Berlin is a survivor. Devastated during the Second World War and split in two by divisions both physical and ideological for 50 years, the city has emerged as a truly cosmopolitan and international city that bears few of the scars of its troubled history. Fascinating museums, trendy gentrified districts, shopping and football is on offer; it’s often harrowing, always compelling, and never boring, even if you’re only there for 48 hours….
Berlin is served by two international airports, Tegel, which is the base for, Lufthansa, Air Berlin and domestic flights, and Schönefeld, out of which most of the budget airlines like easyJet, Ryanair and Germanwings operate.
Located in the centre of Europe, Berlin is easily accessible by rail, and Berlin Hauptbahnhof is regularly served by ICE, InterCity and EuroCity trains between Berlin and other major German and European cities, including daily night trains from Amsterdam, Zurich, Vienna and Budapest. Long-haul trains to and from destinations in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and even Kazakhstan are also available.
Berlin, like most German cities, has an excellent U-Bahn system of underground railways. For a 48-hour trip you can buy a daily Tageskarte, valid on the U-Bahn, the overground S-Bahn, bus and tram services for a day, which costs €7.00.
Start off your day at the Pariser Platz, the large square right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which makes for a handy focal point around which to tour the city. It’s an iconic structure, built in the 18th century on the order of Prussian king Frederick Wilhelm II and has borne witness to some of the dramatic events of German history. Admire the Gate, take a stroll down Unter Den Linden – picking up a currywurst and a wheat beer on the way – and head east towards Museumsinsel, our next stop.
In the middle of the river Spree is Museuminsel, which is very literally an island of museums. Berlin has some of the world’s finest, and perhaps the best among them is the Pergamon Museum, dedicated to ancient art and culture from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. You’ll also find the Bode-Museum, featuring sculpture and Byzantine art collections, and the Alte Nationalgalerie, specialising in 19th-century art. Happily, you can buy a ticket that covers the whole island, allowing you to pick and choose which of these fantastic museums you visit.
Museumsinsel all exhibitions: adult €18.00; concessions €9.00
Alt-Berlin and Alexanderplatz
Cross the river, passing the excellent little DDR Museum and the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm as you go, and head towards Alexanderplatz, near to which you’ll find some of the oldest surviving buildings in Berlin, including the Marienkirche, the Nikolaikirche and the Rotes Rathaus. The two churches are among the only surviving medieval buildings in the city; outside the former is a striking statue of Martin Luther, the man who started the Protestant Reformation and changed German history forever.
East Side Gallery
Keep heading east, down Karl-Marx-Allee, the main street of the old East Berlin, into Friedrichshain, a colourful, artsy area full of trendy bars and restaurants. By the river you’ll find the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still in existence, today converted into an outdoor art gallery featuring original graffiti artworks. The most famous and most striking is the iconic Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben (English: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love) depicting the fraternal kiss between the East German and Soviet leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev.
Cold War Berlin
If you’re looking for the Berlin of John Le Carré novels, you’ll find it just south of Unter Den Linden. There’s the Mauermuseum and Checkpoint Charlie, the little station in the middle of the road that was guarded by American soldiers for nearly 50 years. It’s usually very busy, and packed with tourists having their photos taken with people dressed up as American and Soviet soldiers. If you want to do something a little less predictable, then hire a Trabant, an rickety-old car that became an icon of East Germany, and take a tour around the city the way Berliners used to do.
Mauermuseum: adults €14.50; students €9.50
In the summer, the Landwehrkanal that runs through the trendy, Bohemian district of Kreuzberg is lined with bars and restaurant terraces. A mix of left-wing politics, students, gay people, artists and Turkish immigrants, this eclectic area is well worth taking the time to explore. Stroll around and soak up the buzz, or go in search of the weird and wonderful street art. You can also drop in on the Jüdisches Museum Berlin for a look at the history of Jews in the city, and the harrowing Topography of Terror, which documenüts the terror perpetrated by the Nazi regime.
Kaufhaus des Westens, known to Berliners as KaDeWe, is the largest department store on the European continent. It’s a paradise for shoppers, but the highlight is the gourmet food department on the sixth floor, which will serve you up just about anything. It’s also home to luxury items, Germany’s biggest shoe department, interior and design items and entertainment and electronics supplies. Beware: at the weekends, it can get incredibly crowded, so you’re better off visiting during weekdays for a more navigable experience, though it can receive as many as 50,000 visitors even on a good day.
Football is an important part of German life. If you’re in Berlin during the Bundesliga season (August to May, with a break in the winter) then a visit to the Olympiastadion for a Hertha BSC match is essential. Even if that’s not your ‘thing’, then this fierce and imposing structure is still worth a look. Built for the 1936 Olympic Games under the auspices of the Nazi regime, its neoclassical architecture is both a powerful reminder of those dark days, and a fantastic-looking sporting venue. Climb the stadium’s Bell Tower (Glockenturm) for a fine view across the Olympic park.
Matchday tickets: from €15.00;
Stadium tour: €11.00
Food and drink
Germany has never been renowned for its fine cuisine, which is something that we think is a little unfair. In reality, Berlin has a fantastic culinary scene, with twelve restaurants included in the Michelin guide as of 2015. Its food is diverse, international, and innovative.
Typical German fare is usually heavy on meat and potatoes, often with a sidedish of asparagus. Sausages (Wurst) are of course commonplace, and Berlin in particular is famed for Currywurst, a streetfood snack of a steamed pork sausage spiced with curried ketchup. Another Berlin staple is the Döner Kebab, invented by Turkish immigrants in the 1970s.
Beer is, as a rule, excellent. Traditional German beer is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, the purity law, which permits only water, hops and malt as ingredients. As a result, the beer is usually very high quality. Weizenbier (wheat beer), Bock (dark lager), and Berliner Weisse (pale Berlin wheat beer) are particularly good.
Where to stay
Dorint Adlershof Berlin, in Berlin’s historic Köpenick district, is fairly close to Schönefeld Airport and easily accessible from the city centre via public transport. Its individualised, attentive service and comfortable, relaxing atmosphere make it the ideal place to stay for business and leisure travellers alike. From €89/£78 including Wi-Fi and parking.
Hotel Otto, located in Charlottenburg on the western side of the Tiergarten, offers 46 modern guestrooms and studios, a top-floor lounge and terrace with panoramic views over Berlin and excellent connections to the rest of Berlin. It’s the perfect choice for travellers interested in sightseeing in central Berlin. From €115/£101 including Wi-Fi and parking.
KaDeWe (2) – image by visitBerlin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Olympiastadion Berlin II – image by arianta via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Signage at Checkpoint Charlie – image by edwin.11 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Pergamon museum – image by Olga Khomitsevich via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Day 6: Museumsinsel – image by theniw via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Fernsehturm – image by Mark Deckers via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Brezhnev & Honecker Kiss, East Side Gallery, Berlin – image by Alex Prolmos (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Trabant – image by Aires Almeida via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Kreuzberg IMG_5771 – image by Michele Testini (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
kadewe – image by Mark Deckers via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Olympiastadion, Berlin – image by diamond geezer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Currywurst mit Pommes – Golf Resort Achental Team via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)