Berlin is a big place, so it can be hard to trim down your list of things to do. On a first visit though, it's important to strike a balance between exploring the city's past and its present, to ensure that you come away from your trip feeling as though you managed to get to know the real Berlin – if only a little bit. Here are my Top 5 things to do in Germany's buzzing capital:
1. ALTERNATIVE BERLIN FREE TOUR
One of the most beautiful things about Berlin is its grit – it's a cultural and artistic melting pot, always on the cusp of something new and edgy to surprise its otherwise hip, in-the-know residents with. Experience Berlin's underground scene through the eyes of locals, by going along to Alternative Berlin Tours free walking tour. In 3 hours, the guides open your eyes and ears to sights, sounds, experiences and locales which may have otherwise passed you by: street art, urban art projects, artist squats and urban farms to name but a few. You'd be hard pushed to find a better way to immerse yourself in Berlin's current scene – and there's the added bonus of picking up some local tips to explore later, too. Although every tour is different depending on the guide, it will come as no surprise that the majority of the time is spent in über-cool Kreuzberg. This tour offers the keys to the city – or rather, to its basement, which is much more exciting.
A balance between planning and flexibility is always key to creating the perfect trip. Visiting the Reichstag (Germany's Parliament) though is one of those moments that needs to be fully planned German-style (i.e. efficiently and ideally somewhat far in advance of your visit). The Reichstag's dome is a must-see – its impressive spiralling design is the work of Norman Foster and is a piece of modern architectural genius that quite rightly demands attention. It's resonance goes far beyond the architectural though, this dome now acts as a powerful symbol of Germany's reunification. Booking in advance is necessary not only due to the fact that large numbers of people wish to visit the dome, but also because this is still a working parliament, so time slots and places are limited to ensure that security remains at the highest level. I would recommend booking at least two weeks in advance of your visit to ensure not only a spot, but one at a good time of day (either the beginning or the end so you don't have to rush from another part of Berlin halfway through the day to get there). Luckily, in true German efficient style, you can do it all online here. For those that really can't bring themselves to plan in advance, it is possible to snag a spot on the day you want to visit, or in the following two days, by booking at the service centre – but you'll be relying purely on luck. Oh and one more thing – don't forget to bring your ID!
3. DRINK CLUB MATE
After a long day sightseeing, you're more than likely to experience a little afternoon energy slump. But, don't worry, Berlin has got you covered. One of the city's favourite drinks is Club Mate: a mate-extract fizzy drink which is low in sugar but high in caffeine. See? Even Berlin's soft drinks are alternative. It really is no surprise that Club Mate is popular here though, in one the world's best clubbing and tech start-up capitals, where all-nighters are the norm. So grab yourself a bottle, and maybe a currywurst too, and take five.
4. CHARLOTTENBURG PALACE
During the intensive bombing in World War II, many of Berlin's oldest buildings were destroyed. The district of Charlottenburg however, managed to escape a lot of the bombardment, so it's here where you need to head when in search of Berlin's baroque. Having said that, Charlottenburg's beloved palace unfortunately did not emerge unscathed, and had to be partially reconstructed after being bombed in 1943. Today though, to the untrained architectural eye, Charlottenburg palace shows no signs of a facelift and appears just as magnificent as when it was first built back in the late 17th century. The palace itself is impressive, but it is its surrounding gardens which really steal the show. Take a stroll through the expansive Schlossgarten with its big, shady trees, glorious fountains and lakes complete with fairytale-like footbridges.
5. ORIGINAL BERLIN WALKS
Although normally I prefer to opt for free walking tours, because you can decide on the day whether to join or not (which is great if the weather isn't too good), when visiting Berlin I actually pre-booked and paid for a walking tour in advance with Original Berlin Walks. Free walking tours are great for a quick overview of the city and to get your bearings, but as I've said before, to truly get to know Berlin it's important to have a real depth of understanding of its tumultuous history and for that, a free walking tour simply isn't enough. That's where Original Berlin Walks comes in – all of its guides are trained historians and long-term residents of Berlin, the perfect combination to offer a detailed insight into the city's past. The 4-hour Discover Berlin tour doesn't just cover a large number of the main sights, but takes you on a journey through Berlin's history as you move from landmark to landmark. It's undeniably intense – cramming so much into such a short space of time, and a lot of those topics being emotionally heavy ones too, may leave you coming away from the tour in need of a beer. However, the way the guides weave historical and fun facts into animated and engaging storytelling means that the 4 hours fly by, and even though there's a lot of information being conveyed it never gets boring or tiresome. I felt particularly lucky to have been put with my guide, who openly spoke about her grandfather who had fought in World War II. It offered a completely unique and personal perspective on this difficult time in history, and shed light on the fact that many young germans today still struggle with the guilt passed down from their forefathers actions.