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Best Things To Do in Berlin

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In general Berlin sightseeing is not a light-hearted activity. You may need to force yourself to visit some of its more somber sights and memorials, but thankfully the process is illuminating and vital to appreciate the city’s difficult history. The classic Berlin walking tour begins at the Reichstag, the German parliament building, which lies beside the iconic Brandenburg Gate and stark Holocaust Memorial. From here it’s a 5-minute walk along remnants of the Berlin Wall to Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of all Cold War border crossings. The Berlin Wall Museum here remembers many of the most imaginative attempts to find ways across the barrier. In the same neighborhood the sparkling Jewish Museum is not only an architectural tour-de-force, but impressive for the sensitive and engaging way it tells the history of Germany’s Jews. Back at Checkpoint Charlie, a 10-minute walk north up the arterial Friedrichstrasse, then west along the pivotal grand avenue Unter den Linden, with its impressive neoclassical buildings, find Museum Island, one of the world’s most important museum complexes just overstuffed with classical and ancient Middle-Eastern antiquities. The collections are so vast you should pencil in at least a day to give them any kind of justice. Most Berlin attractions are scattered well beyond the central Mitte district and are best visited using public transport: The Berlin Wall Memorial, the only part of the Wall preserved as it once was, lies to the north of the centre; as do the underground bunkers you can tour with Berliner Unterwelten. A similar distance west of the centre lies Schloss Charlottenburg, a palace and gardens full of the kind of frippery you might crave after Berlin’s darker sights, and the bombastic Olympic Stadium remains, one of the last architectural testaments to Nazi might. What some of this led to is on show a suburban train ride just beyond Berlin’s northern fringes, where the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen lies partly preserved as a memorial to oppression.

Reichstag

Neighborhood: Mitte

The Reichstag, the German parliament, competes with the almost adjacent triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate as Berlin’s most famous landmark. The solid neoclassical Reichstag itself is most famous for being set alight in 1933, allegedly by communists, which enabled the Nazi party to impose martial law and suspend democracy for what soon became a brutal dictatorship. Equally famously, the Reichstag became a symbol of the Allied victory at the end of World War II, as Soviet soldiers raised their flag on the roof after heavy fighting that left scores of bullet holes around some Reichstag windows—patched but still visible today. Then, in 1999, the reunified German parliament moved back in after extensive renovations and the addition of a flashy cupola by British architect Sir Norman Foster. This giant glass dome, with its central supporting mirrored column, is now the building’s main attraction and provides superb 360-degree views of the city. Avoid long lines at the entrance by arriving early or late, or by booking at the Käfer Dachgarten restaurant.

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Holocaust Memorial

Neighborhood: Mitte

Fully and bluntly named The National Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Holocaust Memorial is the contribution of New York architect Peter Eisenman to remembering the Nazi slaughter of some 6 million Jews. Inspired by the densely clustered gravestones in Prague’s Jewish graveyard, the design consists of 2,711 dark grey, oblong, pillars of varying heights tightly spaced over the entire site—which is about the size of three football fields. These give visitors a sense of gloom, isolation and solitude as they find their way through the maze to the underground information center, where the life stories and plights of selected Holocaust victims are expertly presented.

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Checkpoint Charlie

Neighborhood: Kreuzberg

For most people from the West who happen to be over 30, Checkpoint Charlie has a certain ring to it, mostly of spy stories and Cold War intrigue. And certainly this border crossing, which was the main gateway between the two Berlins for most non-Germans, and announced by dramatic “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR” signs, was the scene of repeated border incidents during the Cold War. American and Soviet tanks faced each other for several days here in October 1961, and several East Germans were shot here during escape attempts. A replica border crossing now marks the original site and some wall-mounted information borders on the adjacent Zimmerstrasse tell the story of the Wall. But many of the most interesting human stories associated with the Wall are told in the Mauermuseum (Wall Museum) beside the checkpoint. Exhibits here tell the story of scores of escape attempts, many great tributes to ingenuity, and involving the likes of false trunks, plastic cows, escape tunnels, homemade aircraft and converted cars.

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Museum Island

Neighborhood: Mitte

The northern tip of the island on which the Prussian Imperial Palace once stood was transformed in the 19th century into a museum district built to house all manner of national treasures, and dubbed Museum Island. It really blossomed once German archaeologists returned with Middle East finds, and these still form the core of the collection, despite destruction and Soviet plundering at the end of the war. The war damaged museum buildings, too, necessitating a long-term building project expertly renovating as well as physically connecting all the museums toward a completion date in 2015. Until then this work may create temporary closures. It’s very hard to do justice to more than a single Museum Island museum in a day, so chose carefully in advance between the five available. All include hugely illuminating audio guides in their admission charges, which are waived during the last four hours of the day on Thursdays. The Altes Museum is the place to go for fans of classical antiquities, with much ancient Greek pottery and sculpture on view. The Neues Museum presents the city’s impressive Egyptian collection, which famously includes the busts of Queen Nefertiti and King Echnaton. The Pergamon Museum is the largest museum on the island and probably gathers together the best of the city’s classical antiquities—particularly the Greek Pergamon Altar depicting a furious battle between the gods and the giants, plus the deep-blue-tiled Ishtar Gate and the processional way from Babylon. The Bode Museum concentrates on European sculpture through the ages, but its Byzantine wing provides an interesting insight into an intriguing extinct culture. The Alte Nationalgalerie is a museum of European art that’s particularly strong on 19th-century German Romantics, like Liebermann, though it also has great works by Cézanne, Rodin, Monet and Degas.

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The Jewish Museum

Neighborhood: Kreuzberg

One Berlin attraction that stands out is also one of city’s most famous pieces of architecture. Berlin’s Jewish Museum is an awkward zinc-plated bastion by Daniel Libeskind. The building’s uncomfortable angles and severe lines were designed to help convey the disturbed and difficult history of Jews in Germany. Its interior, with its dark "voids" for contemplation, particularly heightens the sense of drama. Predictably, it may be uneasy viewing as Jewish persecution has run deep through the centuries, peaking during the Holocaust. The exhibition also uncovers more surprising and less-known features of Jewish history, as well, particularly emphasizing the strong and highly influential role Jews played in Germany and how many were attracted to settle in Prussia because of its tolerance and egalitarianism.

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Berlin Wall Memorial

Neighborhood: Mitte

When the Berlin Wall was hastily erected on Aug. 13, 1961, Bernauer Strasse found itself literally bisected by the iron curtain—some of its residents even leapt from their windows to escape to the West. Their buildings were soon incorporated into the barrier, then knocked down and replaced by the Wall in 1979. Then, when in 1990 East Germany crumbled, much of the Berlin Wall was quickly torn down leaving only one small portion in its original state. It’s been preserved since as a memorial and the only place you can see the Wall as it once was: two walls and a “death-strip” in between. A Wall Documentation Centre nearby provides a viewing tower to contemplate the Wall from above and tells its story engagingly, using photos, sound recordings and information terminals.

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Berlin Wall Memorial  

Berliner Unterwelten

Neighborhood: Mitte

It may be the norm for archaeologists, but for most, however, uncovering history underground is an unusual and thrilling experience. And this is what the non-profit organization Berliner Unterwelten allows you to do with its underground Berlin tours. They visit a World War II bunker, filled with countless artifacts from the time. They visit a Nazi flak tower that once defended the city during air attacks but was too sturdy for the Soviets to destroy, and explore Cold War-era tunnels and bunkers, including those designed for West Berliners in case of a nuclear strike. Tours don’t require a reservation, but arrive early at the ticket office in the southern entrance hall of the Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station to ensure a place—check the website for the times of German, Spanish and English-language tours.

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Schloss Charlottenburg

Neighborhood: Oranienburg

Named for Prussia’s first queen, Schloss Charlottenburg is Berlin’s largest surviving royal residence, complete with large ornamental gardens. It offers a bit of light-hearted Baroque frippery in a city where neoclassicism and modernity can get a bit much, and its gardens are a pleasant place to wander and picnic. It began as a modest summer place in 1695 and was repeatedly enlarged over the next hundred years, producing a cream-and-custard building with an elegant central dome and two orderly wings. The Altes Schloss (entry €10 euros) contains the exuberant royal apartments and is the main highlight, though the palace does have the largest collection of 18th-century French paintings outside France. But the beautifully landscaped gardens, complete with mausoleum and Belvedere teahouse, are arguably best of all. The Schloss lies a 15-minute bus ride on bus #M45 from the central Berlin’s Zoo station.

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Olympic Stadium

Neighborhood: Charlottenburg

Hertha BSC, Berlin’s best soccer team, might have hit hard times with its relegation to the second division in 2010, but its home ground, the glorious 1936 Olympic Stadium, is as stunning as ever. This is thanks in part to a major renovation for the 2006 FIFA World Cup when six matches, including the final, were held here. But it’s every bit as noteworthy as one of Berlin’s very few remaining Nazi-era buildings. This incredible neoclassical arena was to compete with age-old amphitheatres in the style of Rome’s coliseum and project the strength of Nazi Germany onto the rest of the world. The sheer size of the stadium comes as a particular surprise. It is scooped out of the ground so that its outside walls give little impression of its true extent. English-language signs around the site provide plenty of historical insight, while guided tours (check the website for times) go behind the scenes into the elegant changing rooms and hospitality suites.

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Sachsenhausen Memorial

Neighborhood: Oranienburg

The former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen on the fringes of the small town of Oranienburg, 35 km north of Berlin, has been preserved to remind of the work of two of the last century’s most powerful and terrible regimes. This prototype Nazi concentration camp was never specifically designed for mass extermination, yet around half its prison population of 220,000 was killed, particularly at the end of the war when the camp was used to systematically exterminate thousands of Soviet POWs and Jewish prisoners on death marches. After the war the Soviets sought vengeance and used the infrastructure to incarcerate and mistreat anyone with suspected Nazi links. To enter the camp, visitors pass through an information center packed with books, where one can pick up handsets for an audio tour. Many parts of the camp are chillingly well preserved and it now includes a museum on the camp’s origins, several watchtowers, perimeter walls and a number of prison blocks. Among these is the camp prison, from which internees seldom returned, and a kitchen and laundry where harrowing films on a loop show the camp on liberation. Just outside the perimeter lie pits in which summary executions took place and the bodies were incinerated. The former camp can be reached by S-Bahn 1 from Berlin and is a signposted 20-minute walk from Oranienburg Station.

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