Berlin, the capital of Germany and the country’s largest city, is also a major center of politics, art and media. The top attractions in Berlin are a good mix of history, culture and art. There is enough to explore for families with kids, and you are never far away from a delightful cafe to take a break.
Top attractions in Berlin: a self-guided walk
You could opt for a walking, cycling or a Segway tour for the main attractions in the city. We however, decided to switch on google maps and do it ourselves. Except for the visit to the Dome at Reichstag, none of this requires any planning or pre-booking.
We started our self-guided walking tour at Checkpoint Charlie. Located on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, this is a reminder of the former border crossing, the Cold War and the partition of Berlin. It was also the spot where, in 1961, US and Russian tanks literally lined up to face each other in what the world believed could be the start of another war.
Did you know – the name Checkpoint Charlie comes from the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie). After the border crossings at Helmstedt-Marienborn (Alpha) and Dreilinden-Drewitz (Bravo), Checkpoint Charlie was the third checkpoint opened by the Allies in and around Berlin.
The museum next to it – Mauermuseum – is known for a good collection of items from 30 years of history. My daughter was restless and hence we did not visit it.
This is an iconic sight for Berlin. A fine example of neo-classical building, the site symbolises a reunified Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, it was inspired by the monumental gateway at the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. The Brandenburg Gate is 26 metres high, 65.5 metres long and 11 metres deep, and supported by two rows of six Doric columns.
The Reichstag is the current home of the German parliament. We were delighted to note that it is possible to visit the building. You can take a guided tour to this historic building, make sure you book the tour in advance (visit Deutscher Bundestag for more details and for online registration).
The Dome – a glass cupola – sits directly above the debating chamber. It is possible to book a visit to the Dome online as well. We hadn’t done so, but across the Reichstag, there is a pavilion to book visits. Make sure you have an ID with date of birth – passport or driving license – to book the visit.
It is quite an experience to walk up the curving steel ramp, and take in the views around the city.
Across the Reichstag is the lovely Tiergarten. Visiting this garden during fall is heavenly.
Attractively laid out with an abundance of trees and shrubs and expanses of grass and flower borders, the Tiergarten covers some 520 acres and is a favorite spot for relaxation, walking, and boating.
The park also contains numerous important statues and monuments, including the Statue of Queen Luise erected in 1880, and a Monument to Frederick Wilhelm III unveiled in 1849 with reliefs reflecting the King’s peace-loving disposition.
The most important of the Tiergarten’s monuments, however, is the massive Victory Column, a superb 70-meter-tall structure built on a roundabout and crowned by an eight-meter-high gold statue of Victoria (dubbed Golden Lizzy by locals). Twenty minutes walk through the centre of the park will lead you to the Victory Column, but we decided to not walk that far.
We then headed towards the Jewish Holocaust Memorial.
Peter Eisenman’s 2,700 concrete slabs are arranged in a neat grid spread across 200,000 square feet near the Brandenburg Gate. You are meant to sit amongst these slabs of varying height and contemplate about the horrors of war. Frankly, not much contemplation happened with my daughter jumping around and asking for lunch!
Further on after the memorial is the Potsdamer Platz – an area with skyscrapers, shopping centre, cafes, and bustling activity everywhere. We stopped at Vapiano, a restaurant chain in this area, and my daughter was happy with familiar pasta options.
It is difficult to imagine that this area was a empty wasteland once. Since reunification, what used to be a wasteland with the Berlin Wall running through it, has become a completely new neighbourhood.
We ended our self-guided walking tour at Sony Centre, where my daughter had fun first at the courtyard covered with a tent-like glass roof. And then at the Legoland Discovery Centre, but more on that later.
On our way back to the hotel, we passed the city’s most visible landmark – Berlin’s TV Tower. Soaring 368 metres into the sky, Alexanderplatz is not just a popular attraction, it is also the highest building in Europe open to the general public.
We didn’t attempt this, but going up to the revolving Sphere Restaurant and enjoying the spectacular views of the city from there excites many. If you’re planning to do this, then online booking is a must. Visit Berlin Television Tower for more details and booking.
Museums, Art and Architecture
I planned a day with my daughter to explore the area in and around Museum Island.
The Unesco Heritage Museum Island or Museuminsel, comprises 5 conveniently adjacent museums, all located along the river Spree. It is a beautiful area to walk around, and get your fill of history and culture.
The Pergamon Museum has vast treasures from ancient times and Islamic art. Neues Museum holds Egyptian, prehistoric and classical treats, while the Bode Museum has a sculpture collection. Altes museum houses the Crown Jewels and other royal treasures. Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie) has a fine collection of 19th-century paintings.
Berliner Dom or Berlin Cathedral is also located within this area, and was our first stop.
Famous for its 75-meter-high dome with its old bell from 1532, Berlin Cathedral Church was completed in 1905 on the site of an earlier cathedral dating from the time of Frederick the Great.
More than seeing the actual church interiors, my daughter and I had fun climbing the 270 steps to the outer walkway of the Dome. The climb is worthwhile to get panoramic views of the City center, Museum Island, the Palace Square, and Lustgarten.
Imagine walking into a huge room that has a well-preserved Roman Market Gate from the 2nd century AD! Filled with shimmering examples of intricately designed facades and gates, 2000 years old and more, Pergamon is the most visited museum in Berlin.
While queues can get really long during summer we visited it in mid-October, that too in early evening time, and so walked in without any wait time. It is an excellent site for ancient architecture and Islamic art. The Pergamon Altar, north wing and gallery of Hellenistic art are however, closed to the public until 2019 due to refurbishment.
It would not be of much interest to a child is my guess, and I was genuinely surprised when my 6-year-old agreed to taking an audio guide by herself and walking around the museum listening to explanations of artefacts from Babylon era. Go figure!
This interactive museum – an immersive experience of everyday life in the former East Germany – would be of interest to a child. We decided to give the rest of the 4 museums a miss, and head here. It is a short walk behind the Berliner Dom.
Visitors are encouraged to touch, hold and interact with a range of objects and installations, from products used in East Germany to the workings of the Stasi to a fresco in praise of Communism. It is genuinely a hands-on experience of history, as they claim.
More details: DDR museum
From 13 August 1961 until 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall divided the city into East and West Berlin.
Today, you can find traces of the wall in few parts of the city. The East Side Gallery is the longest surviving section of the Berlin Wall. The open-air art gallery on the banks of the Spree in Friedrichshain is the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. In 1990, more than 100 artists from over 20 countries decorated this stretch of the hinterland wall with their art works.
Great for kids: Recommended activities
Except for the Street Art Tour, my daughter accompanied me everywhere: to the top attractions, to the museums and the Berlin Church. But there were some sites and activities that were planned specifically for her. Here are my recommendations on what to do with kids in Berlin.
My daughter loved the day we spent at the Berlin Zoo and the Aquarium within the premises. I cannot recommend this enough for kids. The park is beautiful, and some of the not-so-common-animals-to-sight – polar bear, orangutan, polar wolves, penguins, sea lions – will delight even the adults. Ditto for the Aquarium that houses the largest collection of marine and amphibian species. There are 3 levels, marine animals on the first floor, reptiles and insects on the second and finally snakes and amphibians on the third floor.
With more than 15,000 animals representing some 1,400 species, including pandas and apes in large open-air enclosures, as well as predator and nocturnal animal houses and Europe’s biggest aviary, expect to spend the best part of a day here.
Also read – Take a scenic walk in the Vintgar Gorge
Legoland Discovery Centre
What will you create with over four million LEGO blocks at your disposal?
Legoland Discovery Centre, located around Sony Film Centre will delight any kid. It is a good way to spend couple of hours and give your child a break after a historic walk or a visit to few museums.
Sea Life Berlin
I thought after the Aquarium at Berlin Zoo, my daughter would be more than done with animals! Clearly not.
She enjoyed her visit to Sea Life – a good variety of marine life from sharks to seahorses to sting rays is to be seen. Though I felt that this was a overkill after the Berlin Zoo visit. The entry ticket is quite expensive as well.
Parks and playgrounds
My daughter loved running around in the various parks around Museum Island, and the neighbourhood park near the hotel.
Deutsches Technikmuseum and Museum of Natural History were recommended to me – specifically for kids. But we didn’t end up going there.
Offbeat idea: Street Art in Berlin
Street art in Berlin is legendary. You can take a walk around the city and stumble upon many interesting pieces. What I did was to take a tour with Alternative Berlin. It was a great way to spend 3.5 hours. Not only was the street art interesting, even better were the rambling stories that our guide Jake shared with the group.
When to visit
I have visited Berlin earlier in May. This second trip of mine, in mid-October with family, was my first experience of fall, and I must admit I couldn’t get over the myriad hues of orange, yellow and red. Summer is a good time to visit the city, but autumn is even better. The crowds at top attractions and museums are much lesser, the summer buzz has not died down and you will love the fall colours in parks around.
Food in Berlin
The city is bursting with restaurants and flavours. Besides the expected German, European and Italian cuisines, it was interesting to see the sheer number of Vietnamese, French and Japanese restaurants.
Here are some of my recommended restaurants – Hummus & Friends (Israeli cuisine), Sucre et Sel (French), Vapiano (Italian) and Nithan Thai (Fusion Thai).
Berlin is not really known for a vibrant cafe culture as say, Amsterdam or Paris is. But we found there are several delightful cafes in every neighbourhood to enjoy a leisurely breakfast or a cuppa during the day.
Some recommended cafes and an ice-cream parlour that we enjoyed are – Zimt & Zucker, Distrikt Coffee, Funk You and Eispatiserrie Hokey Pokey.
For more information on Berlin, do look at their official site: Visit Berlin
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