20 Free and Cheap Things to Do in Berlin
Reunited, eclectic, resilient -- Berlin is one of the liveliest and yet historically fraught cities in the world. There are plenty of budget-friendly things to do and see in this happening place. European travel expert Rick Steves writes in his 2014 guide to Germany that thrifty tourists can rely on $30 a day for entertainment and sightseeing. Visitors can probably do even better by sticking with free and cheap activities.
Surviving stretches of the Berlin Wall are scattered throughout the center of the city, but tourists need to know where to look. The longest remaining section, at 1.3 kilometers, is the East Side Gallery, which has served as a canvas for more than 100 artists. The East Side Gallery and the Berlin Wall Memorial, two of the best wall-related sights, are free to visit.
On weekends, Berlin explodes with flea markets, perfect spots to find affordable souvenirs or just browse the unique wares. Lonely Planet recommends Nowkoelln Flowmarkt for vintage clothes and Arkonaplatz for antiques. Mauerpark hosts a popular Sunday flohmarkt with nearby picnic spots, beer gardens, and outdoor karaoke.
Berlin's legendary street art helps define the city's character and heritage and stands as a reminder of social and political change. Some of the graffiti dates to the Cold War era and speaks to political concerns, while much of the newer art symbolizes a united Berlin. Thrillist has a roundup of stunning graffiti by international artists. Look for street art everywhere while walking around, particularly in the center of the city.
The Reichstag, Germany's Parliament building, boasts one of Berlin's most impressive landmarks: a glass dome designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster, which offers a stunning 360-degree view of the city. Visitors take a free lift ride up and get a free audio guide (available in 10 languages) inside the dome, with no entrance fee. Book online in advance for a set time to enter the Reichstag Dome.
Berliners often express odd affection for Spreepark, once the only amusement park in East Germany, which has lain dormant since late 2001. With its intact Ferris wheel, a roller coaster track that disappears into an eerie beast mouth, and chaotic greenery overtaking toppled cartoon dinosaur statues, this abandoned park draws intrepid visitors looking for a chill in a forgotten adventure land. A high fence has been erected, and although some people choose to scale or slip under it, (legally) circling around the fence and walking along the neighboring Spree River affords glimpses of the rides without entering the grounds.
Though landlocked, Berlin has two rivers and many lakes perfect for leisurely water activities such as canoeing, kayaking, and simply relaxing on the beach. The company Kajak und Kanuverleih KommRum delivers rental boats for reasonable rates to wherever visitors plan to push off. Schlachtensee, in the city's southwest, is a lovely, picturesque lake boasting high-quality water and picnic spots, making it a popular retreat for swimming and row boating. Müggelsee and Grünau in the east and Wannsee in the west are other popular lake destinations. Group admission to beaches usually costs about 5 to 10 euros, or $5.75 to $11.50.
The Kennedys Museum displays more than 300 family photos and memorabilia of the eponymous American clan. The impressive collection specifically commemorates President John F. Kennedy's 1963 visit to West Berlin, when he delivered his celebrated "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. The Bostonian botched the German accent, but his message was clear: He proclaimed the United States' solidarity with democratic and besieged West Berlin, and the speech represents a crucial moment during the Cold War. Entry is 5 euros/$5.75. (Like most Berlin museums, this one is closed on Mondays.)
Berlin's nightlife never stops -- there's no obligatory citywide closing time -- and everyone can find something: clubs, music performances, pubs, cabaret, theater, variety shows, etc. Some clubs, famous for techno, charge about 10 euros ($11.50) to enter and can be exciting but intense (and not for the faint of heart). Door policies can be strict, so travel experts recommend a casual and calm (i.e., sober) demeanor and sticking to small numbers rather than large groups. The jazz scene, with comparable cover charges, is decidedly lower key. For the pub scene, head to Helmholtzplatz and save money by eating from street carts and avoiding pricy pub crawls. For free events, check out Gratis-in-Berlin and Eintritt-frei.org and search by date (browsers should allow translations).
Berlin's cathedrals tend to be younger than most European cathedrals due to wartime damage and necessary reconstruction. Still, they tower as majestic feats of architecture and definitely warrant visits. Most famous is the Berlin Cathedral, where the current structure dates to 1905. A maintenance fee of 7 euros ($8) per person includes the dome gallery and crypt, as well as up to three children accompanied by an adult. St. Hedwig's Roman Catholic Cathedral houses the Archdiocese of Berlin and boasts gorgeous exterior and interior views. Entrance here costs nothing.
For summer travelers, an outdoor movie is an ideal spot for people watching and a relaxing way to wind down after a long day of sightseeing. Parks and gardens all over the city show films almost any night of the week, sometimes for free. Visit Berlin is the site to check. Chairs are usually lined up on the grass, although attendees might want to bring blankets for seating. For an English-language film, the best bet is Kreuzberg Park, where tickets go on sale half an hour before the show and are priced at 7 euros ($8).
MountMitte is an aerial adventure park with a series of suspended cables and platforms, as well as cars and canoes that "fly" high in the sky. It can make for an exceptionally fun afternoon, especially for children. Climbers are strapped in with protective gear and can climb to their hearts' content. Anyone taller than 130 centimeters (a little over 4 feet) can ride a sky swing. Admission is 21 euros (about $24) for adults, 18 euros (about $20.50) for students, and 15 euros (about $17) for children under 14. (Note: Adults must actively participate with children.)
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is free to the public and deserves a spot on any Berlin itinerary. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs (or stelae) of varying heights, haphazardly arranged in a sunken outdoor space. Wandering through the memorial can be disorienting, and its composition doesn't specifically symbolize anything, making the experience meditative and profound. Just north of Berlin city limits lies the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, one of the first Nazi death camps in Germany. Entrance to the memorial and museum is free; paid tours guide visitors to the watchtowers, crematorium, gas chambers, and Station Z, the execution unit.
This UNESCO World Heritage site, located on the Spree River in the central Mitte District, houses five internationally significant museums. Entry to each runs 10 to 12 euros, or about $11.50 to $14 (1 euro less if purchased online; students, military personnel, and disabled persons usually qualify for reduced rates). For a few days and unlimited entrance to about 50 Berlin museums, including all of Museum Island, the three-day Berlin Museum pass is a money-saving expense (24 euros, or about $27.50). Buy the pass at tourist offices and associated museums.
The Battle of Berlin -- the final showdown in the European theater during World War II -- led to the death of tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers. This site commemorates 5,000 of the fallen. Beyond its red marble entrance gates, a massive military graveyard and memorial features a statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child above a shattered swastika, as well as a statue of Mother Russia weeping over her slain countrymen. Entrance is free.
Mauerpark (Wall Park) lies on the former "Death Strip" between East and West Berlin. Every Sunday beginning at 3 p.m. the park's stone amphitheater (near the flea market) is the site of an enormous karaoke show, attended by thousands. The MC invites volunteers to take center stage for a few minutes of singing. As long as the performers come across as nice -- and sober -- the scene is reportedly noncompetitive, supportive, and joyous.
Food stands serve some of the cheapest and most authentic cuisine in Berlin. Vendors set up sausage stands everywhere in the city and specialize in bockwurst (veal and pork sausage) and the iconic currywurst (pork sausage sliced and covered in curry ketchup). Old-fashioned hot dog stands also abound, offering special sauces and fried onions as toppings. Non-carnivores can try senfeier (hard-boiled eggs with creamy mustard and mashed potatoes) and pfannkuchen (the doughnut called a Berliner elsewhere in Germany). For a change of pace, be sure to try a döner kebab (Turkish-style rotisserie meat served on pita).
The best-known border-crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie has become a tourist hotspot (some travel experts dismiss it as a tourist trap). The site notably showcases Allied and Soviet "guards" on either side, giving the sensation of a city divided, and houses two museums worth seeing. The Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, open 365 days a year, provides a history of the Berlin Wall and charges 12.50 euros, or about $14 for adults (less for students). The Allied Museum commemorates the United States, France, and Britain and their contributions to Berlin between 1945 and 1994. Admission here is free.
The German term stolperstein means "stumbling block" and refers to inscribed cobblestones that memorialize individual victims of the Nazi Holocaust -- those who survived as well as those who died. Located throughout Berlin, these plaques generally are located in front of the victims' former living quarters. The brass Stolpersteine are meant to literally trip up walkers and to ascribe individual identities to genocide. Look out for them while meandering through the city, specifically the Hachesche Höfe and Oranienburger Strasse neighborhoods near the center of Berlin.
A majestic monument with neoclassical columns, the Brandenburg Gate may be the most famous landmark in Germany. It sits astride what was a major road in the city center (now closed to vehicle traffic and open to pedestrians). Dating to the 18th century, this triumphal arch, originally a sign of peace, played significant, troubling roles during the Third Reich and the Cold War. The monument has weathered and stands as a testament to Berlin's tumultuous history. A Room of Silence, built into the gate, is open during daylight hours for quiet meditation and prayer.
Hitler's bunker lies dormant, as do other infamous Nazi locations, but here, at the Topography of Terror, the SS and Gestapo headquarters remain in ruins as haunting reminders of the Third Reich. Few artifacts are on display; the museum relies on building remnants and audio-visual exhibitions for effect. An open-air exhibition lies in an excavated trench and the museum includes three permanent exhibitions and a library. It's free to tour, and there are audio guides in English.