Berlin is a wonderful city that has a fascinating history. These are the places that I will usually insist that my visitors see in the city if they are only coming for a few days, and I find that I enjoy them no matter how many times I visit them.
Clock and TV Tower at Alexanderplatz
Ok, I have to confess: I don’t really like Alexanderplatz very much. I think it’s ugly, crowded, and full of tourist traps. It annoys me. A lot. However, I must admit that it is interesting to see all of the Soviet, East-Berlin architecture from the Cold War era, and the iconic Fernsehturm (TV Tower) and International Clock are worth checking out.
10. Tempelhofer Feld (Formerly Templehof Airport)
Photo Credit: Alexander Savin
Tempelhofer Feld is a large public park that was formerly one of the major international airports in Berlin. It was opened in 1923, and before World War II, it was one of Europe’s three airports, the others being in London and Paris. During World War II, it was the site of the famous Berlin Airlift in 1948-49. During the Cold War, Tempelhof Airport was the main terminal for American military aircraft in West Berlin.
The Airport officially closed in 2008, and in 2010, the airfield was opened as a public park. Currently, some of the former hangars serve as a refugee camp.
Tempelhofer Feld is a great place for a picnic in the summer, or for a fun bike ride down the former runways. Despite what Google Maps will tell you, I recommend either taking the U6 to Platz der Luftbrücke or taking the Ringbahn (S41 or S42) to Tempelhofer Feld to get there.
9. The Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche)
This Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, located at Breitscheidplatz on Kurfurstendamm (in the former West Berlin) is a church that was built in the 1890s and was badly damaged during a bombing raid in 1943. A new church was built next to the original during the 1950s and 1960s, but the spire of the old church was retained and serves as a memorial hall and a reminder of the destruction from World War II.
Sadly, this was also the location of the recent terror attack in Berlin last December. The above photograph was taken at the same Christmas Market one year before.
8. Anhalter Bahnhof
I stumbled upon this structure on my first day in Berlin and was awe-struck. I had no idea what it was, but supposed that it must have been the remnants of a grand building that was damaged during World War II. I went home and did some research, and found that this was the facade of what was once a massive, major train station in Berlin. Sadly, it also served as a deportation site for 55,000 Berlin Jews from 1941-1945.
Anhalter Banhof during the 1900s. By Waldemar Titzenthaler – Scan from: Nick Gay, Berlin Then & Now, San Diego 2005, p.94, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3095707
It was heavily damaged during World War II and the majority of it was demolished in 1960, despite public outcry, but the facade was left intact.
An S-Bahn station was built underground in 1939 and is still in use today; however, the station became what was known as a “Ghost Station” during the Berlin Wall years: Anhalter Bahnhof was located in the East, but the majority of this S-Bahn line ran through the West, so trains were not allowed to stop at these Eastern Stations. The station was re-opened in 1992.
7. The Reichstag
This imposing building is definitely a must-see. Currently, it is the home of the German Parliament, but it was originally built to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. It was famously set on fire in 1933 under circumstances which are still unknown. The Nazis blamed the fire on the Communists and accused them of plotting against the German Government, which allowed Hitler, the new chancellor of Germany at the time, to suspend the civil liberties of communists and wipe them out of parliament. This consolidated Hitler’s power in Germany and allowed the Nazi party to become the majority.
The building was a ruin after being heavily damaged during World War II but was reconstructed in the 1960s with a new glass dome. You can visit the Reichstag and walk to the top of the spiral dome for free, but you must register in advance here.
Inside the Reichstag Dome
6. Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg)
This beautiful palace was built at the end of the 17th Century and was commissioned by Queen Sophie Charlotte, the husband of King Friedrich I of Prussia. It was severely damaged during WWII but was reconstructed. There is a beautiful baroque-style garden attached to the palace that was designed in 1697, and the interior of the palace is decorated in beautiful rococo and baroque styles. Guided electronic tours through the inside of the palace are available (I took the tour with a friend last year and thoroughly enjoyed it), and it is free to walk around the external grounds. In December, there is a lovely Christmas Market in front of the castle that is worth visiting as well.
Christmas Market at Charlottenburg Palace, December, 2015
5. Sanssouci Palace (Schloss Sanssouci), Potsdam
This castle, while technically not in Berlin, is just outside of the city in neighboring Potsdam and is definitely worth the one-hour trip on the S-Bahn and bus. It was the summer palace of the eccentric King Frederick the Great of Prussia, and like the Schloss Charlottenburg, it also has breathtaking gardens behind the castle. Guided tours of the interior are available and are certainly worth taking. The surrounding city of Postdam is also gorgeous and worth exploring.
4. Museum Island (Museum Insel)
Museum Island is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and indeed an island in the middle of the Spree River in Berlin. It houses five incredible museums, each worth visiting: The Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, and the Altes Museum. You can find more information about the museums here.
The Altes Museum opened in 1830 and made significant and historic artwork and collections available to the general public for the first time. The other museums opened over the course of the next century.
Me at the Pergamon Museum, July 2015
3. Topography of Terror Museum
This outdoor and indoor history museum documents the rise of the Nazi Party, the frightening power of the propaganda that the party presented to the German people, and the atrocities that were carried out by the Nazis against the Jewish people. The museum is on the site of what had been the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS, and one can see the foundations of the buildings there. During the Cold War era, the Berlin Wall ran through the site, and a large section of it was left intact and can be viewed at the museum.
I wouldn’t say that I enjoy going to this museum, as it is incredibly sad. However, I recommend that nearly all of my visitors go there, because I feel that it is important to remember not only the lives lost, but to understand how these things could have happened in the first place.
German Cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt
I absolutely love Gendarmenmarkt! It is by far one of the most beautiful places to visit in Berlin, and perhaps in all of Germany. A Concert House (Konzerthaus) sits between two “twin” French and German Cathedrals (which are actually not cathedrals at all and not really identical, but I digress) in this square. It was built in 1688 and designed by Johann Arnold Nering and was originally called Linden Markt. However, after being used by the French Cavalry during the 18th Century, it was renamed Gendarmenmarkt. Like most other sites in this post, the square was largely damaged during World War II and rebuilt.
The interior of the concert hall is beautiful as well, and the acoustics there are wonderful. The Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Fischer, is a phenomenal orchestra that performs regularly in the Konzerthaus and is worth seeing.
Gendarmenmarkt also hosts one of Berlin’s most popular (and beautiful) Christmas Markets every December.
Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt, 2015
1. Brandenburger Tor/The Brandenburg Gate
What would a visit to Berlin be without a trip to the Brandenburg Gate? The Neo-Classical Monument is one of the best-known landmarks in Germany, and it has played significant political roles in history. Napoleon used the gate for a triumphant procession after their defeat of the Prussians in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, the Nazis used it as a party symbol, and it survived the heavy bombings of Pariser Platz during World War II only to be completely isolated from both the East and West once the Berlin Wall was built next to it. During the Cold War, it served as a site for many anti-wall demonstrations, including the famous speech by Ronald Reagan in which he implored Mr. Gorbachov to “tear down this wall!” After the wall came down, the Brandenburg Gate became a symbol of peace and unification.
On my first morning in Berlin, I woke up early and walked over to the gate to beat the crowds. It looked truly magnificent in the morning light, and being there made me think, “Wow. I’m really here!” I have since been to it countless times (when I used to ride my bike to work at my last job, my commute would take me right through its columns), and I currently work just a few blocks away from it.
I was also lucky enough to be at the Brandenburg Gate to witness the celebrations for the 25th Anniversary of the “Fall of the Wall,” which was an incredible evening that I will never forget.
If there is one place on this list that you absolutely cannot miss when visiting Berlin, this is it.
Fall of the Wall Celebration, November 2014
What do you think of this list? What great historical sites in Berlin did I miss? Please let me know in the comments!