East Berlin is, quite simply, a cacophony on the senses. It’s hard to narrow down such a complicated, constantly changing major world city in any other way — since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the former Soviet stronghold has been under going a transformation that to this day is incomplete. Construction cranes are everywhere, new subways are being built, ugly concrete chock-a-bloc buildings are being torn down and replaced with some of the most innovative architecture in the world. Travel planners typically want to know what sort of things to do in Berlin fit with their travel styles….but be warned: at least during the summer, the streets around Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz are closed to automobiles, and the major artery, Linden, is closed in spots as well. East Berlin is one of the most diverse, loud, bustling “in your face” cities in the world. It’s ever-changing face represents the best that Germany has to offer, and perhaps represents what all cities will look like in the future, as well. West Berlin has less travel attractions, and more people raising their families (it was in no need of reconstruction after Reunification, it was already a leafy, modernized, European city). The most interesting things to do in Berlin are those that give appreciate for its history and culture (rather than just shopping). There’s no better way to experience modern day Berlin than to understand it in its historic context.
Things to Do in Berlin, Germany
Museum Island – Okay, even if you’re not much of a history/art museum buff, Museum island is still worth a day — half a day, at least. Five museums with incredible, world-class collections sit close to each other on this island in the middle of Berlin – and Museum Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, to boot. The island is in the middle of the Spree river, and the museums are all close together. The five museums are:
- The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery)
- The Altes Muesum (Old Museum)
- The Bode Museum (originally called the Kaiser-Friendrich Museum)
- The Neues Musem (New Museum)
- The Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum)
Much can, and has, be written about each museum; my personal favorites were the Altes and Neues Museums, and Pergamon. The Collection of Classical Antiquities at the Altes, and the Prehistory and Early History collections at the Neues, along with its extensive historic Egyptian artifacts such as the world-famous bust of Nefertiti, are immensely fascinating and even capture the attention of museum-averse children. The Pergamon Museum’s collection of Islamic and Middle East art features some of the best preserved artifacts in the world, outside of their natural element. If you only go to one museum on Museum Island during your East Berlin travels, make it The Pergamon. Ishtar Gate and the Procession Way of Babylon, moved stone by stone to Berlin, are massive. Both provide a sense of scope, and a glimpse into the former majesty of what was once one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.
Reichstag – The seat of German Parliament since 1884, sure (stop yawning!) but the historic building is also very architecturally interesting. The modern glass dome allows for 360-degree views of Berlin. The central sculpture of paneled mirrors brings natural light into the Reichstag and reflects other visitors’ images at unexpected angles. Circling the base of this centerpiece is a photographic history of the German Bundestag in the Reichstag building, taking readers from its early history and the Weimar Republic, through World War II, the Cold War and Reunification, and includes a photo of Michael Jackson performing there (my older daughter found this detail “cool”). There is small collection of art in the Reichstag Building too, but most travelers come to slowly wend there way up the interior slope of the Reichstag to get to the top of the cupola. This major tourist attraction is free, as are guided tours, but an advance reservation is necessary.
Checkpoint Charlie – Checkpoint Charlie was the name given to the crossing point between East and West Berlin, on the Berlin Wall, and remains a symbol of the Cold War. Obviously Checkpoint Charlie, and the Berlin Wall as a whole, are hugely important historically and culturally – they represent the division between freedom of the western sector and the stifling confinement of the eastern, Russian and Fascist side of East Berlin. The museum at Checkpoint Charlie has a lot of historic documentation of many escape attempts made by East Berliners during the Cold War. Honestly, you can walk by Checkpoint Charlie, take a photo if you like, and be done with it in under 15 minutes. It’s important to note that this this is most touristy thing to do in Berlin. Your best bet is to integrate a stop here with a longer, more detailed exploration of the Berlin Wall.
Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz – Brandenberg Gate is the only remaining city gate in Berlin, and long stood for the division between West and East Berlin. Brandenburger Tor is without a doubt one of the most iconic landmarks of Berlin, if not all of Germany. It was originally built for Prussian royalty in the late 1700’s, and in its history many dignitaries made shows of walking through Brandenberg Gate; Napoleon, for example. US Presidents John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton all spoke at Brandenberg Gate. It suffered a lot of structural damage during World War II, and The Berlin Monument Conservation Foundation restored it only around a decade ago. The area around it is closed to automobiles; it’s officially zoned as a pedestrian zone. This open space around Brandenberg Gate, Pariser Platz, is where the French and American Embassies are, and also Berlin’s most famous luxury hotel, The Adlon. It makes for a festive street scene, and the Tiergarden park next to it is a relatively sprawling green area, lovely for picnics and bike rides.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – This is a grim memorial, needless to say, but modern-day Germany absolutely does not sweep the horrors of the Holocaust under the carpet or try to shift blame. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is outdoors and free to look at: it’s a stele field. That is to say, a field with rectangular slabs throughout. The architect who designed it made a grid of evenly placed many rectangular stone slabs of varying heights: throughout the almost 5-acre field, there is no where that many slabs cannot be seen at once. Some of the 2,711 slabs are only a few inches off the ground, but as a visitor walks towards the middle of the field, the slabs get higher and higher, until the sense of being in something of a claustrophobic maze is complete. Children and young teens like to run around the memorial, calling to each other, but when it’s not peak travel season, a sense of quiet and respect prevails. Even during the summer, it’s not difficult wander slowly through the Holocaust Memorial and find a spot to collect one’s thoughts. There is also an underground area that contains the names of all known Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
These are five things to do in Berlin that help put the uber-modern city in its historic context. There are many more light-hearted and fun things to do in Berlin, obviously: The Zoological Garden is Germany’s oldest and largest zoo, for example, and Schloss Charlottenburg is a beautiful palace right in the city. There’s a thriving, varied bar, pub and club scene throughout Berlin, and Kreuzberg is as lively as West Berlin gets. Interspersing the fun activities with the more serious things to do in Berlin is truly the best (and some might say ONLY) way to get to experience and understand the city to its fullest.
Visit Berlin provided my family with passes to all the attractions and museums in Berlin.