I can’t stop traveling to Berlin! There are so many things to do in Berlin, the capital of Germany, that lately I’ve been booking all of my European flights through German airports so that I can squeeze in a couple of days in Berlin at either end of my trip. Berlin is paradise for travelers who love history, art, culture, food, drink and nightlife… basically, it’s the ideal city getaway for almost everyone!
Across my numerous trips to Berlin, I’ve learned exactly what Berlin tourist attractions are worth my time, money and energy, and which ones weren’t the best use of my time in the city. Many of my favorite things to do in Berlin are free, and most are within easy walking distance of the city center. They’re on the east and the west, they’re old and new, they’re energizing and relaxing… basically, they represent the many contrasts and juxtapositions that make Berlin so unique.
I’ve grouped my favorite things to do in Berlin thematically, rather than geographically, but again, most of them are nearby to one another. I recommend picking up a purse-sized Berlin guidebook (my favorite, designed for people exploring the city on foot, is at the top of my rundown of the best Berlin guidebooks) and carrying it with you as you explore the city, so you’ll always know if there’s a hidden secret just around the corner!
The Best Way to See Everything in Berlin for Under €3
1. City Tour by City Bus
You don’t have to pay for an expensive sightseeing bus tour to see the best of Berlin from above. Instead, hop on board public bus #100 and ride it across the city. With a route stretching from Alexanderplatz in the east to the Zoological Gardens in the west (and back!), more than a dozen of my favorite things to do in Berlin are just a hop, skip and jump away from one of the stops along this bus route. I wrote the original complete guide to sightseeing on Berlin bus 100 – click through to learn exactly how to make the most of this route.
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: Museums
Berlin has more than 150 museums… but which ones are worth your time? Honestly, it depends on what you’re looking for, but as a solo traveler in Berlin these five were my favorites.
2. Hamburger Bahnhof
Berlin’s fascinating contemporary art museum is located a bit out of the way, near the main railway station (in fact, the building used to be a train station!). It’s worth the detour to come visit one of the largest collections of contemporary art in all of Europe. At first, you don’t realize the scale of the collection, but as you wander through all the different wings of the museum it becomes clear that there is a full day worth of exploring to be had inside.
3. Museum Island
There are actually five different museums on Museum Island:
- Pergamonmuseum – Home to several large-scale reconstructions, including the namesake Pergamon Altar (a 35-meter Ancient Greek terrace) and the Ishtar Gate (the eighth gate into Ancient Babylon, and a former Wonder of the World).
- Neues Museum – Especially famous for its Egyptian collection, including the bust of Nefertiti
- Altenationalgalerie -19th-century sculptures and paintings are housed here, with a heavy emphasis on German artists
- Altes Museum – The overflow from the Pergamonmuseum gets housed here under the umbrella of its Collection of Classical Antiquities.
- Bode-Museum – Here you’ll find the Sculpture Collection (including works by Donatello and Bernini) and the Museum of Byzatine Art
I power-walked through all five museums when my most recent trip to Berlin happened to coincide with the Long Night of Museums, an annual event in which the city’s museums open their doors late into the night. Unless you have a particular interest in a collection or have little previous exposure to classical art, I would recommend focusing your time on the Pergamonmuseum and the Neues Museum, both of which have unique, memorable pieces that will stick in your memory.
4. Jewish Museum
Daniel Libeskind designed the thought-provoking “Between the Lines” building that houses Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Moving through the building is a learning experience in itself: you’ll pass through eerily-lit display cases housing the personal effects of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, you’ll experience the Holocaust Tower, a splinter of building where only a single ray of sunlight can enter, and you’ll eventually reach the Garden of Exile, where the out-of-reach greenery leaves you feeling disoriented.
Creative Commons photo courtesy Mariano Mantel
5. German Historical Museum
I walked by this museum many times before finally committing to spending a morning exploring German history. I mean, as a German citizen born and raised abroad, I should probably know something about my home country, right? It actually turned out be a really good decision. While the museums on Museum Island offer a more traditional viewing experience, the German Historical Museum shares the story of German history from medieval times until the fall of the Berlin Wall through artifacts, stories, images, films and interactive exhibits. Admission to the permanent exhibits is free, and the fee to check out the temporary exhibits is usually nominal.
Creative Commons photo courtesy Mariano Mantel
6. Helmut Newton Foundation
Housed in the same building as the Museum of Photography, the Helmut Newton Foundation is a joyful celebration of the famed German fashion photographer’s life, from its meticulous recreation of his office space to the two-story nude portraits framing the foundation’s staircases. Newton’s work celebrated the human body in a way that is often perceived as overtly sexual, so the exhibits here may not be appropriate for children or for people who prefer their art to be modest.
Creative Commons photo via Wikimedia Commons
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: Churches
I couldn’t find the exact number of churches in Berlin, but trust me, the German capital is packed with religious buildings including churches, synagogues and mosques. If visiting places of worship is a priority for you, the list on visitBerlin should be your starting point.
7. Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)
Come on, that’s pretty impressive, no? Located on Museum Island, Berlin’s cathedral is one of the best things to do in Berlin. If you’re not coming for a service, the admission fee is €7 (which seems high until you learn that it costs €15,000 per day just to maintain the cathedral in its current “crumbling” state). That includes a visit to the panoramic viewing platform on the dome and access to the Hohenzollern family crypt underneath the building. As you can see, even if you choose not to go inside, the pretty park in front of the cathedral, known as the Lustgarten, is a lovely place to rest your feet for a few minutes.
8. Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
My second-favorite church in Berlin is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Kurfurstendamm (see below!). The 19th-century Protestant church was heavily bombed during World War 2, but rather than be repaired, the city decided to leave the damaged spire standing and turn its base into a memorial hall (free to visit). They also added a controversial “New Church” building, the interior of which is shown above. More than 20,000 small pieces of stained glass were placed into a honeycomb pattern, with a large gold crucifix placed at the center of the altar.
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: Architecture
Some of the world’s best architects, from Norman Foster to Frank Gehry to Mies van der Rohe have designed buildings in Berlin, and you could easily spend your entire visit exploring them all. If I were you, these are the Berlin buildings that I’d visit first.
9. Reichstag Dome
I wasn’t sure if a visit to the dome on top of Germany’s parliament would be worth it, but in the end I was so glad I visited! You need to book your (free) tickets online well in advance, and make sure you arrive at the correct entrance a few minutes before your assigned time slot, because it can get busy! You’ll get an audio guide so you can explore the area at your own pace, learning about the history of German governance and how the glass-domed building came to be. From the outdoor rooftop you’ll have stunning views of the city in every direction.
10. Brandenburg Gate
On one of my trips to Berlin I spent a few nights at the Adlon Hotel, a luxury property famous for being the place where Michael Jackson dangled his son over the balcony as crowds below looked on. The Adlon is located right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Dating back to the late 1700s, the last remaining city gate became even more significant when the construction of the Berlin Wall left it in a strange “no man’s land”, inaccessible to residents of both the East and West. Today, its location facing Pariser Platz makes it a pretty photo opportunity (and the first thing you’ll see on the most popular free walking tours of Berlin, which tend to begin in the shadow of the gate).
11. DZ Bank Building
Secret spot alert! Most visitors to Berlin will walk within meters of the DZ Bank Building without realizing they’re footsteps away from one of the city’s most interesting architectural interiors. Although it looks like a boring office building from outside, inside the DZ Bank Building you’ll find a magnificent courtyard designed by Frank Gehry, with curving glass ceilings and floors wrapped around a wood-and-steel shell in the center of the atrium. Admission to the foyer is free, but you can’t go into the office space unless you’re on official business. (You’ll find it at Pariser Platz 3, right by the Brandenburg Gate!)
After World War 2, Berlin’s most famous public square, Alexanderplatz, landed on the east side of the Berlin Wall. Although it has been modernized, I still get something of an East German vibe here, whether it’s from the sky-high Berlin Television Tower (Fernsehturn) and the World Clock (Weltzeituhr), or just the bleak facades of the buildings around the square, which now house hotels, restaurants and department stores. There’s also the pretty Mariankirche, the evocative Neptune Fountain and the Rotes Rathouse, or the Red Town Hall.
Berlin Secret: The restaurants right on the square are a bit overpriced and touristy, but if you cross Karl Liebknecht Strasse you’re only a block away from Dolores Mitte, an awesome burrito bar with the best veggie burrito I’ve ever had (and remember, I lived in Mexico!). After you cross the street it’s on the back side of the block directly in front of you, so just loop around the block in either direction.
13. Charlottenburg Palace
One of my favorite things to do in Berlin is to head to the far west side of the city, to Schloss Charlottenburg. This 17th-century Baroque palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens and parks that are free to visit. A loop through the gardens and around the lake should take about an hour. Then, purchase a ticket to go inside the palace, where the ornate interiors were beautifully restored after the war, and don’t skip out on the optional “New Wing” add-on that gives you access to the luxurious apartments of Friedrich Wilhelm II and rotating exhibits of art, design and history.
14. Ku’Damm & Surroundings
I’m trying to pretend I’m a local by calling Kurfurstendamm by it’s nickname, Ku’Damm. In fact, it’s just easier for me to say the short version, since despite being a German citizen I still don’t speak a word of German. Kurfurstendamm is one of Berlin’s most recognizable boulevards, known for its elegant facades and eclectic collection of public art sculptures. Although most of the attractions associated with Ku’Damm are actually on the surrounding streets (including the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, discussed above, and KaDeWe department store, with its Art Nouveau gate pictured above), the original boulevard still stands out for its quiet refinement.
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: Historical Places
Honestly, everything in Berlin in steeped in history. If you can only visit two historical monuments, though, these are two that absolutely cannot be missed.
15. Holocaust Memorial (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe)
This grid of 2,711 seemingly-undulating concrete slabs is designed to spark reflection and introspection in those who come to visit. Similar to the design of the Jewish Museum, the effect created by the concrete is intentionally disorienting and confusing, and to add to the uncertainty, architect Peter Eisenman has encouraged visitors to respect their own personal responses to his work, whatever that emotion may be. Beneath the surface, an information center contains six rooms, including the famous Room of Names where the names of many of the six million Jews killed are projected onto the walls as their biographies are read aloud.
Berlin Secret: Hitler’s underground bunker was only a block away. Out of respect for those whose lives he destroyed, the city built over his bunker and converted it to an unmarked parking lot.
16. East Side Gallery (Berlin Wall)
The longest section of the Berlin Wall that still stands, the East Side Gallery was quickly converted into an outdoor art gallery in 1990. There are 105 distinct works of art painted on this 1.3-kilometer stretch of wall, including “Fraternal Kiss” (yes, that painting of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honecker) and “Detour to the Japanese Sector”, which was inspired by the East German artist’s dreams of traveling abroad while growing up in East Germany.
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: German Food & Drink
I was a little bit worried that Germany wouldn’t be vegetarian-friendly, but it turned out that there’s lots of German vegetarian food, and that Berlin is one of the best cities on the planet for vegetarians and vegans. I know that most of my readers are meat-eaters, and I’ve got you covered too!
The official dish of Berlin usually starts with a thick pork sausage that gets grilled and then tossed in a curry-spiced ketchup. Most people enjoy it with a side of fries and mayonnaise. Personally, I enjoy it with a vegan sausage made from seitan (a mock meat product made from vital wheat gluten). You can find it all over the city and you’d be crazy to go home without having it at least once (perhaps at 6:00 am, after a wild night on the town?).
I snapped this funny picture of a tip jar at the YAAM, or the Young African Artists Market, on my last trip to Berlin. While Berlin is no Munich, it does have its own unique beer culture. Start by trying Berliner Weisse, a sour, fruity beer that often comes with an extra shot of sugary fruit syrup at the bottom of the glass. If that sounds horrifying to you, rest assured that there are lots of craft breweries and craft beer bars around town. If you get the chance, try one of the brews from Schneeeule (“Snowy Owl”), where the master brewer is a woman.
19. Kaffe und Kuchen
Any opportunity to drink coffee and eat cake while calling it a cultural experience is fine by me. Much like the English have afternoon tea, Germans have afternoon cake and coffee. Personally, I’m always on the lookout for anything made with lots of marzipan (it reminds me of my German oma, or grandmother) but the most authentically German choices are probably Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (you might know it as Black Forest Cake) or Erdbeertorte (imagine a hybrid strawberry cake and pie). As for Berliners? It’s true that most of the country uses that term to refer to doughnuts, but here in Berlin they prefer to call them Pfannkuchen.
Berlin nightlife has got me into more trouble than I’d care to admit. Coming from Canada, I’m used to nightclubs closing at 2:00 am, whereas in Berlin the action is just picking up at that hour. If you want to experience Berlin’s legendary nightlife for yourself, be prepared for long queues, strict door policies and, again, very late nights. While techno is the music of choice at most of the big-name clubs, with over 400 nightclubs across the city you should be able to find something playing the kind of music you want to hear.
Berlin Nightlife Tip from Carly: If you’re not used to dancing until 8:00 am, you’re going to need an energy boost. The most safe, legal and natural option, and my preferred Berlin clubbing beverage, is known as Club-Mate. Made from carbonated South American maté tea, it gives you a nice little boost of caffeine with minimal sugar (you’ll never drink Red Bull again). It never hurts to add a little vodka to your Club-Mate either!
Berlin Solo Nightlife Tip (Also from Carly): It’s not that fun to hit the clubs solo. If you’re a solo traveler in Berlin, I can highly recommend the Alternative Nightlife Tour. Although many of this pub crawl’s spots are becoming increasingly well-known, they’re generally interesting and the crowd who joins this tour tends to be pretty chill. I speak from personal experience, as I’ve done it twice!
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: Parks
One of the things that makes me fall in love with a city is an abundance of green space, and Berlin has done an amazing job of incorporating natural areas throughout the city.
21. Tempelhofer Feld
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had free reign of the entire airport and could run and play wherever you wanted? After the Tempelhof Airport closed in 2008, the people of Berlin voted to create an opportunity to do exactly that. They voted to turn the former airport’s grounds into a massive public park, and converted the terminal building into one of the largest indoor public spaces on the planet. The 386-hectare grounds feature a mixed-use trail for jogging, cycling and walking, a huge picnic area, public barbecues, urban gardens and, apparently, some of the best kite-flying on earth.
Creative Commons image via James Denn.
Spanning nearly half of the city center, Berlin’s Tiergarten is the easiest park to access from many of the city’s popular tourist attractions. Of course, it has safe, well-maintained (and flat!) trails for walking, running, cycling and roller-skating. Additionally, it is home to some attractions in their own right. The House of World Culture is an event space with striking sculptures and a noteworthy domed design. Schloss Bellevue looks like a little palace; it’s the official home of the German president. And you can’t miss the Victory Column, topped with a bronze sculpture of the Roman goddess of victory. It was constructed after a number of Prussian victories in conflicts during the late 1700s. Yes, you can ascend the Victory Column too!
If our paths cross in Berlin, it will inevitably be at Mauerpark on a Sunday afternoon. When Berlin was divided, there was a viewing platform here that allowed people on the West to look across the wall to the East. Thus, the park’s name, Mauerpark, or “Wall Park”.
Sunday is the best day to visit Mauerpark. I like to enter the park through the flea market on Bernauer Strasse. I’ve picked up some of my favorite wardrobe pieces here, including a cute black-and-white print blazer and mirrored earrings, both made by local designers. After looping through the flea market I like to check out the different food stalls (many of which offer vegetarian options!) and then purchase a beer to take with me to the grassy areas that are packed with street musicians and entertainers. At 3:00 pm, head for the amphitheater to watch Bear Pit Karaoke, where audience members step up the mic, for better or worse.
As you leave, check out the free Berlin Wall Memorial running along Bernauer Strasse. This section of Berlin Wall has been preserved in its original state (unlike the East Side Gallery). Along the way, multilingual signs explain the history and impact of the wall.
24. Spree River
The Spree River flows through Berlin, from Neukoln in the east to the suburb of Spandau in the west. There are so many different ways to take advantage of this waterway. Personally, I love walking long the banks of the Spree, especially in the area around Monbijou Park in Mitte. There are a number of riverfront cafes where you can stop for a meal (or just an aperol spritz) and enjoy the fresh air. Surprisingly, there are also riverfront “beach” clubs, where you can sink your feet into the (imported!) sand, work on your tan and, of course, enjoy a cold glass of beer.
For the full Spree River experience, take one of the city’s many river cruises. If you’ve got a Berlin Card, you can get discounts on most of the cruises, including many of those that operate on the nearby River Havel and sail all the way out to Potsdam.
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: Christmas Exclusive
There’s something magical about visiting Berlin in November and December. That something? Berlin Christmas markets.
25. Berlin Christmas Markets
It doesn’t get much more festive than the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market! Surrounded by cathedrals and concert houses, this Christmas market (shown above) attracts more than half a million visitors every year. Sip on a warm mug of Glühwein (German-style mulled wine) while you shop for handmade ornaments, wooden toys, traditional advent calendars and, if you liked that Glühwein, a mug made just for your favorite new drink.
Berlin has several other Christmas markets, including a large one in the suburb of Spandau and a sparkly one (complete with ferris wheel) in front of the Rotes Rathaus (near Alexanderplatz). Typically, German Christmas markets open in late November and close up shortly before or after Christmas Day.
The Best Things to Do in Berlin: An Honorable Mention
I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t add one bonus recommendation to this list. Stripping naked with a bunch of strangers might not be the best thing to do in Berlin, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of my personal favorites!
26. Vabali Spa & Liquidrom
This definitely won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but personally I would never leave Berlin without spending at least half a day at Vabali, a Balinese-inspired spa complex in a park near Hamburger Bahnhof and the main railway station. German spas are “textile-free”, meaning men and women use the facilities in the nude, so this is not an outing for the self-conscious (or maybe it is, if you want to become more confident in your own skin!). There are ten different saunas here, with an excellent schedule of complimentary “infusions” (skincare or general health treatments administered at high heats… once you’re in, there’s no leaving!). There are also indoor and outdoor pools along with varying spaces to rest and relax (with a freshly-squeezed fruit juice or, since you’re in Germany, a cold glass of beer!).
I can’t mention Vabali without also mentioning Liquidrom. Personally, I haven’t visited this spa complex, which is known as being a little bit more alternative (possibly due to its lower prices). The main draw here is the massively-domed saltwater flotation pool where classical and electronic music are piped through the water as colored lights create various psychedelic effects. Swimwear is required in the main pool but optional everywhere else.
(Read more about my love of German spas in my guide to the spas of Baden-Baden.)
A Few Other Things to Do in Berlin
There are hundreds of things to do in Berlin, but not all of them are worth your time. Here are a few things that I personally wouldn’t recommend, especially if you have limited time in the German capital.
- Hop-On, Hop-Off Double-Decker Bus Tours | Were you paying attention? You don’t need to pay for a tourist bus in Berlin. Just catch Bus #100 at Alexanderplatz and ride it right across the city to the Berlin Zoologischer Garten S-Bahn and U-Bahn station.
- German Spy Museum | It looks like it’s going to be this super-cool interactive museum with laser beams but actually it’s just wall after wall (after wall…) of text. If you like standing and reading about spies, just get a good thriller from the public library and read it standing up. No need to come all the way to this museum.
- The Dali Exhibition at Potsdamer Platz | It’s a sad little collection that is mostly sketches and lithographs. They nickel-and-dime visitors for things like taking photos and checking coats, and get offended when visitors express their disappointment on TripAdvisor.
- Potsdamer Platz | Speaking of Potdamer Platz, I’m not convinced this area needs to be on your Berlin itinerary. It’s considered a shopping, entertainment and nightlife district, but you can watch a movie in a cinema when you get home.
- Zoo Berlin | This blog does not support keeping animals in captivity. If you really can’t resist seeing animals outside their natural habitat, go across the street to…
- Bikini Berlin | This “concept shopping center” lacks soul, and several of the shops that I looked in were just selling polyester clothes from AliExpress at major markups, but the upper floors and rooftop level have views of the Berlin Zoo’s monkey enclosure.
Where to stay in Berlin depends on your travel style.
Prefer location and affordability over fancy extras? Check out Hotel 38 in Mitte.
Want a cool, design-focused hotel with a sauna and complimentary snack bar? You’ll love Casa Camper.
Planning a trip to Berlin? Leave a comment letting me know what you’re most excited about!
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