Germany’s capital city doesn’t get a lot of love when it comes to people’s dream vacation boards on Pinterest, instead playing second-fiddle to cities like London, Paris, and Rome. Berlin might not be as popular or as large as some other European cities, with its population only clocking in at about 3.5 million, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not an amazing place to visit! In fact, the city’s rich and multi-faceted history provides a uniquely stimulating background for any type of vacation. As there are endless possibilities for how to combine an itinerary for your trip to Berlin, the following are only but a few suggestions to get you started in planning your holiday.
Take a Walking Tour of the City
Say “auf wiedersehen” to spending your precious euros on taxis! In addition to having a clean, cost-effective, and reliable public transportation system, Berlin is an incredibly walkable city. Exploring the city by foot is one of the best ways to make your trip a memorable one (and is sure to work up an appetite for a delicious German dinner!).
If you prefer… to strike out on your own, or to personalize your time in the city
Study up on Berlin before your trip with a guide book! I personally prefer the Eyewitness Travel brand for their great diagrams and straight-forward information about locations. Take the time to plan out a route that hits all of your desired locations and brush up on your history knowledge, and then hit the pavement! Being your own tour guide allows you to work your way through the city at your own pace, meaning you’ll never feel the need to cut your sight-seeing short or miss interesting sections of a museum. It also means that if you prefer to tailor your trip to focus on one aspect of German culture, such as tasting delicious German cuisine, taking in German literature, or even learning about the many subcultures of Berlin, you’re free to set your own schedule around those specific areas of interest.
If you prefer to… make new international acquaintances or leave the planning of your day-to-day activities to a professional
Join one of Berlin’s many professionally-guided walking tours. There are walking tours for dozens of interests in the city. No matter your interest, from history, to art, to food, and even the supernatural, you’ll find a tour for it in Berlin! Most tour groups depart from the lovely and iconic Brandenburg Gate, which allows you to check that off of your Berlin hot-spot to-do list. An internet search, your hotel or hostel concierge, and pamphlets at the airport can all help you decide which tour best fits your needs, but if it’s your first time visiting Berlin and you want an equally fun and educational tour of the city, consider taking a tour with Sandeman’s New Europe Tours. I loved my experience with them so much on my first tour, I signed up to take all of my other tours with them for the duration of my time in Germany. My tour guide Rob was personable, humorous, incredibly insightful, fielded all of our group’s questions with a smile, and even recommended his favorite local bars and restaurants to us at the end of our trips so we wouldn’t get caught up in tourist traps.
The Holocaust Memorial
It’s no secret that Berlin is home to a checkered and tragic past, with dedications to those who suffered during it scattered throughout the city. One of the most visually stunning and emotionally sobering reminder of Berlin’s history is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s easy to get lost in its labyrinthine depths, but it’s well worth the visit. Berlin is dedicated to preserving the unfiltered memory of its history in the hopes that with education and reverence, history will never repeat itself. These physical manifestations of memory hope to solidify in their visitors an important lesson in compassion and tolerance. Nearby there’s a museum exhibit to go along with the memorial which is also worth viewing. The memorial may not be at the top of your list for a light and happy vacation, but it serves as an important reminder to us all. Just remember to monitor any children that may be accompanying you and ensure that the memorial is treated with respect! If you have active kids, there are many playgrounds and parks around Berlin where they can burn off some energy before visiting historical landmarks where climbing and running are frowned upon.
I was pleasantly surprised during my visit to find that Berlin places a premium on their greenery. As someone who loves to bask in the majesty of nature as often as possible, I was thrilled to see that Berlin is host to many sprawling gardens such as Tiergarten, Lustgarten, and the Potsdam Gardens. Tiergarten is easily accessible from the main tourist focal points of the city and is the ideal place for having a budget-friendly picnic lunch, sunbathing with friends, or renting bikes for an afternoon of cycling. Many Americans like to compare Tiergarten to New York’s Central Park, and I would say that it’s a fair comparison, although there tends to be more casual nudity among the Berliners in Tiergarten (you’ve been forewarned!). The Lustgarten park is located in an unbeatable central location, situated between the gorgeous former Berlin City Palace, the Old Museum, and the breathtaking Berlin Cathedral. To say that it’s a picturesque spot for a picnic, or a nap on the grass in between excursions, is an understatement. Now, the Potsdam Gardens are a bit of a hike away from the heart of the city. They’re located in Potsdam, which is about a 40-minute train ride on the S-Bahn from Berlin’s main train station. The Gardens are gorgeous, and play host to manicured topiaries and large fountains. Of course while you’re there, you might as well take on conquering the many majestic palaces in the Potsdam area.
Sample German Food and Drinks
You probably already know that Germany is famous for their beer, with cultural events like Oktoberfest making their way into the collective conscience of Americans and beyond. From specialty menus at restaurants, to beer tasting, and even brewery tours, beer lovers will be in heaven. If you’re of legal drinking age in Germany, take advantage of the location and sample whatever beers your heart desires! If you don’t want to skimp on trying out local custom, but have a hard time finding the taste of beer palatable, try out ordering a “Radler,” which is a popular mixture of lager with a lemon-lime soda, resulting in a light and refreshing drink. Beer enthusiasts will salivate over the menu at Haus der 100 Bier.
As far as food goes, you may already be familiar with some Germanic dishes such as schnitzel and strudel, but there is so much more to the cuisine scene in Berlin. Since Berlin is home to many immigrants, there is also a wide variety of international cuisine! Don’t be surprised if you find a multitude of curry, falafel, and gelato stands throughout the city. One Berlin specialty, the currywurst, marries German sausage with a tomato and curry powder sauce inspired by the spices that British soldiers brought back to Europe from India.
Of course, there are foods that are traditionally German that you need to try, such as warm brezeln which are the forefathers of the salty soft pretzels that have become staples of sporting events in America. They come in a variety of flavors in Berlin, from those that are dotted in crunchy seeds, to those that are covered in buttery cheese, and can conveniently be picked up at most train stations. My traveling companion and I may or may not have had stopped keeping track of how many we’d consumed after our second day in the city. It was better for both of us that way. I would highly recommend making at least one stop to one of Berlin’s bakeries, like Bäckerei und Konditorei Balzer. We won’t tell if you pick up some brezeln in addition to some delicious German sweet treats just for yourself. It’s a vacation for a reason!
The Brandenburg gate is an iconic piece of history and architecture that is often associated with the image of Berlin. It’s neoclassical in style and based off of the old Grecian entryway to the Acropolis. The gate was originally meant to signify peace, so the women riding the chariot at the top are modeled after Eirene, who is the goddess of peace. The Brandenburg Gate has seen some of the greatest moments of recorded history, from the likes of Napoleon, the Nazi party, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, to Barack Obama. The Gate’s history is truly impressive, but what will really draw you to it is how breathtaking its design is. Behind the Gate is a plaza that contains shops, performers, an art museum, and the hotel that was made infamous when Micheal Jackson dangled his baby over the side of one of their balconies. Yikes.
The Berlin Cathedral is a work of art. The sight of its patina took my breath away the first time I rounded a street corner and saw it towering above me in the distance. Religious devotees, architecture enthusiasts, macabre mavens, and photo fiends will all find something to keep them occupied at this beautiful attraction. The interior of the cathedral boasts gorgeous, ornate decorations and lovely stained glass. You can take a stroll down to the crypts if you’re not easily affected by the spooky and the creepy-crawly. It’s easy to imagine Indiana Jones getting into trouble down there… which I think is about to become my top criteria for picking out vacation attractions. If you decide to go up instead of down, you can get in some light cardio by climbing about 300 stairs to an observation ledge around the top of the dome. From there you’ll have an unobstructed 360 degree view of the city, and grab some truly gorgeous photos of Berlin.
If you’re a museum lover, you’ve hit the jackpot by deciding to visit Berlin. The city has an area aptly known as “Museum Island” or “Museuminsel” where a whopping five of the best museums in the city are located conveniently within walking distance from each other. Now that’s what I call an efficient educational opportunity. The island also plays host to the Lustgarten and Berlin Cathedral mentioned above, and exploring it can easily eat up a whole day. The museums you’ll find on the picturesque island are the Old Museum, the New Museum, the Old National Gallery, the Bode Museum, and the Pergamon Museum. The Old Museum houses gallery work from the Neoclassical period to early Modernist work. The New Museum is home to an impressive historical collection of artifacts from ancient Egyptian to Pre and Early History. The Old National Gallery is famous for its Collection of Classical Antiquities. The Bode Museum is known for its mixed collections of coins, medals, sculptures, and Byzantine art. At the Pergamon Museum you’ll find another antiquities collection, Middle Eastern artifacts, and Islamic art. You could easily spend your entire vacation wandering the vast halls of these museums if that’s what piques your interest, but for the sake of diversifying the itinerary of your time in Berlin consider checking out what exhibits are on at the museums above and just picking out the ones you’d kick yourself for not stopping to see.
Once on my last trip to Berlin, a waiter had assumed that I was a local based on how well I had ordered dinner for my group of traveling companions, only to be surprised when I had to show him my American passport to order a beer. My months of brushing up on my high school German had paid off, and I was ecstatic. Learning languages has always been a passion of mine and being able to put it to the test is always thrilling. Those who know me well, know that I often encourage my fellow travelers to learn as much of the local language as they can before embarking on their journey. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, many American travelers assume that their English will get them by in metropolitan cities, but that’s not always the case. Try your hand at learning some German phrases and nouns (especially food if you’re a picky eater or have an allergy!) before your departure as it’s respectful to your temporary host country and will help you get by in your day-to-day activities.
I also found Berlin to be very well-mannered and mastering your “bittes” and “dankes” will take you far. If you’re up for the challenge, consider using the (free!) program DuoLingo to learn some basics. The app will help you learn to read, write, and speak the language at your own pace and can also be downloaded to your tablet or smartphone so you can learn on the go! If you’re more of a classic learner, and prefer to get your hands on something physical, head to your local library. Most libraries have a fairly large variety of language phrasebooks, although some of them might be a bit old. Check one out and read it leading up to your trip. While a book may not help you learn how to pronounce words, you’ll definitely have a leg up on reading signs and menus in Berlin, which, let’s be honest, is half the battle. Don’t forget that your local library can be a great resource for travel books as well.