1. Historic walks
Though Berliners would rather forget, history is inescapable in the former capital of Prussia and Hitler’s Third Reich. The most important memorials are concentrated within Mitte, the city center, with the Brandenburg Gate, the reconstructed Reichstag, and fragments of the Berlin Wall of Potsdamer Platz all within walking distance of each other. More somber landmarks like the Holocaust Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and the former headquarters of the SS are also close by.
2. The murals of the East Side Gallery
Visitors looking for the original Berlin Wall will find the longest preserved portion of it along the banks of the River Spree in the district of Friedrichshain. In 1990, artists from all over the world transformed the 1.2-kilometer stretch of wall into a virtual canvas with their individual interpretations of Reunification painted onto the concrete.
3. Art-tripping in Museum Island
Few know it, but Berlin is a city of world-class museums. Thankfully for the visitor in a hurry, all the best public museums are located next to each other on an island on the River Spree: the Pergamon Museum and Neues Museum for treasures of Antiquity, and the beautifully reconstructed Alte Nationalgalerie for works of the Modern Masters.
4. Modern architectural tour
Registered historic buildings stand alongside modern glass and steel structures throughout Berlin with the best examples around Potsdamer Platz. Not to miss are Mies van der Rohe’s modernist landmark, the Neue Nationalgalerie; I.M. Pei’s contemporary masterpiece, the German Historical Museum; and the iconic Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind.
5. Gallery hopping
Attracted by the cheap rent and the ultra-liberal atmosphere, artists from all over Germany and Europe have made Berlin their home. Although the city boasts the highest number of galleries in the country, the quality of art on display can be uneven. Surefire hits are the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in a former margarine factory and the Sammlung Boros gallery located in a converted WWII bunker. Berlin’s photography galleries are among the world’s best with the Helmut Newton Museum of Photography and Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work archive at the top of the list.
The term “lost weekend” was probably coined in Berlin—a reference to the non-stop partying from Friday night through Monday morning. Berlin’s techno music scene is unrivalled in Europe and has produced many of the world’s top electronica DJs. A good introduction to the city’s nightlife is at the legendary Berghain club located in a former power plant in Friedrichshain.
7. Trend spotting and shopping
The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and the annual Bread & Butter and Premium fashion fairs prove Berlin’s quick rise up the German fashion stage. German luxury labels like ESCADA and Hugo Boss are making their presence felt in the capital, but it’s the indie fashion scene that is most interesting. Lunettes is famous the world over for its highly original eyewear, while Dandy of the Grotesque is a fancy men’s fashion atelier for—who else—local dandies. For more mainstream luxury brands, the legendary KaDeWe department store in Kurfürstendamm is worth a visit.
8. Vestiges of the socialist past
The tourist belts of the city are lined with souvenir shops selling communist kitsch, but those looking to experience the original Soviet-era East Berlin will find it in the preserved Brutalist architecture and socialist murals of Alexanderplatz and Karl-Marx-Allee.
9. The Berlin philharmonic orchestra
The city is increasingly identified with techno music these days, but its true source of musical fame lies with what is arguably the world’s most revered classical orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Philharmonie is legendary among concert houses for producing the finest acoustics while the eccentric design of the building is itself a modernist masterpiece.
10. Exploring Kreuzberg
This gritty and graffiti-covered neighborhood is still Berlin’s most diverse and dynamic. Great ethnic restaurants and funky shops add to the area’s raw appeal. Catch it before it’s gentrified beyond recognition. (See pages 138-139 for more on Kreuzberg).
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol 7 2012.