Berlin’s dramatic past and vibrant present make it a fascinating city. Here are the attractions that should be at the top of your list.
Berlin is one of the hottest cities on the planet right now, with artists and designers flocking for the buzz and creative atmosphere. But much of the city’s fascination still lies in its rich history, with unique attractions old and new.
The Berlin Wall
City authorities destroyed much of the hated Berlin Wall, the infamous barrier thrown up in 1961 to divide East and West Berlin, after the downfall of communist East Germany in 1989. Citizens knocked down most of the rest (keeping portions of it as odd souvenirs). But the remaining segments are poignant lessons in understanding the fraught 20th century history of the city.
At around 1,300 metres, the the East Side Gallery is the longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall: The moving murals painted on it have become an international memorial of freedom. Apps allow you to follow the old route of the Berlin Wall, with commentary on escape attempts and protests at points along the way.
Inevitably featured – usually shrouded in mist – in any film about cold war Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie was a diplomatic crossing point and stage for prisoner swaps between East and West. Now it’s an open-air museum, with a replica of that famous guardhouse (the real one’s indoors at Berlin’s Allied Museum) and the chance to have your photo taken, for a fee, next to actors in period military garb. Sandbags and a copy of the bold-lettered sign saying, “You are leaving the American sector” complete the scene.
Instantly recognisable, this neoclassical structure topped by a goddess in horse-drawn chariot galloping towards the heavens, is an essential Berlin sight for its sheer boldness alone. Yet the Brandenburg Gate also became a potent symbol of the city’s Cold War divide. This was the stage of President Kennedy’s defiant “I am a Berliner” speech in 1963, as well as the classical music concert decades later broadcast to thousands celebrating the fall of the wall. The best time to visit the Brandenburg Gate is when it is lit up at night and looks even more striking.
Germany’s oldest animal collection will be a big hit with kids and anyone else who needs a rest from the high politics of other Berlin attractions. Reputedly the most wide-ranging animal collection on the planet, Berlin Zoo is a Noah’s Ark of 20,000 creatures representing 1,500 species including elephants, orangutans, lions, hippos, gorillas, meerkats and seals. Various feedings take place throughout the day and can be a great experience for all the family. In 2007, one of Berlin Zoo’s inhabitants, Knut the orphaned polar bear, became the focus of an animal rights protest and worldwide media attention.