Berlin is a scene-stealing combo of glamour and grit, teeming with top museums and galleries, grand opera and guerrilla clubs, gourmet temples and ethnic snack shacks. Whether your tastes run to posh or punk, you can sate them in Berlin.
Despite its often hectic pace, Berlin functions on an exquisitely human scale. Traffic flows freely, public transportation is brilliant, you can walk without fear at night, clubs have no velvet ropes and your restaurant bill would only buy you a starter back home. Come and join the party and be swept away by the riches, quirks and vibrancy of this fascinating city. Here are ten things to add to the top of your list.
1. Channelling your inner-archaeologist at the Pergamon museum
An Aladdin’s cave of treasures from ancient realms, the Pergamon museum is an essential entry on any list of must-see sights. Inside the vast complex, custom built on Museumsinsel (Museum Island) in 1930, is a feast of classical sculpture and monumental architecture from Greece, Rome, Babylon and the Middle East that will amaze and enlighten. Most of it was excavated and spirited to Berlin by German archaeologists at the turn of the 20th century.
2. Getting palace envy at Schloss Charlottenburg
An exquisite baroque palace, Schloss Charlottenburg evokes the onetime grandeur of the Prussian royals. It is particularly special to visit in the summer when you can fold a stroll, sunbathing session or picnic in the lush palace park into a day of peeking at royal treasures.
3. Losing your weekend on Berlin’s sizzling dance floors
Berlin’s reputation for intense and unbridled nightlife is rooted in the libertine 1920s when everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Christopher Isherwood partied like it was 1999. After reunification the club scene exploded, with the most vital venues taking over all sorts of dark, disused and derelict locations, from postal offices to power stations, bunkers to factories. From here, hard-edged techno conquered the world, using the impetus of reunification to tap into the simultaneous explosion of the UK rave scene and the popularity of ecstasy. Illegal and underground parties thrive, often taking over S-Bahn stations and trains, abandoned buildings, ATM foyers and other unlikely locales – at least until the police show up.
4. Shopping for kitsch and couture in the Scheunenviertel
Retail therapy gets a unique Berlin twist in the Scheunenviertel, the ultimate shopping mecca for individualists. Boutiques here are edgy, stylish and definitely light years from high-street conformity. From couture to streetwear, home decorations to gourmet foods, accessories to art, you will find a diverse and mostly home-grown selection in this village-like labyrinth of lanes.
5. Standing before history at the Reichstag
Likely to give you more flashbacks to high-school history than any other Berlin landmark, this grand old building by Paul Wallot (1894) is where the German parliament, the Bundestag, has been hammering out its policies since 1999. This followed a total makeover by Lord Norman Foster, who preserved only the building’s historical shell while adding the striking glass dome, which is accessible by lift.
In the ’80s, megastars including David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson performed concerts on the lawn of the Reichstag, which rubbed up against the western side of the Berlin Wall. When word got out that East German fans were trying to eavesdrop from the other side, the stars turned some of the loudspeakers around, almost provoking an international incident!
6. Gaining insight into Jewish life at the Jewish Museum
Berlin’s Jewish Museum (Jüdisches Museum) is an eye-opening, emotional and interactive journey through 2,000 years of Jewish history in Germany, not just the 12 years of Nazi horror that such presentations often focus on. This exhibit deftly navigates through all major historic periods, from the Roman era to the community’s current renaissance, with stops in the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment.
7. Mingling with old masters at the Gemäldegalerie
About 1,500 works span the arc of artistic vision between the 13th and 18th centuries, with key canvasses by Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Botticelli, Holbein, Gainsborough, Canaletto, Hals, Rubens, Vermeer and other heavy hitters.
8. Roaming, picnicking and carousing in the Tiergarten
Berlin’s rulers used the grounds to hunt boar and pheasants before having them shaped into a public park by master landscape architect Peter Lenné in the 18th century. With its huge shady trees, groomed paths, woodsy groves, lakes, creeks and meadows, the Tiergarten is one of the world’s largest city parks and a wonderful retreat from the city bustle. It is popular for strolling, jogging, Frisbee tossing, picnicking, grill parties, sunbathing and even gay cruising (especially around the Löwenbrücke).
9. Hobnobbing with high society on Kurfürstendamm
No trip to Berlin would be complete without a saunter along Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm for short) in Charlottenburg. Along with its continuation, the Tauentzienstrasse, it is the city’s longest and busiest shopping strip, lined with everything from big department stores to high-street chains and designer boutiques for size zero fembots. Amid all this, the Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) stands quietly, if incongruously, as a poignant reminder of the absurdity of war.
10. Posing for pictures with the Brandenburg Gate
So where were you when the Berlin Wall fell? For tens of thousands the answer is 'at the Brandenburg Gate'. Who can forget the images of the crowds of euphoric revellers perched atop the Wall, hugging complete strangers and shaking hands with border guards? Amid cheers and champagne, the Cold War was over and a new era of hope and freedom began.