College Tourist City Guide to Berlin, Germany
Berlin: A reunited city that links modernity to the past through architecture and culture
As Germany’s largest city, it makes sense that Berlin is the capital of the country. Berlin became the capital of the German Empire in 1871 during the Industrial Revolution, which transformed the city into the economic center of Germany. By the early 20th century, Berlin became an important city for the German Expressionist movement, which influenced architecture, painting, and cinema. However, Berlin faced an economic downturn due to political unrest during the Weimar era in the 1920s. The economic and political vulnerability of Germany’s capital consequently contributed to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933.
Hitler continued to use Berlin as the capital of Germany throughout World War II and wanted to make it the largest city in the world. Assuming that Germany would win the war, he planned to change the name of Berlin to Germania and establish it as the “supercapital” of the Third Reich. However, the Allied powers defeated Germany in 1945, leaving Berlin destroyed and divided into four sectors among the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. The sectors belonging to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France formed West Berlin while the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The Soviets implemented harsh conditions in its sector, such as dismantling industry and transport to West Berlin as a means of reparations for war damage in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Allied powers transformed West Berlin into a thriving democratic and capitalist society.
By 1961 the Soviets completely sealed off East Berlin from Europe by building the Berlin Wall. The erection of the wall physically separated West Berlin from East Berlin for nearly three decades in response to the large number of East Berlin citizens escaping to the West. On August 19, 1989, Hungary opened its borders to Austria, which led to a chain of events that would change history. By September 1989, thousands of East Germans escaped by traveling through Hungary to Austria in order to reach West Berlin. With increasing pressure from East Germans, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. Crowds of West and East Berliners flocked to the wall to celebrate the East Germans’ new freedom. The two parts of Germany formally reunited on October 3, 1990, establishing the Federal Republic of Germany and Berlin became the capital once again.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Berlin have coexisted as one reunited city. However, the stark contrasts between the east and the west are still apparent in some areas of Berlin and serve as constant reminders of the events of the 20th century.
What to See:
As the center of culture, politics, media, and science, Berlin has a lot to offer. These are the top five sites one must visit when in Berlin.
Museum Island – It’s called Museum Island because it is literally a peninsula of land surrounded by water from the Spree River. It is home to five of Berlin’s most significant museums: the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Museum, and the Pergamon Museum. These museums house a wide variety of sculptures and paintings ranging from ancient Greek and Roman artifacts to nineteenth-century German paintings. There is definitely a lot to see on this island and buying a Museum Island ticket would be the cheapest way for admission to all five museums.
Berlin Cathedral – Completed in 1905, the late 19th century cathedral is located on Museum Island in the Mitte district and attracts thousands of visitors every year. As the largest church in the city, it serves as the center for the Protestant church of Germany. For seven euros, you can tour the cathedral, the Hohenzollern crypt, and climb to the top of dome to get a great view of the center of Berlin.
Reichstag – As the building of the German Parliament, the Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks. The building remained standing from its creation in 1884 until 1933 when a mysterious fire destroyed the Reichstag’s chamber and dome. After the reunification of Berlin, the German Bundestag wanted to use the Reichstag for Parliament again. In 1999, the Reichstag was redesigned to include the accessible glass dome, which still stands today. The view from the Reichstag’s dome and roof terrace offers amazing views of the government district and Berlin’s sights. For the best view, try to go around sunset.
Brandenburg Gate – Just a few streets away from the Reichstag lays Berlin’s signature attraction, the Brandenburg Gate. The landmark symbolizes the unity of the city as the only remaining city gate that used to separate East and West Berlin. Made of sandstone, the gate exemplifies German classicist architecture. Today, it continues to act as an important site for major historical and political events while attracting thousands of tourists.
East Side Gallery – The Gallery is a long section of the Berlin Wall that is a memorial for freedom after the wall came down in 1989. It consists of 105 paintings from artists around the world that express the theme of hope for a better world where all people are free.
Berlin is a huge city so it’s easy to miss some of its best neighborhoods. Kreuzberg is one of the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. Even though Kreuzberg is known for its nightlife scene, the neighborhood is great to walk through during the daytime. It has a reputation for its artsy and alternative residents because West Berlin social outcasts, punks, and the radical left moved to Kreuzberg. Today, there are great small galleries, quirky stores, parks, and coffee shops where you can find unique and neat little things you could buy as souvenirs.
Fun for Free:
A free walking tour in Berlin is really nice because the city has so much history, but most of its historical sites were destroyed during World War II. A tour guide could not only give you a crash course of the history of the city, but also point out sites throughout the city that you wouldn’t normally notice on your own.
If you want to venture off on your own, the Holocaust Memorial commemorates the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and is free for people to walk through a maze of concrete slabs that vary in height. As you walk through, you’re supposed to feel unsettled because the footsteps of others in the maze resemble whispers. The Topography of Terror is a free exhibition located at the former site of the Gestapo headquarters. It contains information detailing the history of the Nazi Party and facts about the persecutions that took place.
If you need a break from the history that Berlin has to offer, there are some great flea markets on the weekends where you can find some great vintage finds. The best flea market that offers a great variety of items is Mauerpark. If you’re hungry then you can head over to the Markthalle food market, which houses the stalls of different food vendors. The best day to go to Markthalle is on Thursdays when the market hosts Street Food Thursdays beginning at 5 PM. The market is packed with foodies dying to try different types of cuisine that range from Spanish paella to Japanese takoyaki.
What to Eat:
Berlin has a lot to offer in terms of food so it can be difficult to decide where to eat. For a unique dining experience, nothing can top Burgermeister. This unique restaurant sits underneath the U-Bahn train tracks and used to be a public restroom. You might think to yourself, “Why on earth would I want to eat a burger in a former restroom in Berlin?” However, Burgermeister is arguably the best place in Berlin to get a delicious and authentic burger, despite its appearance. It attracts people from all over the city and manages to draw in excited crowds even at three in the morning.
Germany is the land of sausage so naturally one of the Berliners’ most loved snacks is Currywurst. Widely available throughout the city, Currywurst is sliced boiled or roasted pork sausage covered with ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder. It sounds odd, but it is considered as a Berlin fast-food classic. Go to Curry 36 to try the best Currywurst in Berlin!
The döner kebab is also a popular and iconic Berlin street food dish. It consists of tender Turkish meat and salad topped with feta cheese and a delicious yogurt sauce all stuffed into bread that is similar to pita, but thicker and fluffier. Mustafa’s Gemüse Kabap is the go-to place for this iconic street food dish. It may have a long line most of the time, but it is well worth the wait for the best döner kebab in the city.
When it comes to nightlife, Berlin is insane and is arguably one of the best clubbing cities in Europe. Kreuzberg is the place to go after dark. As one of the trendiest neighborhoods, Kreuzberg is home to some of the coolest bars and nightclubs in Berlin. Berghain is Berlin’s most well known club, but is quite difficult to get in with its notorious random selection policy controlled by scary tattooed men. If you’re lucky enough to get in, it won’t be a night you will forget. Another popular club is Watergate, which is known for three things: the view, the lights, and the music. The club sits right next the Spree River so one of the floors is set at water level with floor-to-ceiling windows, which gives you an awesome view of the Spree as you dance all night long. Meanwhile, the main floor has a cool light installation on the ceiling, which gives the room an outer space, galactic feel. It perfectly complements the techno/deep house music of the club. Watergate is a truly unique experience and a must-visit while you’re in Berlin.
As mentioned before, Berlin is a huge city so public transportation is a must in order to get to different neighborhoods. You can travel around the city by bus, tram, or the metro known as the U-Bahn and S-Bahn. Interestingly enough, the metro runs on an honor system in Berlin, which means you don’t have to insert your metro pass into any sort of machine to access to U-Bahn or S-Bahn. However, if metro inspectors catch you without a metro pass, you get slapped with a hefty fine so it’s better to be safe and buy a pass. The U-Bahn and S-Bahn stop running for a certain amount of hours that vary on weeknights and weekends so be sure to plan your night out accordingly, but taxi fares are relatively inexpensive in Berlin.
Tipping – In the U.S. it is customary for people to leave a 15% gratuity for service at restaurants. However, in Berlin it is uncommon for customers to leave a large tip and instead, most people just round up the bill. For example, if your bill ends up being €42, you can leave €45.
Language – Even though English is spoken in most areas of Berlin, it is still a good idea to learn some basic German phrases. Learning simple phrases like bitte (please) and danke (thank you) can create a better impression when interacting with locals.