Ten free things to do in Berlin
If you're wondering how to watch the pennies if you are planning a budget Berlin holiday don't worry, as there are more than enough free things to keep you and your family entertained. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Berlin has more fun free offerings than just about any other city I've visited bar London, where for the past couple of years all of the big museums have free entry.
Free entry to Berlin's national museums
All of Berlin's national museums offer free entry for the last four hours of the day on Thursday. this includes all of the amazing ones on Museum Island such as the Neues Museum, which has a great collection of Egyptian art and artifacts, and the Pergamonmuseum, which has classical antiquities and Islamic art that really must be seen.
If you can't make it to the national galleries and museums during that time note that children under 16 can get free entrance at any time so visiting as a family won't cost the earth.
Walk through Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie is easily one of Berlin's most famous spots. Many who visited the city before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 had their passports stamped. The original site of Checkpoint Charlie has now been mostly redeveloped but there is a great exhibition on billboards that marks the spot and gives its history. Give yourself time as there is a wealth of information and photographs on the billboards that you'll want to read.
There is a nearby museum that charges an entrance fee. It is privately run and frankly, I've never been, despite visiting Checkpoint Charlie dozens of times with Berlin visitors that I'm hosting. None seem to have missed out as there is more than enough to keep you occupied on the site itself. When there also look down at the double line of cobblestones running across the street. This is the marker that runs around Berlin along the path of the old wall.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This is a stark and powerful memorial consisting of 2,711 huge concrete monolithic blocks that you walk between. The architect designed them to cause disorientation and discomfort and in that he achieves his goal. One walks between them on ground that slopes down so that the blocks tower higher and higher giving an ever more claustrophobic feeling. After a while the ground begins to slope upwards again, leading to a feeling of relief. This is the light at the end of the tunnel, if you will, and is meant to symbolise hope. About 10,000 people visit each day, but because it is so huge one can often feel alone when in it.
There is also an information centre located underneath the memorial that has the names of murdered Jews as well as biographical details to personalise the enormous loss. There is no charge to enter the information center. In German the memorial is known as the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas and you can find it next to the American embassy or by following the blue signs from the Brandenburg gate.
Berlin's East Side Gallery
The longest stretch of the Berlin wall that has been left standing runs along the river from Warschauer Strasse towards Ostbahnhof. This huge stretch of wall was made famous by the artworks painted on it after the Berlin wall fell. To mark the 20th anniversary many of the same artists returned and painted anew on top of the slabs of wall that had been completely vandalized by graffiti over the years. It is worthwhile doing the walk from Ostbahnhof towards Friedrichshain, a funky and trendy part of town, and then grabbing a coffee or meal in nearby Simon Dach strasse.
Free Walking Tours of Berlin
Okay, it is a bit of a lie as the tours aren't really meant to be free. Loads of tour companies offer "free" tours that take about 2 hours as part of their marketing to get you to sign up for paid tours. The guides on these free tours aren't paid, however, and rely on tips. Most people tip pretty generously, especially if the tour is a good one. In most cases they really are because the guides have to keep your attention and keep you interested until the very end when they ask for a tip.
Visit the dome on top of the Reichstag
The Reichstag is a building with more than its fair share of history. It was burnt down (probably by the Nazis who blamed communists) in 1933 and that event provided the excuse for Hitler and his Nazi cronies to seize power. Its conquest by Soviet troops in 1945 marked the symbolic end of World War 2. Unfortunately the building was mostly destroyed. When Berlin was remade the capital of a unified Germany the parliament was moved back to the old building. But it was rebuilt with a twist. A huge glass dome was added to the top and visitors can enter it for free and look down on the workings of parliament as a powerful symbol of transparency and openness in the new German parliament. Go in winter or go early as you have to be prepared to queue for a while.
Bearpit karaoke in Mauerpark
On Sundays the giant flea market in Mauerpark opens with stalls selling the most amazing assembly of junk ever seen on earth. Even more fun than the market is the entertainment out back where a crazed Irishman has set up a karaoke stand on the back of a bicycle. It sounds really lame but on a lovely summers afternoon there will be several thousand people watching and cheering as the talented and wannabe talents take to the "pit". This is one of Berlin's best kept secrets as most of the people going there are young and trendy Berliners. Enjoy it before it ends up in all of the guidebooks or the Irishman running it hops on his bicycle for another city.
Picknick in the Tiergarten or Icesake in Alexandra Platz
On sunny weekends Berliners head out to the Tiergarten, the giant park in the middle of the city, for picnics, runs or general lie-about-relaxation. In winter it becomes a fairy-tale forest of snowed in paths and icy-covered lakes.
If the weather is bit too chilly for a picknick in the park head over the the Christmas market at Alex and put on your skates for a free whizz around the rink.
Go swimming in the lakes
Another great secret of Berlin is that the lakes that surround it offer perfectly crystal clear water for swimming in. On a hot summer's day jump onto the S-Bahn to Wannsee or Schlachtensee for a cool dip. Take some lunch and laze about under the shady trees and look at the houses of the rich and famous that line the lakes.
There are some lakes closer in such as Weissensee in East Berlin but if you have the time for a real day out head out past West Berlin to the lakes.
Go sledding in winter
After the snow falls in winter all the kids in Berlin grab their sleds and their parents and head out to the nearest little hill. All day and late into the night you see them and their parents zooming down the hills. If that is a little too vigorous for you (or your little ones) then pop them on the sled and tow them about town.
In summer you can hire a bike (they are cheap enough that its almost free) and go for a leisurely cycle while thinking back on what a wonderful Berlin holiday you're having.