Berlin travel guide and things to do: 20 reasons to visit the capital city of Germany

1. SOAK UP THE VIBE

Berlin is a city for those over monuments and mainstream sightseeing and keen to absorb local life. It's a great place for walking, exploring, sitting over beer, listening to buskers and appreciating the differences between one neighbourhood and the next. And although fast-paced and ever changing, Berlin hasn't forgotten its dark past, providing a look at 20th-century troubles that sets it apart from other European cities, where tourism often dwells in the distant past. See visitberlin.de

2. LOOK TO THE FUTURE

Potsdamer Platz was reduced to rubble during World War II, then divided by the Berlin Wall. Now completely rebuilt, it's the face of contemporary Berlin, dominated by ultra-modern corporate architecture. The Berlin Film Festival is held at the Sony Centre, where you'll find a multiplex cinema and film museum. A few evocative fragments of Berlin Wall remain. Scan the QR code outside Deutsche Bahn Tower for a look at the Platz through time. See potsdamerplatz.de

3. FORK UP SOME FOOD

Even if you aren't one for tours, make an exception for Fork & Walk, founded in Berlin by Aussie expat Dov Selby. The fun, sociable tours involve a maximum of eight people on a progressive meal though eclectic neighbourhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg, with a bit of history thrown in for good measure. There's a tour for vegans, too – Berlin is one of the world's leading vegan destinations. See forkandwalktoursberlin.com

4. BROWSE THE OLD MASTERS

Berlin is better known for nightlife than culture, but isn't short of top-class museums. Gemäldegalerie is particularly interesting for medieval German art, with works by masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer. It also features Italian, Flemish and Dutch works. There's hardly a great European master  who isn't represented, and impressive collections of Rembrandts and Botticellis. You'll have to walk two kilometres past 1400 artworks to see it all. See smb.museum

5. CHECK CHECKPOINT CHARLIE

The infamous Cold War crossing point between Berlin's American and Soviet sectors is now a kitschy recreation. Still, it's hard to resist a look, which provides a strange sense of déjà vu thanks to all those old-time spy movies. The nearby Wall Museum tells the story of the divided city and those who attempted to escape westwards using ingenious methods such as homemade hot-air balloons and chairlifts. See mauermuseum.de

6. KICK BACK AT THE HACKESCHE HÖFE

Berlin's newly trendy Scheunenviertel (Barn Quarter) is focused on this Art Nouveau ensemble of courtyards, which cram in over 100 boutiques and restaurants. The surrounds are full of the energy of post-reunification Berlin, and popular for evening entertainment and nightclubs. Some still-shabby alleyways, covered with intriguing graffiti, recall the area's blue-collar, disreputable past and hide louche bars and tattoo parlours. See hackesche-hoefe.com

7. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE BAROQUE ERA

Charlottenburg Palace, though considerably reconstructed after World War II, is one of Berlin's few historical sights. The great masterpiece of German baroque and rococo is a striking symbol of former Prussian royal might. The palace is vast, crammed with artworks, Chinese porcelain and endless gold leaf. It's worth using the audio guide for insight. Beyond are lakes and gardens dotted with mausoleums and rotundas. See spsg.de

8. HIT THE SHOPS

Kurfürstendamm (commonly called Ku'Damm) became famous in the pre-war period for its avant-garde cultural scene and dance halls. It's now Berlin's main shopping drag, offering chic boutiques and mainstream department stores. Explore side streets for speciality shopping. On Tauentzienstrasse you'll find the city's poshest department store, KaDeWe, as well as Europa Centre, Berlin's biggest shopping mall and one of Europe's largest entertainment complexes. See kadewe.de and europa-center-berlin.de

9. VISIT BRANDENBURG GATE

This triumphal arch was erected in 1789 at the western end of Unter den Linden, the broad avenue that runs through Berlin's city centre. When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, it ran close to the Gate, which became a symbol of the east-west division. Now you have unfettered access, though many overlook the guardhouse's Room of Silence, where locals come to reflect on Germany's past. See berlin.de

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10. STAY UP ALL NIGHT

For nightlife of any and every sort – plus some you mightn't have imagined – Berlin is the place to be in Europe, whether its hopping from one neighbourhood pub to another, throwing yourself into throbbing nightclubs, taking in the techno scene, braving something utterly alternative or enjoying cabaret – perhaps not quite the smoky, sexy scene of the 1920s, but a Berlin institution once more. See visitberlin.de

11. TRACE THE BERLIN WALL

When the Wall came down in 1989 most was destroyed or turned into souvenirs, and only a double line of cobblestones marks its former location along 5.7 kilometres in the city centre. The former patrol road along the entire 150-kilometre length provides a great cycle path. The longest surviving section, East Side Gallery, is covered with artworks, most famously of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker kissing. See visitberlin.de

12. TASTE THE OLD TIMES

The Nikolai Quarter is an old 16th-century riverside district, Berlin's only answer to an old town, and especially atmospheric in the evening when lit by gas lanterns. The quarter has many fashion boutiques and speciality shops, as well as attractive riverside beer terraces and traditional German restaurants. Tuck into pork knuckle with sauerkraut, autumnal wild boar and venison, or carp and trout dishes. See visitberlin.de

13. ACQUIRE SOME CULTURE

Museum Island in the Spree River has several of Europe's best museums, among them the outstanding Pergamon Museum for Greek and Roman antiquities – almost every object astonishing – and the Museum of the Ancient Near East for Persian, Assyrian and Babylonian art. The Old National Gallery has European paintings from the 18th to early 20th centuries, including leading German Romantics and French Impressionists. The entire museum complex is a World Heritage site. See museumsinsel-berlin.de

14. ENJOY SEASONAL CHEER

Berlin hosts some 60 Christmas markets, attracting four million visitors to stalls selling gifts such as music boxes, nutcrackers and wooden figurines, as well as stomach-warming food such as hot potato cakes, sausages with mustard and mulled wine. The largest is held in the grounds of Charlottenburg Palace, providing a romantic background to light-twinkled festivities, but Potsdamer Platz's market offers tobogganing and ice skating in a contemporary setting. See visitberlin.de

15. SOAK UP THE SUN

Berlin is further north than London or Amsterdam and has frozen winters, so whenever the sun appears the locals emerge in force, occupying deckchairs along the river, filling beer gardens, lying on every available patch of grass and barbecuing in parks. There are even a few lakeshore beaches, the best of which is Strandbad Grünau. The sporty should head to old Templehof airport, now turned park for rollerblading, softball and informal soccer games. See visitberlin.de

16. REFLECT ON HISTORY

You have to admire the way Germans seldom flinch from recounting the atrocities of World War II, and Berlin is dotted with prominently placed memorials to Nazi victims. Gather your mental strength for a visit to the bluntly-named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with its sombre rows of concrete blocks. The confronting information centre beneath focuses on accounts of individual Jewish families, but also lists every known Holocaust victim. See stiftung-denkmal.de

17. SAY HELLO TO THE AMPELMANN

The oddly shaped, walking green traffic-light man you see at Berlin intersections was first used in East Berlin in 1961 but phased out after reunification until a nostalgic grassroots movement demanded its return. Now it's found across the city and has become a cult figure that you'll also find on T-shirts, coffee mugs and other souvenirs. Indeed, there are entire Ampelmann shops. See ampelmann.de

18. HAVE AN ALTERNATIVE NIGHT OUT

Take in a show at Chamaeleon theatre for a taste of quintessential Berlin and its cross-over nightlife. Its changing "new circus" performances combine cabaret, burlesque, comedy, singing and acrobatic acts, and you're never quite sure what's going to happen next. While you enjoy the creativity and skills of both German and international performers, you can tuck into a light dinner – or just knock back some schnapps. See chamaeleonberlin.com

19. PLAY I SPY 

At the height of the Cold War, Berlin was a hot bed of espionage, assassinations and intrigue, all brilliantly outlined at the interactive, child-friendly German Spy Museum. Exhibits also take a much wider view of history, tracing the shenanigans of spies, agents and code breakers from ancient Babylon onwards. Try your hand at deciphering codes, wiggle like Catherine Zeta-Jones through a laser room, and find out how secure your computer passwords are. See deutsches-spionagemuseum.de

20. GET ON YOUR BIKE

With low traffic levels and a flat landscape, Berlin could hardly be a better city for cycling. You can rent a bike for €10 a day, but head out with a tour guide and you'll get more insight. Specialist cycling tours focus on the Berlin Wall, alternative neighbourhoods and street art, or you can just get an overview of the city on a Berlin's Best tour. It's a worthy €24 investment for a half-day of insight. See berlinonbike.de

Brian Johnston was a guest of the German National Tourist Office and Visit Berlin.

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