady avenues. The park’s avenues merge on the 66 meter (216 foot) Victory Tower, topped with a gilt angel. If you’re feeling fit, you can climb the 285 steps to a platform at the top to catch stupendous views of Berlin.

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Kurfürstendamm (Ku'damm)

Kurfürstendamm (Ku'damm)

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Affectionately known as the Ku’damm, this elegant tree-lined boulevard is a major thoroughfare in Berlin’s west.

The Berlin equivalent of Paris’ Champs-Elysees, the Kurfürstendamm avenue is lined with shops, hotels and historic cafes. Before World War II, the Ku’damm was the heart of nightlife in Berlin, and before reunification it was West Berlin’s major shopping strip. Today, it’s a lively stretch for strolling, shopping and dining.

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Pergamon Museum (Pergamonmuseum)

Pergamon Museum (Pergamonmuseum)

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Antique art from the Middle East and Turkey is featured at Berlin’s important Pergamon Museum. In terms of 'wow factor' the collection is matched only by the British Museum. The highlights are the monumental exhibits from the Roman era, in particular the massive Pergamon Altar from the 2nd century BC and the Market Gate of Miletus. Fabulous examples from the art of the Near East include the famous Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon, and the lovely tiled lions from the Processional Way. You’ll also see intricate gold jewelry, pottery, mosaics and other artworks. Temporary exhibitions explore such topics as miniatures, Islamic art and historic collectors of classical antiquities.
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Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg)

Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg)

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To experience the pomp and majesty of the Hohenzollern Dynasty, pay a visit to Charlottenburg Palace (or Schloss Charlottenburg), Berlin’s largest palace.

Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the palace combines rococo and baroque decor and architecture, and is surrounded by landscaped gardens in the manner of Versailles.

Visitors can tour the baroque rooms of the Old Palace, and the rococo apartments of Frederick the Great in the New Wing. German porcelain is displayed in the Belvedere building, and the marble tombs of famous Hohenzollerns lie in the mausoleum.

The treed grounds are ideal for leisurely strolls, and the restored Orangery now operates as a cafe.

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Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen

Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen

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Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was one of the most notorious death camps of the Nazi regime, located just north of Berlin.

It was built in the summer of 1936 by prisoners from the Emsland camps and was used to train SS Officers who went on to command other camps. In January 1945, there were more than 65,000 prisoners here including 13,000 women. A total of 105,000 Jews died in this camp. Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg was liberated by the Allies on April 22nd, 1945. The Soviets then used it as a prison camp until 1950.

Today Sachsenhausen is a museum and memorial site, located in Oranienburg about an hour by train from central Berlin. There is a library and archive open Tuesday to Friday, and an open air exhibition and memorial open every day. There are a dozen exhibitions located in the buildings giving the history of where it actually took place: the barracks, the prison, the kitchen and the commandant’s offices.

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