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Berlin Bucket List

Visiting Berlin: What to See and Do

Obliterated by bombing during World War II, rebuilt & divided during the Cold War and reunited after 1990, Berlin, unlike other major European capitals, almost totally lacks historical grandeur, nevertheless it’s an exciting city to visit. Among its surviving highlights are the iconic Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag with its modern glass dome, the New Guardhouse, Charlottenburg Palace, Knoblauch House, a museum dedicated to the Biedermeier era, and the rococo-style Ephraim Palace, which is regarded as ‘the most beautiful corner in Berlin’. Other notable buldings are the German Cathedral, the Konzerthaus & the French Cathedral on Gendarmenmarkt, the neo-Gothic Friedrichswerder Church, the eye-catching neo-Moorish New Synagogue, Berlin Cathedral, a true marvel of neo-Renaissance exuberance, and the nearby museums on Museum Island.

The five museums on Berlin’s Museum Island together house eight collections that mainly comprise antiquities. Must-see pieces here are Thutmose’s bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Neues Museum and Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of Mount Watzmann at the Alte Nationalgalerie. Important museums on Berlin’s mainland are the Gemäldegalerie, which is home to Rembrandt’s Moses with the Ten Commandments, the Neue Nationalgalerie, which is perhaps best known for its museum building by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Museum of Decorative Arts, as well as the German Historical Museum (closed until end-2025), the German Museum of Technology, and the Jewish Museum Berlin. Among the other cultural venues you shouldn’t miss are the Berliner Philharmonie, the home of the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Konnopke’s Imbiß (est. 1930), a snack bar close to the Museum in the Kulturbrauerei that serves the best currywurst in town.

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

In Berlin, Germany’s disturbing past is never past, because bad memories are kept alive to ensure that what happened will never happen again. Downtown are the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the ‘Topography of Terror’ exhibition on Nazi terror throughout Europe, and further away from the city centre are the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis planned the Holocaust, the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre, and the Sachsenhausen Memorial & Museum in Oranienburg, the last stop north on the S-Bahn. Post-war bad memories from the time of the GDR are kept alive at the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Stasi Museum, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a former Stasi prison, and the Memorial to the 17 June 1953 Uprising. The uprising took place at the former Reich Aviation Ministry, a Nazi-style building that served the GDR as its ‘House of Ministries’, which features Max Lingner’s well-known socialist mural Building the Republic.

Public transport in Berlin is quite good. Tickets are valid on the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, trams & buses; for Berlin an AB ticket is what you need, but if you want to visit Potsdam or Oranienburg as well, an ABC ticket is required. Single tickets are valid for 2 hours & cost € 3 (AB) or € 3⅘ (ABC); 4-trip tickets are € 9⅖ or € 13⅘. 24-hour tickets are € 8⅘ or € 10; for small groups of up to 5 people € 25½ or € 26½. Under-6s go for free & children aged 6–14 travel at a reduced rate. The Berlin WelcomeCard is valid for 48 or 72 hours or 4, 5 or 6 days and offers unlimited journeys & various discounts, and with each ticket up to 3 children aged 6–14 travel for free; prices range from € 24 for 48 hours to € 50 for 6 days (AB) or € 29 to € 53 (ABC). If you don’t want discounts & don’t bring kids, a 7-day ticket might be a better deal, for € 36 or € 43. Tickets are sold at ticket machines, on buses, and via the BVG apps. By the way, the № 100 bus is great for sightseeing, especially when you manage to commandeer a front seat on the upper deck.

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Two excellent books on Berlin are Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City, an engaging narrative of the city through intimate portraits of 21 of its former inhabitants, and Berlin: The Story of a City by Sir Barney White-Spunner KCB CBE, a fascinating biography of the city & its people from its medieval origins to the present day.


Among the lesser-known art museums in Berlin is the Brücke Museum, dedicated to the expressionist artists’ group Die Brücke, which existed from 1905 to 1913. It houses some 400 paintings & several thousand drawings, watercolours & prints. Highlights are Artistin (1910) and Erich Heckel und Otto Mueller beim Schach (1913) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mann in jungen Jahren (1906) by Erich Heckel, Erzgebirgsdorf (1905) and Bildnis Rosa Schapire (1911) by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein’s Fischerboot (1913), Otto Mueller’s Russiches Mädchenpaar (1920) and Liebespaar II (1921–2), and Emil Nolde’s Verspottung (1909).


The latest addition to Museum Island is the Humboldt Forum, a reconstruction of the largely 18th-century palace that was once the main residence of the Prussian & German monarchs. Heavily damaged by Allied bombing, the original palace was demolished in 1950 because it was seen as a symbol of Prussian militarism, and to make way for a square for East Germans to express their delight in the communist regime. In the 1970s part of the parade ground was used to build the Palace of the Republic, which was bulldozed thirty years later because the Germans preferred retro baroque over the genuine ugliness of the seventies. The new old palace, whose baroque facades look really nice, first opened its doors to the public in 2021. It houses the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum.


Few places in Berlin are as confusing as Museum Island, where institutions such as the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Egyptian Museum cannot be found on a map but turn out to be departments of the Pergamon Museum and the Neues Museum instead. The former also houses the Museum for Islamic Art, and the latter is home to the Museum of Prehistory & Early History as well. Similarly, the Museum of Byzantine Art can be found at the Bode Museum.


There is also a Berlin WelcomeCard that is valid for 72 hours and includes access to the Pergamon Museum, the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, the Bode Museum & the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island, for € 52 (AB) or € 55 (ABC). The slightly cheaper version of the WelcomeCard is the Berlin CityTourCard, which also offers unlimited travel to an adult & up to 3 children aged 6–14 for travel zones AB or ABC, but the few discounts it entitles one to are rather insignificant.


The discount the Berlin WelcomeCard offers on charlottenburg+ tickets for Charlottenburg Palace applies only to regular tickets, not to family tickets. (This is the same for sanssouci+ tickets.)


Two historical museums about World War II & the Cold War that are of interest are the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, formerly known as the Museum der bedingungslosen Kapitulation des faschistischen Deutschland im Großen Vaterländischen Krieg 1941–1945 and that’s what it is, and the Allied Museum, which shows how enemies became friends (and how allies became enemies).


Many visitors to the city look for traces of the Berlin Wall, but it’s interesting to explore East Berlin as well, the ‘Capital of the GDR’. (Technically speaking, Berlin was never part of either one of the Germanies, but the Communists didn’t mind about that.) A nice way to explore some of East Berlin’s highlights is to take a stroll along Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, Alexanderplatz & Karl-Marx-Allee, starting at the Marx-Engels Monument, where you can sit on Karl Marx’s lap or hold hands with Friedrich Engels, and then move on to the 365-m-high Berlin TV Tower, which was a national symbol of the GDR, albeit with a flaw: the sun’s reflection on the tiled stainless steel dome looks like a cross, and the atheist authorities didn’t like that — nor did they like its nickname St Walter, after their party leader Walter Ulbricht. On the opposite side of the S-Bahn station is the World Clock, a turret clock that shows the current time in 148 major cities around the world. Further ahead is the Teachers’ House, an office building noted for its 875-m² mosaic mural Our Life, depicting the happy life in a socialist state; the mural From the Life of the People of the Soviet Union at Café Moscow shows a similar motif. Down the road is the former Karl Marx Bookshop, where you can no longer buy The Communist Manifesto, but the monumental boulevard on which it is located, once a flagship building project of the GDR, is a great example of Stalinist architecture.


Apparently not all my fellow Berliners like our U-Bahn operator BVG (pronounced ‘bay-vow-gay’) as much as I do.


Currywurst mit Pommes is the local culinary highlight, but Berlin also has its own beer: Berliner Weisse, a top-fermented beer made from wheat & barley. It’s often served with raspberry or woodruff syrup, which gives the beer its characteristic red or green colour. The main producer is the Berliner-Kindl-Schultheiss-Brauerei in Alt-Hohenschönhausen, but a few smaller breweries also make Berliner Weisse: Berliner Berg in Neukölln, Brło in Kreuzberg, Lemke in Mitte, and Schneeeule in Tegel.

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