Reduced to rubble, cleaved in two, and stitched back together again, no city has reinvented itself more in the past 75 years than Berlin. Gritty, glamorous, and never boring, Germany’s capital continues to mesmerize as it hurtles headfirst into the future.
Set sublimely on the River Havel near the border with Brandenburg, Berlin’s Peacock Island is a peaceful, UNESCO World Heritage-inscribed nature conservancy that’s home to an 18th-century castle, manicured gardens, and 165 acres of greenery. But the real stars are the eponymous, free-range peacocks seen strutting amid the lawn and fountains. Stay long enough and you'll likely spot cormorants, woodpeckers, and frogs by the water's edge, and—in the summer—four grazing water buffalo that have recently been brought in to mow the lawn.
Tiergarten Park is Berlin’s green lung—a sprawling 519-acre forested oasis filled with hiking paths, gardens, and a lake. The best way to experience it is through a leisurely walk or cycle through its tree-lined promenades, passing the towering Victory Column, the colorful English Garden, and ending with a rowboat paddle (or a pint) at Café am Neuen See.
Berlin’s tumultuous 20th century reduced much of its Prussian heritage to rubble. But there are still pockets where history endures—such as at the Gendarmenmarkt. Berlin’s most attractive square is home to the neoclassical Konzerthaus (1821) and the cathedral-inspired twin-dome monuments of the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom.
Berlin’s “Smithsonian on the Spree,” Museuminsel (literally “Museum Island”) is a captivating ensemble of five world-class museums clustered together on a sliver of land in the middle of the Spree River. Time travel through ancient Greece and Babylon at the Pergamon Museum, see Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, and take in 6,000 years of art, architecture, and artifacts from Europe to the New World.
Set on fire, bombed, and rebuilt, the Reichstag is the home of Germany’s parliament and is one of the country’s most important landmarks. Today, visitors can tour its shimmering glass dome designed by Lord Norman Foster for free. Take in sweeping views over the city, walk on its roof, and listen to an audio guide that offers a fascinating account of the surrounding buildings and history.
Best Day Trip
Filled with Baroque palaces, flowering gardens, and cascading fountains from its proud Prussian past, Potsdam is the most popular day trip from Berlin and a fairytale escape from the capital's heavy history. Essentially Berlin’s version of Versailles, this vast UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses 150 buildings and 1,200 acres. It’s also where Frederick the Great built his summer stomping grounds, and his regal pad, Sanssouci, is still the city’s crown jewel. You can reach Potsdam via a 40-minute S-Bahn trip from Berlin's central train station (Hauptbahnhof).
Most Iconic Place
Few events have captured the world’s attention in the last 30 years as when residents swarmed the Berlin Wall that divided them with sledgehammers in 1989. While Berlin’s most famous monument is now largely gone, an eight-tenths-mile stretch known as the East Side Gallery remains as a testament to freedom over oppression. Fittingly, it’s now covered with more than 100 paintings from international artists, and is the world’s largest and longest open-air art gallery.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Off the Beaten Path
To truly understand the madness and legacy of the concrete Berlin Wall that separated the city and the world, head to the free Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer museum—a welcome dose of reality compared to the kitsch of Checkpoint Charlie. The wall and “Death Strip” still stand outside, but it’s the haunting videos and interviews with people who lived through it inside that bring the place to life.
Berlin’s nightlife scene is nothing short of legendary. Cozy pubs and hip cocktail bars abound, but the core of the action is in the Kreuzberg, Neukölln, and Friedrichshain neighborhoods where things generally kick off around midnight and go past dawn (sometimes two days later). Unlike other cities, there’s almost never a dress code at bars and clubs, and individuality is emphasized more than expensive or designer clothing.
Few sites in Berlin are as iconic or significant as the Brandenburg Gate. Prussian rulers to Napoleon have marched through it, but since 1989, it’s become a symbol of Germany’s reunification. It’s conveniently located just a short walk away from two of Berlin’s other major historical stops: the sprawling and haunting Holocaust Memorial and the Reichstag building, home to Germany’s parliament.