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Berlin, Germany is one of Europe’s most iconic cities, an intoxicating blend of old meets new where grand, historic buildings blend seamlessly with glittering skyscrapers. Instead of trying to gloss over its somewhat dark history, the city has turned the remnants of those years into learning opportunities, with monuments such as the Berlin Wall and the Jewish Memorial demonstrating how far Berlin has come in just a few generations.
Today, visitors will find Berlin steeped in history and overflowing with ornate, towering monuments, yet never wavering from its effortlessly cool, edgy vibe which is displayed in the colourful street art, trendy cafes and fashion favoured by the city’s younger set. Despite being a popular stop on the European backpacking scene thanks to its legendary night life, Germany’s capital has an abundance of attractions for travellers of all ages. While at least a few days are required to discover the ins-and-outs of the city, many people find themselves with only a day to explore before they have to hop back on a cruise ship or jet off to the next stop on their European itinerary. With that in mind, here’s how to rock a whirlwind tour of Berlin, Germany.
You’re going to need wheels to get around such a big city, so rent a bicycle (prices are typically €10-20/day) and navigate the bike lanes which link most major thoroughfares. Alternatively, book a hop on-hop off bus tour which will shuttle you directly to all of the main sites.
It’s only natural to kick off a sightseeing tour at the city’s most recognizable landmark, so start the day at Brandenburg Gate. Built in the 18th century, the sandstone gate pays tribute to the Acropolis in Athens and frames Parser Platz which is home to Germany’s parliament. The picture-perfect square is a tourist magnet, so try to get there first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Brandenburg Gate just so happens to be smack dab in the middle of all the action, so no matter which direction you head now you’ll hit another landmark. One option is to head south just a couple of blocks to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas), a sobering tribute to the six million Jewish people killed during the Holocaust. Made up of nearly three thousand concrete slabs in a grid pattern, visitors are welcome to walk through the rows, then visit the nearby information centre which includes biographies of some of the victims.
Take the scenic route west to ensure you pass through the Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s swankiest streets. Home to luxury fashion houses along with high-end hotels and restaurants, the three-kilometre strip is the place to see and be seen.
Eventually you’ll end up at Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg), a baroque wonder that was built in the 17th century as a summer home for Sophie Charlotte, Prussia’s first queen. The palace is the largest one still standing in Berlin, despite being badly damaged during World War II.
Note: It takes about 30 minutes by car to get from the Holocaust Memorial to Charlottenburg Palace, so those tight on time may need to nix this stop and stay in the city centre instead.
Wander through the residence and the impeccably manicured grounds, then head back towards the city centre along Straße des 17. Juni which is one of Berlin’s main arteries. The roadway leads directly to the golden-gilded Victory Column (Siegessäule), which sits in the middle of a roundabout and stretches nearly 30 feet towards the sky. Admire it from a distance, or head up 300 steps to its viewing platform which has wonderful views of a number of landmarks and the foliage of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s most popular park.
Continue back towards Brandenburg Gate, then head north to the glorious Reichstag. Today it serves as the seat of German parliament, and visitors are welcome to tour the interior, which has a unique, 360-degree vantage point of the other government buildings and soaring skyscrapers surrounding its expansive grounds.
Chances are you’re more than ready for lunch at this point, so head south to Gendarmenmarkt which is one of Berlin’s prettiest squares. Framed by a towering trifecta made up of a concert hall, French and German churches, the sandstone buildings have been beautifully restored despite the heavy damage they were subjected to during the war.
Today, a handful of restaurants have claimed a spot on the cobblestone square in front, making Gendarmenmarkt a wonderful spot to soak in the scenery while enjoying Berlin specialities like beer and currywurst.
Once you’ve gotten your fill, head east to Museum Island, a true masterpiece for history buffs. Its crown jewel is the Berlin Cathedral Church (Berliner Dom), which is an architectural marvel—particularly when viewed from the waterfront. Home to five museums, Museumsinsel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses a range of exhibitions, from Egyptian treasures to displays detailing what life was like in East Germany.
Continuing east, you’ll find yourself in ultra-urban Berlin, which includes the TV Tower (Fernsehturm), which soars a dizzying 365 metres high. Alexanderplatz Square is just a block further, which holds bragging rights as the largest square in the country and is now a major transportation hub thanks to its post-war revival.
From Fernsehturm it’s less than 10 minutes by bike or car to the final stops of the day including the city’s most infamous site: the Berlin Wall. Originally built by the government in 1961 with the help of the Soviets to keep east Germans from moving to the city’s more developed west side, the concrete wall once stretched for more than 80 miles, tearing families apart for decades. It finally fell on November 9, 1989 and has since been reduced to little more than ruins across the city.
The larger pieces that do remain have been transformed into colourful murals, which are on display at the East Side Gallery. There, more than one kilometre’s worth of the concrete slabs have been transformed into vibrant artwork expressing freedom and creativity—a perfect contrast to why the walls were erected in the first place.
Visitors can wander along the colourful stretch before crossing back over the river and making their way back to the city centre, tracing the path of the Berlin Wall or taking part in an underground bunker tour. Crumbling, untouched remains mark the route, along with the historical monuments found at Stralauer Platz and the memorial dedicated to Peter Fechter who was one of the first people who died trying to escape over the wall.
The day comes to an end at what just might be Berlin’s most underwhelming yet important landmark: Checkpoint Charlie. “Checkpoint C” has historical significance as the crossing point for foreigners when the Berlin Wall was erected, but visitors could be forgiven for thinking it looks like little more than a toll booth. Regardless, it’s well worth a visit, particularly to learn about some of the daring escapes made through it.
And there you have it—a whirlwind tour of Berlin. No worries if you couldn’t make it to all the stops in just one day–it just gives you the perfect excuse to make a return visit to the iconic city.
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Globe Guide explored Berlin in collaboration with Viking Cruises and Visit Berlin. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.