“The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine” – defined so by David Bowie Berlin, the city where he lived for three years and where he found inspiration to compose some of his most inventive and experimental albums, Heroes, Low and Lodger.
Berlin is exactly this, an extravagant mix of subcultures, a city that grows and changes constantly: old abandoned industrial buildings are turned into art galleries or in co-working spaces, the neighborhoods become increasingly multicultural and evolve quickly – and even for those who live there, it is often a challenge to keep up with these constant, but fascinating, changes.
Berlin is a vast metropolis but extremely easy to visit, thanks also to an efficient transport network and numerous cycling paths, perfect to observe the city from a different perspective, with another rhythm.
After living in Berlin for four years and having lived it hand in hand with the constant and uncontrollable, changes, I thought up a three-day itinerary, the time of a weekend, to discover this city the best you can even if you have little time .
Day 1 – Arrival and first visit DIY Alexanderplatz in Potsdamerplatz
The ideal starting point for visiting the city is definitely Alexanderplatz: most central crossroads of the major subway lines, trams and S-Bahn that cross the city, easily reached from any part of Berlin. Alex – as Berliners affectionately call it – is the symbol square of the German capital, eventful, gray and a bit chaotic, dominated by the iconic Fernsehturm.
For a breathtaking view of the city from over 200 meters height, it is advisable to book in advance the online ticket (19,50 Euro), so as to avoid long lines and dramatically reduce waiting times.
There are lowered rates for early risers (13 Euro entrance and climb to the tower at 9 in the morning in summer and at 10 in winter) or for those who prefer a view of the vibrant night-time Berlin (13 Euro, entrance between 21 and 23).
Proceeding on foot westward on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, and then on the boulevard Unter den Linden, one can understand what Bowie meant for cultural extravaganza.
In the space of about a couple of kilometers Berlin shows its more eclectic side, passing from historical buildings and monuments such as the Marienkirche, the Rotes Rathaus (Berlin Town Hall), Berlin Cathedral and the historic seat of the Humboldt-Universität, to nostalgic and out of time corners such as Nikolaiviertel or the unmissable antiques market on the pedestrian street between the Schlossbrücke bridge and the Bodemuseum (every Saturday/Sunday/holidays between 11 and 17), to elegant squares like Bebelplatz and Gendarmenplatz, while a long number of construction sites and modern buildings under construction indicate how much Berlin is always in constant evolution.
The Museumsinsel, or Museum District, is a must see for art lovers, who can choose between the Pergamon Museum, Altes Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Bode Museum and the Neues Museum.
Continuing on Unter den Linden you will reach Pariser Platz, refined Square which houses the Hotel Adlon and the United States of America Embassy, and the Brandenburg Gate, another place of central importance in the history of the city of Berlin.
From here extends the Tiergarten, the huge park crossed by the June 17 Avenue with the Victory Column, golden icon of the city, celebrated by Wim Wenders in the film Wings of Desire.
Absolutely not to be missed a visit to the Reichstag dome, the masterpiece of architect Norman Foster: the visit is free of charge and to be organized in time, since the entrance is only possible via registration on the website of the Deutscher Bundestag.
Another monument that cannot be missed out is the impressive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a complex network of over 2,000 cement blocks designed by Peter Eisenman, turning from Pariser Platz on Eberstrasse towards Potsdamer Platz.
And it is right at Potsdamer Platz that we end our journey for the first day. The square, redesigned and rebuilt by Renzo Piano between 1992 and 2000, is a magnificent work of urban reintegration of an area that for decades has been no man’s land, right at the border between East and West.
It is now one of the pulsing centers of the Berlin cultural life, with the Theater am Potsdamer Platz, which hosts the annual Film Festival, the Deutsche Kinemathek (Museum of Cinema and Television), and the futuristic Sony Center, to visit preferably in the evening, when the dome above it constantly changes color thanks to a spectacular effect of lights.
Day 2 – What Remains of the Wall – between Kreuzberg and Mitte
Officially fallen in 1989, the Wall that divided Berlin for decades is still visible in various parts of the city.
The East Side Gallery (U-Warschauer Strasse), along the bank of the Spree river, is the place where history meets street art: between 1989 and 1992 artists of various nationalities have transformed a long wall section of over a km into the biggest open air art gallery in the world, with graffiti that have become legendary as that of the fraternal Soviet kiss between Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev.
Remaining in the district of Kreuzberg, but moving on the other side of the river, beyond the Oberbaumbrücke, there is Markthalle Neun (U-Görlitzer Bahnhof or U-Schlesisches Tor), a meeting place for street food and local and international culinary specialties lovers.
The highly multicultural Kreuzberg soul is reflected in the extraordinary variety of restaurants internationally inspired, and in particular the Middle Eastern and Turkish: in Berlin, in fact, rumor says that the best kebab is eaten right here, and not in Istanbul!
Betweeen Oranienstrasse and Kottbussertor there really are lots of choices between local and ethnic restaurants, of which Maroush (Adalbertstrasse 93, Kreuzberg).
For those, instead, who want to try the classic currywurst, the beloved Berlin snack created by Herta Heuwer after World War II, the best choice is Curry 36 (Mehringdamm 36, Kreuzberg).
One of the most interesting monuments of Kreuzberg is the Jewish Museum (Jewish Museum Berlin) designed by a team of architects led by Daniel Libeskind, the American superstar of Jewish origin.
The structure, complex and suggestive, hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions on the millenary history of the Jews in Germany and in Europe.
Continuing towards the Mitte district, on Friedrichstrasse, we find the famous Checkpoint Charlie.
The Friedrichstrasse, now very busy shopping street in Berlin, was one of the main thoroughfares between East and West during the Cold War, and Checkpoint Charlie one of the crossing points between the two opposing and coexisting realities in Berlin, the communist East and the capitalist enclave of West Berlin.
To investigate the issue of the Wall and the impact it has had on the city, we recommend a visit to Mauermuseum am Checkpoint Charlie and, above all, to Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (U-Bernauerstrasse), with the most complete documentation center on the history of the Wall.
Alternatively, a short walk from the Friedrichstrasse in the direction of Potsdamer Platz, you can visit the outdoor memorial center Topographie des Terrors, a project designed to document the system of terror in Nazi Germany.
Day 3 – Berlin mix & match
For the third day, after having visited the main points of the city, we thought about the possibility of building a route DIY combining two or more of the following proposals for short thematic routes (for the duration from a few hours to half a day at most), perfect for grasping the multiplicity of nuances that characterize Berlin and to further investigate some historical, artistic, social and cultural aspects.
1. Unterwelten – Guided tour of the Berlin underworld
Indicated for those who do not suffer from claustrophobia, this guided tour will tell of a different Berlin, one of World War II where to flee underground to escape the bombing that, in the end, have razed to the ground the whole city.
More info: The Dark Side of Berlin – The bunkers and Berlin underground.
2. Cool & alternatives – Mitte and Prenzlauerberg
Between the districts of Berlin, Mitte and Prenzlauerberg are definitely the coolest. Starting from Hackescher Markt, where the complex in German secession style of Hackesche Höfe with its interior courtyards is, you proceed towards the street with the highest concentration of art and photography galleries of the city, Auguststrasse.
In this area, which once stretched the Jewish quarter, nowadays you can visit the Centrum Judaicum and what remains of the New Synagogue. Rosenthaler Platz is ideal for a coffee break at Sankt Oberholz or at Mein Haus am See, meeting places and home-office to many hipsters, freelancers and Berlin digital nomads.
Continuing towards Prenzlauerberg, walking on Kollwitzstrasse, Sredzkistrasse and Kastanienallee, the atmosphere of the neighborhood, or as they say in Berlin “Kiez-Gefühl”, gradually becomes more relaxed, artistic and nostalgic.
Do not miss a visit to the Kulturbrauerei, a former beer manufacturing industrial complex and today a lively cultural center for artistic events of all kinds. If you have the good fortune to spend a summer afternoon in Berlin, do not miss out the Mauerpark: the flea market attracts collectors and curious people from all over the city, and from 14 the park comes alive with a fun and alternative open-air karaoke.
3 – Nostalgia of East Berlin – Mitte and Friedrichshain
Anyone who has seen films like Goodbye Lenin or The Lives of Others, will certainly be impressed by the intriguing and in some ways still very dark history of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. Over the past decade, analysis and retrieval of the history and aesthetics of the GDR have characterized an important trend in German cinema, literature and even design.
They call it Ostalgie, or a mixture of fascination, curiosity and interest for a world that no longer exists, but for which you can still find a few impressions in some corners of the city:
- GDR Museum (Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 1, Mitte): fun little museum, interactive and informative for a dip in the daily reality of life in the GDR
- Karl-Marx-Allee (U-Strausberger Platz): the walk of about two kilometers on the Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee) between Strausberger Platz and Frankfurter Tor offers a typical urban aesthetics perspective of East Berlin: wide avenues with many lanes, designed for large military parades, and huge square buildings that recall the physiognomy of Moscow, among them the historical library Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung, the Café Sibylle and the Kino International cinema, in true Soviet style
- Die Tagung (Wühlischstraße 29, Friedrichshain) – fun Berlin Kneipe (German pub) in the heart of Friedrichshain, decorated with historic relics of the socialist era. Ideal for a cold beer after the walk on Karl-Marx-Allee!
4. 4. Charlottenburg yesterday and today
In the first quarter of the twentieth century the dynamic and unbridled cultural life of Berlin took place in Tauentzienstrasse and Kurfürstendamm, two long boulevards dotted with prestigious restaurants, cafes, theaters, dance halls, cinemas and cabarets.
Later, during the Cold War, the Kurfùrstendamm boulevard has become the showcase of capitalism, in open contradiction to the socialist style of East Berlin.
Now the Kurfürstendamm is one of many, chaotic shopping streets like what you can find in any European capital. It is worthwhile to visit in any case, what remains of the Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), almost completely destroyed during the bombing of 1945, the Kaufhaus des Westens, the luxurious and famous shopping center that is reminiscent of the department stores of the twenties, and if you have the time, the Charlottenburg Palace, Prussian-style with a beautiful garden.
5. Afternoon at Tempelhof
If the weather allows, spending an afternoon in the park of Tempelhof is an experience you should try. The old Berlin Central airport now abandoned, the history of which is illustrated by a series of guided tours offered in the visitor center, has become the pulsating heart of a creative district in full espansion, and it is definitely the favorite public park of the Berliners, where they love to go jogging, do evolutions with skateboards, cultivate small organic urban gardens, fly kites and relax with a picnic in the sun in summer.
6. Die Perle an der Spree – Berlin, the pearl on the river Spree
The Spree goes through Berlin and a cruise makes it possible to see the city from a completely different perspective from that from the streets.
In general, the visits begin from Friedrichstrasse to pass next to the Federal Chancellery to reach the Bellevue Palace, which overlooks Beamtenschlange, accommodation for civil servants, and the Victory Column. Follows with the Berlin Central Station and the Ministry of the Interior, before continuing on to the Charlottenburg Palace.
From here, the navigation proceeds next to the Westhafen Canal, the waterway of Spandau, to the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs, to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum Island and Berlin Cathedral, until you reach the most antique residential area of Berlin: Nikolaiviertel. After which, you resume the navigation to return to Friedrichstrasse.
7. Sachsenhausen concentration camp
At Oranienburg, a town about thirty kilometers north of Berlin, you can visit one of the largest Nazi concentration camps on German soil, Sachsenhausen. The visitor center offers a number of films and guided tours, permanent and temporary exhibitions, an archive and a library very well informed on the history of the camp, where to devote a whole day.
Where to stay in Berlin and how to get the best deal online!
This is one of the things that is often asked me by who is planning a holiday in Berlin.
My advice, especially if you travel in company, is to rent an apartment, Kreuzberg and Mitte are good because central and near the main districts, here you will breathe air of true Berlin. As always I use Hotelscombined that compares the same hotels rooms provided by different websites allowing me to get the best deal for the same hotel room! Here is my selection for you!
Singer109 Hotel and Hostel
Centrally located in Mitte, from here is easy to reach all main places in Berlin renting a bicycle. Elegant and cool the perfect place for who wants comfort and affordable prices. Book now
Arte Luise Kunsthotel
Double room common bathroom from €65
Modern and funky design in Mitte, this hotel is for who is looking for a different stay in an artistic place. Easy to walk pretty everywhere and well connected. Book now
Hotel Ludwig Van Beethoven
Double room from €80
Three stars hotel at only 200mt from Hermannplatz, close the cool district Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Clean, new and with garden. Breakfast included. The perfect place for enjoy Berlin at its best. Book now
Why choose Berlin?
Because, as the former Mayor Klaus Wowereit said a few years ago: “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” (Berlin is poor but sexy).
The beauty of Berlin lies in its being cool, alternative and unconventional, so different from the classic charm of Paris, Rome or London.
Three days are enough to get at least a little in the heart of the city and savor some aspects, such as the particular and unique Berlin humor, or Berliner Schnauze.
Frank irony and a bit gruff, clear in the quaint dialect spoken throughout the city and particularly in the old East Berlin area, which definitely will not go unnoticed – even for those visiting the city for the first time.