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Berlin is one of the most complex and historical cities. It was the first major city I ever visited in Europe back in 2007 and still remains one of my favorites. For being only an 80-minute train ride away from Hamburg, I hadn’t been back to Berlin for almost 4 years! After attending a conference in the city a few weeks ago, I decided to stay an extra day and reminisce by doing some of my favorite touristy activities. Although I’ve now visited about 8 times since 2007, the city never gets old to me – constantly changing and reinventing itself. If you only have 2 days in Berlin, this is the perfect itinerary to introduce you to Berlin and the most popular landmarks.
Table of Contents
- History of Berlin
- Only 1 Day in Berlin (or Day 1)
- Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)
- Museum Island (Museumsinsel)
- New Guardhouse (Neue Wache)
- Bebelplatz (Opernplatz colloquially)
- Humboldt University (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
- Equestrian Statue of King Frederick II of Prussia
- Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)
- Holocaust Memorial (Holocause-Denkmal)
- End of the Tour: One Day in Berlin
- 2 Days in Berlin (or Day 2)
- Day Trips from Berlin
- Other Places of Interest in Berlin
- Final Thoughts on Visiting Berlin
- Like the Post? Share for Later!
History of Berlin
I met up with Cory and G from You Could Travel and one of their first questions was, “Why do you love Berlin so much?” To me, it’s so hard to put into words – it’s the history, the politics, and the intersection of so many eras into one city. When walking down Unter den Linden (the main east-west street in the heart of Berlin) one can literally walk through time, witnessing historical and political landmarks from Brandenburg-Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic, Third Reich, Communist Era (East/West Germany), and a reunified Germany. As a political nerd, I can’t help but stand in awe of all the amazing and tragic events that have occurred in such a small vicinity. Even since my first trip to the city 10 years ago, Berlin has undergone an amazing transformation – every time I’m in the city, there seems to be ongoing construction and new/restored buildings appearing!
There’s such a wealth of history in Berlin through all different eras, and it’s amazing how much the city continues to change and grown since the fall of the Berlin Wall!
Only 1 Day in Berlin (or Day 1)
The best part about the itinerary for 2 days in Berlin is that the first day can really be a stand-alone day in the city. If you only have one day in Berlin, I’d suggest just doing this tour. The first day covers all the important and historical landmarks of Berlin (focusing on Unter den Linden and the surrounding areas).
Transportation: U-Bahn Alexanderplatz or S-Bahn Alexanderplatz
This is the perfect starting point of your tour of central Berlin! As one of the main centers of East Berlin, this square was enlarged and made into a pedestrian zone during the 1960s. It’s most notable feature, the TV tower (Fernsehturm), is the second-largest structure in the European Union! Notable features in Alexanderplatz and nearby include:
- World Clock – which displays the time of 148 cities around the world
- Red City Hall (Rotes Rathaus) – it is home to the mayor and governing body of the state of Berlin (fun fact, much like Hamburg, Berlin is both a city and a state – a so-called “city-state” in Germany. There are three city-states: Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen/Bremerhaven). Heavily bombed during WWII, it was the city hall of East Berlin following the end of the war.
- St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) – originally built in the 13th century, the modern-day structure dates back to the 19th century. As one of the oldest churches in Berlin, it was originally a Catholic church but has been a Protestant church since the Reformation 500 years ago.
On November 4, 1989, Alexanderplatz was the site of the largest demonstration in East Germany. As part of the Peaceful Revolution that took place, the Berlin Wall would fall just 5 days later – much to the surprise of both East and West Germans! However, this symbolic protest is still an important part of Germany’s history and the path towards reunification.
Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)
Head towards the Spree (river) and Museum Island (Museumsinsel) – this is one of my favorite parts in all of Berlin! While the initial cathedral dates from the 1450s, the current-day building was only completed in 1905. In 1539, the church converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism following the Reformation. However, in 1632 it became a Calvinist church due to Berlin’s control by the House of Hohenzollern (Brandenburg-Prussia). Since 1817, the Berlin Cathedral has been a unified Evangelical church made up of several different denominations. The new cathedral was supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II and inaugurated in 1905 – it was/is considered by many to be the Protestant counterpart to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Heavily destroyed during Berlin’s bombing in WWII, the reconstruction of the Berlin Cathedral did not take place until 1975. Due to the cathedral being zoned into East Berlin after WWII, the reconstruction was a much simpler design than the 1905 church. The East German government also removed as many crosses as possible. The Berlin Cathedral was inaugurated in 1993 after the reunification of East and West Germany. However, there are still calls to restore the cathedral to its full glory.
Museum Island (Museumsinsel)
Right behind the Berlin Cathedral are the museums that make up Museum Island. With only one day in Berlin, you might not have time to visit all the museums. However, here’s the scoop on all of them and I’ll let you decide what best fits your interests (I’m partial to the Old National Gallery although I’m a sucker for art museums). It’s also worth noting that Museum Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Old Museum (Altes Museum) – this museum houses the collection of Classical Antiquities (mainly the Greek collection)
- New Museum (Neues Museum) – this museum is home to the Egyptian, Prehistory, and Early History collections. It was heavily bombed during WWII and didn’t reopen until 2009.
- Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie) – as my favorite museum, it displays Neoclassical, Romantic, Biedermeier, Impressionist, and early Modernist artwork.
- Bode Museum – this museum exhibits the sculpture collection as well as late Antique and Byzantine art.
- Pergamon Museum – this is probably the most popular museum on Museum Island due to housing the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Market Gate of Miletus, and Mshatta Facade. The Pergamon Museum is made up of an antiquity collection, the Middle East museum, and Islamic artwork.
Although not on Museum Island, the German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is located right next to the island and definitely should not be missed by historical and political lovers. It is quite large so plan accordingly!
New Guardhouse (Neue Wache)
Although built as a guardhouse for the troops of the Prussian Crown Prince, this building has served as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship” since 1931. The middle sculpture is a poignant representation of a mother cradling her dead son. Although it only takes a few minutes to visit, I’d highly recommend not missing this memorial.
Bebelplatz (Opernplatz colloquially)
One of the most important squares in all of Berlin, Bebelplatz has seen some of Berlin’s most tragic events. The square itself is lined with many important and historical buildings. When entering the square from Unter den Linden, Humboldt University’s law library is to the right (see more below), the State Opera House is to the left, and St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church (the first Catholic church built after the Reformation) is straight ahead.
The most important part of Bebelplatz is located right in the middle. On the evening of May 10, 1933, over 20,000 books were burned in the middle of this square including works by Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Heine, and Karl Marx. Prior to the book burning, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels gave a speech condemning these works. Today, there is a memorial underground (you can view it through glass in the square) of empty bookshelves that can hold 20,000 books. Next to the memorial is the inscription,
“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” – Heinrich Heine
Humboldt University (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
I have had such a love affair with this university since I first laid eyes on it over 10 years ago. I was convinced I was going to get a degree from here. While that might not have worked out, I did manage to get a degree from an equally well-known university in Germany (University of Heidelberg) so I’m not complaining!
The university was founded in 1810 as a research-heavy university – a very innovative concept. Not only is the university known for its natural science programs but they have some of the best social science programs in the world! Famous students and professors include Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Otto von Bismarck, and Robert Schuman. This university was actually one of the inspirations for Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
During the Cold War, the university was located in East Berlin. In response, the university was reopened by the West Germans under the name Free University of Berlin. Today, the two universities are separate from one another and have quite a friendly rivalry!
Equestrian Statue of King Frederick II of Prussia
This famous statue stands right at the beginning of Unter den Linden and if you continue past it, you’ll end up reaching the Brandenburg Gate. Known as Frederick the Great, he was a great military fighter, lover of the arts, and promoter of the Enlightenment period. As the last King of Prussia, he is much loved and respected by the Germans. In additional to his above accomplishments, he modernized Prussia, allowed religious tolerance, and helped to design/build many of the famous buildings now along Unter den Linden.
Fun fact – in 1785, Frederick the Great signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States. Through this treaty, the Kingdom of Prussia became one of the first European countries to recognize the United States as a new country, and the first European country to sign a commerce and free trade agreement with the United States! Besides being an important treaty for the United States, it served as a model of future free trade agreements. It also demanded the humane treatment of all prisoners of war – a novelty for that era.
As you head down Unter den Linden towards Brandenburg Gate, take a left on Charlottenstraße (about a block after the statue of King Frederick II above) and continue straight until you hit Französische Straße. In front of you will be the back side of the French Church. Head around to the front to see the entire Gendarmenmarkt including the French Church, German Church, and Konzerthaus Berlin (a concert hall).
The square was initially built in the mid-17th century as a marketplace for the expanding city. It was heavily favored and modified by Frederick the Great. Besides housing the two churches and the concert hall, Gendarmenmarkt has one of the best Christmas markets in all of Berlin!
The French Church was built by the Huguenot community in Berlin around 1700. Interestingly, the German name of the French and German churches on this square uses the word “Dom,” which means “Cathedral” in German. However, neither of these churches are cathedrals because they were never the seat of a bishop. The French church, the older one of the two churches, now houses a viewing platform, a restaurant, and a museum.
The German Church was built a few years after the French Church. It belonged to the Lutheran community of Berlin. At the end of WWII, it was completely destroyed and was only rebuilt after reunification in the 1990s. It now is a German history museum.
Initially, the National Theater was located on the spot of the current Konzerthaus Berlin. After the National Theater burnt down in 1817, another theater (Schauspielhaus) was rebuilt in that location using some of the ruins of the initial building. Following the Schauspielhaus’ almost complete destruction during WWII, it was rebuilt in the 1980s as Konzerthaus Berlin. Acoustically, it is considered one of the top 5 best concert venues in the world. Right in front of Konzerthaus Berlin is a statue of Friedrich Schiller – an influential German writer, poet, playwright, historian, and philosopher.
Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)
The most iconic site in Germany, the Brandenburg Gate not only symbolizes destruction, suffering, and separation but also unity, peace, and reconciliation. The gate is located on the site of one of Berlin’s former gates from when the city was still a fortress (in the 1600s). Brandenburg Gate was built in the 1730s as one of the 18 gates of the Berlin Customs Wall. The sole purpose of this wall was to impose tariffs on the imports and exports of Berlin. The Berlin Customs Wall dissolved in the 1860s and Brandenburg Gate was the only gate rebuilt after WWII.
The Brandenburg Gate was meant to represent peace and it was actually initially named Friedenstor (Peace Gate). Atop the gate is the Berlin Quadriga. Originally known as the Quadriga of Victory, it represented peace as the goddess riding in the chariot (pulled by the four horses) was Victoria (Goddess of Victory) and she was holding an olive wreath.
Unfortunately, this meaning quickly changed after Napoleon’s occupation of Berlin in 1806. He actually took the Berlin Quadriga off the Brandenburg Gate and brought it back to Paris as part of his triumphal procession. It wasn’t returned to Berlin until 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat and Prussia’s triumph. Once it was brought back to Berlin, the quadriga was redone. Instead of Victoria holding an olive wreath, she was now holding a Prussia Iron Cross (a military symbol) with a Prussian eagle atop the quadriga.
Interestingly, in terms of passing through the gate, commoners were only allowed to walk through the outermost two columns on each side. Only the royal family was allowed to go through the central archway as well as ambassadors on the occasion that they were presenting their letters of credence (the letter appointing that individual ambassador).
After the rise of Adolf Hitler, the meaning behind the Brandenburg Gate became much more sinister. After being name Chancellor of Germany, Hitler led a torchlight procession through Berlin, passing under the Brandenburg Gate while surrounded by his supporters and members of the SS. Although it was a Nazi party political symbol, the Brandenburg Gate survived WWII (although heavily damaged).
Even though the Brandenburg Gate became an iconic landmark during the Cold War, the gate was actually restored by both East and West Germany after WWII through a joint program. However, after the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, the Brandenburg Gate border crossing closed until 1989.
The Brandenburg Gate served as the backdrop of several infamous speeches and quotes including:
“Ich bin ein Berliner.” – President John F Kennedy
as well as
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – President Ronald Reagan
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow were the first two individuals to officially walk through the Brandenburg Gate after it was opened again in 1990. It is now a symbol of peace, unity, and reconciliation.
Holocaust Memorial (Holocause-Denkmal)
Known by its full name the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (“Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas”), this large memorial is located to the left of the Brandenburg Gate past the U.S. Embassy. There are 2,711 slabs of concrete organized into 54 north-south rows and 87 east-west rows.
The exact interpretation of the memorial has never been fully explained by the artist. Because the rows are hilly and the slabs vary in height, there is an immense feeling of confusion and claustrophobia (which I can attest to!). It is very disorienting and quite overwhelming and by the time you reach the middle of the memorial, you’re totally separated from the rest of Berlin (much like the Jews were isolated, separated, and forgotten by the rest of the world during the Holocaust). The slabs themselves have no names or symbols (such as the Star of David) on them. This leads many to interpret the grey slabs as coffins or a cemetery as well as a lost of identity for many Jews during the Holocaust. Additionally, the lack of any names or individuality represents the unimaginable number of Jews murdered.
The memorial was surrounded with controversy even before it opened to the public. Many felt the memorial did not go far enough to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Additionally, as a memorial to only the murdered Jews, other groups persecuted during WWII and the Holocaust protested their exclusion.
Opened in 1894, the Reichstag housed the Imperial Diet of the German Empire until the building caught fire in 1933 (under controversial circumstances). As the building was located in East Germany after the war, it went unoccupied until a full restoration occurred after the reunification of Germany in 1990 (the East German government met at the Palace of the Republic). It only started housing the German government (or Bundestag) in 1999. It’s important to note that the name “Reichstag” only refers to the building whereas the word “Bundestag” refers to the federal government itself.
Most significant are the words inscribed on the main facade of the building, “Dem Deutschen Volke” or “To the German people.” Added to the building in 1916, it is meant to symbolize the democracy of the German people and has taken on an even more symbolic meaning following the reunification of Germany.
Also, fun fact – while the East German government had Berlin as its capital city, Bonn was actually the capital city of West Germany. After the reunification of Germany, the newly-elected German government barely voted in favor of moving the capital city from Bonn back to Berlin.
The most iconic feature of the new Reichstag is its dome. Not only is the dome completely glass – giving great views of Berlin as well as views of the debating chamber below – but it also symbolizes that people are always above government (unlike during the Nazi era) and the transparency of government to the people. This glass dome can be visited through pre-booked reservations (and I’d highly recommend it!).
End of the Tour: One Day in Berlin
If you only have one day in Berlin, this tour covers all the essential landmarks and historical sites of Berlin while also not being too overwhelming! It is also great to take this particular tour on Sunday as there aren’t as many things to do in Berlin on Sunday (as many places are closed!). Almost everything on this list is outdoors and easily accessible. However, if you’re looking for what to do in Berlin in 2 days, keep reading on for more suggestions for your second day!
If you want to see the exact walking path, stay organized through a map, and even download the walking route to your phone, click the button below to download the Berlin walking tour!
2 Days in Berlin (or Day 2)
East Side Gallery
As the largest and longest-running open air gallery in the world, the East Side gallery displays 105 paintings by artists from around the world. These paintings were done on the east side of the Berlin Wall, encompassing 1.3 kilometers of the wall. Most of the paintings have political statements or messages for humankind.
To be honest, this is the most disappointing and touristy landmark in all of Berlin. You can pay money to get photos taken with fake guards or to have your passport stamp. However, it’s a complete tourist trap and located conveniently next to a McDonald’s now. It’s definitely worth viewing for its political significance but save your money for something more worthwhile.
Jewish Museum Berlin (Jüdisches Museum Berlin)
If you plan on going to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, be prepared to spend at least half a day here! With over 2,000 years of Jewish history presented, the museum doesn’t just focus on the Holocaust and most recent history but rather creates a narrative of the Jewish individual for the past 2,000 years. This is definitely a museum not to miss! Everything is presented in both English and German.
Topography of Terror (Topographie des Terrors)
Located on the site of the former headquarters of the Third Reich’s SS and Gestapo, this is a riveting indoor/outdoor museum exploring the SS, Gestapo, and their victims as well as Berlin from 1933-1945 and the terrors that occurred on this property. When I took my family to Berlin in 2012, we ranged in age from 14 years old (my youngest sister) to almost 80 years old (my grandmother). This was the one museum we all really enjoyed and thought was very well done. Because it is an indoor/outdoor museum, there are lots of opportunities to walk around, yet the information is not overwhelming. I recommend this museum to everyone. Everything is presented in both English and German.
Potsdamer Platz is one of the most important squares in all of Berlin. During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall went directly through Potsdamer Platz and thus, the square laid in waste until it was rebuilt following reunification in the 1990s. Today, Potsdamer Platz is one of the most high-tech epicenters of Berlin with major corporations having offices there including Daimler-Benz and Sony. The square is also used for many European movie premieres. It is definitely worth walking around the square, enjoying one of the many outdoor cafes, and observing the remnants of the Berlin Wall.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Heavily bombed during WWII, this church now serves as a reminder about the horrors of war and the tragedies that took place under the Nazi regime. The damaged spire of the church remains and there is now a memorial hall underneath it. Located in a prominent and frequented section of Berlin, this church serves as a reminder and memorial to all.
Day Trips from Berlin
If you’re looking to get outside the city for a day, consider these day trips from Berlin! They all only require the use of public transportation and are within an hour of the city center.
A historical city located only 25 kilometers southwest of Berlin, Potsdam used to be the favored location for Berlin royalty. It was the residence of Prussian kings and Kaiser Wilhelm II until 1918. Its most well-known landmark is the palace of Sanssouci. As the summer palace of Frederick the Great (remember the statue of him above?!), it was meant to imitate the style of Versailles.
Following the end of WWII, the famous Potsdam Conference took place at Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam. Truman, Churchill (later Attlee), and Stalin all attended in order to figure out what to do with Germany’s unconditional surrender as well as establish post-war order and draft peace treaties. While the conference achieved a lot, it wasn’t without tension. Truman was highly suspicious of the Soviet Union compared to Roosevelt (he died a month before Germany’s surrender). Additionally, France was excluded from the conference.
Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg)
Commissioned by Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich III (Elector of Brandenburg) also known as King Friedrich I of Prussia, Charlottenburg Palace is the largest palace in Berlin. Based off the design of Versailles, the palace and gardens were unfortunately not completed before the death of Sophie Charlotte in 1705. To honor her memory, Friedrich I of Prussia named the palace after her. Although Charlottenburg Palace was used for the next 200 years, it became the less-favored residence after the construction of Sanssouci. Despite being heavily damaged during WWII due to bombing, Charlottenburg Palace was rebuilt to its former glory after the war.
Tempelhof Airport (Flughafen Tempelhof)
One of the oldest-operating airports in the world before its closure in 2008, Tempelhof Airport was designated as an airport in 1923. After the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, a major overhaul of the airport occurred and Tempelhof was greatly expanded.
The airport is most noted for its role during the Berlin Airlift in 1948/1949 when West Berlin was effectively cut off from the rest of the world. In order to maintain essential supplies such as fuel and food in West Berlin, Allied forces decided to undertake a massive airlift. At the height of the 11th-month airlift, planes were landing and taking off every 30 seconds at Tempelhof Airport.
Now that the airport is closed, it has been converted into a giant park. Although there was talk of turning it into a massive construction site, the citizens of Berlin voted to keep it as a public park through a referendum.
Other Places of Interest in Berlin
The Kennedys Museum
One of the best and most hidden museums in all of Berlin, The Kennedys museum has one of the largest and most comprehensive Kennedy collections in the world. As a private museum, many of the 300+ items were previously owned by the Kennedy family. This is definitely one of my favorite museums in the entire city.
Hackescher Markt + Oranienburger Straße
Looking for yummy food, good shopping, and lots of history? Stop by Hackescher Markt and Oranienburg Straße! Hackescher Markt is dotted with an array of cafes as well as quaint restaurants. Rundown when part of East Berlin, the entire area has been revived after the fall of the Berlin Wall and is now an important area for nightlife in Berlin.
Oranienburger Straße’s eastern end runs straight into Hackescher Markt. From a historical aspect, Oranienburger Straße used to be the center of Berlin’s Jewish community. Prior to the 1930s, the area was host to Jewish schools, orphanages, synagogues, and cemeteries. Tragically, the majority of Berlin’s Jewish residents were killed during WWII. There are now several memorials immortalizing the street’s Jewish residents and history. Additionally, the New Synagogue, built in 1866 and saved during Kristallnacht in 1938, now serves as a religious building, community center, and museum.
Berlin’s equivalent to London’s Harrods, KaDeWe (shortened from Kaufhaus des Westens or the Department Store of the West) attracts nearly 50,000 visitors/shoppers each day. The department store is actually the second-largest in Europe behind Harrods. With 8 stories, each one is dedicated to different types of merchandise. The 7th floor is dedicated solely to food with 110 cooks, 40 bakers, 30 counters, and food from around the world. The top floor has a winter palace with restaurant seating for over 1,000 people and gorgeous views of Berlin.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Berlin
Even with over half a dozen trips to Berlin under my belt, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this incredible city. Each time that I return, I feel like the city has completely changed – and for the better. It’s incredible the positive transformation that’s occurred in this reunified city in less than 30 years. Whether you have only 1 day in Berlin, 2 days in Berlin, or want to take some day trips from Berlin, this Berlin itinerary has all the major landmarks and historical sites covered!
Remember to print out my Berlin guide and walking tour map so you’ll be covered both online and offline!