Berlin, the capital of Germany and the country’s largest city, is also a major center of politics, culture, media, and science. Noted for its cultural flair, Berlin is home to the world famous Berlin Opera and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, while its diverse art scene encompasses hundreds of galleries, events, and museums, including those on Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite the devastation of WWII, and following decades of decay to the east of the infamous Berlin Wall, the city has been rebuilt in a way that celebrates its successes while acknowledging a dark past. Berlin offers an eclectic mix of new and classic architecture, dynamic entertainment, shopping, and a wide variety of sports and cultural institutions. To get the most out of your sightseeing, be sure to refer often to our list of the top tourist attractions in Berlin.
1. The Brandenburg Gate
Berlin’s most famous historic landmark is the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor), once a symbol of a divided nation and now a symbol of unity and peace. This Neoclassical gate was commissioned by King Frederick Wilhelm II in 1788, and its design was inspired by the Propylaea in Athens’ Acropolis. The sandstone monument is 26 meters tall, standing in the Mitte district’s Pariser Platz, just a block from the Reichstag building.
During the Cold War, its physical and symbolic position as a blocked gate along the Berlin Wall made it a frequent site for demonstrations by West Berliners, and it is famous for being the backdrop of US President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 entreaty to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall.
It was also the scene of a poignant gesture when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev, and Poland’s Lech Walesa walked through the gate in 1999 to commemorate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall 20 years earlier.
Visiting the Brandenburg Gate at night is a special treat, and undoubtedly one of the top free things to do in Berlin.
2. The Rebuilt Reichstag
The Reichstag (Reichstagsgebäude) was originally completed in 1894 where the Neo-Renaissance palace served as the home of the German Empire’s Imperial Diet until it burned in 1933. It was not used again until after the reunification of Germany, at which point it underwent a 10-year reconstruction and finally became the home of the German Parliament in 1999.
A highlight of this magnificent reconstruction is the replacement dome, the Kuppel, made of glass and offering superb views of the surrounding city, especially at night from the Rooftop Restaurant.
Note that entry to the Dome and Terrace is ticketed, and due to demand, it’s recommended that tickets be requested in advance (registration is available on the day, but expect a two- or three-hour wait). Free English language audio guides are available.
Address: Platz der Republik 1, 11011, Berlin
3. Museum Island
Sandwiched between the River Spree and the Kupfergraben in a 400-meter-long canal, Spree Island is better known as Museum Island (Museumsinsel), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you’ll find many of the city’s oldest and most important museums, including the Old Museum (Altes Museum), built in 1830 to house the Crown Jewels and other royal treasures.
The New Museum (Neues Museum), destroyed during WWII, was rebuilt and opened again in 2009 as the home of extensive collections from the Egyptian Museum, the Papyrus Collection, and the Collection of Classical Antiquities.
The Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie), opened in 1876, displays Neoclassical sculpture and paintings from 1815-1848, as well as Impressionist and early Modernist pieces. The Bode Museum houses a collection of Byzantine art, as well as a large sculpture collection spanning from medieval times to the late 1700s.
The city’s most popular museum, the Pergamon features a Museum of Islamic Art, the Ishtar Gate, and reconstructed historic buildings from the Middle East. The newest museum attraction, the Humboldt Forum opened here in 2019 and houses the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art.
4. Berlin Wall Memorial
The Berlin Wall originated in 1961 when East Germany sealed off that half of the city to prevent citizens from fleeing to West Germany. By the time it was torn down in 1989, the four-meter-high wall extended 155 kilometers, dissected 55 streets, and possessed 293 observation towers and 57 bunkers.
Today, only small stretches of this graffiti-covered travesty remain, including a 1.4-kilometer stretch preserved as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), a chilling reminder of the animosity that once divided Europe.
Highlights of a visit include the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum, with its exhibits relating to the one-and-a-half million people who passed through Berlin as refugees; the Günter Litfin Memorial, a former watchtower now set up as a memorial, which pays tribute to the first civilian killed trying to cross from east to west; the Monument in Memory of the Divided City and the Victims of Communist Tyranny; the Window of Remembrance; and a Visitor Center, with views over the remains of the wall. Guided tours are available in English.
Address: Bernauer Straße 111, 13355 Berlin
5. German Historical Museum
Established to mark Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987, the German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum, or DHM) is a must-visit for those interested in learning more about the city’s remarkably rich history. This much-visited attraction consists of a number of historic exhibition halls jam-packed with fascinating displays of artifacts relating to various periods and events from the country’s founding right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as a cinema, and a research library that’s open to the public.
Highlights include exhibits relating to medicine, fashion, religion, printing, art, and photography. Military buffs are also well catered to with the museum’s vast collection of historic armor, weapons, and uniforms.
Guided tours are available, and for those expecting a longer stay (you’ll want to, there’s that much to see), there’s a handy cloakroom and café.
Address: Unter den Linden 2, 10117 Berlin
6. Berliner Fernsehturm: Berlin’s Television Tower
Despite celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, the 368-meter-tall Berliner Fernsehturm (Berlin Television Tower) has lost none of its appeal to visitors to the city. Since opening in 1970, Europe’s third-tallest freestanding structure has attracted over 60 million visitors, most of them drawn for the spectacular views over Germany’s capital.
Originally constructed to mark the prowess of communism (it’s located in the former East Berlin district), the landmark can be picked out from pretty much every corner of the city, making it more significant as a symbol of the city’s reunification in the 1980s.
Be sure to include the structure’s observation deck in your visit, and if you’re able to linger awhile, book a reservation at the 207-meter-high revolving restaurant.
Address: Panoramastraße 1 A, 10178 Berlin
7. Checkpoint Charlie Museum
Also of interest is Checkpoint Charlie Museum (Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie). Marking the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin, this fascinating tourist attraction features numerous displays and artifacts tracing the history of human rights, along with exhibits dealing specifically with the history of the Berlin Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie.
Situated next to the original guardhouse, the museum also highlights some of the most interesting attempts made by those trying to escape communist rule, including an original homemade air balloon used in one successful attempt.
Also of interest is the nearby open-air BlackBox Cold War exhibit, which features sections of the Berlin Wall and related information stations.
Address: Friedrichstraße 43-45, 10969 Berlin
8. Charlottenburg Palace and Park
Berlin’s oldest and largest Prussian estate, the late 17th-century Charlottenburg Palace was for decades the primary residence of German royalty. Beautifully restored, this huge palace has extraordinary features, including a massive 50-meter-high central dome, opulent Baroque and Rococo décor throughout its expansive rooms, and a large garden that was inspired by the gardens at Versailles.
A highlight of the property’s tour program is a visit to the New Wing, with its State Apartments and fine Banqueting Halls. Built in 1746, it’s here visitors get a glimpse of the splendor in which the Prussian Kings and Electors lived, from Frederick I’s bedroom and study with their fine furnishings and paintings, to the State Dining Room and 42-meter-long Golden Gallery with its rich, gilded stucco.
Over in the Old Palace is the Porcelain Cabinet, a room dedicated to a large historic porcelain collection and special exhibits, including the Crown Jewels and other royal items. Other highlights are the Palace Park dating from 1697 and home to the New Pavilion (Neue Pavilion), built in 1788 in the style of a Neapolitan villa, and the Belvedere Teahouse with its fine collection of Berlin porcelain.
Be sure to visit the Mausoleum with its royal tombs, as well as the Grand Courtyard with its large statue of the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg.
One of the top things to do in Berlin in winter is visit the Charlottenburg Palace Christmas Market, a spectacular display of more than 250 vendors and artisans exhibiting seasonal wares.
Address: Spandauer Damm 10, 14059 Berlin
The Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s largest squares, is dominated by three historic landmark buildings: the Konzerthaus, the French Cathedral (Französischer Dom), and the German Cathedral (Deutscher Dom). This picturesque 17th-century square is now one of Berlin’s top tourist attractions, hosting numerous public events each year, including classical concerts on the steps of the Konzerthaus theater in the summer, while each December the entire plaza becomes the city’s famous Christmas Market.
The Konzerthaus, built in 1821, is as famous for its architectural splendor as it is for the first-rate performances of Konzerthausorchester Berlin, one of the country’s most popular symphony orchestras. In front of the building stands a statue of the German poet Friedrich Schiller surrounded by four female figures who represent the artistic elements of Lyric Poetry, Drama, History, and Philosophy.
The cathedrals are so named for their domes (“dom” is also the German word for cathedral) and are in fact not churches-the French Cathedral is home to the Huguenot Museum, and the German Cathedral exhibits the history of the German Parliament.
Another well-known square in Berlin, Alexanderplatz was the center of East Berlin life and is now home to the World Time Clock, a popular meeting place. Nearby is the Television Tower (nicknamed “Telespargel”) with panoramic views of the city.
Address: Gendarmenmarkt, 10117 Berlin
10. Jewish Museum Berlin
Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the Jewish Museum Berlin’s (Jüdisches Museum Berlin’s) distinctive zinc-paneled exterior makes it one of Berlin’s most striking landmarks. It was established in 2001, and inside visitors will find a wide range of historical artifacts and donated collections that illustrate the long history and struggle of Jewish Germans, from the Middle Ages to the present.
Exhibits include artwork, religious objects, and 24,000 photographs that have been preserved and recovered. Especially poignant is The Memory Void, where you’ll find an installation called “Shalekhet,” or “Fallen Leaves,” a collection of some 10,000 iron faces spread across the ground. Sobering, to say the least.
The museum is also home to an extensive library and archives at the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin, where there are frequent educational programs. Museum galleries include sections dedicated to Hanukkah, anti-semitism, Middle East conflict, the history and culture of Jerusalem, and the life of Munich rabbi Leo Baerwald. A variety of themed tour options are available, along with English language audioguides.
Address: Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin
11. German Museum of Technology
The must-see German Museum of Technology (Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin) was established in 1983 to showcase and celebrate Germany’s industrial and technological prowess. There are plenty of fun things to see in this popular museum, including taking in displays related to the Industrial Revolution, getting some hands-on experience in a reconstructed workshop, as well as a fascinating look at the vehicles that evolved alongside this rise in mechanization.
There are plenty of vehicles and aircraft on display, including a number of preserved steam engines dating back as far as 1843. Other highlights include riding in a vintage 1930s train from the museum to its locomotive depot on the weekends.
Guided tours are available in English, and for those wanting to make a day of it (which is recommended), there’s a restaurant and picnic spot located on-site.
Address: Trebbiner Straße 9, D-10963 Berlin-Kreuzberg