Berlin is the German capital, but it bucks most trends of other European capital cities. Think casual versus formal, alternative versus classic. It has legendary landmarks with some of the most moving history in all of Europe taking place right here. Karl Scheffler described Berlin as a city “condemned forever to become and never to be.” It is a restless place, never content to stay still, and is always changing. In short, you could visit Berlin over and over having a different experience each time and still having more left to discover. That said, here is a guide to an incredible 48 hours in Berlin.
Day 1: Morning
9:30 a.m.: It is best to start a visit to Berlin with the classics. Get off of Berlin’s superb public transportation at Bandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate). It is a symbol of the country’s turbulent past like no other landmark in Germany. During the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate stood between East and West Germany represents a united country with people easily streaming between the East and West every day.
10 a.m.: Take a look down the road at the Siegessaule (Victory Column) before continuing to the right towards the Reichstag. The traditional seat of the German Parliament has set the scene for some of the most dramatic moments in German history. It was here that a fire was set in 1933, allowing Hitler to seize power in the country. It was also that his empire collapsed as the Russians raised a flag above its ruined dome on May 2nd, 1945. When the historic building was remodeled in the 1990s, it was adorned with a new modern glass dome representing Glasnost (transparency). Visit the dome for an incredible view of the Berlin skyline and a free audio guide.
11 a.m.: Exit the Reichstag and walk back across the lawn to be able to look back and admire the vast size of the building with the Spree river running behind it. Curve back to the left and enter the Tiergarten, Once the hunting grounds for Prussian kings, it is now the city’s most popular inner-city park with pristine walkways, playgrounds, meadows, and sculptures. Try to locate the Russian Memorial (the smallest of three in the city) that is topped by two Russian tanks.
11:45 a.m.: Head back towards the right of Brandenburger Tor to find the
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Controversial at the time of its construction, this is one of Germany’s most impressive and moving monuments to the Holocaust. The “Field of Stelae” is covered with more than 2,500 towering concrete pillars and evokes a sense of isolation and disorientation when wandering between them. Beneath the square is a worthwhile Holocaust Museum you should enter to better understand the most horrific point in German history.
Day 1: Afternoon
Noon: Visitors can check out nearby Potsdamer Platz for what counts as Berlin’s business center, or you can skip it and enjoy a lovely walk down historic Unter den Linden to Alexanderplatz. (If walking isn’t for you, the newly opened U5 also goes past the same top spots.) Along the way, there are some of Berlin’s top attractions like the memorial Neue Wache, one of the city’s two operas, and the UNESCO-recognized Museuminsel (Museum Island) with five world-class museums and the impressive Berliner Dom cathedral. If you have time, visit one of the museums along the way or take a short detour to Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s most beautiful square. Another worthy detour is Bebelplatz. This square between the opera and Humboldt University is infamous for Nazi book burning. Find the understated glass panel embedded into the square.
1:30 p.m.: Pass Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall) and walk beneath the tallest building in Germany, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). You can ride the elevator up to the top for more great views, or continue on to Alexanderplatz. This square is non-stop action and frequently hosts festivals of small stalls celebrating everything from Easter to Christmas.
2 p.m.: After all this walking, it is time to refuel. Grab a meal on the go like currywurst from a vendor, or any one of the international options available from an imbiss (street food stall) or restaurants around the square.
Day 1: Evening
4 p.m.: Hop back on transportation to see the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery (ESG). Located along the Spree between the eclectic neighborhoods of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, this wall is a living landmark showcasing some of the best street art in the city.
5:30 p.m.: Walk across the river on Oberbaumbrucke, undoubtedly the most beautiful bridge in Berlin. On one side of the bridge lies the Badeschiff outdoor pool and “Molecule Man” sculpture. Along the other side, ESG borders new high rises which nearly block out the view of the Fernsehturm tower.
6 p.m.: Exiting the bridge on the Kreuzberg side, street art continues with famed Italian street artist BLU’s surrealist pink man. This colorful district was on the poor side of West Berlin but is now one of the most vibrant, multicultural sections of the city. Sit down for drinks and a meal at any one of the restaurants that line every street.
8 p.m.: You can go home for a disco nap, or bar hop until the clubs open around midnight. Iconic Tresor is in the area, or chill along the water at Club der Visionaere. If you go out (and you should), finish the night with a doner, the quintessential Berlin late-night snack. It is an investment in your future.
Day 2: Morning
10 a.m.: After a long night out, it is essential to enjoy a leisurely brunch. Berlin has you covered whether you are looking for American-style overindulgence with cocktails at Geist im Glas in Neukolln or elegant German classics of bread and butter plus at Anna Blume in Prenzlauer Berg. Take your time eating as the Berliners do.
11:30 a.m.: The next step to repairing yourself after a wild night in Berlin is to wander through shops and dress yourself in Berliner black. Again, you are spoiled for options. While fancy Berliners once flocked to Ku’Damm or KaDeWe for all their shopping needs, today’s locals are more drawn to the city’s many vintage shops. You can buy clothes by weight at PicknWeight or shop the multilevel Humana across from iconic Frankfurter Tor featured in “The Queen’s Gambit.” (Note that shops are closed on Sunday, but if you are here on this day just spend more time at Mauerpark Market or one of Berlin’s other flea markets.)
If you are on Karl-Marx-Allee, admire the Prussian classicism of the residential buildings that were once unique in offering amenities like elevators and air conditioning. You can walk all the way to Alexanderplatz from here, and once again Berlin’s screen history comes to light with The Karl Marx Bookstore (now closed, but the sign is still present) from “The Lives of Others.”
Day 2: Afternoon
1 p.m.: On the way to continuing your shopping spree, stop by Bernauer Strasse and its wall memorial to gain some perspective on the city and your next destination. Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer covers the brutal history of the Berlin Wall with the best intact representation of what the wall actually looked like when it divided the city. Newsreels depict how families were torn apart and how attempts to escape were cruelly punished.
1:30 p.m.: Walk to Mauerpark and note the many signs of where the wall once ran. This empty plot of land is a perfect example of how people have reclaimed these once-empty spaces. A sprawling market comes to life every Saturday full of second-hand antiques, cheap essentials, one-off clothing brands, children’s toys, dishes, lamps, and anything else you can imagine. Buy a drink or snack as you make your way through all of these treasures.
To the side of the market, people play basketball, spray paint the wall, lounge when the sun shines, and make music. Innumerable musicians gather here to busk and play with many more dancing to the impromptu concerts. Most Sundays, Bearpit Karaoke is also in session as an entrepreneur with a mic shows up next to the hill and allows extroverts to perform.
Day 2: Evening
3:30 p.m.: For a full meal, walk down picturesque Oderberger Street for a selection of cuisine. At the very least, stop by the DDR shop for vintage furniture finds and get some ice cream.
4:30 p.m.: If you are missing the elegance often associated with Europe, visit Schloss Charlottenburg out west. The palace is impressive with impeccable grounds where joggers casually run, impervious to its charms. Swans swim out back, and if you buy entrance to its extravagant rooms you can also see its renowned porcelain collection.
6 p.m.: A stop at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche (Memorial Church) highlights peak West Berlin. The church was severely damaged during the Second World War and its ruins were preserved as-is to serve as a reminder. The church is also the site of another, more recent tragedy, when a terrorist plowed a semi-truck into the area’s Christmas market. The historic West Berlin zoo is also located here, along with a couple of shopping centers
8 p.m.: You should reserve the rest of the evening to feel the Berlin vibe of chill. You can do that at a traditional biergarten like Prater or Cafe am Neuen See complete with liters of beer and schnitzel, or go to a modern biergarten like at graffiti-covered RAW-Gelände or Klunkerkranich atop a shopping mall’s garage.