If you’ve only got a long weekend to spend in Berlin, you want to make the most of it. This insider’s tour, from Berlin’s historical center to its grungy party scene and lazy flea market Sundays, is perfect for first-time visitors.
Day 1: Mitte & Museumsinsel
Even if you want to spend most of your time living like a local, there are a few must-see sights if it’s your first time visiting the city. Begin your day by riding up into the glass dome of the Reichstag, Germany’s capitol building, for a view over the government quarter. While admission is free, you’re required to make an appointment in advance. Next, head to the Brandenburger Tor. Though it was once a symbol of divided Germany during the Cold War, the Brandenburger Tor is now a landmark of reunification. And don’t forget to walk to the nearby Holocaust Memorial, a collection of 2,711 sarcophagi-like blocks rising up from a football-field-sized patch of earth, before walking through the Brandenburger Tor onto Unter den Linden.
As you walk down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s most elegant boulevard, take your pick of museums. There’s the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin with its minimalist themed exhibitions or solo shows from contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons or Agathe Snow. Or the Emil Nolde Museum filled with the artist’s melancholy, captivating watercolors. Stop by Neue Wache, a temple-like structure designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel as a Prussian royal guardhouse, which now houses Käthe Kollwitz’ moving statue of a mother cradling her dead soldier son.
Be sure not to miss the Gendarmenmarkt, bordered on three sides by domed German and French cathedrals and the Berlin Concert Hall. Eat lunch at the Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s first authentic Bavarian beer hall, for old-school German sausages, pretzels, roast pork and, of course, beer. Stock up on chocolates at nearby Fassbender & Rausch, Berlin’s own chocolate manufacturers.
Finish up your day at the Museumsinsel (Museum Island), where you can easily while away a few hours at one of the many museums housed here. Discover the phenomenal Egyptian exhibit at the Neues Museum, Minoan jewelry and relics at the Altes Museum or 19th Century European art at the Alte Nationalgalerie, among others.
Of course, no trip to Berlin would be complete without a stop at the famous TV Tower or the Berliner Dom.
Day 2: Kreuzberg
Spend your second day in Berlin in its artist quarter. This neighborhood (as well as bordering Neukölln) is arguably Berlin’s most multi-culti. You’ll find grungy-hip students, all-night Turkish shisha cafes and card rooms, edgy art galleries and a lot of expats. Don’t be surprised if German isn’t the most common language you hear.
Start off your tour in the Marheineke Markthalle in the Bergmann Kiez (Kiez is the Berliner word for “neighborhood”). This historic indoor market is full of vendors selling everything from organic sausages and homemade cheeses to fine imported foods. Then skip over to Chamissoplatz, which hosts Berlin’s longest-running organic farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
Stroll down to Tempelhof, the old, now decommissioned airport and walk down the abandoned runways. In the summer, if you’re lucky, you might even catch an open-air concert. Be sure to stop by Viktoriapark, where you can find the Kreuzberg (Cross Hill) for which the neighborhood is named as well as a vineyard and waterfall. Eat lunch at one of Berlin’s two most famous Imbiss stops (stands selling quick meals): a currywurst (sausage with curried ketchup) from Curry 36 or a veggie döner from Mustafa’s. Either way, you’ll be waiting in line.
Catch the train to Schlesische Straße for some afternoon shopping at boutiques like Killerbeast or Chaos in Form. And don’t forget to walk across the Oberbaumbrücke to the East Side Gallery, a segment of the old Berlin wall now covered by artist murals celebrating German unification. If you’re in the mood for a swim, take a dip at theBadeschiff, a floating public swimming pool within the Spree River.
Spend your evening bar-hopping around Kotti (short for Kottbusser Tor). Though gentrification has hit the area hard, it still has a lot of the punk-funk vibe that defined it in the 1970’s. Start at Maroush for a cheap, filling falafel or shawarma (see other great döner spots in Berlin here), then start your night at Luzia, a bohemian-baroque bar full of well-dressed hipsters. Move on to a relaxed electro vibe at Monarch Bar and finish off with old-school dance tunes in the tiny, sweaty Cake.
Day 3: Prenzlauerberg
Prenzlauerberg is one of Berlin’s most desirable residential neighborhoods. Full of cafés, restaurants, bars and indie boutiques, this Kiez is fun to explore – and many of its best finds are in small side streets. Start your day with a combo of strong coffee (you’ll need it after last night’s plan) and excellent breakfast at Anna Blume. You’ll find plenty to keep you busy strolling around the Kollwitzplatz and its side streets full of boutiques selling vintage furniture, organic foods or designer clothes. A word to the wise: shops are not open in Germany on Sundays, so if you want to hit any of the stores mentioned here, you’ll have to go on another day.
A burger from The Bird is an absolute must – this New York-inspired gastropub is famous for its freshly ground burgers sandwiched inside an English muffin. You’ll need your food-induced lull for the next part of the tour – Mauerpark, a massive outdoor flea market where you can find anything from junky cups and saucers to finely crafted artwork, artisan foods and high-end vintage. Be aware, however, that Mauerpark, which is open only on Sundays, is exceptionally crowded, even when the weather is miserable.
Head to quiet Kaffee Pakolat for a refreshing capp or latte. All the coffee is roasted on-site and the bread and cakes are made in the backroom bakery. If you’re in the mood for a bit more retail therapy sans crowd, head to one of Prenzlauerberg’s many thriving boutique streets, such as Kastanienallee, Oderberger Straße, Stargarder Straße and the streets around Helmholtzplatz.
Finish off your day at the Kulturbrauerei, a collection of venues from restaurants and nightclubs to concert and theater halls, galleries and a cinema. Catch a show, have a beer and just watch the city thrive by.