Though cut off by the Wall for thirty years, the eastern part of the city – the Mitte district – has always been the capital’s real centre. This is the city’s main sightseeing and shopping hub and home to many of the best places to visit in Berlin.
Most visitors begin their exploration on the city’s premier boulevard Unter den Linden, starting at the most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, then moving over to the adjacent seat of Germany’s parliament, the Reichstag. Unter den Linden’s most important intersection is with Friedrichstrasse, which cuts north–south.
At its eastern end Unter den Linden is lined by stately Neoclassical buildings and terminates on the shores of Museum Island, home to eastern Berlin’s leading museums, but its natural extension on the other side of the island is Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, which leads to a distinctively GDR-era part of the city around Alexanderplatz, the eastern city’s main commercial and transport hub.
Northwest from here, the Spandauer Vorstadt was once the heart of the city’s Jewish community, and has some fascinating reminders of those days, though today it’s best known for the restaurants, bars, boutiques and nightlife around the Hackescher Markt.
Back at the Brandenburg Gate, a walk south along the edge of the gigantic Tiergarten park takes you to the swish modern Potsdamer Platz, a bustling entertainment quarter that stands on what was for decades a barren field straddling the death-strip of the Berlin Wall.
Huddled beside Potsdamer Platz is the Kulturforum, an agglomeration of cultural institutions that includes several high-profile art museums. Also fringing the park are Berlin’s diplomatic and government quarters, where you’ll find some of the city’s most innovative architecture, including the formidable Hauptbahnhof.
The western end of the Tiergarten park is given over to a zoo, which is also the name of the main transport hub at this end of town. This is the gateway to City West, West Berlin’s old centre and is best known for its shopping boulevards, particularly the upmarket Kurfürstendamm.
Schöneberg and Kreuzberg, the two residential districts immediately south of the centre, are home to much of Berlin’s most vibrant nightlife. The former is smart and is popular as a gay area, while Kreuzberg is generally grungy and edgy.
Beyond Kreuzberg’s eastern fringes, and back in what used to be East Berlin is Friedrichshain which offers some unusual architectural leftovers from the Eastern Bloc of the 1950s, while to the north Prenzlauer Berg is one of the few places in which the atmosphere of prewar Berlin has been preserved – complete with cobbled streets and ornate facades.
Berlin’s eastern suburbs are typified by a sprawl of prewar tenements punctuated by high-rise developments and heavy industry, though the lakes, woodland and small towns and villages dotted around Köpenick offer a genuine break from the city.
The leafy western suburbs are even more renowned for their woodland (the Grunewald) and lakes (the Havel), with more besides: attractions include the baroque Schloss Charlottenburg, with its adjacent art museums; the impressive 1930s Olympic Stadium; the Dahlem museum complex, which displays everything from German folk art to Polynesian huts; and the medieval town of Spandau.
Further out, foremost among possible places to visit on day-trips are Potsdam, location of Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci palace, and the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin in Oranienburg.