When S and I were preparing for our trip to Berlin a couple of weeks ago for The Hive blog conference, we decided to add a few extra days to our itinerary beforehand so we could do some sightseeing in the capital. We had been to Berlin together once before, so we had already seen some of the major sights, including the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Pariser Platz, the Berlin Cathedral and the street Unter den Linden, among others. This time we wanted to check out a few offbeat museums but also take advantage of the gorgeous weather and do some fun outdoor activities.
Since we were planning to be in Berlin for 5 days and do a lot of sightseeing, we decided to buy the Berlin Welcome Card. You can purchase either a 48-hour, 72-hour or 5-day ticket which includes your transportation all around Berlin, a city map and a booklet of discounts to 200 attractions, museums, shops, restaurants and more. If you plan go to a lot of museums, you can also purchase the Museum Island Voucher with your Berlin Welcome Card to gain entrance into Museum Island museums on 3 consecutive days (although entry to special exhibitions is not included).
We made good use of our Berlin Welcome Cards by taking the bus, U-Bahn and S-bahn all over the city and we saved a chunk of change at most of the sights we visited.
S and I toyed with the idea of going to the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Berlin back in 2012 (and also the one in Vienna when we were there in February this year), but the pricey admission kept us from going in. Since we could get 25% off the entrance fee with our Berlin Welcome Cards, we decided to go for it. It was pretty busy when we went on an early Wednesday afternoon but I got the impression that it can get much busier based on the long ticket line outside of the museum.
What’s fun about Madame Tussauds is that they showcase not only famous celebrities that are known all over the world, but also national public figures from the country where the museum is located. I didn’t recognize many of the German politicians, actors, singers and TV hosts at the museum but S sure did! The figures on display are different at every Madame Tussauds museum so no matter if you go to the one in New York, London, Shanghai or Syndney, you’ll get a unique experience at each one.
We went back and forth about which museums to visit in Berlin because there are so many to choose from – art, science, history, Currywurst – there’s a museum for every interest! I turned to fellow Hive attendee Jenni’s blog, Museum Diary, to get tips on the best museums to visit in Berlin. In the end, we picked the DDR Museum to learn more about life in the former East Germany.
The location of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, aka German Democratic Republic) Museum is right along the Spree river opposite the Berlin Cathedral (aka Berliner Dom). We got in at about 5pm on Wednesday afternoon and the museum was absolutely packed. The museum is quite small to begin with so it was hard to walk around and interact with all the displays in the way it was intended.
The museum has a ton of artifacts from the former DDR, including books, newspapers, grocery items, clothes, a model kitchen and living room, a Trabant (a type of car only made in the DDR) and more. We waited in line for about 20 minutes to try out the Trabant driving simulator but when S got in the driver’s seat, the car was stuck in reverse!
Here’s a little video that gives a look inside the museum:
There is lots to see in the DDR Museum and informational placards are in both German and English. If possible, I would suggest going when it’s not as crowded, perhaps just after it opens or shortly before closing.
Going on a tour of the Reichstag (aka German Parliament Building) was at the top of our list of things to do in Berlin. Like the eager travel nerds that we are, we booked our entrance into the Reichstag dome about 3 weeks in advance. Unlike most attractions where you can simply show up and enter on the day of, you need to book your time slot to visit the Reichstag in advance. Spots can fill up quickly; when we booked back in mid-March, there were only early morning and early evening slots left.
Our slot was for 6:15pm but we headed over to the Reichstag a little early. Our IDs were checked at the entrance – make sure you have photo ID like a passport or Ausweis when you enter. We then went through security and were admitted with a group of about 15 people or so into the building and up an elevator into the dome. We were able to pick free audio guides in our language of choice before entering the dome. As you walk up the spiral ramp leading to the top of the dome, the audio guide details signficant features of the building and points out sights of interest in the landscape. The skies were piercing blue and cloudless the day we went which made for excellent views of the Spree river, Brandenburg Gate, German Chancellery, Berlin Cathedral, Museum Island, TV Tower, Victory Column and Hauptbahnhof (to name a few).
As we were walking up the ramp, I asked S if he felt powerful (ie. as a German citizen in the German people’s parliament building). His answer was both modest and democratically correct: he said he actually felt ‘represented’.
I was surprised to learn that the top of the dome is actually open for ventilation. The dome was built with energy efficiency in mind – sunlight shining through the mirrored cone effectively reduces carbon emissions and rainwater collected through the opening is used to heat the building.
I can highly recommend a visit to the Reichstag – it was one of the most memorable parts of our visit to Berlin.
One of the best ways to see the major city sights is by boat. The Spree river runs through the centre of Berlin and boasts views of key landmarks on both sides. There are a number of boat tour companies that have various pick up and drop off points along the Spree. Boat tours can range from 1 hour to several hours depending on which sights you’d like to see. Bastian, our helpful guide from the Berlin Food Tour, recommended going on a 3-hour tour in order to see the best sights, but unfortunately we only had time to go on a 1-hour tour.
Despite doing lots of research about different boat tours the day beforehand, we spontaneously hopped on a boat from Reederei Grimm & Lindecke near the Friedrichstraße train station because it was the closest pick up point to us when we ended our Berlin Food Tour. The boat had the same pick up and drop off point, so it went halfway up the Spree, turned around, went down the other half, then turned around again to drop us off where we started.
I love being on the water and it was great to see Berlin from a different perspective. We passed by Museum Island, the Berlin Cathedral, the Chancellery, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station), the House of World Cultures, the TV Tower, the Tiergarten (large park in central Berlin) among other sights.
The boat tour itself was lovely but I would probably recommend going on a different boat tour, especially if you only speak English. The tour guide shared information about the sights in German which was projected from a loudspeaker. With the noise of the boat, it was a bit hard to hear. S translated the things that I didn’t understand in German, but it took away from the experience for both of us. I know other boat tours offer personal audio guides in the language of your choice so that’s something to keep in mind.
When I was at The Hive conference, S kept himself busy by:
- taking a tour of the Olympiastadion Berlin (built for the 1936 Summer Olympics)
- visiting the Deutsches Historisches Museum (aka German Historical Museum)
- checking out the free Forum Willy Brandt Berlin, a small museum dedicated to the former chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany
- taking a guided historical tour of the Reichstag (different from the tour we did together of the dome).
He enjoyed them all – they would be excellent sightseeing options as well.
What are your favourite sights in Berlin? What shouldn’t I miss the next time I’m in Berlin?