Berlin City Breaks: Explore a Famous Wall & an Island of Museums
Berlin is one of the most popular city-break destinations in Europe. Not only is it full of relics of a fascinating and sometimes turbulent history, it's also a modern, dynamic place that's full of energy and life, where hip venues and innovative visitor attractions are popping up all the time.
Whether you like art, architecture, and ancient artefacts; live music and clubbing; strolling along canals and browsing markets; or just sitting in the sun with a good beer, you’ll find it all in the German capital. Here are our deal experts' favourite things to see and do in Berlin.
Go rummaging at a flea market
The Mauerpark flea market takes place on Sundays in the city’s northern Pankow borough. You can find all kinds of second-hand items, including clothes, art, antiques, books, and records, in this open-air market, as well as new items like tote bags, jewellery, and even locally produced gin. There are also many food trucks serving up snacks like currywurst, Argentinian empanadas, and Japanese pancakes.
Take a waterside walk
The Landwehrkanal canal runs through southern Berlin, roughly parallel to the Spree River. One of our favourite spots for a stroll is the tree-lined section running along Paul-Lincke-Ufer and Maybachufer streets. There are some lovely cafés and restaurants nearby offering many different cuisines, including Zola Pizza, Cocolo Ramen, and Le Saint-Amour. For a longer walk, continue past the Admiralbrücke bridge towards the Baerwaldbrücke bridge, along one of the widest sections of the canal.
Relax in Tempelhof Field
Tempelhof, in southern Berlin, was once the city’s main airport and was also the centre of the Berlin Airlift. It closed to flights in 2008, and the site reopened two years later as a public park. Today the 3.5-square-kilometre Tempelhofer Feld is a popular place with picnickers, kite flyers, joggers, rollerbladers, and cyclists. You can also take a tour of the airport's stunning terminal building, which was constructed in the 1930s and remains one of Europe’s biggest buildings, and head up to the roof to take in the views from the control tower.
View some wall art at East Side Gallery
The longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still standing is along the Spree River. Today it's a 1.3-kilometre-long open-air art gallery, covered with murals that were painted by 118 artists from 21 countries when the wall came down in 1990. Among the most famous are Birgit Kinder's depiction of a Trabant breaking through the wall, and Fraternal Kiss, by Dmitri Vrubel. Many of the works had to be repainted following years of erosion and graffiti. After browsing the gallery, walk over to the Friedrichshain neighbourhood to try one of the many restaurants around Boxhagener Platz or go to RAW Gelände near the train tracks, where you can find a brewery, nightclubs, and even an outdoor pool.
Visit the Reichstag
The Reichstag, home to the German parliament, lay in ruins at the end of World War II. It was eventually restored and reopened in 1999, featuring Sir Norman Foster's famous glass dome, and today you can visit this historic building (booking required). You'll see preserved graffiti left by conquering Soviet soldiers in 1945, and you can admire the panoramic view from the dome. But as well as taking in the views outside, you can also look through a glass viewing floor to the proceedings in the German parliament below. The dome is particularly busy on weekends, so try to visit in midweek for smaller crowds.
Explore Museum Island
One of Berlin’s main attractions is Museum Island, in the middle of the Spree River in Mitte and home to five major museums. You can see the famous bust of Nefertiti — wife of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten — which was crafted in 1345BC and is on display in the Neues Museum, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum, sculptures by the likes of Donatello at the Bode Museum, and Rodin’s The Thinker at the Alte Nationalgalerie. Also on the island are the magnificent Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) and former royal residence the Berlin Palace.
Visit an abandoned Cold War site
Teufelsberg (Devil's Mountain in English), is a man-made hill in the west of Berlin that was built from rubble from World War II. Surrounded by the Grunewald Forest, the hill is the site of an abandoned American listening station from the Cold War, and for a few euro, you can explore the site, walk among the distinctive domes, see the graffiti that covers much of the buildings, and take in magnificent views across the city.
Go on the trail of David Bowie
David Bowie's Berlin years were productive ones, resulting in the albums Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. You can follow in Bowie’s steps by visiting some important places associated with his time there. You can walk past his residence in Hauptstrasse 155, eat at the Café Paris in Charlottenburg, which he frequented, and tour the Hansa Studios, where Bowie, and many other artists including U2, REM, and Depeche Mode, recorded. Use the Berlin's efficient transport system to get around.
Grab some street food
One of the most enduring legacies of the Soviet blockade of 1948-49 is now a Berlin culinary institution: the currywurst. Among the few available ingredients at the time were sausages (wurst), along with British-imported curry powder and American tomato ketchup. Today these famous sausages are served with chips and are a great street food to grab on the go. Try CURRY 36 (whose previous customers include Tom Hanks). Another dish that has become popular in Berlin is the kebab, thanks to Germany’s large Turkish community. The southern Neukölln and Kreuzberg neighbourhoods are among the areas that have the most kebab restaurants, which include the iconic and popular Mustafa's Gemüse Kebap on Mehringdamm — expect queues outside.
Follow the route of the Berlin Wall
In addition to the East Side Gallery, there are many other places to visit along the course of the Berlin Wall. Mauerpark, now a popular open space for Berliners, was once a heavily guarded stretch of wall — today there’s an 800-metre section of graffitied wall still standing. The Brandenburg Gate is perhaps the best-known landmark on the wall's route, although the majestic Neoclassical structure actually dates back to the late 18th century. Take a walk across Potsdamer Platz, now a bustling square that's unrecognisable from its Cold War days, and you can follow a line on the ground where the wall stood. There’s also the famous crossing point Checkpoint Charlie, where you can visit the Mauermuseum to learn about some of the inventive methods East Berliners used to attempt escape to the west.
Have a big night out
Berlin comes alive when night falls, and the city's regularly evolving list of nightlife options caters to all tastes. Some of the quirkiest locations for live music venues and nightclubs are repurposed buildings like power stations, for example Kreuzberg club Tresor (which actually used to be in the vaults of a former department store), but you’ll also find them in old warehouses, former cinemas, car parks, and historic dance halls. Berlin is a great place for an outdoor drink in summer, particularly when the city's many beach bars open. There are lots to choose from along the Spree River, as well as on the shores of lakes such as the Halensee, and some venues even feature sand and palm trees.
Get into the festive spirit at a Christmas market
Berlin winters are typically cold, but there's plenty to warm the spirit, not least the city's Christmas markets. One of the most atmospheric, Weihnachtszauber, takes place in the historic Mitte district, between the Französischer Dom and Deutscher Dom. There's always a wide selection of artisan goods on sale, plus plenty to eat and drink. There's also live jazz, classical, and gospel music, plus other entertainers including jugglers and fire-eaters.
See a spectacular display of lights
Spectacular light and video projections brighten up the night during the annual Berlin Festival of Lights, when some of the city's most famous landmarks, such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin TV Tower, and the Berlin Cathedral, become blank canvases for German and international artists. The free event usually takes place in September or October.
Read about our other favourite city break destinations:
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See our top tips for a weekend in Amsterdam.
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Nick Elvin, Giorgio Petti, and Susanne Lettenmeier contributed to this post.