When you think of Berlin there’s a natural predisposition to conjure thoughts of everything from the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain to the horrors of the Nazi regime during World War II. Sure enough, a visit to Berlin will provide ample opportunity to learn more about these and other examples of Berlin’s tumultuous recent past. But Berlin is more than just its tragic history. Since the fall of the Wall in 1989 Berlin has transformed itself in to a thriving cultural, creative and party destination. So ready yourself for days filled with history, culture and sightseeing followed by late nights of underground bars, hedonism, Michelin-starred restaurants and takeaway currywurst stands. Berlin has something for everyone!
Berlin Top Tips
With the completion date for the disastrous Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (yes, it really has that long ‘catchy’ name) still unknown Berlin is left with two airports – neither of which is exactly fit for purpose.
Schönefeld Airport is located 18km Southeast of the city center and sits next door to the Greenfield site where Brandenburg Airport has been built and remains eerily unoccupied. Schönefeld is home to the full gambit of low-cost carriers (most notably Ryanair and Easyjet – although the latter also flies to Tegel) and has a number of public transport options that’ll get you downtown, and eating currywurst, in no-time. Your best bet is the Airport Express train (either the RE7 or the RB14) which runs every 30 minutes from 4am until 11pm and costs a measly EUR 3.30 at the time of writing. There are ticket machines both inside the terminal building and inside the train station itself (which is about 200m away under a covered walkway outside the arrivals hall). Just remember to validate your ticket in one of the machines on the platform before you board (or risk facing a fine). The second option is the S-Bahn (S9 and S45) which forms a part of Berlin’s broader Metro System. It’s the same price as the Airport Express but slower and the S9 and 45 don’t drop you off in the center of town – so you’ll have to change trains. I’d really only use the S-Bahn if you’re staying outside of the city center or your flight arrives before or after the Airport Express stops running. The final resort (if catastrophe hits and the Express Train and S-Bahn both aren’t running) is to catch the X7, 171 or N7 Bus to Rudow U-Bhan Station which runs to the south side of the city and connects with other U-Bahn lines. Finally, if you’re feeling flush for cash then the taxi rank is directly outside arrivals and a taxi to the city will run at about EUR40-50.
Tegel Airport (about 10km northwest of the city) remains Berlin’s main international airport (at least for now) and unlike Schönefeld is fairly poorly linked to the rest of the transport system. Basically, if you want to use public transport from Tegel it’s going to be a bus. Of the four bus options available the one which will drop you most centrally is the TXL JetExpressBus which stops at Alexanderplatz (for connections to the S and U-Bhan). Other options are the X9 JetExpressBus (which stops at Zoologischer Garten for connections to the S and U-Bahn), and the 109 Bus (which also stops at Zoologischer Garten). The final bus is the 128 but that’s less useful unless you’re staying in the north of the city.
Berlin’s public transportation system consists of the U-Bahn (underground train), bus, Straβenbahn (tram), S-Bahn and RE (the latter two being regional over ground trains) and nearly everything runs on intervals of between 5-15 minutes; so you’ll never have to wait that long for a connection. In addition, and unless your journey includes Schönefeld or you’re heading to Potsdam for the day, then you’ll only ever need a ticket that covers zones A and B. A single ticket (Einzelfahrschein) can be used across basically all transportation forms for up to 2 hours with unlimited transfers in one direction (what a deal!). Alternatively, you could buy a short distance ticket (Kurzstrecke) which allows 3 stops by S/U-Bahn and 6 stops by bus or tram. Day tickets (Tageskarte) are great value if you plan to zip all over the city in multiple trips. Remember, always validate your ticket in one of the machines before you board the S/U-Bhan, or as you board the bus/tram, to avoid a fine.
For the full dizzying array of public transport connections (including those mentioned above and the airports) you can check out this map and visit the VBB website or Visit Berlin website for timetable and route planning guides.
There is a veritable feast of hop-on-hop-off tour bus services opening fairly similar routes across Berlin. If you’re dead set on using one then I would personally play it safe and opt for the City Sightseeing brand as they are a worldwide operation and the service always seems reliable in terms of quality and timetable. That said, if you want to explore the other options available then you might like to check out this article on the ‘Free Tours By Foot’ Website (which coincidentally offers ‘name-your-own-price’ walking tours in Berlin). Just to let you know, I don’t have any particular affinity or relationship with ‘Free Tours By Foot’ and any views on their website are their own, not mine; I just happened to stumble across their website when I was researching for a recent trip to Berlin!
Everyone loves a discount, right? Well Berlin offers a whole variety of discount cards with the most popular being the Welcome Card, Museum Pass, Berlin Pass and Easy City Pass. I could obviously sit here and wax lyrical about the various virtues and pitfalls of each card but I suspect that might prove somewhat boring. As such, I’ll let you do your own research on each card. What I will say is that each card appears to be carefully honed for a specific audience. The Welcome Card has a number of attractions and discounts aimed at families, the Berlin Pass appears to be trying to please the broadest audience, the Easy City Pass includes nightlife discounts that lean towards a younger age range and the Museum Pass covers…..well……museums!
Put simply, Berlin is geographically massive! To be more precise it consists of 12 districts and is around the same size as Bangkok. However, there’s good news! The first piece of good news is that Berlin’s public transportation system reaches to even the farthest depths of the city and is ridiculously efficient (you’d expect nothing less from our German friends). The second is that the vast majority of tourist sights are handily located in just a small handful of those 12 districts. In fact I’ll guess that you won’t venture much beyond the districts of Mitte, Charlottenburg, Tiergarten and Kreuzberg; four of the most central districts. If you’re anything like me then you might find these districts walkable – I walked from Mitte, through Tiergarten, to Charlottenburg and back again over the course of an afternoon. If not, then your journey time on the S or U-Bahn (or the number 100 bus) is going to be nice and short!
The Berlin Wall: You could probably spend a long-weekend hiking from site to site dedicated to the 160km Berlin Wall (or rather, what’s left of the wall) and have no time to see anything else in Berlin – such is the pervasive impact the wall had on the lives of Berliners (and German’s more generally). The sites I think are most worth visiting are: The Berlin Wall Memorial; The East Side Gallery; The Topography of Terror Museum; Checkpoint Charlie and The Palace of Tears. You can read more about my thoughts on these sites (and the Berlin Wall more generally) on my Berlin Wall post.
Charlottenburg Palace: Construction on the Palace (or Schloss) started in 1695 and was intended to be the summer home of Sophie Charlotte, Elector Friedrich III’s wife. To my mind it’s probably one of the most, if not the most, visually appealing buildings in Berlin. The Palace is open to visit every day except Mondays for a fee (two separate fees if you wish to visit the old palace AND the new wing). If nothing else make sure that you head around to the rear of the palace to wander through the Schlosspark where you can find manicured gardens, the Mausoleum and the Belvedere Summer House (a Summer House for the Summer House no less).
Other Museums: The fact that the city sells a ‘Museum Pass’ that covers 30 museums is probably a clear sign that Berlin is proud of the museums it has on offer. In addition to the big five on Museum Island the city has a host of other visit-worthy museum destinations including the Topography of Terror, the German Spy Museum (where you can behave like a child running through laser beam fields), The Anne Frank Zentrum, The Jewish Museum, and the Stasi Museum (set in a former Stasi prison and a museum that is particularly hard-hitting) to name but a few. To get an idea of which museums you may wish to take a look at I suggest you visit the following page. If you’re looking for something a little more ‘easy-going’ (and delicious) then make sure you consider the CurryWurst Museum which is conveniently located near Checkpoint Charlie.
Museum Island: The Island (known as Museumsisel in German) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to five world class museums and the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). For the culture buffs amongst you a trip to the Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum), Bode-Museum, Neues Museum (New Museum), Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) and Altes Museum (Old Museum) will provide an opportunity to visit highlights including the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, the spectacular Pergamon Altar and the colossal Ishtar Gate. If you plan to visit the stunning protestant cathedral then make sure you visit the dome’s rim (admission fee applies) for great views over the entire island.
Kaiser Wilhelm Church: The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche) stands as a memorial to peace and anti-war in what is the symbolic center of West Berlin. Originally built between 1891-1895 in honour of the first German Emperor it sustained heavy damage during World War II and was nearly completely destroyed in 1945 air raids. The original tower remains today as a crumbling shell and memorial that has been named the “hollow tooth”. It was the only building on the original square that remained standing after the war and today houses a photographic exhibit of the church’s history. Directly adjacent to the memorial is the new church (admittedly, I don’t think the design is to everyone’s tastes) which was built in 1956 together with a new bell tower. Both sites can be visited for free although the new church is closed to visitors during services.
Berlin TV Tower: If, like me, you love a great view or a scenic vista to adorn your Instagram feed then my advice is to head to the Berliner Fernsehturm (or Berlin TV Tower for us Anglophones) in Mitte. The tower is based in Alexanderplatz which is the modern center of Berlin; making it the perfect place to start. The TV Tower is a city icon and towers 368m above the city. If your idea of photography consists of a camera in one hand and a beer in the other then you’ll be pleased to know that the tower is home to Berlin’s highest bar and the Sphere restaurant. Alternatively you can pay to visit the rotating observation deck which has photos to help you distinguish between the landmarks hundreds of meters below. I’d suggest that you buy your tickets online to avoid the queues and you can do so on the tower’s website.
Reichstag: When I hear the word ‘Reichstag’ I immediately think of the Nazi’s, but interestingly the Nazi’s (with Hitler at the helm) only occupied the parliamentary building for a month before it was set on fire in 1933. It wasn’t until a reunited Germany returned to the building in 1999 that it was once again used as the parliament building after a thorough renovation by Sir Norman Foster. The structure still has a foreboding presence (or at least I felt so), but Foster’s glass dome design has ensured that the building is well and truly grounded in the 21st century. The highlight of a trip to the Reichstag is the climb up the dome’s spiral staircase for fantastic panoramic views and a free audio-history tour. If you want to visit then make sure you book online, and in advance, as there are limited spaces and you have to register. You can do so here. Also make sure that you take your photo ID with you (I saw a couple get turned away for failing to have theirs with them).
Brandenburg Gate and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: No visit to Berlin would be complete without setting eyes on the quintessential symbol of Berlin; the Brandenburg Gate; which was built between 1788 and 1791. During the years of the Berlin Wall the gate was home to an observation tower where visitors could peer over the wall and beyond the iron curtain. In 1987 it was the spot on which Ronald Reagan delivered his famous line “Mr. Gorbachov – tear down this wall!” Upon the tearing down of the wall the Brandenburg Gate went from being the symbol of the city’s division to the symbol of its reunification when it opened to traffic on December 22, 1989. One street away from the Gate is the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. The imposing (and controversial) memorial consists of 2,700 concrete pillars which vary in height and cover two city blocks. Underneath the memorial is an information center to which admission is free.
Tiergarten: Where London has Hyde Park and New York has Central Park, Berlin has Tiergarten. Situated in the center of the city the park occupies a stately 495 acres and was transformed from a hunting reserve to a park in the 1830s. Besides being a great place to walk in the sunshine with a morning coffee in-hand the Tiergarten is also home to Bellevue Palace (schloss Beleevue) which is the official residence of the German Federal President and is worthy of a quick photo-stop. At the center of the park is the Victory Column (Siegessaule) which commemorates victory in the Prussian-Danish war of 1864. If you’re feeling fit and healthy then you might want to climb the 285 steps to the observation tower at the top. Alternatively you could use the elevator to go up the TV Tower – after all, there’s no bar at the top of the Victory Column!
Detailed Public Transportation Information: https://www.berlin.de/en/public-transportation/1772016-2913840-tickets-fares-and-route-maps.en.html
VBB Website: http://www.vbb.de/en/index.html
Berlin Welcome Card Website: https://www.berlin-welcomecard.de/en
Easy City Pass Website: http://www.easycitypass.com/en/city/berlin-en/
The Berlin Pass Website: https://www.berlinpass.com/
Museum Pass Berlin Website: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/museum-pass-berlin
Reichstag Visitor Website: https://visite.bundestag.de/BAPWeb/pages/createBookingRequest.jsf?lang=en