Get Your Kinks On in This Edgy European Capital

What happens in Berlin doesn’t stay in Berlin.

Of pretty much all the capitals in Western Europe, Berlin is a city with distinct edginess and unpretentiousness. It’s a place of eclectic contrasts, where start-up entrepreneurs, free-spirited artists, high-level politicians, and passionate anarchists can all easily find their people. The metropolis that’s nearly nine times bigger than Paris geographically is full of streets peppered with a mixture of palatial, centuries-old buildings; stark Soviet-era structures; and ornate, Altbau apartments.

There’s no ignoring the heaviness of the city’s past, which you can see in the prevalence of museums, plaques, and memorials, including Stolpersteine (brass “stumbling stones” on the ground that commemorate victims of the Nazis) and the double row of cobblestones marking where the Berlin Wall used to be. But while Germany’s capital has one foot in the past, the other is in the future as the city continues to change and rapidly reinvent itself.

Interested in museums and galleries? You have over 170 to peruse. More of a nature person? The city is one of the greenest in Europe. Want to go clubbing for ten hours? You could start at 8 am on a Sunday if you felt like it. Berlin is one of those places that becomes whatever you make of it, and if you’re feeling bored, you’re probably just not looking hard enough. Here’s where to start looking.

You could almost say Berlin’s famous TV Tower is just the city’s disco ball. | Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Check off the historical and cultural must-sees

Even if you’re all about experiencing a place “like a local,” there are still some major tourist spots worth visiting given Berlin’s storied history, including its role in World War II and the Cold War. Make a self-guided walking tour by starting in the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Museum Island. Just as it sounds like, this is an actual island in the river with five museums and the stunning Berliner Dom cathedral on it.

From there, walk down Unter den Linden street past beautiful, stately buildings like the Staatsoper all the way to the Brandenburg Gate. This grand, neoclassical monument from the 18th century stands as one of the city’s main landmarks (and the location of that famous David Hasselhoff concert at the fall of the Berlin wall).

Find provocative and plain-old-fun political art on the Berlin Wall. | Unsplash/Hannes Kocholl

If you go right from the gate, you can check out the Reichstag, where the seat of the German parliament is and where you can reserve a time to walk up the iconic glass dome. Go left, and you can see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Or move straight ahead, and you’ll eventually reach the over-200-feet-tall Victory Column, which has 285 steps leading up to a viewing area.

Outside of this hotspot, other must-sees in Berlin are the East Side Gallery (the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall that’s now covered in vibrant artwork) and the Berlin Wall Memorial (an outdoor exhibition where a border strip once stood).

Bratwurst, kebabs, bao—it all goes to the face. | Markthalle Neun

Eat your way through cuisines from dozens of countries

Yes, Berlin is full of places to grab a cheap currywurst slathered in thick, red sauce and dusted with golden curry powder. But it’s also just as easy (if not easier) to find a place to grab a döner kebab. The filling, portable street food was brought over by Turkish immigrants and entails spit-roasted meat wrapped in thick bread.

The beauty of the city’s dining scene is that it expands far beyond German—and even European—cuisine to offer an exciting playground for anyone who loves to travel just for a good meal. Called the vegan capital of Europe, it’s also heaven for those who steer clear of meat.

Yes, donuts count as a cuisine. | Brammibal's Donuts

It’s not easy narrowing down the best when there’s so much good, but if you want a list of greatest hits, go for currywurst and fries at Curry 61, a fully loaded döner kebab at K’Ups Gemüsekebap, some Japanese fusion food at 893 Ryōtei, the perfect burger at Kumpel & Keule, a personal-sized Neapolitan pizza at Standard Serious Pizza, and succulent Turkish grilled meats at Adana Grillhaus.

For something for your sweet tooth, enjoy a vegan donut at Brammibal’s Donuts, creative ice cream flavors at Katchi Ice Cream, and dessert-only fine dining at CODA. Totally indecisive? Sample a little bit of everything at Markthalle Neun.

If you didn’t dance in an abandoned warehouse, did you even go to Berlin? | Maskot/Getty Images

Experience world-famous clubbing

If you weren’t a big fan of electronic sounds and thumping bass before, experiencing Berlin’s famous clubbing scene may have you convinced. Berlin is the world’s techno capital (in fact, the city actually voted to recognize its clubs as cultural institutions). Shrouded in mystery and hedonism, and located in a former power plant, Berghain is the imposing club that everyone’s heard of and that recently became even more legendary for reportedly rejecting Elon Musk. If you want to visit, be prepared to stand in line for hours only to possibly get turned away at the door yourself by an intimidating, tattooed bouncer.

Other popular haunts where you can dance until the sun comes up are Sisyphos (a club in what used to be a dog food factory with a festival-like atmosphere and lively open-air spaces) and Kater Blau (a colorful riverside establishment where you can gaze out onto the water while taking dance breaks). Another iconic spot? KitKatClub, where kinky is cool and you’re more likely to get in with the less you have on.

Stroll, bike, or have a picnic in the city’s greenery. | Markus Bernhard/Stone/Getty Images

Enjoy the green oases amid the city’s hustle and bustle

Though it's entirely possible to spend three straight days inside a dark, multi-level club while in Berlin, some may be surprised to hear that the city offers just as many opportunities to soak up the sun as it does strobing lights. For starters, there’s Tiergarten, which is often called Berlin’s Central Park, with nearly 520 acres and numerous trails crisscrossing through changing landscapes.

You can also go rollerblading and kiteboarding on old runways at Tempelhofer Feld, an airport turned public park. A visit to Treptower Park for a stroll along the river or a boozy picnic is always a nice way to spend an afternoon. Then there are all the lakes in and around the city, like Müggelsee and Wannsee, where locals travel to in droves to sunbathe when it’s hot out.

Can you belt out your best or wonderfully worst at this public karaoke? | Sonntags Karaoke im Mauerpark

Find your vibe off-the-beaten path

Say you’ve done your duty as a good Berlin tourist and you’re ready for some off-the-beaten path activities where you’ll be more surrounded by locals than big tour groups. Get ready to get a whole new bucket list going, because in such a colorful city, the options are seemingly endless.

To unwind, spend the day at Vabali, an expansive Bali-style spa where nude is the only way to be in the different pools and saunas. If you’re hungry, head to Thaipark, which is actually a weekend event in Preußenpark, where you can purchase an assortment of home-cooked Thai dishes from individual vendors posted up under colorful umbrellas. Another attraction that may steal away your attention on the weekend is Bearpit Karaoke. This spectacle that is open-air and open-to-everyone takes place on Sundays at the Mauerpark amphitheater, where brave souls from all corners of the world step up to sing their chosen song one at a time in front of an enthusiastic crowd.

TV Tower in the background: check. | Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin

Where to stay in Berlin

Many know Hotel Adlon as the five-star hotel where the likes of Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II stayed. Others know it as the place where Michael Jackson infamously dangled his baby over the balcony. Regardless, it's a place bursting with history and anyone who likes to sleep in iconic establishments (and has the deep pockets to back it up) can’t do much better than a night there.

For more luxury, there’s also Hotel de Rome, a high-end establishment in the famous Bebelplatz, and Schlosshotel Berlin by Patrick Hellman, which is more secluded and sumptuously decorated.

For those who like to stay closer to the action, you could go with Michelberger Hotel, a trendy spot in between the river and the buzzing Boxhagener Platz, or pick Orania.Berlin, refined accommodations on a particularly poppin’ stretch of restaurants and bars in Kreuzberg.

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Cindy Brzostowski is a freelance writer and editor based in Berlin. In addition to Thrillist, her work has been featured in TripSavvy, The Points Guy, Greatist, Time Out, Roadtrippers, and more. Follow her @cindybrz.