Those who come to Berlin expecting the quintessential if not stereotypical European experience of cobblestone streets, baroque/gothic/renaissance buildings at every turn and people dressed in touristy medieval costumes will be in for a disappointment. As the capital of Europe’s mightiest economy, Berlin at once reflects practical German attitudes as well as the rebuilding that occurred after World War II. Having been bombed to almost nothing 60 years ago and the distinction of being the world’s most famous divided city have made the urban landscape of the German capital quite unique compared to its European counterparts.
Despite not having the old world beauty of Prague or the music heritage that Vienna is known for, Berlin is easily one of Europe’s most interesting cities with several fun attractions and nightlife options to last a couple of days. Berlin is made up of several neighborhoods, each very distinct. The city is best appreciated via walking tours and since Berlin is quite spread out, each interesting neighborhood deserves some time for exploration. Here, I suggest a sample itinerary you can follow and the top neighborhoods to visit. You can also segregate these areas based on the places to stay in Berlin.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Mitte
Forming the central core of Berlin, Mitte is where the bulk of city attractions are located. It was here that I spent the bulk of my time, whether it be in strolling down Unter den Linden, once a divided avenue during the cold war era, or in Brandenburg Gate which I walked past several times. As such, it makes perfect sense to start your trip here.
The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most iconic attractions. The 18th century neoclassical structure dates back from the times of Frederick William II who ordered it to be built. During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall passed directly through the western side of the gate. Following the reunification of East and West Germany, the gate has come to symbolize German unity.
A short walk past the gate is the Reichstag, the building which houses Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. Although the Neo-Baroque building looks like most typical European government buildings, the Reichstag is worth a visit for its glass dome at the top floor. It was a later addition to the building, having been completed only in 1999. The dome features a spiral walkway that visitors can walk on, with the parliament hall visible underneath through a glass panel. This is meant to symbolize how the German government is accountable to its citizens who can survey them from above. Tourists can also visit and admission’s free. You just need to register in their website here. The building’s dome has some amazing architecture and I highly recommend a visit. I’ll let the pictures above do the talking!
Gendarmenmarkt is one of Berlin’s most famous squares. Here, you will find the Franzosischer Dom (French Cathedral), Deutscher Dom (German Church) and the Konzerthaus Berlin. These three structures stand side by side to each order and is a sight to behold when viewed as an ensemble.
From Gendarmenmarkt, you can take a 10 minute walk to get to Checkpoint Charlie. During the Cold War, the site served as the entry point between East and West Berlin. You can still see a replica version of the historical guardhouse used back in the day. If you wish to know more about the Berlin Wall and the separation the city once faced, you can check out the Checkpoint Charlie Museum a few steps south of the replica checkpoint.
Day 2 – Palaces and Museums
After obtaining your bearings through a day visiting Berlin’s iconic sites, it is now time to check out places farther afield including some ornate palaces, world-class museums and a spot of shopping.
The Berlin district that is perhaps closest to the Europe of one’s imagination, Charlottenburg is home to the Charlottenburg Palace, the only surviving royal palace in the city. As such, it’s become a default stop for any tour of Berlin. The baroque and rococo interiors are impressive and can rival some of the more famous palaces of Europe. I was already having a bout of palace fatigue during my visit but I was still left in awe by the amazing wall decor and art pieces on display.
Aside from the palace, Charlottenburg is also home to Kurfurstendamm, the most popular shopping street in Berlin. Make sure to check out the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtnis Church at the very end of the avenue. It was purposely not rebuilt as a reminder of World War 2. The hotel where I stayed in, Hotel Q!, is also located here.
Located in Berlin’s Mitte district, Museum Island is a treat for history buffs. Housing no less than 5 museums, I found Museum Island fascinating even though I wasn’t THAT interested in old things. My personal favorite here is the Pergamon Museum which houses the artifacts from the German excavations around the Middle East in the early part of the 20th century. Of note is the Pergamon Altar, reconstructed here from actual pieces brought from Pergamon in Turkey. Another highlight is the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in what is now Iraq. The reconstruction in the museum is the most authentic version currently available with actual bricks from the original. It’s even more authentic than the one that now stands in Iraq which is a replica.
There are so many other museums on the island including the Bode Museum, Altes Museum and Neues Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie. It’s literally possible to spend several days here but the only other one I managed to visit was Neues Museum which contains a bust of Queen Nefertiti and many other Ancient Egyptian artifacts.
Day 3 – Hipster Berlin
A trip to Berlin is not complete without exploring its hipster culture. Long known as a haven for artists, Berlin has a number of quirky neighborhoods that deserve a visit.
Kreuzberg & Neukolln
Once known for its cheap rents, the districts of Kreuzberg and Neukolln used to be a magnet for broke artists and struggling immigrants. It was due to this diversity that the area became known as a place for counterculture and hipsters. This reputation became so much embedded into Kreuzberg that many hip and happening shops, underground & password-only bars, and even theaters showing indie films have moved in. Since then, Kreuzberg-Neukolln has become one of the trendiest places to live in the city and rents are no longer cheap.
For a quick tour of the indie shops around Kreuzberg, the area around Oranienstrasse corner Skalitzer Strasse offers the highest concentration of punk paraphernalia, cafes and specialty stores.
Same concept as Kreuzberg but more upmarket and slightly less commercialized, Prenzlauer Berg is the go-to place for hard to find vinyls, quirky stores, vegan restaurants and exotic cuisine. There are noticeably more old buildings here which have been carefully preserved. The main street to check out is Kastanienallee.
David Bowie once made Schoneberg his home in the 1970s during his experimental era. I came to Schoneberg for something far less ambitious, and that’s Winterfedtplatz. It’s the closest thing that Berlin’s got to a bazaar with a mix of natural produce, clothing, souvenir items and ethnic food. I came here especially for the latter. There are some great concept food trucks around here offering meals for as little as Eur 5. I had my lunch at a Thai food truck with its own delectable version of tom kha gai and curry. There are also plenty of cafes nearby.
Excursions From Berlin
Dresden – A 2 hour train ride away, Dresden offers some of the most magnificent baroque architecture in Germany. Main attractions include the Zwinger, Frauenkirche and a generally fine ensemble of buildings in the old town. If you have the time, I recommend spending at least a night there although it’s very well do-able as a day trip since the fastest train can get you there in just an under 2 hours from Berlin.
Potsdam – The most popular day trip destination from Berlin, Potsdam is known for the Sanssouci, a building built by the King of Prussia as a summer palace. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can book day tours here.
Gorlitz – Featured prominently in the film “Grand Budapest Hotel”, Gorlitz has a well-preserved and walkable old town with a mix of architectural styles. Main attractions include the Lower Market Square and St. Peter and Paul Church. The town lies in the German-Polish border.
Where to Stay in Berlin
Budget – For utter convenience, you can’t go wrong with Generator Berlin Mitte. This hostel is located practically next to Oranienburger Strasse station. They have hostel beds as well as private rooms with own toilets. Design is cheerful and functional. Rooms have a lot of natural light.
Midrange – If you are looking for something more unique, check out Hotel Q! Berlin in the shopping district of Kurfurstendamm. Rooms here have a rather space-age vibe. For the more daring ones, book the rooms with a bathtub attached next to the bed!
Luxury – Many of Berlin’s top-end hotels carry this rather dated / classical kind of look so if you’d rather stay somewhere that looks modern, I would suggest the Ritz Carlton Berlin which is centrally located just next to Potsdamer Platz.