Berlin is unlikely to impress everyone who visits. Those who are more attuned to a newly discovered spirit and dynamic nightlife will like it a lot. Others, who may be primarily interested in architectural and cultural treasures with a fair bit of history thrown in will find not much of the former and only specific relatively recent bits of the latter.
Throughout the city center, there are impressive edifices that are largely overshadowed by drab 20th-century buildings or gleaming modern construction.
The symbol of Berlin, Brandenburger Tor ♥♥♥, is a magnificent Neo-Classical structure constructed at the end of the 18th century. From here, the main city thoroughfare of Unter den Linden ♥♥♥ runs across the eastern part of the city center, lined with prestigious buildings restored in the years following World War II. A lively boulevard with smart shops and cafés, the street is always full of tourists.
Among the finest of the façades on Unter den Linden are Neue Wache and Zeughaus. The former is dedicated to the memory of victims of war and dictatorship, with an eternal flame inside. The latter, a Baroque arsenal built in the early 18th century, is home to the German History Museum.
Not far from the Brandenburg Gate is another symbolic structure, Reichstag ♥♥♥. As recently as the 1990s, it was redesigned and modernized for the returning German parliament. You can ascend to its dome for great views of the city while taking in the history of the building and the Bundestag exhibited in photos along the walkway.
On one side of Unter den Linden towards its eastern end is the famous Bebelplatz, the scene of the Nazi book-burning act in 1933. The entire square was undergoing major restoration work in the mid-2000s. St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale which sits on the square would be an interesting grand church to step in if accessible.
Slightly away from the main street, Gendarmenmarkt ♥ is a striking square with two almost-twin cathedrals – Französischer Dom or Deutscher Dom – guarding it on two sides and the Neo-Classical Konzerthaus between them; the latter can be visited only for performances.
Unter den Linden ends at Schlossbrücke ♥, one of Berlin’s most beautiful bridges, with Greek mythology statues and an elaborate wrought-iron balustrade. There are several other fine bridges in the city center.
Berliner Dom ♥ was built as a Neo-Baroque structure at the conclusion of the 19th century but was restored in a simplified form following severe damage during World War II. The interior is quite airy.
The cathedral sits on the narrow island where Berlin’s first settlers arrived in the 13th century. The northern half of the island is known as the Museuminsel, with five museums located next to one another. They mostly hold various collections of antiquities (especially at Pergamonmuseum), with an art gallery among them.
Another grouping of museums is in a different part of central Berlin, known as Kulturforum. Gemäldegalerie ♥♥ holds a pretty good assemblage of Dutch, Flemish, and Italian masters; not really comparable with the top galleries in the world, but respectable. Kunstgewerbemuseum ♥ has a curious collection of craft and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the modern day on display, including goldwork, silverware, majolica, porcelain, furniture, etc. Also part of the complex: Neue Nationalgalerie and Musikinstrumenten-Museum.
Fernsehturm, the TV tower, offers the highest elevated views over the city and a revolving café on one of the observation levels. On balance, the views are not exactly breathtaking, but those who like bird’s-eye views will find the experience worthwhile enough. Near the tower are two eye-catching buildings that may be worth stepping into in addition to admiring their exteriors, Marienkirche and Rotes Rathaus.
Also nearby is the small area of Nikolaiviertel ♥, consisting entirely of newly built replicas of historic buildings.
One of the most popular attractions in Berlin is the Checkpoint Charlie ♥, an erstwhile main border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors of the divided city during the Cold War. There are several signs and monuments on the block and a lot of memorabilia being peddled around. If you are so inclined, you can take your picture (for a fee, of course) with “soldiers” in Soviet and American military uniforms by the checkpoint booth. There is a reputedly very good museum commemorating the history of the Cold War in Berlin, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie.
Potsdamer Platz ♥ is home to the new and glittering financial and business district, boasting a number of splendid modern constructions.
One other famous Berlin boulevard, Kurfürstendamm ♥ (aka Ku’damm), is lined with luxurious buildings, upmarket boutiques, and hotels. Partially ruined Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche is one of the visual highlights of the area.
Schloss Charlottenburg ♥♥ and the surrounding Schlosspark ♥ are located some distance from the city center. The palace offers two different tours of its fanciful rooms, of which mirrored Porzellankabinett stands out; there is also a good art collection. The park consists of an ornate Baroque garden and less formal landscaped English-style gardens and has several charming pavilions, including Belvedere, which houses a most remarkable porcelain collection. A combined ticket allows entry to both palace tours and three pavilions.
Tiergarten is another large landscaped park in the western part of the city center.
Berlin’s metro is frequent and convenient, both for central areas and for excursions further afield. The lines of the city U-Bahn are well integrated with the commuter S-Bahn network.
The important thing to remember is to actually buy tickets and validate them in the ticket machines. Neither turnstiles nor gates impede the entrance to the stations; however, absentmindedly getting on a train without a valid ticket can lead to a hefty fine; ticket checks occur with enough regularity.
Accommodation-wise, Berlin is a large city, so no single location will be within walking distance of all points of interest, but the metro system is quite excellent for covering distances.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Berlin. One place deserving of recommendation is Kartoffelkeller (on Albrechstr. in Friedrichstr. area), which specializes in all kinds of potato dishes.
Potsdam can be visited on a day trip from Berlin, although there are actually a number of attractions there that may sustain a longer exploration.
The main attraction, of course, is Sansoussi ♥♥♥. The complex, which includes two large palaces and a vast park with several pavilions, can take an entire day to explore all by itself. The park is beautiful, with multiple sculpted gardens, fountains, and architectural highlights such as Chinesisches Teehaus or Neues Palais. Entrance to the park itself is free.
The famed palace Schloss Sansoussi ♥♥♥ stands atop a beautifully terraced vineyard. The entrance to it is with a timed guided tour. The tour departs every 20 minutes, and we were able to buy tickets for one that was starting in about an hour. In summer, it is quite possible that you can get inside only with an advance ticket purchase. The tour is in German (limited English information cards are provided). You will be required to put slippers – provided at the entrance – over your shoes. The tour takes you through a succession of lavishly decorated and furnished rooms, some with excellent paintings hanging on the walls.
If you are spending more time in Potsdam, you can explore Cecilienhof, the setting for the 1945 peace conference, plus a couple of other palaces, the imposing Nikolaikirche, and Babelsberg film park.