Berlin is famous for a lot of things. As the focal point of much of the world’s fighting during the last century, be it World War II, the Cold War or the symbolic fall of the Soviet Union, it has some of the most famous sites, museums and memorials on the planet. In more recent years it has become known as a capital for the alternative and eccentric, with spectacular street art, flamboyant parades and buzzing nightlife drawing in even greater crowds.
The beauty of Berlin is in the depth of experience a visitor can enjoy. But while the checklist of the average tourist will feature things like the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, there’s so much more to the German capital than the landmarks that cover the postcards. In fact, Berlin’s hidden secrets are often far more interesting than the sites that make the city famous.
What are the best things to do in Berlin off the beaten track? Let’s take a look at 10 of the best and most unusual things to do in Berlin that very few visitors get to enjoy.
Budapest is famous for its ruin bars – drinking establishments created out of dilapidated and disused buildings that were once factories, offices, houses and churches. While not as famous, Berlin has a ruin scene too, highlighted by the Kater complex found on the banks of the Spree. Kater features a club (Kater Blau), a rooftop bar, a wealth of artsy spaces and boutiques (including the recently opened World Trash Center) and the cherry on top, Katerschmaus.
Katerschmaus is an eclectic restaurant in the middle of the complex which carries the ‘ruin’ theme off with aplomb. Between antique furniture, graffiti-filled walls and stunning food, a visit here is a feast for the senses. Everywhere you look you’re met with something interesting, which often turns a quiet meal into a loud adventure!
You don’t have to be fluent in German to understand what might be found behind the doors of Monsterkabinett, located in the city center. An offbeat amusement park that is at once creepy, quirky, charming and off-putting, Monsterkabinett brings otherworldly metal creatures to life, singing, dancing and guiding visitors through the maze of oddities.
A difficult experience to put into words, if you want a truly weird day out in Berlin there’s no place better. Children over 5 years of age are welcome, although this probably isn’t a wise choice for easily scared kids. Nevertheless, it’s one of the best unusual things to do in Berlin.
If Monsterkabinett whets your appetite for the weird, Design Panoptikum is the perfect second serving. Combining artistic surrealism with the work of a mad scientist, this museum – if you can call it that – is a collection of 3000 industrial oddities displayed in quirky ways.
Crash test dummies, dentist chairs, jet engines and fish tanks fill the space, with each exhibit designed to elicit head-scratching from even educated art fans. This is some of the most ‘open to interpretation’ art you’ll ever see so be sure to snap some pics, and try to figure out the art when you get home.
On Schlangenbader Strasse in southwest Berlin you’ll find Europe’s largest connected residential complex, measuring 600m long and featuring 1046 apartments. And if you think that’s not very interesting, you’re probably right. What is interesting, and slightly nuts, is the fact that this complex has been built on top of the autobahn. The highway literally tunnels right through the building, beneath the 1000+ households living above.
Built in the 1970s it’s the only apartment complex of its type in the world, for what quickly became obvious reasons. Soundproofing was initially an issue and the project ran well over budget, so no more Schlangenbaders were built. That makes the construction all the more unique though, and certainly worth a look for fans of architectural curiosities.
Opened in 1969, Spreepark was once a buzzing theme park. In fact for a long time it was the only such park in East Berlin, attracting 1.5 million visitors per year. But after reunification it had to compete with the best of the west, and by 2001 the park has become insolvent. In fact the park’s owner, Norbert Witte, got caught trying to smuggle in $14 million of cocaine in the Magic Carpet ride in order to pay off his debts.
Since bankruptcy the park has slowly fallen into disrepair, but in recent years this degradation has seen it capturing imaginations once again. Now a photographer’s paradise, the rusting Ferris wheel, derailed go-karts and crumbling dinosaur statues make for photos that are at once stunning and haunting. While the future remains up in the air, the prospect of taking on $15 million in debt should ensure that Spreepark retains its Chernobyl charm for a few years yet.
While swimming in the Spree isn’t the done thing in Berlin, swimming on the Spree most certainly is. Welcome to Badeschiff – literally ‘bathing ship’ – a pool that permanently floats on the banks of the city’s river. Made out of an old barge, it’s the perfect way to enjoy the Spree without having to wade through the pollution.
While Badeschiff is understandably popular in the summer, with DJs, drinks and dancing rocking the pool until the early hours, those in the know will actually wait until winter to enjoy the experience. At this time of year a cover is put on the complex, transforming it into a perfectly toasty spa.
In 1968 the world was changing. The space race was in full flight, new construction materials were being discovered, and traditional thinking was being constantly challenged. It was in this environment that Finnish architect Matti Suuronen created the Futuro House – a UFO-style pod that was designed, in Suuronen’s words, as a portable ski chalet. For some reason it became an overnight sensation.
96 were built before the project fell in a heap due to rising costs (dropping them into location with a helicopter might have had something to do with it), and one remains in Berlin, on the banks of the River Spree. While a private property, you can still get a semi-close look at it!
Founded in 1997, Berliner Unterwelten is a society dedicated to opening up Berlin’s subterranean architecture to the public. From train stations to civilian shelters to World War II army bunkers, visitors are offered a fascinating insight into the history of Berlin, through growth, war, division and reunification.
Perhaps the most hidden of Berlin’s hidden places, the tours offered by the society give insight into the physical and psychological effects that the war would’ve had on the inhabitants of the city. Tiny concrete rooms, 1000 of which are dotted around the city, would hold up to 3500 people who might have to stay there for days at a time. Most were sealed up during the construction of the Berlin Wall and have only been reopened recently. The Berliner Unterwelten experience is one you won’t soon forget.
Full disclosure: this particular Berlin oddity is not quite in Berlin. An hour south of the city center on those ever efficient German motorways, you’ll come across a little something called Tropical Islands, a place that seems to be pulled straight from fiction.
Imagine one of the world’s largest airplane hangars – one that could fit an upright Statue of Liberty and a laid-down Empire State Building within it. Now imagine that the structure fell into the hands of a Malaysian billionaire who thought to himself ‘I really think that Germany needs a tropical rainforest’. Tropical Islands – nature reserve, holiday resort, amusement park, and crazy idea that just might work – was born.
One of those Berlin hidden gems that offers visitors a glimpse at the city’s torrid past, Hohenschönhausen charts the political persecution that occurred in East Germany from 1946 to 1990. Operated by the Stasi, East Germany’s most feared police unit, a network of informants would identify political rivals, label them traitors and usurpers, and then send them to prison according to the results of a sham trial.
300 photos and almost 500 artifacts dot the cells, and many of the guards are former inmates themselves, offering unmatched insight into the goings-on of the prison. Never ones to shy away from their own history, Germany has ensured that a walk through Hohenschönhausen isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.
Berlin is an incredible city, with an endless list of things to do. So while these 10 examples are by no means an exhaustive list of Berlin’s off the beaten path attractions, they’ll hopefully whet your appetite for the other, less famous side of the city.
After all, the best hidden gems won’t be found on internet lists!