Note: this article doesn’t really cover the obvious tourist attractions, which most people already know about. I’ve covered some lesser-known, interesting and authentic Berlin experiences that are f-r-e-e!
Living in Berlin for the past two months on a tight budget, I’ve investigated pretty much every possible option for saving money while still experiencing the city. Luckily, Berlin is full of people like me (such as travellers, students and those doing never-ending unpaid internships) and the powers that be have taken pity on us.
Aside from the well-known free attractions like Brandenburger Tor, East Side Gallery on the Berlin Wall and Unter den Linden, there’s many essential Berlin things to see and do that are completely free. It’s especially easy to save money if you’re in Berlin for more than a few days, because you’ll be able to plan your schedule around the times when certain attractions have free entry.
In no particular order, the ten best free activities I’ve discovered are:
Situated mainly around Brandenburger Tor and Tiergarten are touching memorials to groups who were persecuted by the Nazis. There’s the endlessly photographed Holocaust memorial, the homosexual memorial and a memorial to Sinti and Gypsy people. There’s a memorial for the book burnings, and you’ll also notice the gold plaques in front of apartments throughout the city to recognise the former homes of Jews who were killed by Nazis. Each memorial is designed in a beautiful, meaningful way and all are free.
‘Gartens’ are a very popular leisure activity for Berliners in spring and summer. As soon as the sun comes out the parks are full, even during business hours (I’ve come to the conclusion that not many Berliners keep normal working hours). In the absence of beaches, people bring blankets and swimmers to the park. Tiergarten is the largest and most impressive, but each has its own atmosphere and typical crowd. For example, Görtlitzer Park turns into an outdoor party every weekend for the hipsters of Kreuzberg.
The best known museums and galleries such as the Pergamon are expensive, and if you want to do a few of them, definitely buy the three-day pass for €24. With most of the popular museums charging €10 each, you can save about €30 by visiting two each day for three days. Keep in mind that most are closed Mondays and some are closed Tuesdays, and plan your time around the locations, some of which are quite spread out.
By the way: I can recommend the Pergamon, Alte and Neue Nationalgaleries, Museum Berggruen, Museum für Fotografie and Sammlung Schaff-Gerstenberg Museum. I found the Alte Museum overpriced and a little boring.
But if you can’t even afford that, there’s two other options. The first is to visit the free museums, like Berliner Dom, German-Russian Museum, Sachsenhausen Memorial and the Topography of Terror. Secondly, many have free entry one day a week or one day a month. Ephraim-Palais, Maerkishes Museum and Nikolai Church all offer free entry on the first Wednesday of the month. Get your free (!) brochure ‘Museums to Enjoy’ by Visit Berlin from a tourism office, which lists all the major museums along with a description, directions, opening hours and cost (as well as which days, if any, are free).
4. The Bundestag/Reichstag
The huge and beautiful parliament building in Tiergarten seems to be part functional and part tourist attraction, with its glass dome on top that looks out over the city. The building has an interesting history and you can take a free 90-minute guided tour in English. Or if you’re too lazy for that, you can just go up and look out of the pretty dome. But: for security reasons, you must book a time slot online, usually at least two weeks in advance. Give ’em your details, they’ll check you’re not a likely terrorist then send you a lovely invitation letter. Apply on the website here: http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html
5. Berliner Philharmonie
Fancy some Beethoven with your currywurst? Lunchkonzerts are daily classical music concerts held in the foyer of the Berliner Philharmonie at Potsdamer Platz. They last about an hour and the performers are young but very talented. They begin at 1pm, arrive early if you want a good view. This little known freebie is worthwhile if you want to experience the venue in an authentic way, but don’t take it too seriously. You’ll need a lot of tolerance to put up with the crying babies behind you and the twelve years olds flirting and playing gameboys in front of you (this actually happened to me). Mothers must figure this to be a great time to expose their kids to some culture without disrupting people who have actually paid for music. But hey, it’s free!
6. The City Library
The Staatsbibliothek on Unter den Linden is the main library of Berlin. Because I’m a massive book nerd, it’s a beautiful building and there’s some interesting history from World War 2 associated with it, I wanted to visit. Alas, when I arrived I was turned away. Apparently without being a resident of Berlin and becoming a member, the only way you can enter is with their free 5pm guided tour, held Tuesdays – Fridays. And that tour is only offered in German. But I did it anyway, and while I mostly had no idea what was being said, I did get to see the impressive building, some very old manuscripts, and a staff-only storage area that made my nerdy little self and my nerdy fellow tour-ers very excited. Recommended if you’re into that sort of thing (especially if you can sprechen die Deutsch).
7 and 8. Sony Centre roof and film premieres
The Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz looks like it should be in glitzy New York rather than dirty, ‘alternative’ Berlin. The building is famous for its roof, which is apparently some kind of architectural landmark. I’m no design expert but I know it’s fun to pose below the pretty lights. The Sony Centre is also known for its cinema, where major Hollywood films are premiered – Brad Pitt is there right now, in fact (WHY am I still sitting here?). You can wait around by the red carpet for free, and there’s a list of upcoming premieres at Berlin Sidewalk: http://berlinsidewalk.com/tag/sony-center/
There’s always a celebration happening in Berlin, especially in spring and summer. Last month we had Carnival of Cultures and in June alone there’s the Gay Pride festival, Neukölln festival, Vintage festival and All Nations festival. Each one has free events like street parties, parades, performances and workshops. Search for upcoming events by date at http://www.visitberlin.de/en/experience/events/event-calendar
Last but definitely not least, the Berliners love their nightlife. It’s not a night out unless you’re crawling home as the sun comes up, counting on one hand how many hours of sleep you’re going to squeeze in before work. You can minimise your spending by using public transport (it’s so frequent that you’d be crazy to pay for a taxi), choosing from the great selection of venues that charge nothing or only €5 entry, and that teenage favourite tactic, pre-drinking. Spätkaufs are a Berlin institution – bottle shop and convenience store in one, ubiquitous throughout the city. Every good night starts with a beer run to the späti.
I’m the first to admit that I split the point about Sony Centre into 7 and 8 because I couldn’t think of a tenth addition. If anyone knows of any others, please comment below. I have three more weeks in Berlin and plan to see and do as much as possible while spending as little as possible!