Not sure where to start in the German capital? Get around with our guide to the absolute best things to do in Berlin
There’s a heck of a lot to get done in Berlin, so strap yourself in and get ready to make plans. Few European cities come with as much modern history and cultural diversity as the German capital, after all, and visitors flock here for everything from a mad weekend of partying to week-long forays into the tumult of the 20th century. Deciding what the best things to do in Berlin are will depend on what it is you want, but there are always going to be some experiences that are as must-do as it gets.
Berlin is a bucket list city by definition, and there is a bucket list of attractions waiting within. Making a plan of some sort is an absolute necessity, as these sights stretch from one side of the city to the other. Nobody said Berlin was going to be easy, did they? Berlin is a city that requires some work, and that is no bad thing, so take this guide to the best things to do and get planning already. You won’t regret it.
This neo-Baroque edifice housing the German Bundestag (Parliament) survived wars, Nazis, fire, bombing and the country’s division, only to return as a symbol of a new era in German politics. A trip to the top of this open, playful and defiantly democratic space, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is a must, but note that you can’t just rock up anymore: you must now book in advance by filling in an online form at visite.bundestag.de, including three possible time slots you can make, at least three working days in advance.
Founded in 1951, the Berlinale (officially called the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin) is the world’s most popular film festival in terms of sheer numbers in attendance. A major fixture on the global cultural calendar, it sees Potsdamer Platz transformed into a glittering stage that plays host to major film-industry names each February. Screenings also take place in other areas of the city, including Alexanderplatz, at the Zoo Palast cinema in Tiergarten and in a renovated crematorium (silent green Kulturquartier) in Wedding.
Make like a Berliner and stretch your legs with a stroll, jog or cycle through the city’s most famous park, which comes into its own during spring and summer. Whether you’re hunting famous monuments, a beer and a sausage, or a spot to sunbathe naked, you’ll find what you’re looking for. This 5km (three-mile) circuit will return you to your starting point ready for your next adventure within an hour or so. Don’t worry if you get lost – the park is full of maps with ‘you are here’ markers.
Germany is the world capital of avant-garde theatre, and the most renowned of its many, many lavishly state-funded theatres is the striking Schaübuhne am Lehniner Platz. A former cinema – built in 1928 in a Bauhaus style – it became home to the radical Schaübuhne ensemble in the late ’70s and has been run since 1999 by influential director Thomas Ostermeier. The Schaübuhne plays host to first-rate leftfield names from Germany and beyond – Switzerland’s Milo Rau and Britain’s Katie Mitchell are notable regulars. As with most German theatres, it operates a rep system, with productions from years back frequently popping back into circulation – Ostermeier’s gloriously anarchic 2008 ‘Hamlet’ is a regularly-revived oldie well worth catching. Performances are mostly in German, but every month a solid smattering are surtitled in English or French.
5. Explore Berlin by bike
Cycling through Berlin with the wind in your hair is an experience not to be missed. Flat, with lots of clear routes, parks and canal paths, the city is best explored by bike. That said, caution is required. Cobbles, tram lines, aimless pedestrians, other cyclists and careless drivers all pose hazards. Few locals wear helmets, but you’d be wise to get your hands on one, especially if you’re used to riding on the left.
6. Brunch at Isla
In recent years, Berliners have slammed down their forks and demanded more for breakfast than the traditional cold cuts and bread with jam. Brunch may have taken off, making way for some mouth-watering hangover cures, but that doesn’t mean that every café serving avocado toast is worth your while. Try Isla in Neukölln for a gorgeous breakfast with a good conscience (the cafe aims for zero waste and uses seasonal, sustainably sourced ingredients) or the rightfully-hyped Rocket + Basil in Tiergarten.
Famous for its Nazi and Cold War history, Tempelhof airport ceased operation in 2008. Now you can stroll down the runways where Second World War Stuka dive-bombers took off and where, during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 after the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, the Western Powers dropped supplies for the city’s 2.5 million residents in one of the greatest feats in aviation history. Today, the 368-hectare open space of runways and grasslands is much enjoyed by walkers, kite-surfers, cyclists, runners, skaters and goshawks. There are designated sections for dogs to run free, basketball courts, a baseball field, beer gardens and even small allotments where Berliners can grow their own veg.
8. Markthalle IX
During the late-19th century, 14 municipal covered markets were opened to replace traditional outdoor ones and improve hygiene standards. Local residents saved this one from closure in 2009, filling it with stalls serving locally sourced veg and meats. It’s also home to the excellent Heidenpeters microbrewery and the Sironi bakery from Milan. The themed events, including the hugely popular Street Food Thursday, do get crowded but are well worth the trip.
9. Brandenburg lakes
Brandenburg, the north-eastern state surrounding Berlin, is known as the land of 3,000 lakes. Starkly beautiful in winter and especially appealing in the warmer months, many lakes are easily accessible by public transport and each has its own character. While some may be better for swimming and others for sunbathing, you’ll certainly be able to find one that’s right for you (just like the locals). Such idyllic scenes offer the perfect antidote to a hard night’s partying in the centre.
Mauerpark is one of the biggest and busiest Sunday flea markets in Berlin, selling everything from clothes by local designers to cardboard boxes brimming with black-market CDs. Even if the market’s massive popularity means prices keep creeping up, you can still stumble upon rare records and eye-catching vintage clothes. It’s also the venue for the immensely popular weekly outdoor singing session, Bearpit Karaoke. Thousands flock to the mobile soundsystem, the brainchild of karaoke courier Joe Hatchiban, to have a go on summer Sundays.