The confluence of the everywhere-present history and edgy, young arts scene that defines Berlin mean indie shops and backstreet bars are as much of a must-visit as textbook sights and ancient concert halls. Which also means you’re going to be busy. Rent yourself a bike or grab a weekend train ticket to make the most of the city’s varied treats

Sights and attractions

Sights and attractions in Berlin

While it might not be Europe’s most beautiful city, the German capital is certainly not short of resplendent buildings and alluring scenery. The grand Neoclassical buildings of the UNESCO-listed Museum Island – soon to be joined by a rebuilt Royal Palace – and along Unter den Linden recall the city’s Prussian era, and lead to the iconic, and highly photogenic, Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag building. Historical sites range from unflinching WW2 memorials like the sprawling Holocaust Memorial to GDR landmarks such as remnants of the Berlin Wall and the world-famous Checkpoint Charlie where US and Soviet tanks faced each other off at the height of the Cold War.

Art and culture

Art and culture in Berlin

Berlin’s Cold War division meant that museums, galleries and theatres tended to be duplicated on both sides of the wall. Since reunification, these now join together to give a staggering range of cultural offerings, from world-famous establishments like Museum Island and Potsdamer Platz’s Kulturforum to the architecturally striking Jewish Museum and cutting-edge art found within institutions like the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former 19th-century train station. Supplementing the big hitters are a host of private, smaller and quirkier museums such as the Museum of Letters (Buchstaben Museum), plus a range of refined night-time culture in the shape of classical music (Berlin Philharmonie), theatre (Deutsches Theater), opera (Deutsch Oper) and even Weimar-influenced erotic cabaret (Kleine Nachtrevue).

Food and drink

Food and drink in Berlin

Gone are the days when Berlin’s culinary scene was all currywurst and döner kebabs. While cheap eats are still readily available for those on a budget, they’re now joined by an almost dizzying range of affordable niche restaurants and artisanal third-wave coffee shops, mid-range eateries of every conceivable style and cuisine, and a decent number of upscale and fine dining establishments too. There are 20 restaurants with Michelin stars, including established spots like Reinstoff and flashy new upstart Nobelhart & Schmutzig, while street food is represented by weekly events at Prenzlauer Berg’s Kulturbrauerei (Streetfood auf Achse) and Kreuzberg’s Markthalle IX (Street Food Thursday). You won’t have to look far for drinking spots either: the city is awash with discreet, high-end cocktail bars, often accessed by ringing a bell on a door with no sign – try Mitte’s Buck & Breck for some of the classiest drinks in town or Schöneberg’s Stagger Lee for a more swaggering, saloon-style atmosphere. Classic German ales and food – think roasted goose legs and Bavarian macaroni cheese – can be found at traditional spots like Zur Letzten Instanz and Prenzlauer Berg’s Oderquelle.

Shopping

Shopping in Berlin

The best area to get stuck into the city’s thriving boutique fashion scene is Mitte. The streets around Alte Schönhauser Strasse, Mulackstrasse, Münzstrasse and Auguststrasse offer plentiful stores by local fashion and jewellery designers such as Claudia Skoda and Leyla Piedayesh of Lala Berlin fame. For bigger, more upscale shopping, Mitte’s Friedrichstrasse has the glitzy Galeries Lafayette, and the glossy Mall of Berlin on nearby Leipzigerstrasse has over 270 smart stores. Over in West Berlin, the Bikini Berlin concept mall is the place for trendy outlets, the famed Ku’damm is still the most reliable boulevard for big names like Gucci, Armani and Chanel, and the city’s landmark department store, the century-old Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), is a safe bet for both luxury goods and gourmet food.

Unique to Berlin

Unique to Berlin in Berlin

One of the things visitors notice when visiting Berlin is the space; with a population of under four million (low by major European metropolis standards) spread over a vast area, there always seems to be room to breathe. Combined with a laid-back atmosphere that promotes tolerance, creativity and freedom of expression, it’s little wonder people feel immediately comfortable here. This sense of geographical and ideological space is clear in the city’s abundant parks – many of which have been reclaimed from former ‘old Berlin’ sites and transformed into life-filled social spaces. An old WW dumping ground is now Prenzlauer Berg People’s Park primed for jogging and tobogganing, and kitted out with an adventure playground; a former airfield and military base, Johannisthal Air Field, is now a nature reserve; the landscaped Tilla Durieux and HenrietteHerz Parks at Potsdamer Platz were once the no-man’s land between East and West Berlin; Mauerpark – part of the Wall itself – is now a bustling hub for musicians and nightlife; and ex-airport Tempelhofer Park’s runway is now a track for roller skaters and cyclists. Green spaces are forever popping up where once there was wasteland – a testament to the city’s vibe.

Day trip

Day trip in Berlin

Although not many visitors realise it immediately, Berlin is ringed by scenic lakes – enough, in fact, for the regional authorities to have created a special 66-lake trail that runs right through the surrounding landscape. In summer, many of these can be accessed via bike or a trip on the city’s efficient S-Bahn railway; all that’s required is a picnic and swimming gear. Other recommended day trips include a visit to the sombre but significant Sachsenhausen concentration camp, or the palaces and gardens of the charming city of Potsdam.

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