Berlin is huge. It is diverse. It is impossible to truly capture in a month, let along in a week or even less. Monumental museums, incredible architecture, vast green spaces, and vibes that vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, Berlin really offers something for everyone, as cliche as that sounds.
But what does a trip here look like? How should you prioritize the time you have? This guide will try to give you the basics to plan a Berlin vacation that is full of meaning. (Please note that this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the city offers. There is way too much for any non-resident to explore in any reasonable amount of time. I’ve tried to capture the highlights, and can’t talk about things I’ve not personally experienced.) Links throughout the guide will take you to more in-depth looks at specific aspects of the city.
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Shockingly, the biggest struggle to creating an itinerary around Berlin is getting here to begin with. After World War Two, divided Berlin was relegated to a lesser city within West Germany, so Frankfurt and Munich became the hubs for Lufthansa, Germany’s flag carrier. Until as recently as 2021, Berlin didn’t even have an airport capable of handling major traffic, or the mega wide body aircraft needed to fly from the US. That has changed a bit with the recent opening of Berlin Brandenburg Airport, although there are still no direct flights from the US West Coast as of this writing. So to get here requires either a direct flight from the east coast (and there aren’t a ton) or a change elsewhere in Europe.
The airport is about 30-45 minutes outside of Berlin itself, with east train connections to several areas within the city, for a €3.80 one-way ticket. The station is in terminals 1-2, so coming into a different corner of the airport can require a lot of walking. (The airport is also still under a good deal of construction. My flight in from Paris didn’t have a jet bridge, and either required stairs or a single elevator as the escalator was nonexistent.)
Alternatively, one can reach Berlin by train from Frankfurt fairly easily, after flying in there. (Click here to read our guide to Frankfurt if you want to spend a couple days.) Trains will arrive at the Hauptbahnhof (central station), and from here, both the subway and light rail (plus trams and buses) can get you pretty much anywhere in the city within fifteen or so minutes.
First, a basic layout of Berlin. The main portions of the city exist inside of a ring. (The city is huge and extends well past that ring, but most of what tourists will want to do is inside of it.) That ring has two light rail lines traveling it, one clockwise and one counter-clockwise, S-41 and 42, respectively. At each of the four compass points of the ring, lines intersect with the ring that cross either north-south or east-west. That’s the light rail system (called the S-Bahn) in a nutshell. Each quarter of a turn on the Ring-Bahn, as it’s called, takes roughly fifteen minutes.
In addition, there are subway lines (U-Bahn), tram lines, and bus lines all over. This vast transit system means it is easy to get within a 10-15 minute walk of just about anywhere via public transportation. A single-ride ticket for Zone A (inside the ring) and B (just outside) costs €3, though four-packs can be purchased via an app for just under €10. Weekly passes are €35ish. Tickets are not required to be scanned to get on, although if you are caught without one during a random check, fines can be steep. A one-way ticket allows for unlimited rides in a two hour window.
There is also a zone C, which includes the airport and a day-trip destination like Potsdam. One can either add zone C to an existing ticket, or buy an ABC ticket for €3.80.
The majority of stations and trains are accessible, but not all, so you’ll need to make certain to check ahead of time if that is an issue.
What to Do
As I said in my introduction, Berlin has a ton, much more than anyone could possibly hope to see during any reasonable trip duration. There are some basic must-dos, though, and we will start with those.
Three must-sees are within about a five minute walk of each other: the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Reichstag is the 19th century building housing the German parliament. The building is beautiful, but the highlight is a dome visit, which requires advance reservations and a background check.
Brandenburg Gate is the symbol of Berlin. It isn’t all that exciting, but as you just see it for a few minutes and move on, it is a must see.
The same goes with the Holocaust memorial, but I’d allow a few extra minutes to wander amongst the iconic pillars. (You can click here to read about Nazi legacies in Berlin.)
Another must-see is some aspect of the Berlin Wall. (Click here to read a full guide to the wall and how to experience it.)
Finally, the last must-do in my opinion is the Pergamonmuseum. Located on Museum Island, it has one of the best near-eastern antiquity collections in the world, highlighted by the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
If you are visiting the Pergamon and like museums, you can get a 72 hour museum pass for more than 30 in the city for €29. Museums are in two large clusters (plus obviously more sitting solo), one here on Museum Island and the other near Potsdamer Platz, which is highlighted by the Gemaldegalerie. This art museum has one of the largest collections of German renaissance masters, and currently an extraordinary Donatello exhibition. (Thank you to Visit Berlin for providing me with a museum pass to allow for me to effectively experience some of these awesome sights.)
Berlin in the 1920s was famous for burlesque cabaret, and this amazing art form can still be experienced in the city today, whether by taking in a show or even taking a class. (Click here to read about burlesque in Berlin.)
If you like history and palaces, you can stay within Berlin and visit Frederick I’s Charlottenburg Palace (click here to read about it) or take a day trip to nearby Potsdam for a cluster of palaces around a park. It is worth a day if you have one to spare. (Click here to read about Potsdam and Frederick the Great.)
Beyond that, enjoy many of the squares and parks of the city, as well as some awesome architecture. As you all know, I’m a big advocate for just walking around and taking pictures of pretty things, so give yourself some time to just wander a neighborhood or three.
Where to Stay
If you are staying at a hotel, you might want to be near most of the sights, which are in the central and western portions of that ring we spoke about before. American hotel chains are everywhere, from a Ritz Carlton at Potsdamer Platz to the Holiday Inn Express sorts. You’ll have your pick.
However, if you prefer a more local feel to your stay, I’m going to suggest either a small hotel or an Airbnb in East Berlin, specifically in the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. The area is young, hipster, full of great food and cafes, and a vibe reminiscent of the coolest up and coming neighborhoods in the US. While much of Berlin felt foreign and formal to me, my flat here in P’Berg was a place I could easily think of as home.
What to Eat
This is a bit weird, but I really didn’t eat any German food while here, outside of the famous street food: currywurst. Currywurst is sausage (basically hot dogs) in a ketchup spiced with curry powder. They are sliced and served with a toothpick to eat, often alongside fries. It’s worth a try. Have a beer or a radler (beer with lemonade or lemon-lime soda) with it.
The other must-try street food here is doner. Berlin is home to one of the largest Turkish populations in the world, and this is one of their best contributions to the culinary scene. Thinly sliced meat, veggies, and sauce sit inside bread, piled so thick you have to eat about half of it out before you can pick it up to take a bite.
Berlin has some amazing Asian food (seriously, it is everywhere) as well as Middle Eastern. And yes, you can also find traditional sausage or schnitzel in most neighborhoods.
I also want to give a few specific recommendations for my own neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, in case you take my advice and stay here. I had coffee at Sveda at least twice a week. For Asian food, the Nepalese street food at Holy Everest is amazing, especially the spicy water buffalo momos (dumplings). You can also have handmade noodles and bao at Wen Cheng. And the best doner I had was at Ruyam Gemuse Kebab. Its 4.9 stars with more than 8,000 Google reviews is for real.
Other Useful Information
English is widely spoken in Berlin. While knowing some basic German phrases is helpful, you’ll be able to navigate pretty much everywhere just in English.
Since tickets for transit aren’t scanned before boarding, and are good for two hours rather than a single trip, sometimes what would appear to be connecting S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations aren’t exactly connecting, and require exiting, crossing a street or moving down the block, and re-entering. Keep this in mind if you are experiencing inclement weather.
Berlin is the capital of Germany, and with that comes the simple fact that some sights – or streets – will be closed at times unexpectedly due to diplomatic activities. This is especially true for the Reichstag and government quarter, but can extend beyond. During my trip, the President of Israel (not even the Prime Minister) was here, causing the streets between the Holocaust memorial and Reichstag to be closed.
Berlin has a larger homeless population and is a bit more littered than other major German cities. While still incredible clean and with few homeless when compared to most large American cities, it is an easily seen difference when coming from elsewhere in the country.
I loved Berlin, although I loved my neighborhood in East Berlin more than I did the rest of the city, although the rest of the city is where the sights are. It is diverse, full of things to see and do, and home to a fascinating – although at times dark – history. It is also huge and hard to get a handle on, but I hope this guide helped you to start.
If you have been to Berlin and have additional recommendations, please add them in the comments so we can all learn from each other!
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