Berlin is a scene-stealing combo of glamour and grit, poised to mesmerise anyone keen to connect with its vibrant culture, bold architecture, global food, intense parties and easy-going vibe. Whether your tastes run to posh or punk, you can sate them in the German capital. Here are ten things to add to the top of your list.
1. Connecting with the Cold War at remnants of the Berlin Wall
Few events in history have the power to move the entire world. The Kennedy assassination. The moon landing. The events of 9/11. And, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If you were alive and old enough back then, you will probably remember the crowds of euphoric revellers cheering and dancing at the Brandenburg Gate. Although little is left of the physical barrier, its legacy lives on in the imagination and in such places as Checkpoint Charlie, the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial) and the East Side Gallery with its colourful murals.
2. Marveling at 6000 years of artistic greatness on Museum Island
Berlin’s ‘Louvre on the Spree’, this imposing cluster of five treasure-houses is the undisputed highlight of the city’s museum landscape. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, Museum Island showcases art and cultural history from the Stone Age to the 19th century. Feast your eyes on Roman, Greek and Middle Eastern antiquities at the Pergamonmuseum and Altes Museum, report for an audience with Egyptian queen Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, take in 19th-century art at the Alte Nationalgalerie and lean in for close-ups of medieval and Renaissance sculptures at the Bodemuseum.
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. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s club culture has put the city firmly back on the map of hedonists. With more than 200 venues, finding one to match your mood shouldn’t be a tall order. Electronic music in its shape-shifting varieties continues to define Berlin’s afterdark action but other sounds like hip hop, dancehall, rock, swing and funk have also made inroads. The edgiest clubs take up residence in power plants, transformer stations, abandoned apartment buildings and other repurposed locations, especially in Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain.
4. Dipping into Berlin’s contemporary art scene
Art aficionados will find their compass on perpetual spin in Berlin. Home to 440 galleries, scores of world-class collections and thousands of international artists, the city has assumed a pole position on the global artistic circuit. Its main contemporary art showcase is the Hamburger Bahnhof, a vast museum housed in a former railway station whose loft and grandeur are the perfect foil for this top-notch collection of paintings, installations, sculptures and video. Exciting temporary exhibits complement the permanent collection that spans the entire arc of post-1950s artistic movements.
5. Standing before history at the Reichstag
It’s been burned, bombed, rebuilt, buttressed by the Berlin Wall, wrapped in fabric and finally turned into the modern home of the German parliament: the Reichstag, one of Berlin’s most iconic buildings. Designed by Paul Wallot in 1894, this 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.
6. 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.
7. Tracing Jewish life in Germany at the Jüdisches Museum
In an architectural masterpiece by Daniel Libeskind, Berlin’s Jüdisches Museum presents an eye-opening and emotional journey through 2,000 years of Jewish history in Germany, not just the 12 years of Nazi horror that such exhibits often focus on. Find out about Jewish cultural contributions, holiday traditions, the difficult road to emancipation, outstanding individuals like the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and jeans inventor Levi Strauss, and the fates of ordinary people and families.
8. Roaming, picnicking and carousing in the Tiergarten
Berlin’s rulers used the grounds to hunt boar and pheasants in the rambling Tiergarten until master landscape architect Peter Lenné landscaped the grounds in the 18th century. With its sweeping lawns, shaded paths, woodsy groves, romantic corners, ponds and creeks, the Tiergarten is one of the world’s largest city parks and a wonderful retreat from the city bustle. In summer, several charming beer gardens beckon, including Café am Neuen See and the Teehaus im Englischen Garten.
9. Indulging in shopping fun 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 high-street chains and designer boutiques presenting the latest in streetwear or couture. Don’t miss the KaDeWe, continental Europe’s biggest department store with a mind-boggling food hall, or the cutting-edge concept and flagships stores at Bikini Berlin (http://www.bikiniberlin.de/en), a revamped 1950s landmark near Zoo Station. Amid all this, the majestically ruined Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) stands quietly as a poignant reminder of the absurdity of war.
10. Posing for pictures with the Brandenburg Gate
Prussian emperors, Napoleon and Hitler have marched through this neoclassical royal city gate that was once trapped east of the Berlin Wall. Since 1989 Brandenburg Gate has gone from a symbol of division and oppression to the symbol of a united Germany. The elegantly proportioned landmark is at its most atmospheric – and photogenic – at night, when light bathes its stately columns and proud Goddess of Victory sculpture in a golden glow.
This article was first published in June 2012 and was updated by the author in January 2015.