Berlin is a bon vivant, passionately feasting on the smorgasbord of life. A contagious energy permeates its cafes, bars and clubs, while indie boutiques and progressive restaurants compete for your time with world-class museums and striking landmarks that reflect the city’s riveting history. Whether it's must-sees or aimless explorations, Berlin delivers it all in one exciting and memorable package.
A great neighbourhood to base yourself is the Scheunenviertel, the old Jewish quarter in the central Mitte district. Its maze of lanes lined with indie stores, cafes and designer hotels caters for all wallet sizes. Hotel Amano and Circus Hotel are top budget to mid-range choices, while Casa Camper and the The Weinmeister offer more comfort at a steeper price tag.
Start your day by heading over to the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, where you’ve booked ahead for the free lift ride up to the rooftop terrace. Mosey up the spiralling ramp inside the Norman Foster–designed glass dome and enjoy sweeping city views.
Stroll through the northeastern corner of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s vast central park, past the memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis, to arrive at the 18th-century landmark Brandenburg Gate. Snap a picture of yourself with this majestic royal city gate, which has become a symbol of German reunification and is crowned by an elaborate sculpture of the Goddess of Victory triumphantly piloting a chariot. From here, follow the former course of the Berlin Wall south on Ebertstrasse, pausing to ponder the unspeakable horrors of WWII on an aimless amble around the vast maze of concrete plinths that make up the Holocaust Memorial.
Ebertstrasse soon takes you to Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s newest city quarter and a showcase of contemporary architecture. Continue south on Stresemannstrasse and turn left on Niederkirchnerstrasse where a surviving section of the Berlin Wall hems in the Topography of Terror. This haunting exhibit about Nazi leaders and their criminal regime was built right on top of the ashes of the SS and Gestapo headquarters.
Following Niederkirchnerstrasse east soon takes you to one of the most iconic Cold War-era sights: Checkpoint Charlie. Resist the temptation to have your picture taken with guys dressed as Allied soldiers in front of the replica guardhouse and spend your time perusing the free outdoor history exhibit instead. Continue north on Friedrichstrasse to the Friedrichsstadtpassagen, a trio of strikingly designed luxury shopping complexes. Don't miss Jean Nouvel's shimmering glass funnel at Galeries Lafayette.
Time for lunch! There are several cafes inside the Friedrichstadtpassagen as well as a food hall in the basement of the Galeries Lafayette that’s filled with French culinary temptations. Or, for something hearty, report to Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt, perhaps afterwards stopping by the Fassbender & Rausch confiserie for a sweet treat and to admire its chocolate models of Berlin landmarks.
Thus refuelled, take a post-prandial stroll around Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's most graceful square framed by two churches and the grandly porticoed Konzerthaus (concert hall). Follow Markgrafenstrasse north, turn right on Behrensstrasse to arrive at Bebelplatz, site of the first Nazi-staged public book burning shortly after seizing power in 1933. The square spills out onto Unter den Linden, eastern Berlin’s grandest boulevard that will, however, remain a giant construction zone for years to come while the U-Bahn (subway) is being extended. Heading east, you’ll soon spot the next major building project, the reconstruction of Berlin’s Prussian-era royal city palace, due to be completed in 2019.
Looming large on your left is the Berlin Cathedral and the museums of Museum Island, a Unesco-recognised cluster of five repositories filled with 6000 years of treasure from Europe and beyond. Focus your time on the Pergamonmuseum with its head-spinning radiantly blue Babylonian Ishtar Gate and other ancient treasures, and on the Neues Museum whose undisputed star exhibit is the 3300-year-old bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
Make your way back to the Scheunenviertel and take a spin around the beautifully restored Hackesche Höfe. Along with the web of surrounding lanes, this eight-courtyard ensemble is a hotbed for local fashions and accessories. Art aficionados should check out the top-notch galleries on Auguststrasse and Linienstrasse, including Eigen+Art.
There’s no shortage of great restaurants in the Scheunenviertel, including gourmet German at Michelin-starred Pauly Saal, earthy Italian at Muret La Barba, Vietnamese street food at District Môt and vegan at Kopps. Follow up with cocktails at the clandestine Butcher’s or a glass of fine organic burgundy at the Maxim wine bar.
If you don’t want the night to end after dinner, steer towards Clärchens Ballhaus, a 19th-century ball room where hipsters to grannies hoof it across the planks to tango, swing and disco every night of the week. On weekends, additional nearby party venues include the House of Weekend, a stylish club in a GDR-era high-rise on Alexanderplatz, and Club Avenue at the protected landmark Cafe Moskau.
This article was first published in July 2011 and was updated in May 2015.