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10 top things to do in Berlin: a local’s guide

From dancing to drinking to... kite boarding in an abandoned airport: 10 of the best things to see and do in Berlin.

From beer gardens to abandoned airports and amusement parks, we reveal 10 of the best alternative things to see and do in Berlin.

It’s a well known hipster hangout, but Berlin is not just about style – although there’s plenty of it, from fashion to architecture. Learn about the city’s turbulent history, see some world-class live music and shop for low-cost gourmet grub at the markets. Oh, and of course, taste test some of the world’s best beer (just don’t tell Bavaria). Here’s a selection of must-sees in the German capital:

1. The Berlin Wall Memorial

The best place to learn more about the Berlin Wall and the division of Germany is the official Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, north of the centre. The border ran right along the façades of the houses here, and after residents were evacuated and the lower floors were bricked up, people still managed to flee the GDR by jumping out from the top floors. The information centre shows films of the construction of the wall, and there’s a view tower overlooking a short stretch of wall that has been restored to the original, brutal look. The centre is open 9:30am to 7pm, and from November to March 9:30am-6pm, but closed Mondays. Walk around the back for a peek at the ‘death strip’ through the gaps in the rear wall. Today artists have claimed large swathes of the wall as a canvas for their work, and a tour of these bright and creative murals is a moving reminder that from dark times beauty can still flourish – but visit soon, as much of the wall is falling into a state of disrepair and the artworks which adorn it are unfortunately disappearing with it. This outdoor exhibition is open 24hrs and is completely free.

Berlin Wall Memorial © Jeroen van Marle

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2. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is without doubt one of the best in the world. Directed by Englishman Sir Simon Rattle, it performs regularly in Berlin, and tours the world extensively. The orchestra’s home is the striking yellow tent-shaped Philharmonie near Potsdamer Platz. Its interior with seating terraces all around the stage was revolutionary when it opened 50 years ago. Don’t miss the free Tuesday lunchtime concerts by upcoming and renowned musicians; arrive 30-45 minutes early and bring something soft to sit on, as the audience sits on the lobby floor! These performances start at 1pm and run daily from September 3rd to June 14th.

Berlin Philharmonic, Axel Lauer /

3. Three panoramic places

Berlin may be a relatively flat city with only a handful of high-rise buildings, but there are several places to get great panoramic views across town. The Panoramapunkt at the top of the brick Kollhoff tower on Potsdamer Platz is a terrific city centre viewpoint., open daily 10am – 8pm. Europe’s fastest elevator it zips you 100 metres up for views of Berlin’s new and old centre, and it also features a café and exhibition centre. Just south of the centre, the monument at the top of the Kreuzberg hill in Viktoriapark is Berlin’s highest natural point; get off the U-Bahn at Mehringdamm, buy some beers at a Spaeti shop and walk up along the romantic waterfall at sunset. In the Neukoelln district, the new Klunkerkranich ‘cultural rooftop garden’ on top of a shopping centre car park has a bar, DJs, live music and parties with fabulous views over Berlin – the party starts at 4pm on a Friday, 2pm on the weekend, and lasts until the wee hours.

Victoriapark, Kreuzberg © Jeroen van Marle

4. Take a tour with a difference

There are dozens of tours around Berlin’s tourist sights, but perhaps the most interesting is to join small tours around the outlying districts. The history here is no less interesting than in the city centre, and you’ll get insights into normal daily life. Slow Travel Berlin, a website written by Berlin-lovers, organises district walking tours that really take the time for in-depth exploration of Prenzlauer Berg, western Kreuzberg or Wedding. Finding Berlin is another website by Berlin enthusiasts that run tours; join their ‘Little Istanbul’ walk that includes chats with Turkish bakers and shop owners in Neukoelln, or the ‘Life & Styles’ tour, exploring eastern Kreuzberg using vintage fixed-gear bicycles. If you prefer to sight-see solo then they also rent out cool vintage (what else in this hipsterville?!) bikes.

woman riding bike, Berlin

5. Markthalle 9

Only two of Berlin’s thirteen market halls survive, and the beautiful ‘number 9’ hall in Kreuzberg, dating back to 1891, has been revived with a lively weekly farmers’ market. Wander around the many enticing stalls on a Friday or Saturday (10am to 6pm) – it’s a great place for fresh regional food and a cheap way to dine out. But there’s more; the Kantine restaurant serves excellent organic lunches every day, there’s a popular street food market every Thursday evening (6pm to 10pm) and there are often special markets on Sundays, dedicated to local crafts or sweets. If that isn’t enough reason to drop by, the new Heidenpeters microbrewery sells its ales on market days. By the Puecklerstrasse exit, the famous Weltrestaurant Markthalle is a lovely place for a schnitzel, or a beer on the terrace.

Markthalle 9, Berlin © Jeroen van Marle

6. Clärchens Ballhaus

Generations of Berliners have danced the nights away at Clärchens since it opened in September 1913. Here, Berliners could have fun and perhaps dance with the man or woman of their dreams. The photos at the entrance show that very little has changed over the last 100 years, though the front of the building, now a terrace, was bombed in the war. Nowadays, Clärchens is Berlin’s last real dance hall, with great pizza and German dishes and themed dance nights (tango, salsa, foxtrot, etc – free admission) on weekdays. The legendary schwoof parties (€5) take place at weekends, when there’s live music and you’re welcomed at the coat-room by Günter, who has worked here since he was a nipper in the mid-1960s. It’s the place to dance ’til dawn (4am) on the weekends!

Clarchen's Ballhaus, Berlin, Germany ©Genial 23 / Flickr

7. Tempelhofer Freiheit Park

Visiting a former airfield may not sound very exciting, but step out onto the runways of the now abandoned Tempelhof Airport and there’s two kilometres of wide empty track stretchng out before you, then you’ll get the appeal of such an afternoon. Tempelhof was built in the 1930s and was meant to be the world’s most advanced airport and one of the world’s largest buildings. Later, the Americans used it as a military airport, and it played a key role in saving West Berlin during the 1949 Soviet blockade. The 1200-metre-long terminal building is used for tours and events, while the airfield has been converted into a park for lying in the sun, kite boarding, jogging, cycling, roller-blading, dog-walking and barbecuing. The most convenient entrances are S/U-Bahn Tempelhof and U-Bahn Boddinstrasse but it’s best to arrive by bike (yuccie single-speed of course) to make the most of it. Admission to the park is free.

Tempelhof © Jeroen van Marle

8. Have a beer in Berlin’s microbreweries

Bavaria may have Germany’s most famous beer brands, but Berlin has a long tradition of brewing too. In recent years several exciting new brewers have set up shop. Hidden in a Wedding student housing complex, Eschenbraeu is well worth visiting for its home-brewed beers and flammekuchen pies. In the Friedrichshain district, the Hops & Barley bar attracts a young crowd. Closer to the centre, Brauhaus Lemke is an original Berlin brewpub, pulling pints since 1999. But two of the best places for a beer are the Prater Garten, the oldest Biergarten in town, serving its own Prater Pils, and the relaxing Cafe am Neuen See which serves Bavarian beers and overlooks a beautiful boating lake in Tiergarten Park.

Read more: UK’s top 10 craft beer pubs

beer, Berlin

9. Go urban exploring

Photographers, graffiti-artists and the plain curious are all drawn to Berlin’s many abandoned and ruined places, and several websites are dedicated to ‘urban exploration’ self-guided tours. Southeast of the city centre in the Treptow district, the former Spreepark amusement park is one of the most spectacular examples; the Ferris wheel and many rides are slowly being swallowed by the forest, and can be visited on a tour or just by wandering in. On the western side of the city, there’s the former CIA listening post on Teufelsberg hill. Further afield, explorers can look for the Olympic Village and the Beelitz Heilstätten hospital and several Nazi or Soviet military areas.

Spreepark © Jeroen van Marle

10. Party on at a festival

Berliners like to celebrate outside during the warm summer. But the festival season starts off each year in the midst of winter with the Berlinale Film Festival in February, which sees thousands of Berliners and foreigners retreat to warm cinema halls to watch the best new film releases. The outdoor season kicks off on May 1 with the MyFest street festival in the Kreuzberg district. Berlin’s main street party is the multicultural Karnaval der Kulturen parade in late May. Listen to live music at stages all over town during Fete de la Musique, on 21 June, while late June sees the huge Christopher Street Day gay parade. Finally, the city’s main landmarks and buildings are majestically lit up during the Festival of Lights in October.

Read more: 13 of the best music festivals for 2015

Berlin - Brandenburg Gate, Festival of Lights © AR Pictures /

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_Tripbod Jeroen is a travel writer and editor for who loves cycling around Berlin and exploring the city’s quirkier sights._

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