Berlin is one of the most laid-back, hedonistic cities in Europe. Exploring its layers of history can feel like a treasure hunt, and its museums, concert halls, galleries and clubs attract art and culture lovers. Wide-open green spaces and lots of child-friendly museums and play areas make it a great place for families.
Berlin: city layout
For hundreds of years, Berlin was actually a collection of villages. Then the Berlin Wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989. Although it's now whole again, finding its true centre can still be difficult.
Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt are the focus of commercial life in the former East, while Zoologischer Garten and the shopping mile Kurfürstendamm (Ku'damm for short) are the centre of the former West.
Many historic sites are in Mitte, while Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg are former working class areas gone upscale. Charlottenburg and Schöneberg were both once central to Berlin's decadent nightlife, immortalised in the film "Cabaret". Now they are elegant residential areas full of restaurants, shops and galleries.
Top attractions in Berlin
The first stop for many is Museum Island in the Spree River, where a cluster of stately Prussian buildings house an art collection spanning centuries. From there, it's a 30-minute walk down Unter den Linden boulevard to one of Berlin's most famous symbols: the Brandenburg Gate.
Just to the right of the gate is the seat of parliament known as the Reichstag. Book in advance to visit its glass dome, designed by British architect Norman Foster. Next to it sits Berlin's central park Tiergarten, dotted with monuments, statues, streams and gardens. Berlin's Zoo and Aquarium occupy a corner of the park at one end of Ku'damm.
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Berlin's hotels suit every budget, from old-fashioned inns that have been around for decades to trendy urban hotels with their own bars and acclaimed restaurants. Some so-called "aparthotels" have bigger rooms with kitchenettes for longer stays.
Young leisure travelers like to stay near Alexanderplatz as it's close to major sites and train lines, or Prenzlauer Berg for its laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere.
To experience the city's vibrant, 24-hour nightlife, pick a hotel in Friedrichshain, a low-key part of the former East, or Wedding, a student area with a large Turkish population.Business travellers like to stay near Potsdamer Platz, where Berlin's low-rise homes give way to high-rise office buildings, or Zoologischer Garten, which is named after one of the city's main transportation hubs and is close to the ICC congress centre.
Berlin offers restaurants and cafés at all prices, as well as weekly outdoor markets. Bakeries sell classic German breads and cakes, while beer gardens and street food events are an excuse to spend time outside.
A Berlin favourite is the outdoor market at Winterfeldtplatz in Schöneberg on Saturdays. Markthalle IX, a revamped brick market hall in Kreuzberg, has a popular Thursday street food event.
Restaurants in Mitte's Hackescher Markt serve everything from reimagined classic German cuisine to Asian fusion to Spanish tapas. Wander Ku'damm's side streets in Charlottenburg for grand old establishments serving a wealthy and elegant clientele.
Tip: Even today, many restaurants do not accept credit cards, preferring cash or EC cards (debit cards with an electronic chip) used all over Europe. Ask when making your reservation.
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Berlin has an intriguing mix of long shopping boulevards filled with recognisable brands and quaint side streets where local designers and craftsmen sell clothes, homeware and speciality items.
First-time shoppers would do well to start on Friedrichstrasse in Mitte, where the enormous "culture emporium" Dussmann offers books, magazines, CDs and DVDs. A 10-minute walk further south is French department store Galeries Lafayette, as well as many mainstream shops.
You'll feel like a local as you explore the tiny streets of the Hackescher Markt area like Mulackstrasse, Auguststrasse and Kleine Hamburger Strasse. Here, small independent boutiques have set up shop in 100-year-old buildings.
Apple's flagship store is on Kurfürstendamm, and you'll find other international brands nearby. The Kaufhaus des Westens, KaDeWe for short, is the largest department store in continental Europe, located at Wittenbergplatz.
Specialty shops in Berlin
As well as the Philharmonie at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin has three major opera houses and countless theaters staging everything from big hits to independent productions.
Official state museums, including those on Museum Island, are spread all over town. Galleries in Mitte, Wedding and Schöneberg's Potsdamer Strasse fill in the gaps with contemporary works.
You'll find paintings, drawings and the Musical Instrument Museum in a complex west of Potsdamer Platz known as the Kulturforum. In Charlottenburg, several museums sit directly across the street from Charlottenburg Palace, in the former royal barracks and stables. Berlin's nightlife is still defined by the "anything goes" attitude that made it famous in the 1920s and ‘30s. Bars and clubs in Mitte, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain stay open until morning. Easygoing Kneipen (local pubs) and wine bars are joined by craft beer breweries and creative cocktail venues, as well as the popular 'beach bars' that line the Spree.
Small museums in Berlin
Berlin is a popular family destination, packed with child-friendly cafés, restaurants, parks, museums and playgrounds. Though Germany is known to fret about its slow population growth, a walk through Prenzlauer Berg or parts of Kreuzberg will make anyone think the city is in the midst of a baby boom.
Kindercafés (children's cafés) are a relaxing morning option, with a separate area for kids to play in while you sip your coffee. The petting zoo Jugendfarm Moritzhof is at the northern end of Mauerpark, which also has three small playgrounds with tall slides and loads of climbing structures.
At the centre of town is Berlin's main zoo, Zoologischer Garten and Aquarium, where children will marvel at the ornate elephants guarding the front gates as well as the live ones inside.
Your kids can release some energy on the preserved runways and grassy areas of Tempelhofer Feld, once an airport and now a public park. A boat ride on the Spree and Landwehr Canal offers kids a different way of looking at the city.
Hands-on museums in Berlin