Photograph by John Kellerman, Alamy
More than a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German capital is experiencing a cultural renaissance. But the new energy hasn’t eclipsed the city’s tumultuous past, and monuments to both are accessible to visitors on a budget.
With its modern glass dome meant to symbolize transparency in government, the Reichstag is home to the Bundestag (German Parliament) and one of Berlin’s most recognizable landmarks. Climb the winding walkway for a 360-degree view of the city and a peek at the legislative body chamber below. Admission is free but registration (online or at the building’s visitor service center at least two hours in advance) is required.
Inspired by the Propylaeum of Athens's Acropolis, the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate is a masterpiece of German classicism but is best known for its role separating East and West Berlin. It was here that President Ronald Reagan in 1987 implored then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Today, it’s regarded as a symbol of unity.
The striking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an expanse of more than 2,500 concrete pillars, or stelae, of varying heights commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The Field of Stelae is accessible 24 hours a day. Free guided tours in English are offered on Saturdays at 3 p.m.
After the neo-Romanesque Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was leveled in a bombing raid in 1945 Berliners rallied to save what was left of it. Today, the ruins are incorporated into a structure designed by Egon Eiermann and completed in 1961. Notice the glass blocks inside the nave, which reflect a blue light into the church. Free guided tours are offered in German several times a week; group tours in English are available for four euros per person.
The outdoor Topography of Terror exhibit spans a preserved section of the Berlin Wall and tells the story of the site—the onetime headquarters of the Gestapo (the secret state police)—through photos, documents, and 3-D graphics.
Head to the northern end of Spree Island to marvel at the cluster of architectural masterpieces known as Museum Island. Built between 1824 and 1930, the Altes Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Bode, Neues, and Pergamon were each designed to reflect the art they house, earning the ensemble a UNESCO World Heritage site designation. Want to explore the treasures within? Spring for a Museumspass Berlin (24 euros), which buys you entry to some 50 attractions, including all national museums, for three consecutive days.
Some of the city’s top museums have free days, including the first Wednesday of the month at the Bröhan-Museum, which uses decorative arts, such as porcelain, and paintings to show the progression from art nouveau to art deco and functionalism.
Several lesser known museums in Berlin are gratis every day, such as the Greek and Roman Plaster Cast Collection—with some 2,000 Greek and Roman plaster cast sculptures and the occasional modern art exhibition—and Daimler Contemporary Berlin in the Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz. Find more listings here.
After the Berlin Wall was breached, artists from 21 countries transformed the longest stretch still standing into the East Side Gallery, which includes murals like “The Kiss,” depicting Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker locking lips.
Galleries abound in Berlin. Many charge admission, but a few are free, such as Johann König and Carlier Gebauer, the latter known for past exhibitions featuring visual artist Rosa Barba and installation artist Aernout Mik. Both are in Kochstrasse’s gallery district.
Admission to the interactive German Museum of Technology is free to children under the age of 18 every day starting at 3 p.m. During September, the museum hosts Sunday Open Days at the Transport Depot, when visitors get a glimpse of dozens of vehicles covering 150 years of history, such as one of Berlin’s first electric trains, bull-nosed double-decker buses, and classic cars. Transport to the depot via the museum train is free.
Berlin is full of inventive playgrounds for children. At the Dragon Playground in Berlin-Friedrichshain, tots climb on the large wooden dragon and build sand castles. The Forest Playground Plaenterwald features boats, tractors, and climbing walls made from tree branches. And kids can traverse the Sherwood Forest playground on hanging cables.
Food and Drink
Since it began in 2013, Street Food Thursdays at the 19-century Markethall Neun in the Kreuzberg neighborhood has been a huge hit. Starting at 5 p.m., 20-odd vendors hawk everything from spaetzle to pork-belly buns. Find garlicky dips and kebabs at the open-air Turkish Market, also in Kreuzberg, open Tuesdays and Fridays. Most food options are wallet-friendly.
Explore the hot spots of Berlin’s exploding culinary scene on a guided walk with Free Tours on Foot, which asks customers at the end of the tour to pay what they think it was worth.
A former hunting reserve for Prussian kings, Tiergarten was designed as an English-style park in the 19th century and is today considered the green lung of Berlin. Don’t miss the Open Air Glass Lantern Museum, a collection of some 90 historical gas lanterns from Germany and across Europe. Go at dusk when the lanterns are aglow.
Stroll the leafy boulevard Unter Den Linden, or “under the linden trees,” which runs east to west, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Schlossbrücke bridge. Linger in front of the 18th-century State Opera, the Karl Friedrich Schinkel-designed war memorial Neue Wache, and the circa 1810 Humboldt University, home to 29 Nobel Prize winners and the model for several European and American universities.
Peruse the weekends-only Art Market at Zeughaus for one-of-a-kind souvenirs, from fine art to fashion.
Wake up early on Sunday if you want to beat the crowds at the Mauerpark flea market in Prenzlauer Berg. Roam hundreds of stands peddling vintage clothing, vinyl, GDR memorabilia, and more. Karaoke enthusiasts: Stick around for the afternoon Bearpit Karaoke show at the amphitheater next door.
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