Top 10 FREE things to do in Berlin
My preconceptions of Berlin were shattered within an hour of my arrival. I was expecting a fairly bleak city with non-descript architecture. How wrong was I?! It's actually quite an amazing city when you consider what it has gone through in relatively recent years. For the Fawlty Towers fans amongst you, the phrase "don't mention the war" certainly does not apply here! With every corner you turn in Berlin you are practically tripping over some kind of monument, memorial or museum. And the best thing about it is that a lot of it is free!
I did a lot of research prior to our trip to decide what we were doing and when. Berlin has a lot to see and do and I wanted to see what was where in order to maximise our time in each area. I've compiled a list of the best free stuff for you. Some of these things I hadn't come across in the research I did and were just things we stumbled across by accident whilst on our way to other places. Without further ado, I present 10 free things to do in Berlin.
1. Free walking tour. Now technically they are free, however there is an expectation that you will tip your guide. They work for tips so they are acutely aware that the better time you have, the more likely they are to be rewarded. Having said that, I did notice a few people in our group who didn't tip. Each to their own. The tour we plumped for was run by Sandeman's. The tours run everyday at 10am, 10.30am, 11am, 11.30am, 2pm and 4pm. The guides hang around outside Starbucks at the Brandenburg Gate and you can pre-book online or register when you get there. We did a 2pm tour and it was pretty busy so I'd recommend booking prior to ensure you get a place. Our guide was called Sam Noble and he was brilliant. Sam explained that he is from England but has lived and studied in Berlin for a number of years. The fact that he's studying history is probably one of the reasons his level of knowledge is plain ridiculous! The tour takes in a large number of sights such as the Holocaust Memorial (more on that in a bit), Hitler's Bunker, Checkpoint Charlie and many more. One of the first "sights" Sam pointed out was the window in the Adlon Hotel from where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby!! All in all this was a brilliant way to start our trip as we saw a lot of the main sites but it also helped us to get our bearings a bit. Sam was also a font of knowledge with regards to places to eat, drink and shop which is also useful info when coming from a local. The tour is scheduled to take around 2.5 hours but ours was more like 3.
2. Bradenburg Gate. It's difficult to miss this one really. It's huge! The gate originally was representative of the separation of East and West Germany but now symbolises unity. The gate is situated in Pariser Platz which is pedestrianised. You can get access to the gate 24/7 too. We didn't see it at night as we never seemed to be around that area when it was dark so I'm not sure what it's like at night time. By all accounts though it's pretty spectacular all lit up.
3. Berlin Wall Memorial. Now be careful not to get this confused with the Berlin Wall Museum which is situated near Checkpoint Charlie. That one charges an entrance fee and is not as good. The Berlin Wall Memorial is on Bernauer Street and within a 1.4 km stretch, comprises the last remaining part of the wall with preserved grounds as well as various open air exhibits. They include the excavated remains of an apartment building of which it's facade formed part of the wall. There are also various monuments and the Chapel of Reconciliation. The visitor centre is over the road and is definitely worth a visit. Give yourself plenty of time in here if you want to see everything. It consists mainly of information boards and some videos but is really interesting. It's spread over a few floors with a viewing platform at the top where you can look down over the preserved part of the wall and the checkpoint tower. The open air exhibition and memorial grounds are accessible every day between 8am and 10pm and the visitor centre is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm.
4. Humboldt Box. This was one of the things we came across by accident. Whilst walking along the street, we'd seen it and assumed it was part of the building works going on behind it. It was only when I googled it one night back at the hotel that we realised it was an exhibition. As we had some time spare on the morning of the day we came home we decided to visit then. I'm so pleased we did as it was really interesting. Basically it's spread over 5 floors and even has a lovely terraced cafe at the top with fab views. The exhibition includes information on the ambitious project to rebuild the City Palace. The original palace suffered extensive damage during the war and was demolished by the East Germans in 1950. Since then it seems debate has raged over the future of the site and plans to rebuild. Anyway it's well underway now and the Humboldt Box has viewing platforms onto the site so you can see how it's coming along. Judging by the models inside and the information available, it's set to be quite a stunning building. The Humboldt Forum will open in 2019 and will house the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, the Museum of Asian Art, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, various departments of Humboldt University and the Library of Berlin. The exhibitions include information on what is being done to gather information and artefacts which will be curated in the museums. I was really impressed by how diverse the work is that they are doing. For example one of the projects they have been working on is with cultures where the language is in danger of dying out. The research teams have spent time with populations documenting languages and recording speech in order to preserve them for future generations. I can't wait to visit when it's open in 2019! Once Humboldt Forum is complete, the box will be dismantled so see it while you can.
5. Holocaust Memorial and Museum. This was one of the first things we saw when we arrived. We'd gone to a pub over the street for lunch (Currywurst & chips. Obvs) and thought it was some weird street sculpture. We later found out on the walking tour what it was. The memorial itself is quite strange looking in that it is formed of concrete "stelae" which form a grid pattern but are at various heights and on sloping ground. It's accessible 24/7 and you can walk around and through it. There is also a visitor centre underground which is well worth a visit. The exhibitions include the names of around 3 million Jewish holocaust victims as well as the Room of Dimensions which has letters and diary entries written by people in the death camps. Another of the rooms (Room of Families) details 15 families and their fates. The whole place is extremely sobering and emotional.
6. The Reichstag is the official seat of the Bundestag, the German Parliament. For this reason security is tight. The best way to ensure getting in is to book prior to your visit. On arrival you have to show your passport as ID. We skipped the lines by booking a table for breakfast in the restaurant on the roof. It wasn't cheap but it was delicious. There are some small, easy to read information boards in the cupola which depict the building's history. You can then walk round and go onto the roof to take in the views. In my opinion, it's not the best aerial view in Berlin but the others cost money! It only took around 45 minutes or so to take in the exhibits and do the photos then we went for breakfast. If you feel like splashing out, we dined on the Feel Good Breakfast in the Kafer Dachgarten-Restaurant. It cost €28.50 each but had so much food and it tasted gooood! It also included some sparkling German wine which we combined with our orange juice to make mimosas :-)
7. Street art. Without doubt Berlin is well renowned for it's street art. With good right too. It's everywhere. Pretty much every gable ended building has some kind of mural or painting on it. We even saw huge pieces of art advertising video games. Total change from the usual fly posters! You can head to the East Side Gallery which is a kilometre long stretch of Berlin Wall which houses the longest open air gallery in the world. Here you'll see some weird and wonderful stuff, mainly conveying messages about politics and peace. Either way there's something for everyone. And don't forget to just keep your eyes open when you're wandering round. Areas such as Kreuzberg and Oranianstrasse are great for art spotting. Something we also spotted were Street Art Yogis. These are little street art figures usually found on street signs. They depict different Hatha yoga positions and were started around 7 years ago by a yoga teacher called Josef. There are around 500 in Berlin so don't forget to look up!
8. Museum Island is a small island on the Spree River in the Mitte district. It is home to 5 museums and was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1999. Even if museums aren't your thing, it's worth a look as the buildings are beautiful and you can tick a UNESCO World Heritage site off your list.
9. The Book Burning Memorial will literally just take a few minutes to see/absorb but you need to know what you're looking for or you could easily bypass it. The memorial is essentially an underground room with a glass pane in the ceiling at street level where you can look down into it. It's situated in Bebelplatz right outside one of the Humboldt University buildings. It was designed by Israeli artist Micha Ullman and is called 'Library'. The memorial is basically a room of empty bookshelves. The shelves are constructed with enough space to house the 200,000 books which were burnt by the Nazis on 10th May 1933 on that spot. Sometimes the simplest statements convey the strongest message......
10. We came across the Neue Wache by accident whilst on our way to somewhere else. It stands on Unter den Linden between the book burning memorial and Museum Island. What struck me about it was the utter peace in the room whilst outside the bustling city of Berlin was going about it's business. The Neue Wache is a building which is one large open room with a solitary statue in the middle and a hole in the roof above the statue. The building was erected in 1818 and has housed a number of memorials over the years. However after the German reunification it became a central memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny. The sculpture was created by Kathe Kollwitz and depicts a mother holding her dead son. Very humbling and very peaceful.
OK I know I said 10 but I fibbed. Just one more to add if you're a lover of shopping, things being impeccably organised or a foodie.......The Kaufhaus des Westens (also known as KaDeWe) is a 100 year old department store. And it's a whopper! It's spread over 8 floors and sells everything imaginable. We skipped a lot of it but visited the homewares and food hall departments. If nothing else, it's worth it to see the giant marzipan Brandenburg Gate! It's easy to get to by getting the train to Wittenbergplatz. You can't miss it.
So there you have it....loads of free stuff and there's probably a load more. Feel free to comment on any places you visited for free in Berlin too. I'll add them to my list for my next visit.