To mark my husband's recent milestone birthday, we made last-minute plans to dash off to an urban destination for a few days over winter break - without our two kids. After searching through loads of flight and fare options, we settled on the German capital of Berlin.
My husband and I love exploring the great cities of the world and Berlin definitely fits the bill. I spent less than 24 hours there with my sister back in 2004. My husband had never been anywhere in Germany. So, it was the place we settled on to get lost in the city's streets, neighborhoods and culture and explore as much of it as possible - in just under three days time.
Our somewhat impromptu plans didn't leave us with much time to digest travel tips in guidebooks, websites and blogs. So, we winged it a bit - to put it mildly. But, I'm glad to say we managed to hit the highlights of Berlin - and then some - in our short time in the European city. Of course, we couldn't do it all. But, that's okay. That's just one more reason to try to go back again soon - with our kids, too.
To help capture our trip's highlights, here is a look at our list of the top 12 sites to see, experience and explore in Berlin during a whirlwind weekend there - or longer if you have the luxury of more time.
1. Reichstag Dome
A few days before we left town, our friends shared one Berlin must-do with us - a trip up to the dome at the top of the Reichstag. The building is part of the Band des Bundes (Ribbon of Federal Buildings), and houses the German parliament. Its top features a glass-enclosed dome you can circle your way up and up to absorb magnificent views of the city.
We went at sunset on our first day in Berlin which made for fantastic photo opportunities, and helped us see how different parts of the expansive city fit together. From the top of the dome it was easy to see and appreciate two of Berlin's most iconic sights - the Brandenburg Gate (see below) and the TV Tower. And, it helped show us we could quickly make it to the Holocaust Memorial (see below) before it got engulfed in darkness.
It's free to go up to the top of the Reichstag. Just be sure you make a reservation before you go (online or at the kiosk across the street) - or you'll be turned away at the door.
2. Brandenburg Gate
Just a short walk from the Reichstag is the Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical royal city gate that is now a symbol of a reunited Germany. The majestic gate is simply breathtaking, and is best approached by walking up the grand Unter den Linden - a boulevard lined with museums, stores, hotels and restaurants. The Brandenburg Gate is located on the Pariser Platz, flanked by the American, French and British embassies. We enjoyed a view of the landmark during the day and also at night when it appeared to glow against the dark Berlin sky.
Today, Berliners come together to enjoy festivals around the Brandenberg Gate in the Pariser Platz. When we were there, the city was busy setting up for a New Year's Eve celebration that would herald in 2014 in grand style befitting its location and its city.
With a tourist office in its south wing, the Brandenburg Gate is a convenient spot to pick up maps and souvenirs of Berlin - and get any helpful advice you need before continuing on your exploration of the city.
3. Holocaust Memorial
It's hard to put into word the emotions I experienced as we descended into the dark, claustrophobic-inducing depths of the Holocaust Memorial's Field of Stelae designed by Peter Eisenman. The memorial, completed in 2005, honors and remembers the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It was under construction when I was last in Berlin with my sister so it was amazing to now be able to see the completed memorial.
Visitors are encouraged to wander into the memorial's maze of undulating concrete columns as a way to reflect upon the horrors experienced by Jews and others. There is little signage, allowing you to experience it in your own personal way.
To me, its location at the heart of the business and governmental district of the city is apropos and will hopefully enable all of us to never forget.
4. East Side Gallery
You can get a sense for the old and new of Berlin at the East Side Gallery - a 1.3 km stretch of the former Berlin Wall. This piece of history is now adorned with art that translates the emotions associated with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and unification of a once-divided city as told by an international group of commissioned artists.
A visit to the East Side Gallery gives you a sense of the emotional and physical height and weight of the Berlin Wall and provides a modern-day glimpse at how the city has moved on as a united city. It's worth strolling along the wall to see as much of it as possible - and even the street art that adorns nearby buildings.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, you can get a taste of Turkey at the Turkenmarket set along the bank of the Mayback between the Neukolln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods. To find the market, just follow the streams of people and families trailing empty shopping carts with them, anxious to fill them up with fresh produce, breads, spices and more.
A stroll through the ambling market offers a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells, and is the perfect place to grab all of the fixings for a quick lunch along the canal. You can easily grab bread, a wide variety of creamy spreads and even boiled corn. It's worth a trip there to escape to Turkey - without leaving Berlin. And, for me, I was glad to go there to see one whole stand dedicated to all things black licorice!
My husband and I love European department stores. For us, the grand, sprawling stores give you a unique look at the trends, fashions, foods and way of life of locals. And, that is definitely the case with Berlin's KaDeWe. The crowning glory of the department store is the gourmet food hall on the store's top floors packed with multiple dining areas and a food market.
KaDeWe, which looms above the Wittenbergplatz U-Bahn station, is a great place to start your walk along Kurfurstendamm. Just past KaDeWe is Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche, a bombed-out church tower that serves as yet another reminder of the impact of war on Berlin. From there, you can wander down Kurfurstendamm and shop until you drop - or need a beer and bretzel to pick you up a bit.
7. Hackesche Hofe
On our second night in Berlin, my husband and I stumbled upon an interconnected labyrinth of graffiti-adorned courtyards laced with stores, cafes and small movie theaters. One pathway into one courtyard led to another courtyard and then on to another one. Before we knew it, we had seemingly fallen into the depths of a shopping and cultural find - just blocks from our hotel.
The Hackesche Hofe in the Scheunenviertel neighborhood is just one example of the many courtyards - or hidden treasures - found throughout Berlin. The courtyards (or hofes) are a nod to the growth of Berlin as a vibrant urban city. A walk into one is just another way to glimpse a look at Berlin's history and its role in shaping modern day life in the vibrant city.
As you make your way through Hackesche Hofe, try to navigate your way towards Court V and the Ampelmann Galerie. The store, one of several found in Berlin, offers a wide range of gift items that pay homage to Ampelmann - the bright, red or green fellow that adorns East German pedestrian traffic lights. The Ampelmann - like Hofes - have become a much adored symbol of a thriving, united Berlin.
When I met my sister in Berlin during my first trip there, she took me straight to Prater in Prenzlauer Berg. Prater is Berlin's oldest beer garden, and boasts a fantastic beer garden from April through September. But, that doesn't mean you shouldn't go to Prater in the winter. In fact, it's the perfect excuse to head indoors to grab a seat at their expansive bar, order a .5 l or 1 l mug of beer, sit back, relax and be ready to enjoy yourself.
The non-touristy, slightly off-the-beaten path beer hall, offered us a look at German family life in Berlin. We saw large groups of families crowded around wide wooden tables, and little kids circling their family's table again and again. It was easy for us to get caught up in the casual yet lively vibe of Prater, and we found it hard to work up the energy to leave our bar stools to venture back out into Berlin.
9. Mauerpark Flea Market
If you happen to be in Berlin on a Sunday, you can do as the Berliners do and head to the Mauerpark Flea Market. You can easily get lost in the web of stalls throughout the large market, and spend hours hunting for treasures and souvenirs alike. The market is dotted with waffle stands, beer gardens and coffee shops, all offering you the necessary sustenance to keep on shopping and exploring to your hearts content.
A visit to the Mauerpark Flea Market makes for the perfect start to another day exploring Berlin. It's located at the base of Fredrich Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark, home to the German Association Football Club's FC Union Berlin and Türkiyemspor Berlin teams. The stadium is flanked by another graffiti-decorated part of the old Berlin Wall that used to divide Mauerpark.
Located near Oderberger Strasse, the market is a great launching point for additional exploring of the quaint and charming section of the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.
From Oderberger Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg, it's easy to make your way to Kulturbrauerei on Schonhauser Alle. The large 19th century brewery is a site to behold in and of itself. It's red and yellow brick walls and meandering courtyards provide a look at life at a time when the brewery was in use. Today, the 270,000-square-foot building complex is home to concert halls, theaters, cinemas, galleries, nightclubs and restaurants. For us, it offered us a scenic spot to take a break from our morning journey and try to imagine life as lived by true Berliners.
When we were there, we saw preparations underway for a large outdoor celebration in the courtyard. Be sure to check ahead to see if you can join in on any planned events during your stay in Berlin.
Not far from the stretch of Unter den Linden that leads to the Reichstag is the Gendarmenmarket. The grand square is weighted by a German cathedral on one end and a French cathedral on the other one. When we were there, it also was the site of one of the many Christmas markets we happily stumbled upon during our time in Berlin.
From the Gendarmenmarkt, you can easily make your way to the renowned Fassbender & Rausch chocolate shop and cafe. You can easily get lost in the chocolate wonders packed into the shop. It's worth a step in to pick up a few souvenirs (and a tasty treat for yourself, too), and also see many of Berlin's famous sites - made out of chocolate.
Also located near the Gendarmenmarkt is Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt, which is billed as Berlin's first authentic Bavarian beer hall. It's a great spot to grab a candlelit table and enjoy an Augustiner brew - with a hot pretzel and mustard, too.
Alexanderplatz is a blossoming square in East Berlin, which was turned into a pedestrian zone and enlarged by the German Democratic Republic. Today, Alexanderplatz is lined with shops, restaurants, and a mall. It also offers postcard-worthy views of Berlin's famous TV Tower, which hovers above the crowded city streets capturing your attention in the day and at night, and is host to the World Time Clock, which shows the time around the world.
When we were there, Alexanderplatz was home to a super-charged Christmas market with food stalls, cozy spots to enjoy the sweet-scented and strong-flavored gluhwein, and a tall sledding hill.
Have you been to Berlin? If so, what are your favorites sites to see in the German capital? What other sites would you add to this list?
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