Berlin is a city that glimmers with the promise of adventure, culture, extraordinary architecture and, of course, fantastic food. However, dig a little deeper into its past and you’ll discover a dark history from being the headquarters of the Nazis to being bombed into ruins, divided into two and finally re-united into the city that we see today. While it has developed into a modern metropolis bustling with activity, it’s history is never forgotten, echoing in the sights that peek at you from every street corner or unexpectedly greet you at a cafe. There’s an endless list of activities and places that the city has on offer but if you’re a history buff like me also interested in a sprinkling of nightlife and a dash of shopping, then here’s a list of the top 10 places you should visit (in no particular order):
1) Brandenburg Gate
One of the most well-recognised landmarks in Germany, the Brandenburg Gate traces its history back to the time of Prussian monarchs and has been the at the heart of many major historical developments in Germany. It exudes a certain majesty that is hard to miss even if you’re just a passer-by. While its neoclassical architecture is more easily admired during daylight, its charm at night when it’s all lit up is difficult to match.
2) The Reichstag Building
The seat of the German Bundestag (parliament), this building has witnessed its fair share of the country’s chronicles – the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and then Nazi Germany. A walk through the glass dome to the roof terrace will reveal some stunning views of the city sprawling below. Entry is free but don’t forget to register beforehand!
3) holocaust memorial
South of the Brandenburg Gate is this cenotaph paying homage to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. As you walk among the concrete stelae, it provides a place of solemn reflection and a reminder of the indelible nature of human cruelty.
4) topography of terror
Providing a linear history with pictures and documents of the Nazi’s reign of terror, this museum is built on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. It is chilling to stand in the very spot where many political prisoners were brought to be tortured. Despite having read quite a bit on Hitler’s rule, I discovered many new facts of interest here. Admission is free and the museum also has an outdoor wing which is only open until sunset.
5) checkpoint charlie
Another symbol of Berlin’s demarcation, this was one of the many crossings between East and West Berlin but one that was only used as a gateway for foreigners into the Soviet-occupied East. Located on Friedrichstraße (which I’ll talk about later), it’s difficult to miss with a large sign proclaiming its presence. The attached museum has an entry fee of €12.5 but if you’ve got the time, it’s definitely worth a visit.
6) berlin victory column
Now placed at the centre of Tiergarten, the column was built to commemorate Prussian victory in 1864. An interesting piece of trivia our tour guide told us was that Berliners casually refer to it as “Golden Lizzie”. If you’re an admirer of breathtaking views then you might consider climbing the narrow spiral staircase to the top and pay a fee of €3.
7) east side gallery
A persisting representation of the Cold War, the East Side Gallery is the best preserved portion of the Berlin Wall where various artists have painted murals symbolising modalities of freedom. It is considered to be one of the largest open air galleries in the world and you definitely don’t have to be a connoisseur of art to admire the paintings that stretch along it.
8) GDR Watchtower
Located on Potsdamer Platz, this is the last GDR Watchtower still in existence. There’s an entrance fee if you are planning to climb to the top though you can always just appreciate it from the outside, placing it in historical context in your mind.
9) Simon-Dach Straße
Trendy and happening, this street is lined with a smorgasbord of cafes, bars and clubs. Whether you’re looking for a night of bar hopping or just an evening out with friends, this is the perfect place to unwind after the day’s activities. True to our Pakistani nature, we managed to find a cafe serving biryani and got the others in our group to try it out too. Though, of course, it couldn’t do justice to the flavours we are accustomed to at home, it was enough to chase away any homesickness one might feel in a foreign land.
What used to be a notorious nightlife district for the wealthy is now a lively boulevard lined with restaurants, department stores and tourist shops. Though you may not be able to do a lot of shopping from the high-end stores if you’re on a tight budget, you’ll definitely find some great souvenirs and postcards for friends and family back home.
Bonus: Hofbräuhaus München
If you’re in search of some authentic Bavarian cuisine in an effervescent setting, then head to Hofbräuhaus München. Not being a beer person, I definitely would never have discovered this place on my own but being part of a group with diverse tastes, we stumbled upon it one night as we walked the streets of Berlin in search of Simon-Dache Strasse without any maps or GPS. Walking into the warmth after, what felt to me like freezing temperatures outside, was a blessing in itself but once we took our place at one of the wooden benches and soaked in our surroundings we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in the midst of high-spirited festivities. Loud, noisy and absolutely lovable, it was one of my most memorable experiences in Berlin.