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The Bode Museum on the Museum Island in Berlin, Germany.

The Little Big List of Things to do in Berlin

Berlin is fast becoming one of the most popular cities in Europe to visit. This is not at all surprising given that for centuries the city has been at the heart of major events in European history. And there is so much more than political history, Berlin is equally known for its music scene, vibrant nightlife and alternative culture; and has been since the 1920s. Whatever your interests Berlin has something for you. This is not just another list of things to do in Berlin. Although it focuses on the culture and history of this city, as a starting point this list caters for all levels of interest in history. For children as well as adults. For visitors with a general interest in history and those who love history and can not get enough.

Berliners and those who know Berlin well will be able to see more in the photograph above than just a pretty view of the city. Taken looking east along the Spree River from the Weidendammer Bridge, those in the know can easily identify enough things to see and do to keep most if not all visitors to Berlin occupied for at least a couple of days.

To begin with there is the Spree River. Taking a cruise on the Spree is a very popular activity, even for locals. Not surprisingly then, there are many cruises and boat rides to choose from. A short cruise seeing the historical buildings from a boat, to an evening meal seeing the wonderful range of architecture of the city by night. Or, you could walk or cycle along the paths beside the river. Stop for a bite to eat, relax in a waterside park with an eis, or head into a museum.

Talking of museums, the striking Neoclassical domed building at the centre of the photograph is the Bode Museum. One of five museums that make up Museumsinsel, itself one of the three UNESCO listed World Heritage sites in Berlin. If museums and art galleries are your thing, you could spend three days on Museum Island alone and still not have seen it all. And then there are the many museums throughout the rest of the city, from the in depth and serious to the quirky!

Within walking distance of Museumsinsel is the iconic TV Tower, the Berliner Fernsehturm as it is known locally. From up there, whether on the observation deck or in the restaurant enjoying a meal, you can see all of Berlin before you. To the right of the tower, sticking out above the top of the post-war apartment block you will notice a green spire. That is one of Berlin’s oldest churches, the Gothic St Marienkirche. Well worth a visit, as are the many other historic churches and places of worship in Berlin.

For anyone with the slightest interest in history, Berlin will enthral you. From its origins in the 12th century to its centre of the Prussian Kingdom. From the city’s heyday in the 1920s, to its place at the heart of one of the world’s darkest episodes in history. From a divided Cold War city, to a city once again reunified in 1989. Berlin is at once one of the most fascinating historical cities of Europe as well as the most vibrant and entertaining destination for people of all ages.

As varied as these attractions and activities are, they do not come close covering all that the city has to offer. Whether you have a day or two, a midweek or weekend break, or you have recently moved to Berlin, there will certainly be something of interest in this list. Some of them are free, others not so free. All of them have played a part in building the character of this extraordinary city.

Spree River Cruises

Spree River Cruise
Enjoy a relaxing cruise through the city, there are so many to choose from. Here cruise passed the Berlin Cathedral on Museumsinsel.

The Spree River rises in the mountains of Saxony to the south east of Berlin and enters the Berlin area at the Müggelsee (See is German for lake). The river then passes through the centre of the city towards the west, where it joins the Havel River in Spandau. The Havel has its source in the Mecklenburg Lake District to the north of Berlin, it then flows south to Spandau and then Potsdam, where it flows west to Brandenburg an der Havel before turning north to join the Elbe River near Havelberg.

In addition to the Spree and the Havel a number of lakes and canals also make up the navigable waterways of Berlin, which are used for recreational and industrial purposes. There are many different cruises to choose from. They vary in length and start and end points. You can get a short cruise through the centre of Berlin at Museumsinsel, or take a cruise for several hours, even going from Wannsee to Potsdam by boat. A popular place to start and finish is Hafen Treptow (next to Treptower Park, and the metro station of the same name).

Recommended Spree River Cruises

Berlin Wall: East Side Gallery

Berlin East Side Gallery
See the iconic image of Honecker and Brezhnev in a brotherly socialist kiss at Berlin’s East Side Gallery.

At 1316 m long this is the longest complete section of the Berlin Wall still standing. Soon after the wall came down, 118 artists from 21 countries painted such images as a Trabant breaking through the wall’, Eric Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev locked in a brotherly socialist kiss. In September 1990 it was formally opened as a an open air gallery, which given its length makes its the longest open air gallery in the world. Today it has protected memorial status, so don’t even think of adding your name or trying to chip a piece off as a souvenir.

This section of the wall runs along the banks of the Spree River in Friedrichshain. The closest station is Warschauer Straße, from where it is a few minutes walk. On a sunny day this is a popular place to sit on the grass and watch the boats go by.

Guided Tours of the Berlin Wall

Bernauer Street Wall Memorial

Bernauer Street Wall
Free: see the only section of the wall that retains all the features, see it from the ground as well as from above from the top floor of the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre.

There are a number of sections of the Wall scattered about the city. For an in depth experience of the wall visit the memorial site on Bernauer Street. Here over a distance of 1.4 km various aspects of the Wall are presented in exceptional outdoor, multimedia installations. Start at the Visitor Center of the Berlin Wall Memorial at the corner of Garten Straße and Bernauer Straße (nearest station: Nordbahnhof) and walk up what was once the border between East and West Berlin.

Tip: the perfect time to take a break for a drink and/or a bite to eat is when you reach the Bernauer Straße station. Here you will see the Ost-West Cafe. The decor may look a bit touristy, but the food and service is excellent.

Guided Tour of the Bernauer Street Wall Memorial

Medieval City Wall – Stadtmauer

Everyone knows about the Berlin Wall, and most visitors to the city will visit one or more memorial sites during their stay. Only a tiny fraction will see the much more modest remains of the 13th century wall. In fairness very few Berliners even know about it, let alone have seen it. Berlin was given city rights in 1251 and some time shortly after that a wall was built around the medieval settlement. While some European cities still have impressive city walls from this time, all that remains of Berlin’s wall is a section about 1 km in length within walking distance of Alexander Platz.

Guided Tour of the Medieval Centre of Berlin

St Nicholas Church, Nikolaikirche

Although a state-of-the-art museum today, Nikolaikirche is the oldest church in the historic district of Berlin (Nikolaiviertel, or St Nicholas’ Quarter). The church was built in the 1220s, but it was completely destroyed during a bombing raid in 1944. It was not until the beginning of the 1980s that the East German government agreed to its restoration. Despite being destroyed, the rooms of the basement are amongst the oldest surviving in Berlin. In 1987 the church, which had been deconsecrated in 1938, opened as a museum.

Besides regular concerts, the museum houses a permanent exhibition ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’. The exhibition explores the 800 year history of the church as well as the area immediately surrounding it, the so-called Nikolaiviertel. It was here that in 1809 the first assembly of Berlin’s city council was sworn into office. And nearly 200 years later in 1991, soon after the reunification of Germany, the first freely-elected Berlin-wide city parliament met here.

Guided Walking Tours of Nikolai Viertel

World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz

The Urania-Weltzeituhr (World Clock) in Alexanderplatz was erected in 1969 to mark the 20th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. In 2015 the German government declared the clock a monument of cultural and historical significance. Berliners are said to believe that if a couple stand at the clock at midnight and hold hands, they will stay together forever.

Other interesting facts about the clock: the names of 148 cities from around the world are inscribed in the 24 different time zones. Above the 24-sided drum showing these timezones is a sculptural rendering of the solar system, which rotates once per minute. The motor that drives the clock has a gearbox that was rebuilt from a gearbox designed for the famous East German cars, the Trabant.

Berlin Scavenger Hunt

TV Tower – Berliner Fernsehturm

Berlin Tv Tower View
Have breakfast, lunch or dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV Tower. Or just enjoy the view from the observation deck.

Little Big City Berlin

The discovery of Nefertiti is represented in Berlin's Little Big City children's attraction.
Take the kids, big ones as well as little ones, to explore the history of Berlin in miniature at Little Big City.

Nefertiti, Neues Museum on Museumsinsel

Close up of the limestone bust of Nefertiti showing her face.
Come face-to-face with one of the most famous faces from antiquity and a world class collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the Neues Museum.

After finding the model of the archaeologist who excavated Nefertiti carrying his beloved bust at Little Big City, walk over to Museumsinsel to see the real thing. The bust of Nefertiti is part of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection), one of the most important collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt. The collection has its origins in the 1820s, and has grown significantly since. Highlights of this extraordinary collection are on display in the Neues Museum.

Besides the iconic Nefertiti bust (read more about the history of this artefact), there are a number sculptures and artefacts with representations of the famous queen. Including a domestic altar that depicts Akhenaten and Nefertiti with three of their daughters. Also on display are three complete burial chambers, with well preserved reliefs from around 2500 BC. Of course there are also captivating displays of funerary ensembles, mummies and their grave goods.

This is a large collection, and very sensitively displayed, but the accompanying information is quite basic and often only provided in German. There are audio-guides available in a number of different languages.

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma

Roma Memorial
Visit one of the many memorial sites and landmarks around the city, here the ..

In a quiet corner of the Tiergarten, between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, is a dark circular pool with a triangle at the centre. This is the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Anywhere between 220,000 – 500,000 Sinta and Roma people were murdered in the Porajmos, the Romani Holocaust by the Nazis. Created by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan, it was unveiled in 2012. This is one of many memorials in Berlin.

Given the place of Berlin in European and world history, many visitors are not surprised by many memorials scattered about the city. While many do commemorate the events in the city during the 20th century, there are memorials to earlier events, those that involved the state of Prussia. And, besides commemorating specific groups and minorities and events that involved many people, so too are individuals remembered on the streets of Berlin. Visitors to Berlin would be hard pressed not to pass a Stolpersteine, small blocks that memorialise all victims of National Socialism.

Walking Tours of Berlin's Many Memorials

Soviet War Memorial Treptow

Soviet War Memorial Treptower Park
Visit Germany’s largest Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park.

Berlin has three Soviet war memorials, the 9 acre site in Treptower Park is the largest in Germany. This is not only a memorial to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died trying to liberate Berlin during World War II, it is also a cemetery for around 7,000 of those soldiers. And a very striking memorial it is too.

Visitors are free to walk around the Soviet War Memorial. For those who want to learn more about the the role of the Soviets in Berlin during and after World War II a 4 hour walking tour is available. Starting at Berlin Hauptbahnhof and ending at the memorial in Treptower Park, this tour covers the final battle in Berlin during the Second World War and Berlin’s post-war Soviet sector, the ensuing Cold War and the Soviet’s role in the rise of the Berlin Wall, and urban development in communist Berlin. 

Timeride’s Virtual Bus Tour to East Germany

Virtualwall Timeride
Take a virtual bus tour through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin.

Although East Germany no longer exists there is no shortage of attractions for visitors to Berlin to experience various aspects of life and society in the former German Democratic Republic. One of the newest of these is from TimeRide. The main feature of this attraction is a short bus ride through a small part of East Berlin, starting at Checkpoint Charlie and ending in the car park in front of the Palace of the Republic on Marx-Engels-Platz (formerly the Schloßplatz and now the Humbolt Forum).

All this is achieved with virtual reality technology. Following a short video introduction to allow guests to get their bearing, you are introduced to three potential guides. We are told about their upbringing and their backgrounds, and more importantly their relationship to East Germany. Then you enter a mock-up bus and don the VR headsets and enjoy the virtual ride with a commentary from the guide you chose. I thought the virtual reproduction was very good, and the whole experience, albeit a virtual one, offered a view of East Berlin you just do not get from contemporary film or photographs.

The whole experience last about an hour, and is very reasonably priced.

Walking Tours of Berlin

Cycle Tour of Berlin Main Sights

Berlin Cycle Tour
See the highlights of Berlin on a cycle tour of the city.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

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