How to Conquer the City of Berlin

By Nomadic Matt | Published October 17th, 2011

Berlin is a gigantic city. I knew it was big, but until I decided to explore it by foot, I never knew just how big. I came here for five days with the idea that I’d see all the major sites, some of the not-so-major sites, and get a feel for the city. I didn’t get a chance to see much of Germany’s capital the first time, and I was hoping this visit would correct that.

But despite my intentions, I barely accomplished anything in five days. Berlin is just too big and spread out. My original purpose was to write a post on what to do in five days in Berlin. But after realizing how hard it was to get around and see the sights, that post was impossible to write. This city is just too overwhelming.

So instead, here are some ways you can avoid my sightseeing mistakes, maximize the time you have in Berlin, and make the most of your visit:

General Tips

Rent a bike
Biking in Berlin, Germany is easy and cost effectiveWalking around Berlin takes (and wastes) a lot of time. However, the city is a great place for a bike ride. There are separate lanes for cyclists, so it’s easy to ride without the fear of getting hit by a car. Most residents bike around the city, and while I was a bit nervous when Uncornered Market first suggested it, by the end of the day I was really happy to be biking around Berlin. It provided a fast and easy way to move around Berlin, and bikes cost around nine euros per day to rent.

Do it in sections - I found out just how huge Berlin is when I tried walking between sites and subsequently spent the majority of my day just getting from Point A to Point B (which isn’t bad, but wasn’t planned for). Break up the city into various areas, and then work from area to area. It will make conquering the city much easier.

Take a free walking tour – New Europe runs a long and informative walking tour that begins at the Brandenburg Gate and lasts 3.5 hours. It takes you through the center of the city, shows you all the highlights, gives you some history, and will help you orientate yourself.

Eat cheap
Good Turkish food in the city of Berlin in Germany
You can judge a city on how cheap it is by the food, and the food in Berlin is incredibly cheap. And not just street food (you can find currywurst everywhere!), kebabs, and quick pizzas, either—even the restaurants here are a bargain. You can find a lot of meals for fewer than five euros. I highly recommend eating at Mustafas. They’re known for the best kebabs in Berlin. The exaggerations are true—the lemon, the mint, the fresh vegetables. Mouth watering.

My Must See and Do List

East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery in the city of Berlin, Germany
A giant section of the Berlin Wall was left standing, and artists were invited to paint a section of it that represented hope and violence. Now, the East Side Gallery represents one of the best outdoor art exhibits in Berlin. I was really moved by some of the paintings.

Jewish History Museum – Jews have faced a long and hard road in Germany. They have represented an important part of the population even though they were highly discriminated against. This museum traces the arrival of Jews and their contributions throughout German history as well as the hardships they faced. It doesn’t go into much depth on the Holocaust, as there is a wonderful separate museum for that. And like all museums in Germany, this is huge and will require a few hours to properly explore.

The Holocaust Memorial
A photo of the Shoah Museum in Berlin, Germany
Located in Mitte near the Reichstag, the Holocaust Museum (officially called “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”) chronicles the Nazis’ treatment and extermination of the Jews. The memorial is made up of concrete slabs designed to create a feeling of confusion and unease as you wander through them. Below is a museum that follows various families through the Holocaust. It creates a very personalized and moving way to learn about this awful blight on human history.

Treptower Park
A beautiful view of the Trep Tower Park in Berlin, Germany
Located in the eastern part of Berlin, this park is near an old abandoned amusement park (which you can also visit). This park is a popular place to bike around, and there are a number of beer gardens and a small island nearby where they have a weekend flea market. Moreover, you can rent boats and canoes and cruise the adjoining river.

Templehof Park – Located in the southern part of the city, this park is actually the site of the old airport used during the Berlin Airlift after World War II when the Soviets tried to blockade Berlin. Now, it’s a big park with a lot of plaques and information about the old airport. It’s not the best park in Berlin, but it’s cool to be able to walk around a piece of history.

German History Museum – Germany has a very long history, and this museum provides a detailed account of the country starting from Roman times. It’s organized by time periods, and has detailed facts and lots of artifacts. It’s giant, though, so if you visit, make sure you can plan to spend at least two hours here. Skip the audio guide, though. I didn’t find it to be that good.

GDR Museum – This museum focuses on life in East Berlin. It’s separated into the various aspects of daily life—food, clothing, schooling, fun, music, etc. It provides a good window into how the citizens of East Berlin (the Communist side) lived. One thing I found interesting was that to escape the conformity of life under the Communists, it was normal for people to go to nude beaches.

Hang out in Tiergarten
The greenery of Tiergarten in Mitte, a lush park in Berlin, Germany
Berlin’s central park is an excellent place to relax, walk, bike, and hang out. It’s one of the most beautiful city parks in all of Europe, in my opinion. There’s a war memorial for Russian soldiers, and you can also see the nearby Reichstag (German parliament) and famous Brandenburg Gate.

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie, a famous statue and icon in Berlin, Germany
This is the infamous gateway between former East and West Berlin. There’s a reconstruction of the checkpoint here, complete with fake soldiers (and lots of tourists taking pictures). The nearby museum was created in 1963 by Rainer Hildebrandt. It has a lot of pictures, information, and video about people’s attempts to flee the East. A word of caution, though: the museum is really tiny, making it hard to maneuver around due to the big crowds. Avoid going mid-day and on the weekend.

Take a boat tour
Amazing view of a boat ride on the water in Berlin, Germany
The Spree river flows through Berlin, and there are lots of canals and waterways on which you can take a boat tour. It’s quite relaxing on a warm day.

Hang out on “the beach” – A great summertime activity involves hanging out on “the beach.” Various areas of the riverbank (especially in the area across from the main train station) have “beach bars” where people lounge in beach chairs, drink beer, and soak up the sun.

The Dom
Photos of the massive building called The Dom in the city of Berlin
The biggest and most impressive church in Berlin, The Dom was built at the turn of the 20th century as an expression of imperial power. It’s located next to the museum island in Mitte, entrance is €5, and you can climb to the top of the dome for a beautiful view over the Berlin center.

Topography of Terror – This open-air museum documents the terror and horror of the Nazi regime. The SS and the Reich Security Main Office were located on this spot. It also consists of excavated prison cells that were located under a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall.

In the end, I’m glad I came back to Berlin. I didn’t see what the fuss was about the first time, but after this visit, I enjoy Berlin more. It’s still ugly, but the art, the music, and the food make it an energetic and happening place to be. Though I may not ever live here, I’d happily go back and visit—over and over again.

Editor’s Note: The city of Berlin gave me a tourism card that got me discounts at all these attractions as well as free transportation.

comments 29 Comments

I honestly can’t get over how big and spread-out Berlin is – the blocks are huge! Thanks for the Mustafas recommendation, though; I’m going to hunt that place down tomorrow. :)

Great tips for Berlin! Don’t think we’ve eaten at Mustafa’s before, but we’ll definitely check it out on our next visit. Berlin has the best Kebabs, and they are so cheap. The East Side Gallery is one of my favorite places for art.

good post on berlin that dish looks amazing i never been to berlin but i would go for that dish lol

Mustafa’s has a great reputation, but if you want the best falafel in Berlin, I definitely recommend Maroush (also in Kreuzberg)! And you’re definitely right that it’s tough to visit Berlin in just 5 days. I’ve been here for months and I still find new things to see and do almost every day.

@Matt, you can also purchase a public transportation ticket for about 6.30 EUR that will allow you to ride the trains/buses until 3a (if weekends). Otherwise until the last train of the day.

Berlin is one of my favorite European cities. Thanks for the post.

A great guide to Berlin. I haven’t been yet but I particularly like the look of all of the parks. Looks like a nice place.

Amy

Love the descriptions. I’d love to go there just for the history of the town. Great photos, too … what camera do you use?

NomadicMatt

I own a Nikon point and click.

I love the German “Hauptstadt”. I’d recommend the purchase of transit day-passes to traverse the metropolitan region with the bus, tram, U-, or the S-Bahn. Even after multiple visits, I keep finding new things and, better yet, friends in Berlin sometimes will reveal their secrets to some cool places, too.

Lately, one of my favourite places for döner is the Rosenthaler Grill & Schlemmerbuffet at Rosenthaler Platz (U8).

The capital city is definitely not “pretty” or scenic, but if people and arts are what make the place, Berlin sure has plenty of both.

Thanks for your post, Matt!

My parents have just returned from Berlin and they loved it, which surprised me as I’d always considered it more of a young peoples’ city. I love that there are free walking tours and I really like the look of the parks and gardens – it looks like my kind of place. Definitely on my list now.

Must admit we skipped the gardens (it was snowing at the time is my excuse) – but we found the public transport system to be excellent – and don’t recall the price – but it was cheap and easy to get around using a combo of walking and the U-bahn

Cal

That looks awesome. I’ve been wanting to go there for years. East Side Gallery looks cool. Did you get a chance to check out the abandoned amusement park? That sounds interesting.

NomadicMatt

No, I never made it to the amusement park.

I’ll be all over that travel and tourism card when i get to the city!

And if you are a foodie use the foodie-map to navigate delicious and worthwile places: http://g.co/maps/sszhf (google map contributed to by various food and Berlin bloggers)

jan@budgettraveltalk

Thanks for this informative post. I didn’t realize Berlin was so huge, or that it had good cheap food.
Jan

Did you consider going for the Berlin Underworld tour (Berliner Unterwelten)? I read about it quite some time ago and i find the Flak Tower especially quite interesting… Tunnels the size of carriageways underneath Tiergarten and all… I would definitely try that the next time I am in Berlin

Yes, I really want to visit Berlin. My grandfather grew up near Treptower Park–which you list. Nice. Great tips. I will definitely remember to rent a bike.

RebeccaNYC

I visited Berlin many years ago when I was flat broke, and walked everywhere…until I discovered that the subway/train system was cheap and went everywhere. No need for a bike (not that they were available to rent back in the day…) Biggest impression? Graffiti EVERYWHERE. This was soon after the wall came down, so it was pretty exciting. Yeah, I’m an old geezer…not cool, I know.

You explored Berlin? That’s amazing. As I’ve heard, It’s really big city. I like the Holocaust Memorial. It’s very mysterious. I hope I can visit Berlin and get a tourism card for discounts just like you so that I can be able to save my money. By the way, your photos are cool! Kudos!

I love Berlin (lived there 1990-1992, been back many times since) but think it’s important to see the other side of the East German regime too, not just the East Side gallery and the fake border guards (what a tragic site that is for those who remember the bad old days of the Wall).

This is a good starting point for seeing the city – but to balance things out make sure you have a look at the real, dark side of the DDR too.

Tonja

A lot of good info here if you have not already seenit.

I’ll be in Berlin next month so I’m stashing these handy tips away :) Thanks!

Styliani

We visited Berlin 2years ago and ate at the Maroush. Great falafel and sauces and the greens salad with lamb slices. Other dishes were so so. Anybody has visited the zoo? Atrocious. The whole place stinks, animals roll in it, we saw polar bears sunbathing (no ice) ponds were murkily dirty , etc. Freaky

Deep Banerjee

Hey Matt,
I went to Berlin last year , it was fantastic, unfortunately didn’t have enough time to see everything. Did you get a chance to go inside Reichstag (German Parliament House) when you were over there? I missed out on doing it, as it needs to be booked in advance. If you have done it, can you say its one of the highlights? Also wanted to know if you got a chance to explore Potsdam?

Silke

Hey, I live in Berlin my whole life and I have an advice for you for seeing the city in 5 days. Take the local bus, that’s cheaper than a citytour bus. Use bus number 100 from Alexanderplatz to Zoologischer Garten and you will see ALL major sights! Hop on and off and enjoy the city. Then take bus number 200 from Alexanderplatz to Potsdamer Platz and you’ll see a lot of other sights including the embassy area with the embassies of almost every country. Another advice is go into the Tierpark. That’s the zoo in the east side. The Zoo in the west side is horrible. The animals have only little space. But the tierpark is amazing and you’ll need at least one full days to visit! Another hot tip from me is “Gärten der Welt”. That’s an amazing park in the very east of Berlin. It costs only 3 euros and they have many amazing gardens from all over the world, e.g. oriental, chinese,korean, japan, christian, italian and so on. Believe me, thats more beautiful than these ugly memorials in the centre town. Plus you’ll see how we normal people live (in huge high tower blocks). The architecture is typical east german/russian.

Silke

You want to see a lot of Berlin without walking in one afternoon? Take a boat trip over the Spree river for 20 dollars! Take the ride from Friedrichstrasse through Kreuzberg. You will see so many sights from an amazing view and you’ll see a lot that you wouldn’t see by walking. Go under the Warschauer Brücke, see the Wall, suddenly you’ll see people making party at the small bars, see expensive villas and apartment buldings, drive through Kreuzberg and last but not least, drive through the government area. All for 3 hours! You’ll need days by walk!

Silke

If you have a day left in Berlin, go and visit the city Potsdam! You can go by S-Bahn there and you’ll need only one day to see everything. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Germany and my personal favourite one. Don’t forget to see the castle and it’s park.

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