Germany’s capital is as culturally rich as they come. It’s a place full of history, both good and bad, and as intriguing as its past is, present-day Berlin offers everything you could want in a city: sustainable public transportation, world-class museums and monuments, and a variety of eclectic neighborhoods to explore. Plus, it’s a young, diverse destination that locals are proud to call home, a city full of thinkers, artists, and doers. Sounds wonderful, right? Well, there’s even more than what appears on the surface, so to discover what lies beneath, you’ll have to keep reading!

Basics

  • Founded: 1237
  • Area: 344.3 square miles (891.7 km2)
  • Population: 3,575,000
  • Official Language: German
  • Time Zone: Central European Time (CET) (UTC +1)
  • Airports: Berlin Tegel Airport (TXL), Schönefeld Airport (SFX)
  • Currency: Euro (€)
  • Drive on the: Right

History

What we now know as Berlin — a world leader in science, technology, and creative enterprises — began as a simple stop along an important trade route and steadily grew into a co-capital of the former Margraviate of Brandenburg, a major principality of the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the city’s history, much like Germany’s as a whole, is full of strife. The “Thirty Years War” — one of the worst conflicts in human history — took its toll on the city, as did the “Seven Years War” a century later, which led to a Russian occupation. On top of these clashes, Berlin endured a number of disputes with Napoleon during the Frenchman’s heyday.

Though warfare informed much of Berlin’s disposition during these years, the city also hosted movements such as the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, both of which helped solidify it as the capital of the newly formed German Empire in 1871. Following the unification of the former “Germanic states,” a national identity was finally established, and within just a few decades, Germany — with Berlin at the forefront — became an international power. This newfound nationalism was on full display during WWI, and even more so during WWII, when Berlin became a home base for the Nazis. Following WWII, Germany split in two: West Germany was ruled by America and other Western allies, while the former Soviet Union claimed the East. The world leaders also thought it best to divide the capital, with the Berlin wall separating the East and West. This disconnect created immense tension within the city, as friends and family were kept from one another until 1989, when the wall was torn down and the country and capital were reunited again. Today, in addition to celebrating the 30th anniversary since the wall’s removal, Berlin has re-established itself as one of the world’s cultural leaders, and done its best — along with the rest of Germany — to make amends for its past.

Getting There

Berlin’s convenient location in central Europe makes a trip here that much easier. The city has two major airports, Berlin Tegel and Schönefeld Airport, both of which feature flights from a variety of airlines. Just don’t be surprised if a direct flight is hard to come by; you’ll likely require a stopover in a busier airport, such as Frankfurt or Amsterdam. Once there, though, each airport offers public transport to different parts of the city. If you happen to land at Tegel, a bus stop awaits outside of Terminal A, where you can take either the TXL express or the 109. For those arriving at Schönefeld, you have the option of taking the airport express train or the S-Bahn. Just know that the latter is slower, though it’s more direct to certain neighborhoods.

Berlin also finds itself in close proximity to other major European cities, which means catching a train to the capital is also a possibility. Some nearby destinations that would make for a pleasant ride through the country include Brussels, Cologne, Dresden, Prague, and Warsaw. Deutsche Bahn and GoEuro are both popular options.

Getting Around

Venturing around Berlin is made easy with the city’s enviously good public transportation. For starters, Berlin has the luxury of two amazing train systems: the aforementioned S-Bahn (aboveground rail system) and the U-Bahn (underground rail system). Both are well-kept and allow passengers to visit almost every inch of the city. When it comes to pricing, the city is broken down into three zones: A, which covers the inner city; B, which reaches into the surrounding neighborhoods; and C, which includes suburbs and the farthest corners of the city limits. A “short ride” consisting of three stops or less (regardless of zone), costs €1.70. If you’re considering a simple one-and-done ticket within the A and B zones, be prepared to pay €2.80, and €3.40 to travel through all three zones freely. For day passes, you’ll be looking at a price of €7. You also have the option to purchase a seven-day pass for €30, which may be more cost efficient, depending on your schedule.

The city also boasts an impressive bus network that can help out when you’re sticking around a single neighborhood. Not to mention, any day pass you purchased on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn can be used for all modes of transit.

But one thing about Berlin that you can’t miss is the number of people on bicycles. The city is decked with bike lanes, which are especially helpful for those unfamiliar with inner-city cycling. So, if you’re so inclined during your visit, you can choose from plenty of bike-rental options to help you traverse the German capital on two wheels.

Where To Stay

There are a number of neighborhoods that contribute to the coolness that epitomizes Berlin, and their defining characteristics will help you decide where to stay. For instance, Mitte — which fittingly translates into “center” — is the city’s central neighborhood and downtown core, where hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs can all be found in abundance. This is also the spot to stay for history lovers, as it offers close proximity to the city’s many historic monuments and museums (more on that later).

Kreuzberg is another popular home base. Just south of Mitte and home to plenty of hostels, the neighborhood is known for its street art, green spaces, and relentless nightlife. If you’re seeking the quieter side of town, consider Charlottenburg, located on the city’s west side and not far from the Tegel Airport. Charlottenburg is one of Berlin’s main shopping districts, and it boasts a number of upscale hotels and Airbnb rentals. Then there’s Friedrichshain, a hip and lively borough where you’ll find an eclectic community of young artists, as well as other travelers on a budget. And finally, Prenzlauer Berg is an up-and-coming area that’s great for families.

What To Do

Museums

The number of museums and monuments in Berlin is staggering. Around almost every corner you’ll find a historical display of some sort — some local, some international — ensuring that your trip here will surely be an educational one. Some of the city’s must-see attractions include Bauhaus Archives – Museum of Design, Topography of Terror, Jewish Museum, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and Neues Museum — which is one of five museums on the greater Museum Island. Also, take into consideration that due to the large quantity, the city has created a handy three-day pass that opens the doors to 30 historical sites.

Monuments and Memorials

One might argue that you could spend your entire trip seeking out monuments across the city — and that might be exactly what you want to do. But regardless of your itinerary, be sure to make time for the following: East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, Airlift Memorial, and Victory Column.

Art

Germany’s capital has long been a haven for artists of all types, and, in turn, they have created a city distinguished by creative expression. Both street art and formal galleries thrive here (there’s even one place that straddles the line of both distinctions), so you won’t want to miss a chance to appreciate the talent while you’re here. Murals can be spotted in every neighborhood, and there are plenty of guides like this, which map out some of the city’s more well-known pieces. You might even want to consider joining a free walking tour to help save time. As far as galleries go, Berlin’s Modern Art Gallery in Kreuzberg is top-notch, Contemporary Fine Arts is never a bad call, and trendier drop-ins to note include Captain Pretzel, König Galerie, and KINDL –  Centre for Contemporary Art.

Have any questions about Germany’s cool capital? Let us know in the comments below!

Header image by Hakon Sataoen
Share this:
Avatar
Brad Donaldson is a writer and editor proudly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although his roots are in Canada, his desire to see more of the world frequently takes him away from home. His work, both as an editor and writer, has appeared in local newspapers and publications.