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The city of Berlin, built around the River Spree in Germany's Bundesland, has undergone enormous changes in the past century. Since World War II, Germany's capital has emerged from the past and undergone the biggest construction project in Europe. It’s now a thriving, modern and exciting city, welcoming both tourists and business visitors.
Much of Berlin has been rebuilt, restored or rejuvenated, and there is some wonderful architecture, both old and new, interspersed throughout the city. Mitte, the central district, boasts prominent sights such as Alexanderplatz and its signature television tower; the 13th-century Nikolaikirche and Marienkirche; and the golden-domed Neue Synagogue. To the west is Tiergarten, which refers to the parliamentary, government and diplomatic district. It hosts the city's largest and most popular inner-city park and the historic Reichstag, which received a modern glass dome in 1999.
Located 125 miles inland, Berlin does not have a seaport. The nearest port is Rostock-Warnemünde, which is about three hours away by train, though still sold by many cruise ship operators as “Berlin,” so don't be surprised. There are similar distances to the ports of Hamburg and Szczecin.
Some river cruises start or end at Berlin, using Havel, Spree and some canals for cruises to Prague or the Baltic Sea.
Berlin is the largest city in Germany and has a population of 4.5 million within its metropolitan area and 3.4 million from over 190 countries within the city limits. Berlin is best known for its historical associations as the German capital, internationalism and tolerance, lively nightlife, its many cafés, clubs, and bars, street art, and numerous museums, palaces and other sites of historic interest. Although badly damaged in the final years of World War II and broken apart during the Cold War, Berlin has reconstructed itself greatly, especially with the reunification push after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It is now possible to see representatives of many different historic periods in a short time within the city center, from a few surviving medieval buildings near Alexanderplatz, to the ultra modern glass and steel structures at Potsdamer Platz. Because of its tumultuous history, Berlin remains a city with many distinctive neighborhoods with several attractions to explore.
If you have time, a must-see is Museum Island (Museumsinsel), a UNESCO world heritage site in the River Spree that houses five internationally significant museums: the Altes Museum, Neues Musem, Alte Nationalgalerie, Bode Museum and Pergamom Museum.The island, originally a residential area, was dedicated to art and science by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1841.
While the Berlin Wall, which divided the city from 1961-1989, has long been dismantled and much of the grounds it occupied completely redeveloped, you can still find parts of the wall preserved around Berlin. The most often visited is Checkpoint Charlie at the southern border of Mitte and Kreuzberg, which is a recreated legendary border crossing within the Friedrichstraße. You cannot see the actual wall there, but this iconic (and extremely touristy) point is on almost every visitor’s list.
Further east from there, you can find a piece of the wall lining up the Niederkirchnerstraße next to the Topography of Terror museum in Mitte. Another popular site is the East Side Gallery along the River Spree in Friedrichshain, a very long stretch of preserved wall with colorful graffiti. All of the aforementioned fragments were altered and are now tourist attractions rather than actual historic monuments. If you want a truly preserved section of the wall, head over to the northern border of Mitte and Gesundbrunnen in the street Bernauer Straße and visit the Berlin Wall Memorial, with a complete section of the wall in all its gloom.
Open 8 am to midnight, the Reichstag is a large glass domed building with a 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The debating chamber of the Bundestag, the German parliament, can be seen from above. The dome is open to the public and can be reached by climbing two steel, spiraling ramps that are reminiscent of a double helix. Admission is free, but pre-booking is required.
The Berlin Zoo in West Berlin is the historic zoo that was almost destroyed in World War II. It’s an oasis in the city and very popular with families and schools. The Elephant Gate (Budapester Straße) is the second entrance next to the Zoo Aquarium and a traditional photo stop for most visitors because of the architecture. The aquarium hosts an amazing variety of fish, crocodiles and more It’s one of the best places to go on a rainy day with children.
The Spreewald is a protected UNESCO biosphere reserve. It includes low-lying areas in which the river Spree meanders in thousands of small waterways through meadows and forests. It is a beautiful, unique landscape about one hour south of Berlin and well worth a day trip if you have the time.
Ku'Damm and its extension, Tauentzienstraße remain the main shopping streets even now that the Wall has come down. KaDeWe (Kaufhaus Des Westens) at Wittenbergplatz is a must visit just for the vast food department on the sixth floor. It’s reputedly the biggest department store in Continental Europe and still has an old-world charm, with very helpful and friendly staff.
Friedrichstraße is the upmarket shopping street in former East Berlin with Galeries Lafayette and the other Quartiers (204 to 207). The renovated Galeria Kaufhof department store at Alexanderplatz is also worth a visit. A large shopping area that recently opened is Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule.
For cheap books, a nice choice is Jokers Restseller in Friedrichstraße 148, (+49 30 20 45 84 23). For souvenirs, have a look just in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche; these shops sell almost the same items as others, but are cheaper. You can also get cheap postcards here. For alternative souvenirs (design, fashion and small stuff from Berlin designers and artists), go to ausberlin near Alexanderplatz; it's a bit hidden at the other side of Kaufhof at the Karl-Liebknecht-Straße. And for vintage items, check out Pony Hütchen at Pücklerstrasse 33 or Vintage Galore. You can also find dozens of flea markets with different themes in Berlin (mostly on weekends). A few worth checking out are Straße des 17, Mauerpark and Arkonaplatz.
A staple in Berlin is currywurst. It’s a bratwurst covered in ketchup and curry powder. You can find them all over Berlin from street vendors. Two renowned currywurst stands are Konnopke’s Imbiss and Curry 36 — both of which offer far friendlier service than many of Berlin's more upmarket eateries.
Another famous thing to eat in Berlin is Döner, a flat bread filled with lamb or chicken meat and vegetables, available at many Turkish stands. For cheap and good food (especially from Turkey and the Middle East), you should try Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Try Imbiss W, at the corner of Zionskirchstraße and Kastanienallee, where they serve superb Indian fusion food, mostly vegetarian, at the hands of artist-chef Gordon W. Further. Up the street is the Prater Garten, Berlin's oldest beer garden and an excellent place in the summer.
Another good choice is acht&dreissig (Oranienburger Str. 38), which serves modern German cuisine combined with contemporary interpretations and international inspirations in a modern, open setting.
Eating out in Berlin is incredibly inexpensive compared to many other Western European capitals or other German cities. The city is multicultural and many ethnic cuisines are represented here somewhere, although it is often modified to suit German tastes. Vegetarians can eat quite well with a little bit of research and menu modification. Many kebab restaurants have a good selection of roasted vegetables and salads. Falafels are also tasty and suitable for vegetarians.
The club scene in Berlin is one of the biggest and most progressive in Europe. Even though there are some 200 clubs in the city, it's sometimes difficult to find the right club for you since the best ones are a bit off the beaten track. The main clubbing districts are in the east: Mitte, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. Some mainstream clubs are located in Charlottenburg and at Potsdamer Platz.
Electro and techno are still the biggest in Berlin, with lots of progressive DJs and live acts around, but there are also many clubs playing classic rock, alternative rock and of course mainstream music. Partying in Berlin starts around midnight (on the weekends) and peaks around 2 am in normal clubs and a bit later in many electro/techno clubs. Berlin is famous for its long and decadent after hours. The Berghain Panorama Bar (with a cover of less than $20), in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, is one big party. A good overview about whats going on close to the place you are staying is brought to you by joinjack.de. This website shows you parties directly on a map.
Berliners love to drink cocktails, and it's a main socializing point for young people. Many people like to meet their friends in a cocktail bar before clubbing. Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, and Friedrichshain are the main areas. At Warschauer Straße and more specifically Simon-Dach-Straße and around Boxhagener Platz, you can find a wide variety of bars. It is common for locals to meet at Warschauer to go to a bar there. Also Ostkreuz (Eastcross) and Frankfurter Allee are very famous meeting points. There are lots of Irish bars all over the city, as there are in all European cities, catering mostly to the Irish construction workers and Germans attracted by Irish music. The Irish pub in the Europa Center at Tauentzienstraße is famous and claims to have the longest bar in all of Berlin.
For homesick Americans, especially those with a California bent or don’t like indoor smoke, try the Redwood Bar at Bergstrasse 25, in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, near the Pappelplatz metro station. The bar is made out of a single redwood plank shipped from California, and the establishment features American-style cocktails in a nonsmoking atmosphere. It attracts a good mix of people and the owner, a Stanford grad, likes to spend some time with the customers. After a long night of partying, try the American-style big breakfast place, California Breakfast Slam, at Innstrasse 47, Wildenbruchplatz, Neukölln.
Berlin is a beautiful city, so allow enough time to get to see the sights. A good map is highly recommended. While the public transport system is superb, it can be confusing to visitors. Signs point to city boroughs or districts rather than indicating compass directions, so it's a good idea to get to know where the various boroughs or districts lie in relation to each other. The boroughs can roughly be grouped into six districts:
To see all six districts, you should make use of the excellent bus, tram, train and underground services to get around. Taxi services are also easy to use and a bit less expensive than in many other big Central European cities. Consult the online Berlin route planner (in English) to get excellent maps and schedules for the U-Bahn, buses, S-Bahn and trams, or to print your personal journey planner.
Berlin has a temperate oceanic climate, meaning it has warm summers and cold winters. Nighttime temperatures typically fall below freezing in the winter, and snowfall is a regular occurrence, though the snow rarely accumulates for more than a few days. Summers are typically pleasant.
Currency: Credit cards are becoming more common, but Germans still largely prefer euros, as well EC/Maestro cards. Most places in tourist zones will accept credit cards, but it is still a good idea to ask in advance if you intend to pay with one.
Language: German is the main language in Berlin but you can easily find tourist information in English and sometimes in French. Most people under 40 in Berlin are able to speak English with varying degrees of fluency.
Safety: Berlin is a safe place, but watch your bags during rush hours and at larger train stations. The police in Berlin are generally helpful to tourists. Most of the officers are able to speak English, so don't hesitate to approach them if you are frightened or lost. The nationwide emergency number is 112 for medical emergencies and fires, while the police emergency number is 110.
Have you been to Berlin? Please share a story, tip or discovery. What was the highlight for you?
“Berlin has so much to experience — over 175 museums, a world-famous zoo and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,” Carol says. “The Berlin Philharmonic performs in a free-form, sweeping, gold contemporary building across the street from Sony Center with its futuristic design. Public transportation is good and easy. Bus 100 is good for sightseeing — it travels from East to West Berlin, from Alexanderplatz to the Zoological Garden.”
“Reopened in 2015, the refurbished public Berlinische Galerie houses works by 20th-century artists of the Berlin Secession, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity movements: the haunting Weimar-era oil portraiture of Otto Dix, George Grosz’s pen-and-ink prostitutes and automatons and Hannah Höch’s radical photomontages, among other gems (entrance, 8 euros). ”
“The paleo diet has taken hold in Berlin thanks largely to Sauvage. The restaurant serves up dishes like roasted bone marrow on rosemary-and-cassava-flour toast and paleo pancakes made with tiger nut, chestnut and cassava. Brunch is about 15 euros.”