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Berlin is a vibrant city, steeped in history and culture. Here are five activities not to miss in the German capital:
1. The Reichstag. Home of the German parliament, the Reichstag is a marvel of democracy and architecture. You must register at least a month ahead to visit the building’s dome. British architect Sir Norman Foster’s mirrored spiral draws thousands to the roof every day, so be prepared to wait (if you’re visiting the building’s rooftop restaurant, you can skip the line). Guided tours can be arranged in English six days a week, however, 45-minute lectures about the history of the building are only offered in English Tuesday afternoons (registration is required for both). After registering, you can even watch a session of parliament.
2. A visit to East Berlin. East Berlin has a drab history, which included small, bland apartments in nondescript gargantuan concrete buildings where everyone lived. Today, you can still see signs of the area’s past — like the buildings, along with some lingering war destruction — but you’ll also see shops, museums and a vibrant nightlife scene. While it may be cliché, a bus tour is one of the best ways to see East Berlin. Look for tour companies like Berlin City Hop-On Hop-Off, which lets you get on and off as many times as you like, so you can explore the area by foot.
3. Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg). Before 1871, Germany was home to closely related states and kingdoms. Royalty had mansions sprinkled throughout the region. We are drawn to the majesty of Charlottenburg Palace, the largest castle in the capital. Construction on a summer residence started in 1695 for Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Prussian Elector Frederick III. After he ascended to the throne, the palace and its ornate gardens became more and more grand. Although the structure sustained substantial damage during World War II, the baroque and rococo mélange was lovingly brought back to its original splendor in the 1950s. It's a great place to get a glimpse of the life of Prussian royalty and see exquisite collections of 18th-century French and German paintings and porcelain.
4. Visit the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer). Construction of the Berlin Wall started on Bernauer Street (Bernauerstrasse), where a visitor center now sits. However, you’ll see the full exhibit outdoors. Walk about nine blocks along Bernauer Street; the wall has been replaced with 12-foot-tall rusted metal poles. Go there to read and hear (audio is available) about the cinder-block barrier and the lives it separated.
5. Museum Island. The World Heritage site holds five world-class museums, including the Pergamon Museum and Old National Gallery. Head to the area to get an up-close look at the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate on this land in the middle of Berlin.