graphic

Expert Tips

 

Best Berlin Sights That Can't Be Missed



Visiting a big city for the first time can be quite an intimidating experience. How do you best budget your precious time? How do you make sure not to miss something important? 10best has put together a list of essential sights to aid you in your planning.  They’re a mix of the iconic like the Brandenburg Gate and the lesser known like the Soviet War Memorial. We steer you both towards the bright lights of the Potsdamer Platz quarter and the heart-wrenching Holocaust Memorial. You can peek behind the Iron Curtain at the DDR (East Germany) Museum and stand next to its remnants at the Berlin Wall Memorial.

In Berlin, history stares you in the face wherever you go. Yes, the same can be said about many other cities, but there are few whose historical impact still feels relevant today. After all, it’s only been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall – and with it the end of the Cold War. And since coming to terms with its Nazi past is paramount to Germans, you’ll also find plenty of sites, memorials and exhibits that ensure that this sinister chapter is not forgotten.

Whether out of inclination or necessity, Berlin is also a city that thrives on reinventing itself, making it one of the most dynamic places in Europe. If you’ve visited before, you’ll likely be surprised at the pace of change. And with big projects like the reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace continuing to get off the ground, Berlin will remain an exciting place to visit for a long time to come.



10


 

Oh well, just another monument, you might think. Think again, for the Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park is the 'mother of all memorials', epic in proportion and gravitas. Incidentally, it is Mother Russia herself who greets visitors approaching the memorial from the northern end. Hewn in sandstone, she is shown grieving for the loss of her sons, 5000 of whom lie buried beneath the memorial grounds, killed in 1945 during World War II's final Soviet assault on Berlin. Behind the sculpture, a portal flanked by two kneeling soldiers was made from red granite scavenged from Hitler's New Reich Chancellery. It gives way to a vast 'cemetery' field overlooked by a 12m-high statue of a Soviet soldier standing over a broken swastika. The memorial opened in 1949 and is one of three Soviet war memorials in Berlin.


9

 

With its zigzag outline and silvery zinc façade, the exterior of Berlin's Jewish Museum, a masterpiece by Daniel Libeskind, is as bold as it is beautiful. While the expansive exhibit does address the 12 years of Nazi terror, its focus is actually on the entire 2000 years of social, political and cultural history of Jews in Germany. Before reaching the galleries visitors descend down into the basement with its three walkways called 'axes', each symbolizing a different Jewish experience: the Axis of Emigration leads to an outside garden, the Axis of the Holocaust dead-ends in a hollow space and the Axis of Continuity leads up a steep staircase to the galleries.


8


 

What was daily life like behind the Iron Curtain? That's the '$64,000 question' this museum, which is as educational as it is fun and interactive, seeks to answer. Themed galleries train the spotlight on such topics as travel, education, family, holidays, prison and opposition. Stop to hitch a virtual ride in an East German car (called Trabi), learn about the sinister machinations of the Stasi spy network or nose around a typical housing estate apartment. A nice place to wrap up a visit is in the attached 'Domklause' restaurant where you'll find out what's behind a dish called Falscher Hase (False Rabbit) or if an East German Ketwurst tasted any different from a hot dog.


7


 

Historic landmarks stare you in the face wherever you go in Berlin. That's why the postmodern hi-rises of Potsdamer Platz, Berlins' newest city quarter, actually provide a modicum of relief from the weight of the past. Of course, it too reflects Berlin history, having been the city's entertainment hub before World War II only to become part of the Berlin Wall death strip in 1961. What you see today is all late 20th century architectural ingenuity by some of the profession's finest practitioners, including Renzo Piano, Helmut Jahn and Richard Rodgers. Of the three wedge-shaped areas, the central one - called Sony Center - is the most visually stunning. It's anchored by an outdoor plaza flanked by shops, restaurants and movie theaters and lidded by a tent-like structure that lights up in a rainbow of colors after dark.


6


 

Germany's central Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is devoted to remembering the millions of Jews who perished in the Nazi-orchestrated Holocaust. New York architect Peter Eisenman came up with a simple but powerful design to convey the enormity of its message: a massive maze of 2711 stelae (concrete slabs) of identical size but varying heights and angles tightly arranged in a grid over undulating ground. Each visitor is free to walk among them, sit on them, take photographs and find a personal connection to the site. A subterranean exhibit provides context, often in harrowing fashion, by training the spotlight on the fate of individual people and families. The darkened Rooms of Names, in which short bios of Jewish victims are read out loud, is especially emotional.


5
Charlottenburg - Wilmersdorf


 

This stately palace had rather modest beginnings in 1699 as the summer villa of Sophie-Charlotte, wife of Elector Friedrich III. After Friedrich's promotion to king in 1701, he hired Swedish architect Johann Nering Eosander to expand the structure. Subsequent Prussian rulers continued to dabble with the palace, resulting in today's grand edifice whose façade is 500m long, only 70m less than Versailles. It flanks a lavish baroque garden with several outbuildings, including a royal mausoleum and the Belvedere pleasure palace. The oldest section of the main palace is the Altes Schloss (Old Palace), which contains Friedrich and Sophie-Charlotte's private quarters as well as an oak-paneled banquet hall, the royal chapel and an Asian porcelain collection. The frilliest rooms are in the Neuer Flügel (New Wing), added by Frederick the Great in the 1740s but closed for restoration until at least late 2014.


4
Reichstag


 

Federal government buildings tend to be imposing and the Reichstag, home of Germany's parliament (the Bundestag), is certainly no exception. Paul Wallot created the blueprint for this stately behemoth that opened in 1894, was badly damaged in World War II and lingered largely ignored on the western side of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. In the mid-1990s, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped it in shiny fabric and shortly thereafter starchitect Lord Norman Foster got to work on the building's renovation, adding its shiny glass dome. It's well worth making a prior reservation for the lift ride to the roof terrace and the stroll up a spiraling ramp to the top of the dome. Not only do you get sweeping city views but also a chance to peer down into the plenary hall.


3


 

Berlin's most popular museum is like a veritable Aladdin's Cave - only that the treasures are not oil lamps and coin-spilling chests but monumental structures and sculptures from Greece, Rome, Babylon and other ancient cultures. The key sight, and what everyone comes to see, is the namesake Pergamon Altar which predates Christ's birth by around 150 years. The bulk of the structure is neatly juxtaposed by the remarkably fine detail of its decorative frieze, which depicts the gods in battle with the giants. The Pergamon Altar is the mere overture to an entire symphony of archaeological stunners. Don't miss the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, the 17m-high Roman Market Gate of Miletus, the façade of a Caliph's palace and the Aleppo Room from Syria.


2
Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer
Photo courtesy of Andrea Schulte-Peevers


 

It's more than a tad ironic that Berlin's most popular tourist attraction is one that actually no longer exists. From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall was the most potent symbol of the Cold War. You can still find bits and pieces of this ugly concrete barrier around town, but only at the Berlin Wall Memorial has the entire border system been recreated to help people visualize what it looked like and how it worked. The open-air exhibition follows a 1.2km stretch of Bernauer Strasse and incorporates a short section of original Wall. At multimedia stations, you can listen to historic recordings, watch short films or learn about daring escape attempts. The documentation centre at the corner of Ackerstrasse is closed for renovation until late 2014, but you can still climb up the tower next to it for a birds-eye view of the memorial.


1
Pariser Platz
Brandenburger Tor

 

The last of Berlin's surviving city gates is also one of its most photographed landmarks. And no wonder, for this splendid 12-columned triumphal arch linking the vast Tiergarten city park and the elegant boulevard Unter den Linden is indeed a visual stunner. Its design sprang from the fevered brow of the prolific Carl Gotthard Langhans who looked to Athens and the Acropolis for inspiration. Two years after the gate's completion in 1791, Johann Gottfried Schadow's 'Quadriga' sculpture was hoisted to the top. The monumental bronze shows the Roman goddess of Victory charging east on a chariot drawn by four horses. Napoleon kidnapped the lady in 1806 but she safely returned in 1814. During the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate was trapped on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, making it a potent symbol of the city's division.


Map

Meet Andrea Schulte-Peevers

Andrea has made a living as a travel writer and photographer for over 20 years, visiting some 70 countries in the process and authoring a similar number of guidebooks, mostly for Lonely...  More About Andrea

×