Travel - Destinations
By: - at August 8, 2013

Top 15 Most Interesting Places to Visit in Berlin

Greetings from Berlin Germany

With 3.3 million inhabitants, the capital of Germany is also its most populous city. However, what the numbers do not show is the incredibly rich history of the city, dating back to the 13th century, when the oldest available records mention the small settlements of Spandau and Kopenick. The official founding date of Berlin proper is considered to be 1237, when the settlement of Colln on Fischerinel is mentioned in an official document. The real transformation for Berlin came with the industrial revolution in the 19th century. With the burgeoning economy and population, the city eventually became the capital of the German Empire in 1871 and only thrived from that point onward. Even the ruthless rule of the Nazis and the devastation wrought by World War II did not manage to break the city, which is now one of the cultural, political, and economical centers of united Europe. In order to catch a glimpse of the rich history of Berlin, make sure to visit the following 15 places.

15)  Brandenburg Gate
The most iconic architectural feature of the city should be the first place you visit when in Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century on commission from King Frederick William II of Prussia.  The gate was intended to be a sign of peace, symbolizing the values represented by the Kingdom of Prussia. Of note is the fact that it was not intended to be a part of the city's extensive network of fortifications. Rather, it was one of the eighteen gates leading into the city and part of the so-called customs wall surrounding it. As the city grew, the Gate was gradually absorbed into the growing organism.

Brandenburg Gate Berlin Germany

The Brandenburg Gate remains an important piece of the history of the city. It served multiple political roles in its lifetime, but perhaps none are more important than it being a symbol of the divided Berlin. When the German Democratic Republic was formed and Berlin was divided into two halves, East and West, the Brandenburg Gate remained closed to visitors due to its proximity to the demarcation line and the famous Berlin wall. Ironically, both governments cooperated in a joint effort to restore the Gate and remove the damage caused by fighting in the city of Berlin. Visiting the Brandenburg Gate now is easy, as it is closed to vehicle traffic and remains an exclusively pedestrian zone.

14)  Reichstag
The symbol of German governance, the Reichstag began construction in 1884, years after the unification of Germany and after two separate contests intended to provide a design for the building. The Reichstag was finally completed in 1894. Since then it has become an important landmark in the landscape of Berlin and played witness to important events in the nation's history. For example, following the destruction of World War I, the Weimar Republic was proclaimed at the Reichstag. Less than two decades later, the Reichstag was destroyed in a fire, giving the ruling Nazi party the excuse to suspend constitutional freedoms. During the war, it became a priority target during the battle of Berlin, due to its symbolic value. Finally, after the war, despite repairs, it was laid to the sideline due to its proximity to the Berlin Wall.

Reichstag building Berlin Germany

Now, the Reichstag is the official seat of the Bundestag, the German parliament, and one of the city's most often visited landmarks. While the architectural and historical value of the building is obvious, one of the key attractions is the large glass dome crowning the Reichstag, which offers a breathtaking view of Berlin, especially when viewed at night. Do note, however, that visiting the Reichstag dome requires prior registration, due to the volume of visitors. Walk-ins are turned away.

13)  Victory Statue
One of the most striking elements of Berlin's skyline is the bronze statue of Victoria. Erected in 1873, the statue was originally meant to commemorate the Prussian victory in the war between Prussia and Denmark. However, in the time frame between the designing of the monument (1864) and its actual erection, Prussia had won further wars against Austria and France, unifying Germany. The bronze statue of Victoria was added to signify these victories. The monument was originally located at the Republikplatz in front of the Reichstag. However, during Hitler's reign, it was relocated to its current location as part of preparing Berlin for redevelopment into Welthauptstadt Germania, a monumental capital of the Third Reich. Although these plans never materialized, the statue was not returned to its original location at the end of World War II.

Victory Statue Berline Germany

However, apart from being a part of Germany's history (and of Berlin itself), the statue is worth visiting for another reason. The terrace immediately beneath the statue is open to visitors from 9:30 to 18:30. Even if you happen to come too early or too late, the Statue is worth paying a visit, as the base upon which it rests is an artwork in itself. The polished red granite forms a hall of pillars featuring a beautiful glass mosaic. And every moment you're there, it's worth remembering that this monument to past glory was nearly demolished by the French Army, until the British and American leaders intervened and vetoed the plan.

Victory Statue Berlin Germany

12)  Alexanderplatz
Commonly referred to by Berliners as Alex (no, Berliner is not a donut, with or without the article), Alexanderplatz is one of the largest public squares in the city and a vital transportation hub. Originally a cattle market right outside the city's ring of fortifications, the square was revitalized by the growth of infrastructure in Berlin, eventually becoming a center of nightlife for the city by the 1920s. Although damaged during the war, it did not suffer the fate of Potsdamer Platz and was redeveloped and revamped by German Democratic Republic which controlled it. Since the German reunification, the square has undergone a gradual evolution, but retains its principal landmarks.

Alexanderplatz Berlin Germany

Perhaps the most striking of these is the Fernsehturm Berlin, the Berlin TV Tower. It is the tallest structure in Germany and the fourth tallest structure in Europe. The sphere on the tower is open to visitors, featuring a sightseeing platform and a revolving restaurant in the middle of the sphere, allowing for an unparalleled vista of Germany's busiest city. And if you're particularly daring, you can try reaching the sphere on your own by way of a staircase with exactly 986 steps. The only limitations are imposed by the tower's design. Due to the construction of the lifts shuttling visitors to and from the sphere, wheelchair access is impossible.

11)  Olympiastadion
A landmark connected to Germany's darkest period, the Olympiastadion is one of the largest Olympic stadiums in the world. The reason is simple. As Germany was chosen to host the 1936 Summer Olympics, Adolf Hitler intended to use this event for propaganda purposes. The Olympiastadion was the centerpiece of a monumental sports complex dubbed the Reichssportfeld (Reich Sport Field), built specifically to demonstrate the grandeur of Germany and promote the Nazi regime. It was also the first time that such an event was broadcast globally via television. The defeat of the regime and the collapse of Nazi Germany did not spell doom for the stadium. In fact, it survived the final battle of Berlin with only minor damage due to machine gun fire.

Olympiastadion Berlin Germany

Following the war the stadium continued to be used for sport purposes, including introducing baseball and American football to the German audiences. The ultimate fate of the stadium was a matter of some controversy, as the Nazi past of the massive structure kept returning like a bad dream. Ultimately, the decision was made to renovate the stadium instead of tearing it down, to preserve its architectural value. The massive grounds surrounding the Olympiastadion are freely accessible, as is the hall of columns surrounding it. Visiting it is worth it, if only to see what's one of the finest examples of monumental architecture, regardless of its historical context. If you're lucky, you may also happen to visit Berlin during a concert at the stadium. It's an experience worth every Euro.

10)  Charlottenburg Palace
On the polar opposite of the Olympiastadion lies Schloss Charlottenburg. It is the largest palace in Berlin and Germany, as well as the sole remaining royal residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Historical context aside, it is also one of the most refined examples of baroque and rococo styles, surrounded by a vast garden with numerous buildings that once served the royal family of Prussia. Although it was damaged during World War II, like much of Berlin, it was restored and is currently one of the most prominent attractions in Berlin.

Charlottenburg Schloss Berlin Germany

The best part? The gardens surrounding the Palace are free for everyone to visit and explore, with no admission tickets, except for the mausoleum holding the graves of the Hohenzollern family, the Belevedere, with its rich Berlin porcelain collection, and the Neue Pavilion, which functions as an art gallery. However, visiting the Palace itself is mandatory if you enjoy architecture. For the price of an admission ticket you receive access to the Alte Schloss (Old Palace) and the Neue Flugel (New Wing), which are full of exhibitions, including the crown jewels of the Prussian royal family.

9)  Spandau Citadel
Military service was always an important part of the German culture and as such German states and Germany itself remained at the forefront of military technologies for centuries. Why is that important? Zitadelle Spandau is one of the best-preserved Renaissance fortresses in Europe, coming from an era when firearms entered widespread service, creating a revolution that forced architects and fortress builders to radically rethink the way fortifications were built. The Spandau Citadel is one of the finest examples of this revolution, built in a star-shaped pattern with four protruding bastions designed to create killing zones for infantry storming the walls and preventing them from taking advantage of cover provided by fortresses of old.

Spandau Citadel Berlin Germany

Currently, the Zitadelle Spandau is in retirement, after centuries of service up to and including World War II. It serves multiple purposes now, from being a museum of military history with focus on the Citadel itself, to hosting cultural events like the Citadel Music Festival and numerous concerts in its unique Gothic Hall. Even if none of these interest you, paying a visit to the Citadel is worth it, if only to explore the massive fortress that once protected the town of Spandau. It's a part of the city's rich history and a tangible example of the evolution of military technology.

8)  Berlin Wall Memorial
However, if you are interested in history, there's one often overlooked location you should definitely visit. The Berlin Wall Memorial is an area dedicated to preserving a segment of the Berlin Wall, as a monument to the division of Germany by the Soviet Union and the DDR regime. The wall first began construction in 1961, in order to stop German emigration westward and avert the brain drain that left East Germany deprived of a significant part of its working population. During the construction of the wall, army and militia units were stationed at construction sites with orders to shoot anyone who attempted to cross into West Berlin. When the wall was completed, the borders between East and West Germany officially closed.

Both sides of the Berlin Wall with the "death strip" in between
Berlin Wall Memorial
 By Karen Mardahl (Tourists at the Berlin WallUploaded by Palnatoke) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The wall started as a simple wire fence, later upgraded to an improved one by 1965, then a concrete wall by 1975, and finally the Grenzmauer 75 (Border Wall 75), which was the most sophisticated form of the inner German border. Between two concrete walls a death strip was established, with watchtowers, bunkers, barbed wire, and other security measures intended to prevent escape into West Germany and separate the West from the East. The Berlin Wall Memorial preserves a large segment of this fourth generation Berlin Wall nearly completely intact, giving a glimpse into how life in the shadow of the wall must have felt like.

7)  Checkpoint Charlie
Of course, the isolation of West Berlin was not total. There existed several crossings between the two parts of Berlin, with perhaps the most well known being Checkpoint Charlie. Located at the junction of Zimmerstrasse, Mauerstrasse, and Friedrichstrasse, it became one of the symbols of the division of Germany due to its prominence: it was the most visible of the border crossings. During nearly forty years of its operation, it was the site of numerous events with perhaps the most intriguing being the October 1961 Berlin crisis, when American and Soviet tanks engaged in a standoff at Checkpoint Charlie. Separated by just a hundred meters of open ground, two groups of ten tanks each squared off for one full day, loaded with live munitions. Thanks to nimble political maneuvering by President Kennedy, a crisis was averted.

Checkpoint Charlie Cold War Berlin Germany
 By Hajotthu (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Checkpoint Charlie has been converted into an open air museum of the history of the Berlin Wall and the Checkpoint itself. It's a good starting point for learning more about this period of German history and, more importantly, the history of Berlin during the Cold War. The conversion of the checkpoint into a tourist attraction may be a bit jarring to some, however, and some may prefer the Berlin Wall Memorial mentioned above.

6)  Stasi Museum
One of the most important elements of the communist regime in East Germany was the Ministerium fur Staatssichercheit (Ministry for State Security), commonly referred to as Stasi. Formed in 1950, it was the sword and shield of the ruling party of East Germany. In other words, it was the political police that ensured the security of the regime. Stasi is notable among other security agencies in the Soviet bloc for its extensive focus on infiltration, monitoring, and subterfuge, meant to provide total control over citizens living in East Germany. When Germany was reunified in 1990, the Stasi was one of the first organizations to be torn down. Despite attempts to destroy files amassed during its operation, much of the archives survived, forming the basis for prosecuting Stasi officials for their crimes.

Stasi Museum Berlin Germany
 By Prof.Quatermass (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

After the German population stormed the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin following the reunification, the building was transferred to a non-governmental organization, which converted it into a museum giving a glimpse into the practices of Stasi and life in East Germany. As the East German political police brought the art of surveillance to near perfection, visiting the museum offers a terrifying kind of insight into how the police can (and did) operate in a country controlled by an authoritarian government.

5)  Museum Island
For those that want a broader look at history, Berlin also has plenty to offer. The city's Museum Island is located in the Mitte district on the northern half of an island in the Spree river. The first exhibition hall was erected at this location in 1797 and the island's offering of museums has steadily expanded ever since. Currently, the island is host to five distinct museums that offer some of the richest collections in the world.

The first two are the Altes Museum and the Neues Museum (Old and New Museum respectively), which focus on antiquity, featuring collections of artifacts from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and other significant civilizations of the era. Many of the artifacts displayed in these museums are unique in a global scale, such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The third museum is the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), which hosts a large collection of artworks from the 19th century.

Altes Museum
Altes Museum Museum Island Berlin Germany

The Bode Museum on the northern top of the island compliments the exhibition with its large sculpture collection as well as art from the Byzantine Empire and antiquity. Finally, perhaps the most striking and notable is the Pergamon Museum. Constructed in 1930, it features reconstructions of famous buildings from the history of human civilization, such as the Gates of Ishtar and the Pergamon Altars, built entirely to scale. Note that to truly appreciate what Museum Island has to offer, a single visit is not enough. Be prepared to spend a whole day here and still have plenty to see on future trips.

Bode Museum
Bode Museum Museum Island Berlin Germany

4)  Berliner Dom
Of course, visiting the rest of the Museum Island is highly recommended. One of the most interesting buildings located on it is the Berlin Cathedral. This beautiful place of worship was officially inaugurated in 1905 by the Prussian head of state, Wilhelm II. As Germany was a Protestant country, Wilhelm II also doubled as the head of the state church. The majesty and size of the Berlin Cathedral was deliberate: it was intended to be the Protestant counterpart to the Catholic St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Unlike some landmarks, the Berlin Cathedral suffered greatly during World War II. Allied bombings of the city first destroyed the windows and then set fire to the building, causing the roof to collapse inward.

Berlin Cathedral Berlin Germany

Post-war restoration efforts occurred over the course of several decades, unhindered by the DDR which controlled the island. The reconstruction of the destroyed parts of the building was finalized in 1993, when the newly rebuilt Cathedral was officially re-inaugurated. Currently, the Cathedral is open for visitors and remains one of the finest examples of the Neo-Renaissance style. Even if you aren't interested in church architecture, paying a visit to the Cathedral is worth it due to the gallery located on the church's dome. Located atop a 270 step climb, it offers a panorama of Berlin from yet another angle.

3)  Kulturforum
Of course, for the culture-starved visitor, Berlin has plenty more to offer. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Kulturforum. Located in the center of Berlin, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag, and the Chancellery, the Kulturforum was once the beating cultural heart of West Berlin and continues to be an important cultural and artistic landmark in the city and for good reason: it's host to numerous institutions of culture, including the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), the Museum of Decorative Arts, Berlin Philharmonic, the Berlin State Library and many more.

Kulturforum Berlin Germany

But institutions aren't everything. The Kulturforum is also a very active concert and festival spot, with plenty of different options depending on the time of the year. For example, during the summer months the Kulturforum is host to the Sommerkino: an open-air cinema for up to a thousand guests, playing both blockbusters and classics in the cool Berlin afternoon.

2)  Potsdamer Platz
Located a short walk away from the Kulturforum, Potsdamer Platz is in many ways Berlin's history in a nutshell. What began as an intersection of country roads right outside the city's ring of fortifications became a parade ground, then transformed in the 19th century into a villa district, only to become a large public square in the heart of the rapidly growing city by the second half of the century. This hub of commerce and culture was ruined in the battle of Berlin and then, as if to permanently strike it down, was literally divided in two by the Berlin Wall, becoming the equivalent of an urban ghost town. This status extended to the Potsdamer Platz metro station, which became a well known ghost station.

Potsdamer Platz Berlin Germany

However, with the German reunification in 1990, Potsdamer Platz was brought back from the dead. The square saw extensive redevelopment, becoming Europe's largest building site in the 1990s. More than twenty years later it is once more one of the most important locations in Berlin for finances and shopping. It's certainly worth a visit, if only to see the German equivalent of the London City.

1)  Berlin Zoological Garden
Finally, no visit to Berlin should go without a trip to the most popular zoological garden in Europe. The Berlin Zoo originally opened in 1844 and currently covers over 34 hectares in Berlin's Tiergarten district. Although it was almost entirely destroyed during World War II, with its animal population reduced from nearly four thousand to less than a hundred, it was reconstructed from the ground up with the aim to recreate the natural habitat of animals living there as accurately as possible. Currently, the Berlin Zoo is host to over 1,500 different species of animals and boasts a population of nearly 20,000 animals. It is also notable for its collaboration with schools, universities, and research institutes throughout the world and is one of the most successful institutions participating in protecting endangered species.

Berlin Zoological Garden Berlin Germany
Photo by: Dieter Brügmann

Of course, with such a diverse number of species, it's best to plan your visit to the Berlin Zoo ahead. You can expect a fair amount of other visitors, as the Zoo is Europe's most visited zoological garden, at around 3 million visitors each year. One of the most interesting features of the Berlin Zoo is the aquarium, first built in 1913. It is currently one of the top ranked public aquariums in the world, with one of the most diverse collections of different marine species, including sharks and corals.

Of course, in a city with such a large population and a rich, diverse history, there are plenty of other interesting places to explore, ranging from landmarks that played a prominent role in Germany's long history, to the incredibly rich night life. The German capital has something to offer to everyone, regardless of whether they are aficionados of architecture, connoisseurs of culture, or people visiting to immerse themselves and experience Berlin in general. If you're going to visit, remember that in such a cosmopolitan city English will suffice, but to truly show your appreciation for Germany and its citizens, learn even a few basic phrases in their native language. They like it.





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