Berlin has long enjoyed a reputation for being a city of bargains, but don’t be fooled: it’s catching up with London, Tokyo and New York – and fast!

Time to get smart and stretch those euros while still soaking up all the fascinating vibes the German capital has to offer. From vertigo-inducing views to dreamy parks, clandestine street art and history exhibits that’ll give you goosebumps, here’s our guide to top Berlin explorations that won’t cost you a cent.

1. Seek higher ground for stunning Berlin perspectives

Take your Berlin adventure to new heights by hitting some famous viewpoints and enjoying the city from new perspectives. Skip the pricey and crowded TV Tower – why splurge on the one place you can’t even see this striking landmark? Fortunately, there are loads of sweet spots to catch jaw-dropping views without pulling out your credit card.

For dress-circle vistas of central Berlin, head to the Reichstag Dome (tickets must be booked in advance online). You won’t be alone, but it’s a crowd-pleaser for a reason. If you’re up for some local flavor and a dose of dark history, grab a cold beer to enjoy after climbing to the top of a WWII-era flak tower in Volkspark Humboldthain. Granted, views over northern Berlin are not the prettiest but there won’t be any tourist hordes in sight either.

Down in Neukölln, Klunkerkranich is a hipster-approved rooftop hangout with superb sundowners and sunset views atop a shopping mall. Brace yourself for a line – it’s a hot spot, but so worth it! Sunset fans should also show some love for Berlin’s bridges. They won’t get you up on high, but Oberbaumbrücke, Moderssohnbrücke and Elsenbrücke are still fabulous spots for watching the dropping orb light up the horizon, TV Tower included.

Finally, for the ultimate panoramic experience, head west to Drachenberg, a rubble mountain (i.e. built from wartime debris) and the admission-free little sister of the adjacent Teufelsberg with its famous ex-spy station. You’ll have all of Berlin at your feet!

Planning tip: For security reasons, free reservations for visiting the Reichstag dome must be made online. Without reservations, swing by the Reichstag Visitors' Center on Scheidemannstrasse (next to the Berlin Pavilion) to enquire about last-minute openings.

An overview of the outdoor part of the Topography of Terror
Learn more about Berlin's dark history at the Topographie des Terror © Mo Photography Berlin / Shutterstock

2. Immerse yourself in Berlin’s turbulent history

Berlin’s past, however painful, is never swept under the carpet but confronted in a stash of museums, many of them free and in their original locations.

The ultimate place to dive into the sinister secrets of the Nazi state is the Topographie des Terrors. It’s right in the spot where the Gestapo and the SS orchestrated their unspeakable reign of terror. For an even bigger dose of the creeps, head out to the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, an elegant lakefront villa where Nazi big shots hatched their diabolical Holocaust plans.

The Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, meanwhile, tells the stories of those brave men and women who risked everything to resist the Nazi regime. It’s in these rooms that Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg plotted the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, a story retold in the movie Valkyrie.

Now let’s shift gears to the Cold War era. Want to see what the Berlin Wall really looked like and how it shaped the everyday lives of people in East and West? Swing by the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer – a 1.4km-long stretch of chilling history peppered with bits of the original wall, vestiges of border installations and escape tunnels. Don’t skip the Documentation Centre and the cool view from its tower.

The human toll of Berlin’s division is also heartbreakingly documented in the Tränenpalast, a former border crossing pavilion on Friedrichstrasse. It’s a gut-punching reminder of the pain caused by the Wall. And last but not least, check out the Cold War from the perspective of the Western Allies in the Allierten Museum – the Americans, British and French were big players in this drama too.

Local tip: Add depth to your visit of the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer by first watching the introductory film about the history of the Berlin Wall and the border system at the visitor centre at Bernauer Strasse 119. Free self-guided audio tours of the entire exhibit are available for download.

3. Track down iconic filming locations

Kaisers, Nazis, the Berlin Wall – Berlin is dripping with history. No wonder that it has inspired filmmakers to weave captivating tales against its iconic backdrop.

Launch a DIY film location tour at Checkpoint Charlie, where Bond sashayed into East Berlin in Octopussy. Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies tells the story of real-world spy exchanges at the Glienicke Brücke in southwest Berlin – cloak-and-dagger stuff at its finest!

Then there’s Etsy finding freedom in the famous Strandbad Wannsee lake scene in the Netflix series Unorthodox – who needs a therapist when you’ve got a good lake?

In Tom Tykwer’s ‘90s classic Run Lola Run, the frantic title character races like a bat out of hell under the fairy-tale Oberbaumbrücke arches. And let’s not forget that orange-tiled subway near the trade-fairgrounds in western Berlin – it’s practically its own superstar with cameos in Atomic Blonde, the Hunger Games, the Bourne Supremacy and other celluloid faves.

Berlin is a shapeshifter too! It played Moscow and Paris in the killer hit Queen’s Gambit, with scenes filmed on Karl-Marx-Allee, the Hansa recording studios and Friedrichstadt-Palast.

'The Kiss' shows Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany President Erich Honecker on the Berlin Wall.
The parts of the Berlin Wall that still stand today are free to view, 'The Kiss' is one of the most famous artworks on display © turtix / Shutterstock

4. Explore Berlin’s awesome street art

Art is not confined to museums in Berlin. The city’s punk spirit and Peter Pan personality have practically turned it into an urban canvas, from stickers on lampposts to massive murals by famous artists like Blu and JR.

For a crash-course on the scene, key players and styles, check out the Urban Nation Museum on Bülowstrasse. In fact, the entire area has of late exploded into a “West Side Gallery”. Street art icons like Shephard Fairey, Herakut, D*Face and Cyrcle have plastered entire facades with paintings from psychedelic to political; smaller pieces lurk in unexpected places. If you’re pressed for time, at least check some of them out on the fly during a ride on the U1 elevated train (between Bülowstrasse and Nollendorfplatz stations).

Of course, the motherlode of open-air art is still the East Side Gallery – that iconic 1.3km-long surviving stretch of Berlin Wall facing the Spree River. It stands proudly as a symbol of the peaceful revolution that led to German reunification. While here, also check out the latest creative outbursts decorating the nearby RAW Gelände, a former train repair compound turned wild party and culture playground. But go quickly – it’s slated for development!

Local tip: The more famous East Side Gallery paintings are near the Ostbahnhof end. Pick up some snacks and a cold beverage in the station’s supermarkets to enjoy on the grassy strip between the Wall and the Spree River.

Two people cycling in Tiergarten, Berlin
Stroll along a tree-lined avenue in Tiergarten © rawf8 / Shutterstock

5. Push reset in the great outdoors

If you’re on mental overdrive after clocking yet another 25,000 steps exploring Berlin (or are just nursing a hangover from last night’s party), it’s time for a little outdoor R&R. Lucky for you, about half of this city is covered in free and fabulous parks and green spaces.

The best-known chill-spot is the Tiergarten, a massive park that’s practically a mini-forest in the heart of town. Romance seekers, take note: it’s full of tree-lined pathways, tranquil streams and even a cute beer garden-adjacent lake for taking your sweetie on a spin. If you fancy getting lost Hansel-and-Gretel-style on long aimless forest walks (minus the witch, of course), hit up the rambling Grunewald forest in the southwestern city.

Like your parks big but with things to do? Steer towards the Treptower Park/Plänterwald combo. Beer garden stops? Yup. Paddling on the Spree? Sure. And if you’re still craving a dose of sightseeing, the big and bold Soviet War Memorial beckons. And speaking of Soviet memorials, check out the “secret” one in Schönholzer Heide, a delightfully unruly and locally adored nature escape in northern Berlin.

This article was first published Jun 5, 2019 and updated Jul 29, 2023.

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