A trip to Berlin wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Reichstag, East Side Gallery or the city’s iconic TV Tower. The German capital’s must-visit attractions encompass world-class museums, poignant street art and awe-inspiring architecture.
Tourist attractions get a bad rap – they can be expensive, corny and, worst of all, crowded. But in Berlin, with its rich and turbulent history, the prime attractions offer the opportunity to learn about the city’s complex past in engaging, dynamic ways – from Prussian palaces and the World War II years to the Cold War and beyond. And that’s before even mentioning Berlin’s world-class collection of museums, which head much further back in time. However, don’t think you need to spend your vacation time waiting in queues as many of these attractions can be booked online, meaning you can go straight to the heart of the action, sometimes even with an expert guide.
Located on the east bank of the Spree in Friedrichshain, the East Side Gallery is an outdoor art gallery of murals painted on the longest-remaining section, 1,316 metres (4,318 feet), of the Berlin Wall. The original works, painted in 1990, were created as a monument to the fall of the divide and the “peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people”, according to the artists’ initiative behind it. You can explore it for free, but to get the full context of the era – and to dig into East Berlin’s storied history and subcultures a little deeper – it’s worth considering a guided tour.
Built as a Soviet symbol of power in East Berlin, the TV Tower is to Berlin as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris when it comes to architectural city icons. With a cocktail bar and great views from the top awaiting you, why stand in line with everyone else when you could upgrade to a skip-the-line ticket? Top tip: Try to time your visit for sunset.
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There’s a lot of historical ground to cover at Museum Island’s Pergamon Museum, which comprises three mini-museums: the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art. However, it’s not just paintings. Here, you can gaze up at the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon and peek into the beautifully detailed 17th-century Aleppo Zimmer, a room from a merchant’s house from the Syrian city. It’s one of Berlin’s most popular attractions, so be sure to book your visit online.
Completed in 1904 as the fourth museum on Berlin’s famous Museumsinsel, the Bode Museum is the place to go for sculpture and stunning Byzantine art. However, there’s much more, including pieces from the Italian Renaissance and an expansive coin collection. Given just how popular the island’s museums are, it is highly recommended to purchase a ticket online so that you can avoid long waiting times.
Berlin’s original national gallery, established in 1861, is a haven for art lovers. Inside the imposing building is an incredible collection of works spanning from Neoclassicism and Romanticism through to French Impressionism and early Modernism, including pieces by Manet, Monet and Cézanne. Given that it’s one of the country’s largest collections of 19th-century artwork, people do tend to queue for it – skip right past them with this skip-the-line ticket.
Reopened in 2009 after extensive restorations, the Neues Museum is one of the jewels among Berlin’s 170-plus museums. Here, you can get a glimpse of Nefertiti’s famous bust, learn about ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures and trace the footsteps of our ancestors via artefacts dating from the Stone Age through to the Middle Ages. With so much to see, it’s a shame to spend time waiting in line – head straight in with a bookable ticket.
During the summers, Berliners flock to the old runways of Tempelhof to grill bratwurst sausages on the grillplatz (barbecue area) of the airport-turned-public-park. However, that’s not the only draw. Reserve a guided tour of the old terminal building – which runs 1.2 kilometres (0.7 miles) end to end – for an inner glimpse of the workings of the colossal structure, including the massive network of air-raid shelters.
One of Berlin’s most family-friendly visitor attractions, the DDR Museum is an interactive museum about East German life during the Cold War. It’s a genuine delight for both kids and adults. Get behind the wheel of an East German Trabant car, and walk through an authentic Cold War-era apartment. Also, snoop through the files of a secret Stasi listening post. It’s one of the city’s most popular museums, with a queue that frequently runs out the door and down the riverside, so booking online is highly recommended.
History looms large in Berlin, and few places more so than at the Topography of Terror. It was once the headquarters of the Nazis’ secret state police, the SS. More than 1.3 million people visited the site in 2018, making it one of Berlin’s most-visited attractions. While admission is free, a tour that stops off at the site will give visitors a thorough grounding in its history and context.
Learn about Berlin's Jewish heritage at the Jewish Museum Berlin
Opened in 2001, Europe’s largest Jewish museum is an important part of Berlin’s Jewish heritage and a must-stop for any visitor to the city. Not only is its comprehensive walk through Jewish cultural history fascinating and sobering, but interacting with Daniel Libeskind’s architectural addition to the museum is a powerful part of the experience. Get the most out of your time at the museum by stopping there as part of a guided tour.
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Germany’s capital offers more than its fair share of unique experiences, and leading the pack is Teufelsberg, deep in Grunewald Forest. The site is a former US spy station built during the Cold War to listen to the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. Although it’s a wonderful place to wander – there’s even a rather quirky biergarten up there – a guided tour is undoubtedly the best way to learn about the site’s darkly fascinating history.
Berliners know Mauerpark as the site of karaoke Sundays during the famous weekly flea market (and a frequent spot for marriage proposals), but the green expanse was originally the site of a border strip between East and West Berlin. A wander through the stalls of vintage and second-hand clothes and delicious street food is always a treat – especially if you’re able to catch a particularly passionate karaoke performance. However, a guided tour is a great way to get a dose of history, too.
Anyone interested in political history or current affairs should make a point of visiting Berlin’s Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament and a stunning work of architecture. It’s a Neo-Baroque design with a futuristic dome built on top. A visit here should definitely be topped off with a stop at the building’s restaurant – the only parliament building in the world with one open to the public. Take care of every part of the visit in one go with a bookable ticket that reserves your entrance time, gets you into the building and holds a restaurant table for after you’ve explored.
A visit to the city’s Museum für Naturkunde, or Natural History Museum, begins with a dinosaur and continues through exhibition halls covering themes such as the cosmos, minerals, evolution in action and even more dinosaurs. In the museum’s so-called “wet collection” alone, there are more than 1 million animals preserved in alcohol. It’s definitely a great place to spend the day with the kids. However, to maintain critical levels of sanity, purchasing a skip-the-line ticket, complete with an audio guide and cloakroom access, is a good idea.
For a special evening out in Berlin, a trip to Charlottenburg Palace will have you feeling like royalty. Located in the west of the city, Berlin’s largest palace isn’t just available for walking through on day trips. It also plays host to special events, such as a concert experience that features members of the Berlin Residence Orchestra performing then-contemporary hits from Bach and Handel. Be sure to buy tickets early though – it tends to sell out quickly.