A general rule of thumb in Berlin, like in most big cities, is to admire the great landmarks from afar and keep on moving through the smaller backstreets in search of the hidden treasures and local haunts.
In some cases however, use your discretion when it comes to spending money and going to well-known attractions. Some things, like the TV Tower, are generally considered touristy, but you still get a pretty magnificent experience, which is probably worth the one-off pain of being caught in a herd of people, paying a bit of money and waiting in long queues.
However, going to an overpriced, uncomfortable restaurant with unpalatable food in Alexanderplatz – just because it’s Alexanderplaz, is not. If going up the TV Tower is still unthinkable and offensive to you, then consider hanging out at Teufelsberg, a former spy station on top of a hill and one of city’s abandoned treasures.
Locals don’t really venture far outside their own neighbourhood unless they really have to. The centre of town or Mitte, is generally considered to be lined with tourist traps and doing anything there is more expensive. Half of Berlin’s museums are found there, though. What you might also find is someone trying to sell you a ‘genuine piece of the Berlin Wall’. Do not get caught up in the sentimentality though, it’s just a rock from someone’s backyard.
When trying to gain insight into the city’s divided past, avoid the tourist trap and redundant photo capture that thousands flock to at Checkpoint Charlie and Unter den Linden, where Germans dress as US Army soldiers and pose for photos, and head instead to the Bernauer Strasse memorial. It’s the last piece of the preserved, real Berlin Wall, where you can see the border fortifications, a viewing tower, and read a lot of information. Actually, nothing of the original structures at Checkpoint Charlie remain – it’s now just another example of commercial tourism.
Instead of that old cliché of doing a boat tour of Berlin along the Spree, choose one of Berlin’s super cool cultural tours. Competition is stiff, so the tours generally go to great lengths to be creative, fun, and worth your while. They range from street art tours given by artists themselves, to explorations of the music scene, vintage shopping and underground tunnels.
For the fiercely determined visitor who does not want to be a tourist, it seems to be a rising trend in the city to hire local buddies who curate days for you, based on your likes and preferences. This means you get to hang out with someone who has valuable, insider knowledge, plus you won’t have to explore alone!