On every first trip to any city, it’s crucial to get the tourist-spots out of the way. And we’re not talking wax museums and themed restaurants; we mean the historical and one-of-a-kind must-sees. Thanks to new art galleries, up-and-coming neighborhoods, and shopping districts, there’s more to Berlin, Germany than its wall and island of museums, but … first things first.
1. East Side Gallery (Friedrichshain)
The biggest remaining part of the Berlin Wall is just under a mile long (pictured above) and boasts more than one hundred paintings by international artists. After the fall of the Wall, 118 artists from 21 countries were invited to express their view of the political changes between 1989 and 1990 and their idea of freedom by creating stunning artwork on what was to become the first all-German (East and West) art project: the East Side Gallery. Here you can find some of the most iconic paintings such as Dmitri Wladimirowitsch Vrubel’s My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love (also known as Bruderkuss, i.e., Fraternal Kiss), André Sécrit’s You Have Learned, What Freedom Means, Karsten Wenzel’s Die Beständigkeit der Ignoranz (The Persistence of Ignorance) and Gabriel Heimler’s Der Mauerspringer (The Wall Jumper). Sanitation works, artists’ disputes and a partial removal of the gallery due to nearby construction have caused a lot of conflict between artists and government organizations but, as of yet, the only things that seems to be affecting the East Side Gallery itself are vandals tagging and scribbling silly declarations of love and racist garble on the historic pieces of art. Though they are removed on a regular basis, the city has decided it necessary to erect a knee-high fence in front of the gallery in order to create a “psychological border” and discourage people from further destroying this impressive open-air gallery. A wall in front of the wall, you might say …
2. Checkpoint Charlie/The Wall Panorama (Kreuzberg)
Photo courtesy of Adam Berry/Getty
The Berlin Wall may have fallen 27 years ago, but the eeriness and sorrow can still very much be felt at Kreuzberg’s Checkpoint Charlie. This location, the well-known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the time of the Cold War, saw many a tragedy. A replica of the Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse, complete with two actors offering themselves up for pictures, attracts thousands of tourists on a daily basis. Needless to say, the atmosphere is quite morbid as you take in the stories of the East and West Berliner’s plight to reunite with their families and the many people who died trying to make their escape. There is also something quite perverse about tourists seemingly making light of an awful era whilst ignorantly posing in front of a monument that marks such a dark period in German history, but what else is new?
If you can stomach it, the Topography of Terror is only a short walk from Checkpoint Charlie, where you can view the exhibition trench and photo gallery in the outdoor museum, or dive deeper into the terrors of World War II indoors. Across from the Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse you can currently view The Wall Panorama exhibition by Yadegar Asisi. The artist, who lived in Berlin in the 1980s Berlin, created a structure made up of pictures, art, newspaper clippings and visual and audio displays. Its purpose is to replicate the feeling of a typical day in Berlin during the heights of the division. If you need a break from all the heavy stuff after Checkpoint Charlie, its supporting Mauer Museum, and The Wall Panorama, head toward the Trabi World Museum situated directly behind The Wall Panorama for some typical East-German quirk.
3. Sightseeing Cruise Along the Spree River (Charlottenburg)
Photo courtesy of Carsten Koall/Getty
Next to the U-Bahn and cycling, one of the best ways to get around Berlin and see the city is by boat. If you’re only in town for a short weekend, the sightseeing cruise offered by Berlin City Tours is an especially efficient way to see the city. You can cram a week’s worth of explorations into just three hours, whilst enjoying a delicious three course dinner and drinks. Your boat, The Crown of the Spree, departs from Charlottenburg to an incredible view of the Schlossbrücke and the Charlottenburger Ufer (riverbank). The tour passes all Berlin’s major attractions: Bellevue Palace, House of the Cultures of the World, the German Chancellery, the Reichstag, Berlin’s Red Town Hall, the Mercedes-Benz Arena and much more. English tour guides will talk you through the history of each individual building or monument so, by the time you set foot ashore, you will feel you have genuinely gotten to know more about the city and how history shaped it.
4. Museumsinsel (Museum Island)
Photo courtesy of Carsten Koall/Getty
If you were aboard the sightseeing cruise you have already caught a glimpse of Museum Island, but it deserves so much more than just a glimpse. The island, located in the Spree River in Berlin’s Mitte district, is home to five museums. The Old Museum exhibits the most important antiquities collection of classical art in the world, stemming from ancient Roman, Greek, Cypriot and Etruscan civilizations whereas the New Museum specializes in prehistoric and early Egyptian collections. The building of the Old National Gallery is a work of art in itself; reminiscent of a Roman temple and illuminated at nightfall, it is as impressive as the very collection it exhibits—made up of Romantic, Biedermeier, Impressionist, Neoclassical and early Modernist artwork by the likes of Claude Monet, Caspar David Friedrich, Johann Gottfried Schadow and Adolph von Menzel. The Bode Museum (pictured above) reopened its doors in 2006 following a 156 million euro refurbishment and now presents the Münzkabinett and the Sculpture Collection and Museum of Byzantine Art. Last but not least, the Pergamon Museum, the most visited art museum in Germany, is divided into three museums: the Museum of the Ancient Near East, the Museum of Islamic Art and the Collection of Classical Antiquities.
5. Filmpark Babelsberg (Potsdam)
The Filmpark Babelsberg is a must for all movie buffs and, should you be traveling with the whole family, the children will appreciate this fun, adventurous break from a dark history. The initial idea behind the theme park was to create job opportunities by opening a park in the same vein of Universal Studios Hollywood, following the German reunification in the early 1990s. The employment program worked, and Filmpark Babelsberg established itself as one of the most popular family attractions in Berlin. Here you get to experience the sets of German classics such as Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck and the original Hexenhaus (witch house) from Hansel and Gretel. A true favorite with the younger movie enthusiasts is the children’s park Panama. Based on Janosch’s book and film, Oh, Wie Schön ist Panama, children get to follow in Tiger and Bear’s footsteps and make their way to Panama by boat. The theme park is famous for its Dome of Babelsberg, an XD motion ride where visitors get to chase monsters and shoot them with their laser weapons. Daily stunt shows can be viewed from the volcano structure and, once you’ve exhausted your appetite for destruction, real hunger can be stilled in the Prinz Eisenherz adventure restaurant.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.