In our latest blog post, Berlin Experiences founder Matt Robinson takes a look at things to do in Berlin in 2020. A selection of ten essential recommendations of how to spend your time in the Berlin capital – a guide’s guide to making your trip memorable and avoiding the pitfalls of modern tourism.
You could say I have been very fortunate in my occupation as a professional guide in Berlin; the way anyone who has transformed what could be a hobby into rewarding work.
There are certainly far worse things in life than being able to sustain yourself by exploring places and introducing them to other people.
The professional curiosity that I have indulged in since arriving in the city 15 years ago has left me understandably hesitant to dish out cookie cutter recommendations to visitors – but better prepared to make genuine suggestions of how to experience the authentic and truly transcending.
This list of things to do in Berlin in 2020 is about helping you fast-track your arrival in the city – and cut through the emotional red-tape of navigating an intimidating cornucopia of options. The kind that any new city provides. But especially Berlin; due to its sheer size and historical significance.
Forget the hop-on/doze-off approach to discovering the city and cannonball into the deep end. Whether you are in Berlin for a day, a few days, or end up here indefinitely (intentional or not), there are a few important things that take pride of place in any list of absolute must-see, must-do, and must-experience things in the German capital.
And here they are:
1. Take a guided tour - public, private, or free
Cheap plug or not – there is a reason why this is number one.
Wandering aimlessly through the streets of a city inevitably provides its own reward. Use your head. Let the smells, and sounds, of the cityscape lead you towards (and away) from undiscovered territory. Hesitantly step into that hole in the wall restaurant and feel the glory of knowing you have found something that feels unique – and revealed just to you.
The modern explorer’s dream. On your own time – where every mistake can be an unexpected success.
Whichever adjectives you use to describe that secret location you found on Google Maps, it will always be yours – even though it really isn’t. However you want to justify the great food you stumbled across as being amazing – there is a high likelihood it won’t be (sadly, if you’re exploring Berlin anyway). Sometimes getting lost and finding your orientation is the point of the game.
But regardless of the situation – context is everything. Live frivolously in the realm of bitesized Instagram stories – and the recommendations you received from the time a work colleague arrived in the city and got lost – might get you far. But not deep.
Berlin is a city of such historical importance that it is impossible to overstate its significance as both stage and actor in local and international calamity and triumph – simply over the last 100 years. From its time in the so-called ‘sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’ through the Prussian Hohenzollern and Imperial German era, to the abyss of National Socialism, post-war division and eventual reunification. This city has greatness – and chaos – in its veins.
It is also home to some of the best guides – streetside poets and blustering commentators – you will ever encounter. Whether plying their trade for one of the many public tour companies (Insider Tour, Sandeman’s New Europe, Original Berlin Walks, Vive Berlin, Brewer’s Berlin Tours) or out and about with clients in a more intimate private capacity. These are the people who can condense, refine, and regurgitate historical analysis at will. Point out tourist traps, while steering you clear of food poisoning rackets and disappointing watering holes.
Simply put, they can get you where you want to go – where you never knew you needed to be.
How many times I’ve drawn circles on maps and crossed out buildings, like a town planner carving up property by rating. Walked away from a day’s work with a round of applause and shaking off the sounds of being summed up as a ‘walking Wikipedia’. The guide is more than that; a single serving friend, a show man or woman, and a compass pointing to a better path (trodden or not).
Of course, I’m going to mention my company Berlin Experiences, why would I not? But also consider visiting the Berlin Guides Association site – from there you can contact more than one hundred of the best professional private guides in Berlin. Colourful characters from all walks of life, who have embraced the tradition of sharing knowledge and cutting through the crap (talking Tacheles as we say in Berlin).
As any dedicated traveller knows, every journey can be vastly improved when embarked upon with a worthy navigator.
2. Celebrate the anniversaries - 1945/1990/2020
Anniversaries are very important in Germany; significantly more so in Berlin, as the nation’s capital. And divided into two distinct categories: celebrations and commemorations. The later the term used to describe the remembrance of events that deserve no celebration – of which there are many in Berlin’s chequered past – but is undertaken for the sake of the victims and voiceless.
This year is something of a rare occasion, as there are two important anniversaries that deserve much celebration. The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (VE – Day) and the 30th anniversary of German reunification.
The Battle of Berlin raged from April 16th to May 2nd – 75 years ago this year.
You can expect a rather subdued response from the city on May 2nd – the 75th anniversary of the capitulation of Berlin, as the capital of Nazi Germany. However, on May 8th, there will be a huge public celebration at Treptower Park – the site of the largest Soviet War Memorial in Europe – often titled “Wer nicht feiert hat verloren” (Whoever doesn’t celebrate is a loser). The more official ceremony will take place in Karlshorst, the site of the engineering school where the actual capitulation took place in 1945.
October 3rd is usually slated as a public holiday in Germany, as the date of the reunification of the country in 1990 (Tag der Deutschen Einheit). This year the 3rd falls on a Saturday, so that doesn’t really matter anyway. But expect a major celebration on Berlin’s Strasse des 17. Juni (the street on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate) – although the official ceremony this year to take place in nearby Potsdam (the capital of the former eastern state of Brandenburg). The official celebrations take place in a different city each year, with this year set for Berlin’s adjacent sister city.
Germany was officially reunited at 00:00 CEST on October 3rd 1990 when East Germany joined the (West German) Federal Republic as the five Länder (states) of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia.
Importantly don’t forget that at the same time, Berlin was also officially reunified – and no longer stood divided into East and West. Something we are certain is worth celebrating.
3. Eat German food (and try the beer)
Ask most people the first thing they think of when hearing ‘German food’ and the answer would most likely be either ‘sausages’ or ‘pork knuckle’. Of course, Berlin does both. But ever the contrarian, the city does not quite adhere to the classic concept of ‘traditional German fare’ – for two reasons, its legacy as the capital of Prussia, and the periods of scarcity it has endured that have come to define its cuisine.
Think sausages and you’re probably thinking Thüringen, with its trademark Bratwurst – served clasped in a small bread bun. Think pork knuckle and you should be looking further south to Bavaria, and the oven-roast medieval-sized crispy Haxe. Think schnitzel and you should be aiming even further south to Austria, or Italy for the Milanese.
- Sausage in Berlin inevitably means Currywurst – the ersatz ketchup covered snack rumoured to have been invented in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War by Wahlberlinerin (Berliner by choice) and street seller named Herta Heuwer.
- Pork knuckle also comes in a Prussian variation as the Eisbein – so named as local children would take the bone from the pork and use it as an ice skate once the meat had been stripped. Unlike its distant Bavarian cousin, the Berliner Eisbein is boiled and pickled and served with pease pudding, or mashed potato and mushy peas. A relic of the city’s Prussian past.
If you are looking for regional delicacies; make sure to try the legendary Spreewalder Gurkins, the Teltower Turnips, and White Asparagus from Beelitz. Strawberry season arrives in the summer, enforce, with little red huts set up across the city by super-seller Karls. Don’t be dissuaded by their omnipresence, they are truly delicious.
Perhaps we could also include the humble Döner Kebab on this list of regional delicacies, as it is rumoured to have been invented by a Turkish immigrant to the city in the 1970s (the big names here being Hasir and Mustafas Gemuse Kebap in Kreuzberg. But there is no shortage of kebab in Berlin…).
Whether it is local cuisine or the general German fare you’re interested in indulging in; there are plenty of big names in the city to choose from – but plenty of disappointments. Whatever you do, steer clear of Hofbrauhaus (a branch of the Bavarian establishment housed in a former electronics superstore) – if you’re looking for traditional Bavarian food, head to Maximilians off Friedrichstrasse instead. Marjellchen in Charlottenburg is the undisputed winner in Prussian cuisine (make sure to try the Königsberger Klopse – Prussian meatballs in capers sauce). Witty’s Imbiss will satisfy your need for Currywurst (and it’s all organic), or the famous Curry36 in the West, the iconic Konnopke’s Imbiss under the U2 train line at Eberswalderstrasse (started by a Herr Konnopke who made the money to open his first store selling sausages at the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremburg) For a little Eastern flair head to the Ketwurst stand at Schoenhauser Allee (an East German equivilant to Currywurst dreamed up by a politburo think tank).
Former French leader Charles de Gaulle once famously complained about the impossibility of governing a country with 246 different kinds of cheese.
He could have just as easily been talking about Germany, and its preference for different beers. High on many people’s list of things to do in Berlin has to be sampling the local watering holes. Rather than the more cliché southern (see Bavarian) preference for beer halls, drinking preference in Berlin is defined by the the proliferation of Kneipen (pubs) – and the smokier the better. Many bars still have a smoking policy, despite there being no smoking laws in the city.
A great place to get an introduction to the beer scene in Berlin is Brauhaus Lemke (now a chain across the city, formerly a microbrewery that has taken off in a big way).
4. Dive into the museums
This is an easy one.
It is hardly possible to mention museums in Berlin without referring to the slogan dreamed up by the Berlin tourism board – ‘the city with more museums than rainy days in the year’. Certainly true of the last decade – with around 100 days with precipitation each year – in comparison to more than 180 museums in the city.
While we are playing a numbers game;
- Berlin also has more museums than it has McDonalds.
- It has more museums than it has Starbucks.
- In-fact, the German capital has more museums than it does McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Dunkin Donuts combined. (See 20 Starbucks, 20 McDonalds, 14 KFC, 20 Burger King, 2 Pizza Hut, 13 Dunkin Donuts).
Of course, none of this means anything. Go visit the individual museums themselves and you’ll see what makes them great.
Walk through the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum and enter ancient Babylon in modern Berlin.
Admire the partially restored Neues Museum, also on the UNESCO World Heritage listed Museumsinsel, with its visible shrapnel damage from WWII – and world renowned showpiece, the bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
Get up close and personal with Ronald Reagan’s chainsaw in the fascinating, if not also chaotic, Checkpoint Charlie Museum while reading about the awe inspiring escapes that took place in Cold War Berlin as East Germans fled West.
Step inside Stasi chief, Erich Mielke’s, personal office at the former headquarters of the East Germans secret police, now open to the public as the Stasi Museum.
Delve into Germany’s darkest chapter at the Topography of Terror exhibit, housed on the former grounds of the SS/Gestapo headquarters, once home to Hitler’s feared secret police and the architects of the Holocaust.
Learn about one of the country’s most influential female artists at the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum in West Berlin.
Sit in a former US Army Cinema before gazing into an original Cold War spy tunnel at the Allied Museum.
Trace the history of video games at the quirky Computer Game Museum.
If you want to start your day with a bowl of surreal, why not head to the Dali Museum?
To learn more, have a look at our top ten Berlin museums to visit.
5. Immerse yourself in Berlin's legendary nightlife
Whether you like the heat or not, when passing through hell, you have to give the devil his due.
Berlin is a city that has always been defined by its excesses.
Whether that be political extremes, or hedonistic (and more nihilistic) indulgences. From the cocaine fuelled fervour and sexual liberation of the Weimar Republic to the Cold War West’s special status as a refuge for beatniks, poets, anarchists, and artists looking to escape the mandatory military service of the Federal Republic. Through the individualist reflections and revelations in the rubble of the ‘New East’ in the 1990s as the frontier of introspection extended into abandoned power stations, converted departments store basements, revamped dairy buildings, and decrepit telephone exchanges.
Over the last three decades, since reunification, Berlin has generally remained relatively cheap – defined by its affordable rents – enabling the kind of Freizeit misbehaviour that comes without the buzzkill of hard labour.
Rather than the work hard/party hard cliche of a more financially demanding city, Berlin has grown to symbolise the pinnacle of drop out/work little/party often culture. Where the outsider is insider, and you can belong just by being different.
Decades of oppression and near totalitarian rule have left their mark on the city in a unique way. That the defining aspect of this city is its tolerance (and disinterest) – visible as it is in all aspects of the city’s identity – but especially after sunset.
Do whatever you want and be whomever you want to be, as long as you are not hurting anyone else.
Although many drugs remain illegal, these laws are often visibly flaunted and without real threat of consequence. Prostitution remains legal in Berlin, as it does throughout the rest of the country. This laissez faire social attitude has come to define the city’s nightlife – where clubs stay open longer and get busy later than most other cities would ever dream of. Where bars stay open until the last person leaves.
The triangulation of the Berlin-Chicago-Detroit techno scene in the 1990s left the German capital with a wealth of internationally renowned locations, varying in size and seriousness. From the industrial techno temple of Tresor (set in an abandoned power plant spanning 22,000m² on Köpenicker Straße) to the world-famous Berghain (known as much for its daunting door policy, as it is for its fantastic location, sound systems and unique atmosphere). The gritty About Blank at Ostkreuz S-bahnhof and nearby Salon Zur Wilde Renate. The club turned venue, Prince Charles, in the piano maker Bechstein’s former employee swimming pool. For a more relaxed atmosphere by the water head to Club der Visionaere or Badeschiff in Kreuzberg.
Sadly the city’s nightlife is under substantial threat from more mainstream forms of entertainment (not Netflix and Chill) such as the much-hated Mediaspree development project that arrived in the districts of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg in the late 2000s. With Universal Music, MTV, and many more big names choosing to make Berlin home – to the detriment of the city’s more locally prized establishments and artforms (fetish clubs, techno venues, repurposed buildings complete with nooks and crannies and questionable adherence to fire safety codes).
As mentioned in another entry above, Berliners tend to gravitate more towards small Eckkneipen (corner pubs) than beer gardens and ritzy schickimicki nightclubs. Starting off the evening in a smokey Berlin equivalent of a dive bar before crawling into one of the city’s trademark brooding techno venues wouldn’t be the least traditional option.
The more low-key adventurers might want to consider heading to places like ORA in Kreuzberg (a converted pharmacy), the rooftop Klunkerkranich in Neukölln (on top of a multi story car park), or crash out on the creaking furniture Mein Haus am See.
6. Sunday Flea marketing
For a city of non-believers, Berliners can be rather active on Sunday mornings. Either heading to a club following a preparatory disco nap, or one of the city’s many Flohmärkte (Flea Markets) – a feature almost exclusively reserved for the last day of the weekend (or the first day of the week, depending how you look at it).
Be warned: despite being a majority non-religious city, Berlin does still mostly shut down on Sundays – supermarkets are closed (except in train stations and don’t go there unless you’re desperate for a mob fight), clothes stores and business remain out of action – only restaurants and cafes are prepared to open their doors.
Don’t fret, if it is frivolous consumerism that you’re looking for (like picking up that second-hand jumper you didn’t know you need, or trying to fit a handmade oak coffee table into your hand luggage) the city junk jumble sales are here to the rescue. And if you’re hungry, most also double up as street food truck locations.
Top of any list would be Mauerpark – the most famous flea market in the city, located in the former ‘death strip’ of the Berlin Wall between Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding. Catch the U2 to Eberswalderstrasse station and you’ll see the crowds pouring out of the train towards the market, where you’ll find space funk bands, ‘bear pit karaoke’, vintage clothes, vinyl records, and a plant nursery. The carnival-like atmosphere is best experienced in the warmer summer months when the mass of visitors extends out onto the field adjacent to the market – to mingle with the families BBQ-ing and buskers busking.
The Sunday flea market at Boxhagener Platz can be a mixed bag – but is a good starting point for exploring the Friedrichshain neighbourhood for hipster coffee and brunch spots. Rathaus Schöneberg, the site of John F. Kennedy’s famous words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, plays host to one of the oldest markets in the city on both Saturday and Sunday. Similarly you can find an antique market – the self-proclaimed “original flea market” (Der Original Berliner Trödelmarkt) – on Strasse 17. Juni next to the Tiergarten train station, every Saturday and Sunday. Popular with celebrities and anyone looking for an authentic fur coat.
For questionable (see: possibly illegal) war memorabilia and East German trinkets, try the Ostbahnhof market. For something a little more civilised, there is always the Berliner Kunstmarket next to the Bodemuseum in Berlin’s central Mitte district, if you’re looking for books, vinyl records, or beer mugs.
7. Get a view above the city
Unlike other major cities around the world, Berlin is hardly defined by its skyline.
With the sole exception of the Fernsehturm – the TV Tower – the Berlin skyline is relatively subdued. Few skyscrapers, few high rise apartment blocks, and thus also relatively little obscuring your view of the city and its scattered landmarks should you choose to get above it.
There are various viewpoints across Berlin that offer you the opportunity to get the bird’s eye perspective. The most famous – and most popular – being the Reichstag building.
The German lower parliament building is the second most popular tourist attraction in the country (second to Köln Cathedral) and particularly popular with visitors looking to scale the glass cupola adorning the roof – added in 1999 by British architect Lord Norman Foster. The ramp inside the cupola allows visitors to walk around the interior in a counter-clockwise motion, armed with a free audio headset that triggers automatically at certain points along the pathway. From here you can see the nearby Brandenburg Gate, the surrounding government quarter, and the River Spree as it flows from Friedrichstraße station towards the Hauptbahnhof on the east side of the building.
For a less touristy experience, head to Potsdamer Platz and the Kohlhoff Tower where you’ll find the Panorama Punkt – and the opportunity to ride the fastest lift in Europe (number 12 on our list of 55 things you should know before visiting Berlin). Once you reach the 24th floor, you can climb the stairs one floor higher to the open roof of the 25th floor and get an amazing view across west Berlin – as far as the distant Teufelsberg CIA/NSA listening station, and into former East Berlin where the Berliner Dom on Museumsinsel, the towers of the French and German churches at Gendarmenmarkt, and perhaps most importantly the grey stelae of the Holocaust Memorial can be seen from a unique perspective. Make sure also to visit the cafe on the west side (one of my favourite places to experience the sunset in Berlin).
For a more expensive option, head to the Fernsehturm for what critics say is the best view of the city (as you don’t have to look at the TV Tower). It is certainly the highest, at 204m from the viewing platform you can see the dip of the horizon and a commanding view across the entire city. The rotating restaurant contained inside the disco ball also boasts of being the highest eatery in the city. Make sure to book well in advance though if you’re looking to get a window seat.
8. Visit the zoo
At 175 years young, this year, the Berlin Zoo in the west of the city is Germany’s oldest zoological garden and home to the most diverse selection of species in the world. Around 20,000 animals spread out over a 33 hectare plot; next to the aptly named Zoologischer Garten train station.
Of the famous inhabitants here, none are more popular now than the Chinese pandas, including two recently born in captivity to their Berlin resident parents, who have been on loan since 2017.
The German government has been renting parents Meng Meng (which means Sweet Dream) and Jiao Qing – who is the cubs’ father – from the Chinese government for €1m (£900,000) a year, in an example of what has been called ‘Panda Diplomacy’. The agreement is valid for 15 years but means any newborns can be returned to China within the first 4 years of life.
Pit and Paule were finally revealed to the world in January 2020 after being nursed in relative secrecy for the first four months of their lives.
Despite calls from tabloid newspaper BILD that the pair should be named ‘Hong’ and ‘Kong’ – or from Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong that they should be named ‘Freedom’ and ‘Democracy’ so that in four years Freedom and Democracy can be sent to China – the cubs finally received traditional Chinese names. Pit is actually called Meng Xiang (“long-awaited dream”) and younger brother Paule is also known as Meng Yuan (“dream come true”).
The presence of their parents Meng Meng and Jiao Qing has already seen the Berlin Zoo reach a record 5 million visitors last year, so expect a bamboo-zlingly busy 2020.
Although careful not to get too distracted by the crowds – as the other star attraction certainly is the lovely Fatou, the oldest gorilla in the world – who arrived in 1959 from Marseille, France after being traded for alcohol by a sailor in a bar. Crazy story.
Fatou’s birthday is celebrated every year on April 13th – this year she will be 63 years old.
9. Spend the day in Potsdam
A relaxing 45-minute train ride from central Berlin, Potsdam is certainly worth a visit any year but especially in 2020. As the Cecilienhof Palace has been renovated to include a new exhibition for the 75th anniversary of the Potsdam Conference. This major historical event, in 1945, saw US President Harry S. Truman, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (replaced half-way with Clement Attlee) meeting to decide the fate of Europe, and the world, at the end of the Second World War.
Constructed in 1917 as the last of the ruling Hohenzollern monarchy palaces, in a distinctly English Tudor style, Cecilienhof is just one of more than 30 royal residences and gardens spread across Berlin and the neighbouring state of Brandenburg, offering insight into the bygone era of the Prussian Kings and Queens.
Undoubtedly, it is Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace – built by Fredrick the Great in 1747 – that stands as most visited, and most admired, of the residences.
A 13-room villa perched high above a terraced garden designed to grow grapes for wine, conceived by the King as a place to escape the bustling capital of Berlin and a sanctuary for his artistic and philosophical endeavours.
Since 1990, Potsdam has been rightly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the buildings a collection of worldly influences from Italy, France, Russia and the Netherlands. In the summertime, this variety of influences visible in the architecture is complemented by the smells of the Norse Garden with pines, the Sicilian Garden with palms, and the Paradise Garden with exotic flowers.
Although make sure to bring a coat if you arrive in the colder months, as keeping with tradition the palaces are left unheated.
10. Take a sobering trip to Sachsenhausen
Liberated by Soviet soldiers in April 1945 – 75 years ago this year – the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial is located about 35 kilometres north of Berlin and accessible by train (we’re mentioning it here as like Potsdam it is also in Berlin’s ABC ticket zone, despite being in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg).
Established in 1936 – the same time as the Summer Olympics were being held in Berlin – Sachsenhausen was one of three major camps across the country (the others being Buchenwald near Weimar, and Dachau near Munich) operated from the mid-30s as Nazi-run detention facilities for eliminating political opposition and later expediating the plan to organise Germany based on pseudo-racial and anthropological principles.
Constructed by the Nazis, liberated and reappropriated as a detention facility by the Soviets, Sachsenhausen was eventually re-opened in 1961 as a museum and memorial by the East German government.
A location of unspeakable crimes, it is an essential must do for anyone serious about serious history and learning from human folly.