Founded in the 13th century, Berlin has had an eventful history. Excavations from 2008 suggest that the city may be even older than was previously assumed: state archaeologists have discovered an oak beam that probably dates back to 1183.
Almost no other metropolis has experienced such frequent, radical change transforming the face of the city. Although Berlin saw steady growth in its importance, dazzling epochs alternated with darker eras. Nevertheless, the formerly divided city has succeeded in becoming a vibrant metropolis in the heart of Europe.
Berlin is best known for its historical associations as the German capital, internationalism and tolerance, lively nightlife, its many cafés, clubs, and bars, street art, and numerous museums, palaces, and other sites of historic interest. Berlin’s architecture is quite varied. Although badly damaged in the final years of World War II and broken apart during the Cold War, Berlin has reconstructed itself greatly, especially with the reunification push after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It is now possible to see representatives of many different historic periods in a short time within the city centre, from a few surviving medieval buildings near Alexanderplatz, to the ultra modern glass and steel structures at Potsdamer Platz. Because of its tumultuous history, Berlin remains a city with many distinctive neighbourhoods.
You can explore Berlin on a traditional sightseeing tour in an open double-decker bus or in smaller buses or taxis. Less common means of transportation are also an option. S-Bahn Berlin GmbH offers special tours in panorama trains with a glass roof, as well as trips in historic S-Bahn trains. Velo-taxis are parked at central locations, ready to take customers on a rickshaw-like ride through Berlin.
Visitors can travel by boat along the 197 kilometers of Berlin’s navigable waterways. Guided tours can be taken on bicycles, on mopeds, and on foot – and the next innovative tour idea is no doubt just around the corner. You can also get to know special aspects of Berlin on tours of historic sites, “Jewish Berlin,” the former course of the Wall, architectural highlights, the homes and workplaces of famous people, and much more.
Berlin’s weekly markets and flea markets invite browsing, as do the Botanical Garden and the grounds of the horticultural exhibition Bundesgartenschau 2001 in nearby Potsdam. Recreation areas and sights in the city and in the surrounding state of Brandenburg are popular destinations for outings, while trade fairs, exhibitions, and congresses attract additional visitors. Berlin’s two zoos are unquestionably among the city’s special attractions: the Zoologischer Garten with the Aquarium and Tierpark Friedrichsfelde. The former is the world’s most diverse zoo, and the latter covers a larger area than any other zoo in Europe.
Berlin is a huge city. You can make use of the excellent bus, tram, train and underground services to get around. Taxi services are also easy to use and a bit less expensive than in many other big Central European cities. You can hail a cab (the yellow light on the top shows the cab is available), or find a taxi rank (Taxistand). Taxi drivers are in general able to speak English. If you ask for a short trip (Kurzstrecke), as long as it’s under 2km and before the taxi driver starts the meter running, the trip normally is cheaper, €4. This only applies if you flag the taxi down on the street, not if you get in at a taxi rank.
The Berlin U-Bahn (subway/metro) is something to behold; it is so charmingly precise! There are no turnstiles to limit access, so it is technically possible to ride without a ticket, but if caught by a ticket checker you will be fined €40 so it is probably not worth the risk. All U-Bahn stations now have electronic signs that give the time of the next train, and its direction based on sensors along the lines.
Berlin has a vast array of museums. Most museums charge admission for people 18 years of age or older – usually €6 to €10 for the big museums. Discounts (usually 50%) are available for students and disabled people with identification. Children under 18 years free. A nice offer for museum addicts is the three day pass Museum Pass for €24 which grants entrance to all the normal exhibitions of the approximately 55 state-run museums and public foundations.
Most museums are closed on Mondays; notable exceptions include the Neues Museum and the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which are open daily. Museumsportal Berlin, a collective web initiative, offers easy access to information on all museums, memorials, castles and collections and on current and upcoming exhibitions.
Other museums which belong to the Museum Island are the Altes Museum (with the Egyptian and the antique collection), the Alte Nationalgalerie (with mainly German paintings of the 19th century) and the reopened Bode-Museum with its fantastically presented sculpture collection and Byzantine art.
The recently reopened Neues Museum houses the Egyptian collection, Neanderthal and other prehistoric archaeological finds, and some of the treasures unearthed at Troy. This is the only museum on Museums Insel that requires a timed entry ticket. It’s best to get a timed ticket online ahead of time as time slots fill up quickly.
Museen Charlottenburg – Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace, Belvedere with Porcelain Manufactory (KPM), Mausoleum, New Pavilion), Museum Berggruen, Bröhan Museum, Museum Scharf-Gerstenberg
Museen Dahlem – in the district of Dahlem three museums are located: Museum of European Cultures – the biggest of its sort in Europe. Ethnologisches Museum – again one of the world’s most comprehensive museums (Well worth a visit for its splendid collection of Pre-Columbian archeology!). Museum of Asian Art .
Deutsches Historisches Museum in the Zeughaus, Mitte, Unter den Linden 2, . German historical museum covering everything from prehistory right up to the present day. One can spend many, many hours here!
Museum für Naturkunde, Mitte, Invalidenstraße 43, . Near the main railway station. Natural science museum with a big collection of dinosaur skeletons, fossils and minerals. Reopened after restoration in late 2007.
Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), Gesundbrunnen/Mitte, Visitor Center: Bernauer Straße 119, Documentation Center: Bernauer Str. 111 – The central memorial site of German division, located in the middle of the capital. – Open-Air Exhibition and Memorial Grounds: All year round Mo. – Su. 8am – 10pm, Visitor Center and Documentation Center: April – Oct.: Tu. – Su. 9:30am – 7:00pm, Nov. – March: Tu. – Su. 9:30am – 6:00pm. The outdoor grounds are open 24 hours a day all year round. Admission free. – Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station S1, S2, S25, Tram M10 – Flyer
Mauermuseum at Checkpoint Charlie . This museum is situated at the most famous historical checkpoint between the two Berlins. Admission: 12,50 EUR.
Story of Berlin Kurfürstendamm 207-208i, close to the Uhlandstraße metro, the last stop on the U1. Museum in the centre of a mall. In addition to the history (including the World Wars), culture, transportation, architecture and an exhibit of life in the city since medieval times, it is unique to feature an authentic cold-war era bunker. The 20 minute tour is included in the cost of the entrance ticket, and is at the top of each hour, alternating in German and English.
Stasi Museum At the northeast corner of Frankfurter Allee and Ruschestraße is a complex of buildings housing hospitals and clinics. In the communist era, all these buildings belonged to the Stasi with their massive apparatus for spying on East German citizens, including opening tens of thousands of pieces of mail every day. Now just one of these buildings is used as museum of the Stasi. It is almost impossible to find from the street address since the number is out of sequence with the rest of the street.
Walk up Ruschestraße from Frankfurther Allee. On the right side of the street, there is a small sign for the Stasi Museum at the entrance to the clinic complex. Walk in and go straight ahead to the far end of the car park.