Top 20 free things to do in Berlin

by KATE MORGAN·
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Berlin may be one of the best-value cities in Europe but for tourists those euros can start to add up after days of museum-hopping and nights of clubbing. Save your cents by taking in some of the city’s many freebies.

Dome of the Reichstag building, Berlin. Image by Fabio / Flickr / Getty Images.Dome of the Reichstag building, Berlin. Image by Fabio / Flickr / Getty Images. 

Climb to the Reichstag’s roof

The Reichstag is home to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, and a climb to its roof terrace offers spectacular views over the city and close-ups of the modern, Norman Foster–designed glass dome powering from the historic building. The glass aims to create a sense of political transparency. Make sure you register to visit in advance.

Stroll the East Side Gallery

A colourful memorial to freedom, the East Side Gallery sits along the Spree River and is the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. In the wake of the declassification of the wall, more than 100 artists from all over the world made their mark, turning it into an open-air gallery covered in declarations of peace and other politically minded murals and graffiti.

Berlin, Museum Island 5/12 by Ted and Jen. CC BY 2.0

Marvel at the architecture on Museum Island

At the tip of Spree Island, you’ll find the Unesco World Heritage complex of five museums: Pergamon, Bode, Neues, Alte Nationalgalerie and Altes Museum. While you’ll need to cough up to sample the artefacts within, strolling the island to take in the magnificent architecture will cost you nothing.

Bode Museum Island River Spree Berlin Germany June 2013 by calflier001. CC BY-SA 2.0

Pay respects at the Holocaust Memorial

The haunting Holocaust Memorial, commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, consists of the Field of Stelae – a maze of 2500-odd concrete slabs varying in height on a sloping field. As you walk through, an unsettling atmosphere is created from the audible whispers and footsteps of others close by.

Picnic in a park

Berliners flock to their favourite parks to picnic and knock back a few hefeweizen (wheat beer). The Tiergarten is the dominant sprawling city park with a foresty feel. Or, for something novel, head to Templehof, a former airport turned parkland, and grab a cheap BBQ at the supermarket to grill your bratwursts next to the runway. Gorlitzer Park is our gritty Kreuzberg favourite with its ghetto vibe and is ideal for people-watching if you don’t mind the cigarette butts.

Grill your sausages next to the runway at airport-turned-park Templehof. Image by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

Grill your sausages next to the runway at airport-turned-park Templehof. Image by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

Find the free museums

Plenty of the city’s top museums and attractions are free of charge, including the Berlin Wall Memorial (www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de), and the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (www.kunstraumkreuzberg.de), which showcases some excellent contemporary art.

Feast your eyes at food markets

Get the stomach rumbling with a look at the city’s gourmet delights at outdoor food markets or housed in historic markthalles. Street Food Thursdays from 5pm at Markethall IX in Kreuzberg is a must. Also in Kreuzberg, grab some bread and dips at the open-air Turkish market, or head for shiny plump organic produce at Kollwitzplatz, Prenzlauer Berg.

Visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial

Free guided tours at Sachsenhausen (www.stiftung-bg.de/gums/en) provide a sobering insight into what went on at one of Nazi Germany’s main concentration camps, including the execution grounds, gas chamber Station Z and barracks.

Forage flea markets

Seek out one of the many flea markets that set up around town on weekends. Whether you’re after vintage threads, GDR kitchenware or retro lighting, you’ll find a flea market to your fancy. Our picks are Arkonaplatz for pricey but genuine vintage finds, Nowkoelln for local art, and Mauerpark for size and variety.

A selection of the quirky vintage finds at Berlin's flea markets. Image by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

A selection of the quirky vintage finds at Berlin's flea markets. Image by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

Join a free walking tour

Several operators run free tours and it’s a great way to get a feel for the city and historical background on the main sights. Check out Brewer’s Berlin Express Tours or New Berlin, both offering walking tours where walkers just tip what they like.

Prepare yourself for the Topography of Terror

Occupying the former site of the Gestapo headquarters (once one of the most feared places in Berlin), this outdoor exhibition (www.topographie.de/en) runs alongside a remaining preserved section of the Berlin Wall. Indoors you’ll find detailed information covering Nazi party history and chilling facts about the persecutions.

Gestapo history alongside the Berlin Wall: the Topography of Terror. Image by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

Gestapo history alongside the Berlin Wall: the Topography of Terror. Image by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

Get festive at Fete de la Musique

Fete de la Musique (www.fetedelamusique.de/en/berlin-2) celebrates the arrival of summer with its excellent free music festival in June. Whatever tunes you like to rock to, you’ll be catered for, from choirs to Berlin punk band performances, at various venues.

Behold Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s most recognisable landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, stood in the centre of the city as a monument to peace when completed in 1791 but marked the divided nation during the Cold War. It now serves as an iconic symbol of German reunification. Peer up from below to see the winged goddess of victory riding a chariot.

Wander around Hackesher Höfe

A network of eight beautifully restored courtyards in central Mitte, Hackesher Höfe (www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/hackesche-hoefe) is the perfect place for a spot of afternoon tea, some unique design-store shopping or a gander at some local art in one of the many galleries.

Belt out a tune at Bearpit Karaoke

Karaoke crazies can have their rock-star moment in Mauerpark on Sundays. Be prepared for knockout crowds: on a summer day this event draws the masses, who pack the grassy hills to cheer (or sometimes jeer) the brave singing souls who take up the mic in the centre of the ‘pit’. It’s a great spectacle and worth combining with a visit to the Mauerpark flea market.

The small crowds that turn up to watch you do your karaoke thing in the bearpit by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

The small crowds that turn up to watch you do your karaoke thing in the bearpit by Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet.

Explore alternative Berlin

For a unique insight into some of Berlin’s history, delve into abandoned buildings for peeks at sites such as the Teufelsberg NSA listening station (premier listening spot during the Cold War), submarine bunkers and abandoned army camps. Check them out at this excellent blog: www.abandonedberlin.com. Be warned, you enter sites at your own peril. For a safer option, Alternative Berlin (alternativeberlin.com) runs free walking tours of artist squats and some abandoned sites.

Escape to a lake

Act like a local and jump on the nearest train, with togs in tow, to cool off at one of the city’s nearby lakes. Schlachtensee lies on the fringes of the Grunewald Forest, 30 minutes from the city, with clear water and plenty of picnic spots. Just behind the Tegel airport is the beautiful Tegeler See, with its steamboat cruises and row boats for hire. Otherwise, venture 50km northeast and you’ll lose the crowds at woodsy Bernsteinsee, but you’ll need your own set of wheels.

Image of Schlachtensee by Tim Lucas. CC BY 2.0

Image of Schlachtensee by Tim Lucas. CC BY 2.0

Remember at the Soviet War Memorial

Venture into Treptower Park for a look at architect Yakov Belopolsky’s statue of kneeling soldiers. The Soviet War Memorial commemorates the 5000 Soviet soldiers who died in the final Battle of Berlin, and includes a 12m tall statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child.

Shop for art at the Open Air Gallery

More than one hundred artists line the Oberbaumbrücke with their artworks each summer at the Open Air Gallery (www.openairgallery.de), which aims to provide a cultural exchange through art. It's a good place to pick up a souvenir you’ll actually want.

Admire Berliner Dom

Stand in awe of the lavish exterior of the Italian Renaissance-style former royal court church, Berliner Dom (also called Berliner Cathedral). The interior is also something to behold, but admission generally comes at a price, except during some services.

Berliner Cathedral & St Nicholas Quarter, Berlin, Germany, by Luke Ma. CC BY 2.0

Some more Berlin money-saving tips

  • Check out popular hostels like Circus Hostel and East Seven Berlin, or look for short-term apartments in cheaper neighbourhood areas like Neukölln, Wilmersdorf and Wedding.
  • Berlin has excellent-value Turkish food around the city. Our favourite is Mustafas Gemuse (mustafas.de) where a delicious grilled veg kebab will set you back around €3 – but prepare to queue for a while.
  • Shop at discount places like Aldo, Netto or Lidl for cheap groceries (not to mention beer!) to cook at your apartment or hostel.