Berlin might be the most unique city in Europe and easily one of the most compelling worldwide. Having been leveled during World War II and then divided for a generation as a fractured flashpoint of the Cold War, it has endured a variety of struggles distinct among European cities. Considering movement and expression were heavily restricted for decades, the city has become a truly alive and fascinating place that prioritizes never taking for granted what has been regained since reunification in 1989. Over three decades later, modern-day Berlin has reformed as a thriving hub of weirdness, art, reinvention, and inspiring self-expression with so much to see and do, and where one can expect the unexpected while exploring its magical neighborhoods. Here are our recommendations for you what you need to do when in Berlin.
Kreuzberg, along with Friedrichshain and Neukölln, comprise the funky cultural heart of eccentricity endemic to Berlin. Vegan eateries, second hand stores, and art spaces fill the energetic districts by day, and the city’s trademark clubs, bars, and dens of debauchery take over the wild streets at night, with often considerable overlap between the two.
For a surefire way to shake off jet lag, stop by the futuristic-looking white steeples housing the Liquidrom. Feel a rhythmic sensation of weightlessness in a heated saltwater bath, where floating visitors can temporarily transcend reality via the bumping techno beats boosted by the underwater acoustics. Consider visiting like the locals by going clothes-free, or “FKK,” an acronym roughly translating to “Free body culture” commonly observed in saunas and swimming areas around the city year-round. Kreuzberg’s central location also makes it a great place to base your stay in the German capital. Book a room at the Die Fabrik Baxpax Hotel, and make new friends at the former telephone factory known to attract unconventional guests within its quirky setting. The hotel is also near the quick and efficient Berlin Metro, providing easy access to the city’s charms.
Berlin’s regions have a wealth of these old, industrial, and frequently abandoned places that have been repurposed into something awesome. Visit The Bethanien, previously a hospital now converted into a contemporary art gallery, or head over to the banks of the River Spree and explore the sustainably minded creative spaces within the former industrial complex at Malzfabrik. Grab a bite at the amusingly named White Trash Fast Food and enjoy a drink within the bright greenery at the lively Festsaal Kreuzberg beer garden. Next, catch a raucous show at Wild At Heart, a rowdy punk bar named after the classic David Lynch film, or see a band at Madame Claude, a former brothel now turned into a storied venue resembling an upside-down apartment on the inside.
If you do nothing else, no trip to Berlin would be complete without a taste of its legendary clubs. The nightlife scene in Berlin goes beyond simply having a fun night out partying—the culture, closely linked to the city’s reinvention and resilience in the wake of its decades of struggle and division, demands to be experienced. In addition to the incredible music, the clubs are often living, breathing spaces in their own right, with plenty of neat little rooms and nooks to explore as you immerse yourself in the city’s rhythms. Dance the night away at Tresor, a legendary venue and label open since 1991 soon after reunification and nestled within the halls of a former power plant that also hosts a museum to the techno genre. For the more scandalous-minded, the nearby KitKatClub is sure to promise a memorable time, where the mesmerizing space is rivaled only by the sights and notorious tales of hedonism known to frequently occur within its walls.
Finally, if you need to recharge and take a respite from the intoxicating energy of Berlin, head south to Viktoria Park, where relaxing hikes await with a pristine waterfall and lovely city views.
Neukölln / Tempelhof
Towards the south end of Kreuzberg, a striking set of towers begin to poke out above the treeline forming the boundary to Neukölln, revealing an expansive green space that seems like it shouldn’t be there. This is Tempelhofer Feld, the remains of Berlin’s primary airport during much of the 20th century and the site of the famous Berlin Airlift. As another of Berlin’s amazing, repurposed abandoned places, the modern park makes for a fantastic place to jog, picnic, and bike on the weathered tarmac and verdant fields that often host impromptu raves surrounded by the former antiquated hangars and terminals.
Have a delicious, fresh meal at the charming Prinzessinnengärten, a collectively run garden with an adorable restaurant nestled in a small grouping of bright green trees and where nearly everything on the menu is grown locally on-site. In the warmer months, partake in Freiluftkino, roughly translated as “open-air cinema,” commonly found throughout Berlin. Stop at Loophole, a spirited dive bar with avant-garde film screenings and electronic DJs, or sit on a blanket and watch one of the daily films shown within the lush foliage of Hasenheide Park.
Neukölln has one of the most sizable Turkish populations in Berlin, perhaps most exemplified in the Turkish Market right on the border of Kreuzberg. Grab some döner and browse the handmade arts and crafts alongside the music of talented local musicians and bustling stalls.
To the east and venturing slightly into Treptow-Köpenick lies the remnants of Spreepark. A strange little forest containing idyllic riverside trails with peculiar pieces of art and once home to glimpses of eerie derelict rides, the amusement park is set for a grand reopening in 2023.
Haunting reminders of the Berlin Wall, once dividing the city for 28 years, can be found all over the city in the form of plaques, cobblestone markings, or public art installations that can often be easy to miss yet are nonetheless striking when it sinks in that these paths now taken for granted were once recently impassable. Grab some fresh currywurst (a popular type of street food in Berlin and often available in plant-based versions) from the Markthalle Neun food hall and cross the Spree into the former East Berlin’s Friedrichshain, where this history comes to life with the preserved facades of the East Side Gallery. These former sections of the notorious barrier offer a touching dose of the past within detailed, inspired murals like “The Kiss” created during this repressive past.
Be guided by the Ampelmännchen, the cute, fedora-wearing crosswalk sign only seen in East Berlin, and head a little north and to the former rail yard where the offbeat RAW Gallery is tucked away. Enjoy an outdoor rave within an impressive array of street art at Urban Spree, catch the hip-hop show at Badehaus, see the cute, artsy monsters on display at Zozoville Gallery, or grab some new friends and capture a silly moment at the nearby Photoautomat booth, one of the many ubiquitous in Berlin.
True techno fans willing to take an arduous journey into sound should venture to Berghain, arguably the most legendary club in the world. Known for long lines, a strict door policy, and a vast, unparalleled community of wild creatures of the night, the club promises an unforgettable time—if you’re able to get in, that is. Like many others in Berlin, the club’s parties famously go on for multiple days without closing until Monday, with hours of world-class DJs and surreal spaces to explore as you happily lose track of time within the hallowed Church of Techno.
If the hours-long queue isn’t for you, another fun, debaucherous evening awaits south at the Kater Blau (translated as “Blue Cat”) club within the community-run Holzmarkt complex nearby. With a gritty, seedy vibe and the characters to match, the club is a fantastic spot to groove to captivating melodies with the added bonus of views of the Spree seen from the club. Anomalie Art Club to the north is also a fantastic option, with a more dazzling visual experience and colorful decor to get lost in and augment the entrancing rhythms of the night.
Mitte / Prenzlauer Berg
Mitte, translated as “Middle” in German, is precisely that—the city center. Given its location, Mitte contains a dizzying collection of museums for travelers to explore, ranging from the very intense to the genuinely bizarre. Not shying away from its history, take a sobering trip through the city’s history during World War II at the Topography of Terror in the former SS headquarters, explore an interactive take on living behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany at the DDR Museum, and read the heartbreaking accounts of brave souls trying to cross the Berlin Wall at Tränenpalast (translated as the “Palace of Tears”). The art and history exhibits concealed within the stunning Prussian neoclassical architecture comprising Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are also nearby, as are the extravagantly ornate pillars of the Brandenburg Gate.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, head to the Circus Hostel and venture into the world of randomness that is the David Hasselhoff Museum, precisely as odd as it sounds, hosting a shrine dedicated to the Knight Rider star. See the perplexing, hypnotic illusions within the disorienting halls of the Illuseum Berlin, or give your palate a masochistic journey with cow’s blood, eyeball soup, rotten shark, and other stomach-churning bites at the Museum of Disgusting Foods.
If you’d reasonably like a pleasant meal, try one of the cozy restaurants in the quirky Hackesche Höfe space. A smattering of outdoor brick terraces with loads of graffiti and urban art, catch a movie at the hip Kino Central theater, browse gritty, enigmatic art at the Neurotitan Gallery, or attend the goofy show at Monster Kabinett, where a collection of creative, mechanized monsters and puppets stage an eccentric, entertaining performance with an outlandish flavor only Berlin can provide. Witness the gaudy, early 20th-century splendor within the century-old Clarchens Ballhaus, or relax at Vabali, a clothing-optional FKK spa with a Balinese aesthetic offering massages, nude saunas, and healthy Mediterranean and Asian cuisine.
Don’t miss Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg, boasting a massive flea market on Sundays and unparalleled people-watching in the illustrious Bearpit Karaoke, where any random person can pick up the microphone and bellow tunes of varying quality to a bemused crowd of strangers. Afterward, see more of Berlin’s creative art scene within the vacant train station at Hamburger Bahnhof, and then grab a bite of brunch from Distrikt, renowned for its tasty breakfasts and high-quality coffee.
Charlottenburg / Teufelsberg
While East Berlin tends to be where the action is, head west to Charlottenburg to see a calmer, chiller side to Berlin. Tiergarten, the largest park in Berlin, lies at the district’s eastern edge, hosting concerts and film screenings in the summer and where the miles of pastoral forests and wooded walks also conceal the Berlin Zoo, home to a comprehensive collection of over 1,300 species. Head to the nearby Monkey Bar for a cocktail and watch the sunset and wildlife, as the rooftop vantage point provides a spectacular view of the monkey house.
Further west, marvel at the massive, towering Charlottenberg Palace near the edge of the vast Grünewald, translated as “Green Forest,” where traces of Berlin’s former life as a swamp (indeed, one explanation for Berlin’s name is from a Slavic word for swampland) can be found within the endless enchanting, leafy trails. Teufelssee, a clothing-optional swimming hole hidden within the dense trees, is a nice respite on a hot summer hike.
Of course, even in this calmer side of Berlin, the signature weirdness of the city cannot be escaped as you notice the mysterious hill in the park with what appears to be a radar dome sitting at the summit. This peculiar place is Teufelsberg, translated as “Devil’s Mountain,” constructed from the literal tons of rubble leftover from the wreckage of Berlin during World War II. During the Cold War, the NSA used the hilltop as a clandestine site to eavesdrop on Soviet communications. The mysterious, modern-day version of the complex has become one of Berlin’s coolest abandoned relics of its tumultuous past reborn as a vibrant living art installation. The trek to the hilltop, which first requires lengthy metro rides to the park and then a moderately strenuous hike, is well worth it. The experience reaches a climax when arriving at the ruined domes at the top, holding a spacious, eerie silence punctuated by the striking art and the lofty vantage point of Berlin boasting one of the most unbeatable spots to watch the picturesque sunset.
John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.