Berlin, Germany is a beautiful, bustling European city, and a popular one with foreigners. Over 5 million tourists visit the capital of Berlin every year. Sure, the pandemic has greatly affected Germany and travel, in general, but the city is rich in history and features incredible attractions that are far different than other parts of the country.
I first visited Berlin from December 2019 til mid-January 2020, just weeks before the world changed. I recently got to go back 2 years later to visit my boyfriend’s parents during Christmas. The impacts of the global pandemic made it a much different experience in some ways, but the highlights of Berlin remained the same.
**It’s important to note that Berlin follows strict rules about being vac**nated or showing proof of a recent negative c*vid test to enter almost every attraction, mall, and restaurant.**
For my first time in Berlin, we stayed in an AirBnB for a month-long experience. I immersed myself in the simple day-to-day life of German living. I had a favorite coffee shop, frequented the gym, had the perfect 4 mile running loop down, and also spent time exploring all of the must-do’s for my first time in Berlin.
Going back to Berlin this holiday season, I knew our time would be much more limited, but I made sure to hit up my favorite spots. Many of these you’ll find on other similar blog posts. You always know an attraction is worth it when it pops up as a recommendation over and over again. However, I sprinkled in a few other things that I’ve rarely seen on other blogs and they are absolute must-do’s! (Number 12 is my favorite thing to do in all of Berlin).
Where to Stay for Your First Time in Berlin
When I visit a new city, I love the convenience of a central location or a great hotel close to transportation. I’ve been spoiled to the Charlottenburg neighborhood of Berlin where I highly recommend Hotel Zoo and Hotel Bikini.
Transportation in Berlin
Berlin has one of the easiest train systems I’ve been on in Europe. They also have Uber, Taxi’s, and a bus system. In the summertime, bicycles are a popular means of transportation. You can also find scooters throughout the city.
Top Things To Do For Your First Time in Berlin, Germany
1. Visit the East Side Gallery (Former Section of the Berlin Wall).
Centrally located on the east side of Berlin is the infamous open-air gallery of murals along the remainder of the Berlin Wall. It stretches more than 4000 feet and features some of the most famous European murals. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (the year I was born), and the art was created to represent the monumental changes happening in Berlin.
It’s a must-see for your first time in Berlin because, as anywhere you travel, its history is a part of the experience.
2. Bite Down on a Döner.
If you think of Italy, you think of pasta. If you think about Paris, you daydream of crepes and croissants. And if it’s your first time in Berlin, you need a döner! These famous wraps are filled with sliced beef and/or veal and all kinds of toppings of your choice. You can grab it on the go as it’s served wrapped up in a warm pita. They’re filled with a ton of flavor and one of the only foodie must-do’s for your first time in Berlin.
3. See the City Views from the TV Tower.
A popular tourist activity in Berlin involves heading to the top of the TV Tower. The Berlin Television Tower was completed in 1969 and reaches just over 1200 feet high. It features sweeping views of the city with an observation deck and restaurant at the top. It’s one of the best places to see the sunset and soak in the city views.
With capacity restrictions, you need to make a reservation online before you go.
4. Stroll Over to the Berlin Cathedral/Dome.
Just a short walk away from the TV Tower is the gorgeous Berlin Cathedral (also called the Berliner Dom) located on Museum Island. This architectural stunner and Protestant church is a must-see while you’re in Berlin. It’s one of the most photographic buildings in the whole city. Originally completed in 1905, it was damaged during WWII and reconstructed in the early 90’s.
We hired a photographer through Flytographer (use code KATHERINEFOX for $25 off your first session) and the Cathedral was a perfect backdrop.
5. Have a Sunset Dinner at Neni Restaurant & Grab a Cocktail Next Door at Monkey Bar.
If you’re skipping the sunset at the top of the TV Tower, maybe dinner at Neni Restaurant is more your style. Another pretty spot for views of the city and Berlin Zoo, this restaurant has delicious Mediterranean, Persian, and Austrian dishes. The interior is beautifully decorated and Monkey Bar is located right next door. This is where Nick and I celebrated New Year’s Eve before the pandemic. It has trendy and fun drinks while still showing off the city skyline.
6. Visit the Berlin Zoo.
Whether you take the family or go solo, the Berlin Zoo is a wonderful attraction in Berlin. It’s the most visited zoo in Europe and the regular animal feedings are extra popular. My favorite habitat housed Bao Bao, the panda. More than anything, I appreciate the zoo’s ongoing research, education, and endangered species protection.
7. Walk Through Tiergarten & See the Victory Column.
Tiergarten is the second largest park in Berlin and absolutely beautiful. I’ve only seen it during the winter, but I can only imagine how lush and vibrant it is during the summer. This is my go-to spot for running in Berlin. If you’re spending the afternoon in the park, make sure to pop over to the Victory Column, a top tourist spot in Berlin. You can go to the top of the Victory Column, but it does require an extra ticket.
8. See the Famous Bradenburg Gate.
This is one of the most well-known monuments in the city of Berlin. Previously used as a city gate, it’s now a site of many historical events in the city. While it’s a symbol of Berlin’s history, it also represents peace and unity within Germany. It’s one of those sites that you’ve seen in countless movies, but seeing it in person is extra special.
9. Visit the Dome of the Reichstag Building.
Another gorgeous building in Berlin, the Reichstag Building is the meeting place of the lower house of Germany’s legislature. The dome can be visited by the public for free, but advanced registration is required. You can take the 20 minute audioguide as it shares the facts of the building while you stroll through the dome. History and spectacular views are both a common theme among the things to do for your first time in Berlin.
10. Take in More History at the Holocaust Memorial.
This is heavy. However, it’s a part of history and the Holocaust Memorial is a good place to take in as much, or as little, as you want. I usually try to follow up heavy memorial or museum experiences with something lighter, but I don’t skip out on them just because it can be emotional. Some of the most impactful moments of my travels have occurred at places like the Holocaust Memorial.
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11. Take a Tour with a Local.
One of my favorite things to do in any city as a first-timer is joining a local tour. I almost always go through Viator where it’s easy to find the best of the best. Personally, shorter walking tours, food tours, and private tours are my favorite. Sometimes, you can find really specific experiences for your destination. In Berlin, they have bike tours, trabi car tours, and even an ice bar experience.
12. Strip Down in the Saunas at Vabali Spa.
If you only do one thing on this list of things to do in Berlin, I highly recommend it be this. The Vabali Spa is unlike any place I’ve ever been. A self-proclaimed “Oasis of Tranquility”, this spa is massive with gorgeous grounds and facilities. Nick and I go for a few hours where we spend time in the saunas, cold baths, warm baths, and lounge chairs. You can join in on special sauna sessions with aromatherapy, salt scrubs, and more. The spas allow you to book a massage or facial session. Vabali also has a great restaurant where you can take a break for a bite to eat, a glass of wine, or a healthy juice.
The catch? It’s textile-free. This means clothes and swimsuits are not allowed in the saunas and baths. Everyone does have a towel in the sauna, so some choose to wrap themselves up, but the majority of people are free as can be, including me!
I love the German culture for this reason. Nobody stares. You don’t feel vulnerable. Everyone around you is in their birthday suit and judge-free. The atmosphere is calm, soothing, and rejuvenating. It’s something I can’t ever see the United States really accepting, which is disappointing, but makes the experience that much more special.
Don’t worry, you can walk around the facilities in a robe and you’ll dine with that on, too. However, be prepared for seeing it all! If you’re shy, this could be the best opportunity to stretch your comfort zone.
13. Go shopping on Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm)
The Rodeo Drive of Berlin is called Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm for short). The street is lined with top designers, restaurants, showrooms for cars, luxury hotels, and other popular European stores. I love to window shop or take advantage of tax-free shopping. Berlin’s most famous department store, KaDeWe, is worth a stop as well. Filled with everything from Burberry kid’s clothes to comfortable home items, it’s an experience in itself. The top floor has delicious restaurants, too.
14. Winter: Christmas Markets
I’ve only visited Berlin during the winter. This means Tiergarten’s trees are a little bare and the walk along Ku’damm can get cold, but it also means Christmas Markets! We were so fortunate that most of Berlin’s Christmas markets stayed open in December 2021, while many other cities closed theirs down due to the pandemic.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Berlin for the holidays, you have to check out a few of my favorite Christmas markets: Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin Town Hall, and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. All of the Christmas market information is updated over on the official site of Berlin.