Berlin had been on our radar for as long as I can remember but for one reason or another we had never got around to visiting. We had plans whilst backpacking in Eastern Europe but got sidetracked somewhere around Lithuania! So when we headed home for a surprise Christmas visit we decided on our way back over to Australia to make this a pit stop. It was cold, I was ill and we had that somewhat uneasy feeling that hangs around at the start of a long trip away (Probably 2 years!), so in reality it was a hard place to fully enjoy as we had always dreamt. That being said, we loved Berlin despite the difficulties, though, we still came away preferring Hamburg, not what we expected or what is the popular opinion, maybe we’re just loyal! Here is our backpacking guide for things to do in Berlin!
Take in the view from the historic Reichstag dome for free
Completed in 1894 the iconic Reichstag building is the centre of German democracy but also a building that became symbolic with the destruction of the war and the end of the Third Reich. The building was built to house the parliament of the German Empire but in 1933 as the Nazis rose to power it burnt down in dubious circumstances. This provided the pretence for the Nazi government to instigate fear of rising communism in the country which lead to appeasement towards Hitler around the world and turned Germany into the Police state they required to take absolute power. Despite the building laying empty during the war and not used for parliamentary sessions over that period, after the infamous battle of Berlin in 1945 the rising of the USSR flag over the battered building became a symbolic moment in the victory over the Nazis.
The building continued in a sorry state through the years of separation in Germany with it laying technically in West Berlin but also right along the border. The West German government sat in Bonn and in reality it had no use and was a ruin. However it was saved from destruction but no one really knew what to do with it. After the reunification in Germany in 1990 the decision was made to renovate the building and move the parliament finally back to Berlin. It took until 1999 for the building to be finished, complete with a new modern dome to replace the ruined original which came together to represent the old and the new Germany.
Today the German parliament, the Bundestag, sits in the Reichstag and the building is open to the public with an appointment. Anyone can book, at least the day before, to take a tour of the magnificent dome where you can see right across the city as well as inside the building itself and where parliament sits. Its on of the things to do in Berlin you can’t believe is for free! Book your visit here: www.bundestag.de
Visiting the dome is FREE, you just need to register before!
Take in the elegance of the Brandenburg Gate
Another relic of the old imperial Germany, the Brandenburger Tor is a real icon of the city and a place so filled with historical significance it’s hard to really take it all in. The history this gate has seen, from leading to the royal Palace of the Prussian monarchs to rousing Nazi marches, being closed off as a crossing between East and West Berlin and eventually representing freedom and unification. From Royalty to revolutions, marches and massacres, this place has been at the centre of German history since it was built in 1791. Today it is still a central meeting place in the city and the site of national celebrations and an essential one of the things to do in Berlin.
It is also FREE to see! Yay!
Wander along the thought provoking East Side Gallery
Berlin is famous for many things, but one of the most thought provoking is the Berlin Wall. A symbol of the cold war, of separation and isolation it also became the focal point for hope, unity and revolution when it famously came crashing down on the 9 November 1989 and began the process which resulted in the end of the Soviet Union. The wall throughout its existence had always been a place of resistance in many forms, from attempts to scale this high and well protected border to graffiti displaying the dismay at what it symbolised. In 1990 this remaining 1316m section of wall was commissioned as a monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists from all over the world were invited to paint over 105 paintings that reflected upon both the good and bad that the wall represents and presented challenging ideas and concepts on such a loaded site.
Many of the paintings and murals were extensively renovated in 2009 with many of the original artists coming back to repaint their now iconic works on the wall, this included one of the most famous pieces of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing as painted by Dmitri Vrubel. We were lucky enough to be staying right by here which was great because its one of our favourite things to do in Berlin.
The wall is FREE to visit and easy to access. It is a short walk from the Berlin Ostbahnhof station or a touch further from Warschauer Strasse U-Bahn, Heinrich Heine Strasse U-bahn, Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn.
Discover other remnants of the Berlin Wall and Potsdamer Platz
If you have a real interest in the Berlin Wall and Cold War history, as we do, then another really important place to see some of the remaining wall is at Potsdamer Platz and essential visiting from our things to do in Berlin guide. Strolling through this peaceful and modern square today you might not have any idea of the heartbreaking history this place has been whiteness to. From the subtle line that runs along the floor marking the path of the Berlin wall to the stark image of remaining crumbling pieces sitting in this modern and busy intersection it really is a poignant place to visit. Seeing the wall here is a different experience to that of the East Side Gallery with the setting providing the ultimate background for how much this once ruined area has changed over time.
Visiting is FREE
Explore Berlin’s Jewish history in heartbreaking detail
Visiting the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is a must do in Berlin, rather than shy away from this huge and shameful period of history, the German people have dedicated a huge square in the city in their memory. The stark and bleak installation covers 19,000 m2 (4.7-acre) and consists of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid formation which changes in height over the undulating land on which is sits.
Walking amongst the blocks you soon become engulfed in their size, visiting is a confronting and isolating experience designed to disorient and separate you from the outside world. It’s not without its controversy, as is expected with something so important, but in our perspective it creates a reflective and uncomfortable experience that allows you to really “feel” rather than just look. The idea is to ” to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason” and we feel it does this perfectly and that this concept, especially having visited Auschwitz a few years back represents the idea of systematic killing and dehumanisation. If there is one places to visit from the list of things to do in Berlin then make it this.
Visiting is FREE!
Take a Photoautomaten selfie in one of the old booths
Being a cooler than cool hipster city it is no wonder the once forgotten photo booth that used to provide ID photo for locals are not a popular hangout spot for selfies! The black and white analogue Fotoautomat machines are a cool way to take some fun and silly shots with your travelling partner and as they print off straight away, you have an awesome souvenir and keepsake completely personal to you!! Most of these booths are found outside U-Bahn stations and can actually be found in several cities throughout the country. Check this link out for a list of locations: www.photoautomat.de
Photos cost 2 Euros for 4! (We did one but I can’t find it right now!)
Eat Currywurst at the wall!
Currywurst, which is basically a bratwurst with a distinctly German style curry sauce over the top, is a German must do! But what better place to tuck into some authentic local food than at the wall! It was supposedly invented in Berlin in 1949 when a local obtained ketchup and curry powder from British Soldiers and combined it with the traditional German Sausage! History was made and the construction workers rebuilding the city would flock by for this quick, cheap and filling snack that is often served alongside chips (Fries!). If you are a vegetarian or vegan, like us, then never fear! Berlin and Germany as a whole is a very veggie friendly place and most currywurst places do veggie options. Our favourite in the city is “Curry at the wall” because it offers veggie sausages, its cheap and in a great location! It’s a must do experience from the things to do in Berlin guide!
Cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie
As with many historical places the irony of it becoming a tourist spot is rather stark to see. Checkpoint Charlie, the once heavily guarded crossing between the East and West where many tried and failed to escape. The focal point for the fascination in espionage and double agents, both real and fictions, is now a spot to get a souvenir passport stamp and pose with “guards”. In many ways the frivolity with which you can cross here, snapping photos and taking in the historical setting, is a yard stick for how far Berlin has come since those dark days those doing those exact same things would have been shot dead and left to bleed to death like Peter Fechter back in 1962. There are also many museums and shops around here to learn more about the history and also buy some pretty cool keepsakes too, including actual bits of the Berlin wall from the broken pieces. Getting a Check Point Charlie stamp in your passport is a must do on the list of things to do in Berlin.
Visiting Checkpoint Charlie is FREE, you can pay a few Euros for some stamps and to pose with the guards.
Spend a day on Museum Island
As the name suggests this is the area to visit many of the classic museums of Berlin, here we are not talking about Nazis or the wall, but a time before that of opulence and grandeur. The island is a designated UNESCO world heritage site and is home to many impressive and stunning buildings that house many of the countries most important artworks and historical treasures. Many of the six museums on the island were badly damaged during the war, but thankfully they have all been lovingly restored to their former glory and once again shine on the international stage. Visiting the museums is easy with a museum island pass that allows you to see all of them in one day. Even if you are struggling with time or money, visiting the island just to take in the magnificence of the architecture is worthwhile.
A Museum island pass is 18 euros.
Reflect at the Topography of Terror museum
The Topography of Terror museum sits on the ruins of the Gestapo and SS headquarters and adjacent to where the Berlin wall ran, parts of which are still preserved on the border of the grounds. The museum is an important stop as you explore this amazing city. It’s not a pleasant place nor something to enjoy, but it is probably the most moving place you will visit in the city.
Setting out a timeline of events that portrays in vivid and uncensored detail how Hitler and the Nazis were able to take control via propaganda and manipulation. It also depicts in grave detail the events of the war and how the institutions based here were able to plan and enact these crimes against humanity. It was by far the most moving of the things to do in Berlin that we experienced.
The museum is FREE to visit
Hang around in Alexanderplatz
One of the most well known public squares in the city it has been a lively meeting place since the founding of the city centuries ago. From farmers selling their goods to military parades, today it is the surrounded by many of the cities largest malls and shopping centres and is a hub for restaurants, cinemas, Christmas markets, meeting up with friends and of course the near by “Fernsehturm” or TV Tower that affords amazing views over the city.
Discover the different sides to this city through its history and architecture
Berlin is a beautiful and harsh place to visit, it is a city of vast contrasts that illustrate its history and story. The difference between East and West, imperial, brutalist, modern and ancient is so jarring and yet so perfect. The city seems to change eras, atmosphere and narrative around each corners. Exploring on foot and on the U-Banh is the perfect way to discover the marks left by each conflict, government and era Berlin has survived through. Taking note of the architecture is the perfect way to discover and decode the fascinating story of the city. Stroll around the Teir garten, museum island and near by the Cathedral before taking the train over to East Berlin and head down Karl Marx Allee to really take in that contrast and division of this now unified city. Of course, exploring the city is FREE and the U-Bahn is really cheap, its the cheapest of the things to do in Berlin!
Have you been? What would make your list of things to do in Berlin?
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