The German capital has always been a top destination for casual travelers, nomads, students, and others alike. But what do you know about the many things Berlin is known and famous for?
Berlin is known for having been at the heart of some of the most important events in European history. It’s brought us some of David Bowie’s best albums, countless scientific inventions, and iconic architecture. Berlin is also famous for its multi-faceted street food and the notorious clubbing scene.
There’s a lot to talk about with Berlin, so without further ado, let’s dive right into the 24 things Berlin is most famous for!
1. East and West
Of course, one of the most distinctive images of Berlin remains that of the wall that split the city in half between 1961 and 1989.
For the duration of its existence – and that of the rivaling Western and Eastern governments – it stood as the symbol of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War as a whole.
Today, remnants and fragments of the wall are still standing. They have not stopped serving as one of the city’s perennially popular public memorials and open-air museums.
2. Arts and libertine bohemians
During the fin de siecle period around the turn of the 19th century, Berlin was home to a dizzying number of cosmopolitan artists, freethinkers, and political radicals.
Today, especially since the fall of the Wall, that hasn’t changed. Far from it! Out of all the major European metropolises, nowhere will you find as diverse and engaged an artistic community as in Berlin.
3. A cosmopolitan’s dream
Since the end of World War II, Berlin has steadily engaged in a metamorphosis that has led to it becoming one of the most international cities on Earth.
Cultural influences making the city what it is today range from the predominantly Turkish immigrant laborers that started arriving in the 50s to large communities of Southeast Asian, North African, North American, and other expats, nomads, and more.
While the city is still run and organized entirely like any other German municipality – you won’t find any multilingual street signs here, no matter where you go – nowhere else in the country will you find a real melting pot quite like in Berlin.
4. The Ampelmännchen
Berlin is not just famous for broad historical achievements, world-changing events, or its diverse populace. It’s the little things that matter as well!
Case in point, say hello to the Ampelmann, also known by its diminutive Ampelmännchen. The idea of having a stick figure accompany the red and green “stop” and “go” signals on pedestrian traffic lights isn’t new, and you can find it in many countries today.
However, the Ampelmann is unique. The distinctily masculine-coded figure, with his very midcentury outfit and casual stride, was chosen as the traffic signal symbol for East Germany specifically. After the wall fell, most of them were taken down and replaced by the more generic-looking West German design.
However, Berliners had such strong nostalgia for the Ampelmann that they protested, and eventually, a compromise was made.
Nowadays, practically everywhere that used to be East Berlin you can still see the original red and green Ampelmännchen, stopping and going and stopping and going just like in the old days.
Berlin is famous for its many iconic districts, and rest assured we are going to look at more than one today in this guide.
However, Kreuzberg deserves to go first as it is arguably one of the boroughs that has brought the most international recognition to Berlin with its cultural influence.
For most of the post-war period, Kreuzberg was known locally as the least desirable part of (East) Berlin to live in.
That’s right: most of the population of Kreuzberg was, and still is in large part, comprised of poor working-class families from East Germany, Turkey, and the Balkan countries.
Despite the resulting poverty and lack of resources (or maybe even because of it), Kreuzberg eventually developed into one of the most vibrant and artsy places to live in the city.
Since the 2000s, it has become one of the most desirable areas for students, progressively-minded artists, freethinkers, and especially members of the local squatting and leftist activist scene.
Increasingly gentrified, but never having lost any of its signature charm, Kreuzberg is one of those places in Berlin that you can’t miss.
When I used to live in the city myself, this is the district where I had my home base – and I sure don’t regret it.
6. Excellent transport
Berlin, larger in area than either of the above, is no different. In fact, it takes the best of its neighbors and adds a whole bunch of goodies on top.
Living in Berlin, you have four main ways of choosing how to go from A to B – besides walking, biking, or driving of course.
There’s the U-Bahn, the classic yellow-bodied metro network that serves the whole city. It’s quick, cheap, and efficient, and the trains have become iconic fixtures of the city.
Then you have the S-Bahn, and above-ground commuter rail that doesn’t just cover the whole city, but also the suburbs and some outlying towns.
Finally, there’s the bus and tram network that can help you navigate many the streets further downtown – the former mostly run through the West part of Berlin, whereas the East carries most of the tram lines.
The reason why Berlin can afford to have such a huge, multi-layered, yet affordable and efficient public transportation system is that the city was smart enough to adopt these technologies very early.
The tram network is one of the world’s first, having been opened in the 1860s. Likewise, the Berlin U-Bahn has been serving residents since 1902.
7. Checkpoint Charlie
When visiting Berlin, one of the biggest ‘tourist magnets’ that almost never skips an itinerary is Checkpoint Charlie.
Contrary to popular belief, this was not the only official border crossing between East and West – but it was by far the most notorious.
This is in large part due to the 1961 standoff that happened here, where Soviet and American tanks met in a brief moment of extreme tension, pointing their turrets at one another.
This incident, and other watershed moments during the 60s and 70s, cemented Checkpoint Charlie as a fixture of spy novels and political thrillers.
8. The Berlin Airlift
Another fateful episode during the Cold War that Berlin is known for was the Berlin blockade, and the following airlift.
In the late 40s, the Soviet government enacted a blockade on all resources – food, water, firewood, coal, and more – entering West Berlin from the East by land.
Whether this was done to encourage the Western Occupational Forces to vacate the area, or whether it was caused by mismanagement on the Soviet end is still not entirely clear.
Whatever the case may be, the Allies were not ready to give up West Berlin. And so, they did the only thing they could in the circumstances.
They loaded up bombers and large passenger planes with bare necessities and airlifted them into the city. Soon, huge crowds would be lining up at Tempelhof, Berlin’s oldest and at the time largest airport, waiting for the daily shipments.
One of the planes in particular, flown by American Colonel Gail Seymour, achieved fame as the Candy Bomber: nearly every day for the entire duration of the blockade, he would swoop by Tempelhof and drop little packs of candy on parachutes for the crowds of children waiting there.
Eventually, the Soviet government caved in and released the blockade. Particularly for the American and British forces, the airlift was a gigantic success: they managed to retain hold of Berlin while capturing the public imagination with some of the most fantastical footage of the postwar era.
9. Tempelhof, Tegel, Schönefeld… and then?
Speaking of planes and airports, Berlin has had plenty of those. Surprisingly plenty, in fact.
There is Tempelhof, the oldest airfield in the city, which opened just after World War I and was for the longest time the main airport as well.
Due to general disrepair and small runways and hangars that were not fit for the jet age, it was finally retired for good in 2008.
By then, two other airports had been built – Tegel serving West Berlin and Schönefeld for East Berlin. After the wall fell, the city kept using both of these, leading to some confusion with travelers from abroad.
To rectify this, plans were soon set in motion to build one large airport serving all of Berlin and the surrounding area, replacing both Tegel, Schönefeld, and Tempelhof, which was still in partial use back then.
Due to enormous issues with regards to budget, design, and construction, the new airport was postponed again, and again, and again…so much so that it eventually became a bit of a joke among Berliners and Germans as a whole.
Ironically, it was smack-dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that the new airport, named Brandenburg after the nearby state, became operational.
10. Konrad Schumann
You might not recognize the name, but Konrad Schumann has immortalized himself as one of the most famous Berliners of his generation.
An officer working for the East German border guard, he defected by crossing the East-West barrier in Berlin in 1961, just as construction of the wall was starting.
A photographer happened to be at the scene when it happened and fired off a series of quick shots showing Schumann’s daring escape.
You can see him dropping his rifle to the ground, hopping over the barbed wire, and being escorted away in a West German police car.
These images have become iconic symbols of Berlin during the Cold War era, and continue to inspire people around the world.
11. The Brandenburg Gate
Probably no piece of architecture is as intimately associated with Berlin as the Brandenburg Gate.
Built during the time of the Prussian monarchy, the Gate has served as the backdrop for countless important events of European history ever since.
12. Seat(s) of government
Just like the complicated airport situation, Berlin also experienced plenty of back-and-forth as it came to its status as the capital of Germany and thus, the location of its government.
From the Middle Ages all the way up to the end of World War I, Berlin and the surrounding area was governed by the royal Hohenzollerns, who reigned from a Palace in the Western part of the city.
This palace fell into disuse when it was replaced during the Republican era by the Reichstag building, which was designed to host a democratic parliament and not an aristocratic dynasty.
During World War Two, both the palace and the Reichstag building were mostly destroyed by Allied bombing.
The West German government relocated to Bonn, where they took up residence in a relatively plain, office-like building called the Bundeshaus.
Meanwhile, the East German government erected a new, modern structure called the Palace of the Republic to host its parliament. The Socialist Palace was lavish almost to the point of gaudiness, what with its many restaurants, galleries, salons – even a discothéque. Not to mention the gold-plated windows.
To further complicate the story, look what happened after the fall of the Iron Curtain: Newly-unified Germany abandoned Bonn, tore down the Palace of the Republic, and commissioned famous architect Norman Foster to restore and partially redesign the old Reichstag.
Since 1999, the German government has sat there, in Berlin once again.
And as a little epilogue, they even decided more recently to rebuild the old Berlin Palace – this time, it’ll serve as a museum about the old aristocracy.
Another one of the city’s iconic neighborhoods, Berlin is most famous for Friedrichshain because of its decades-long association with street art.
After the war, Friedrichshain became a stronghold of artists and squatters – a combination that has led to the creation of some of the most enduring and famous pieces there.
Today, Friedrichshain continues to enjoy lots of popularity, especially because it is close to some of the hottest spots in Berlin’s nightlife scene.
14. Clubbing galore
Speaking of which, there is no way that Berlin’s clubs would manage to escape a feature on this list.
At least since the 1980s, Berlin has been and continues to be one of the top spots in the world for long nights of drinking, dancing, and what some dismissive non-Berliners refer to as “unrestricted hedonism”.
Clubbing remains a huge part of the local scene all over Berlin, but in particular in and around Friedrichshain, Pankow, and Kreuzberg.
Immortalized by the David Bowie song of the same name, Neukölln continues the same trend as its neighboring East Berliner neighborhoods: trendy, artsy, full of (former) communists and squatters, and increasingly gentrified to the point of being unrecognizable.
Compared to some of the other districts, Neukölln has taken the post-Cold War rejuvenation with arguably the most grace, looking very much unchanged and radically different at the same time.
Apart from Kreuzberg, Neukölln is the part of Berlin that continues to haul in the most young immigrants from abroad these days, so it is where students, activists, artists, and social types usually hang out.
For a complete and stark contrast, take a look at Charlottenburg, the former and enduring stronghold of West Berliner culture.
Even today, some thirty-odd years after the wall fell, the difference between this and, say, Kreuzberg, is staggering.
Full of polished neoclassical facades, high-end shopping malls and the smell of expensive perfume, this is where the distinguished classes of Berlin live. That’s not to mention that the neighborhood itself is named after a literal royal palace.
Larger than any of the other districts, Charlottenburg cannot be described by these clichés alone though. Its residents are remarkably diverse, though all remarkably different from the mostly East Berliner culture that many people associated with the city as a whole.
17. The TV Tower
The Berliner Fernsehturm, as it is known in German, is one of the nation’s most enduring landmarks, and also one of the tallest buildings in Europe to this day.
As a tourist attraction, it continues to attract plenty with its amazing panoramic views and topside restaurants.
18. Berliner German
Most foreigners will have a hard time noticing it, but Berlin is indeed known for its distinctive local accent, which some have gone so far as to label a dialect.
Most areas of Germany have undergone a very strict shift towards the standardized form of the language. Berlin is one of the few outliers along with Bavaria for example – but it is by far the most localized and unique.
Today, you would think that, with all the internationalization that the city has undergone, Berlinerdeutsch would rarely be heard, but that isn’t true.
When I lived there, the accent was nearly everywhere: in public service announcements, on the street (both East and West), and in stores and other spaces.
19. Lots of smoke
Here is one of the less appetizing things that Berlin is famous for – the abundance of cigarette smoke everywhere.
Funnily enough, Berlin was actually one of the first cities worldwide to enact a legal ban on smoking in public during the 18th century.
However, the law was not popular and was overturned, leading to the current situation where smoking is not just tolerated, but remains very widespread, even inside public transport and in some stores and indoor spaces.
Honestly, as far as Europe goes, only in the southeast of France have I experienced as much smoke in the air as I have walking through some of Berlin’s streets, though even there you will not find people puffing about indoors.
Another peculiar aspect of local Berlin culture that some might find endearing, others frankly revolting is the residents’ fascination with Currywurst.
What is it? Well, put simply, it’s a type of fried Berliner sausage, usually chopped, and seasoned with a type of spicy, curry-tinged ketchup sauce.
Often, Currywurst is served with fries or a burger on the side, and there are many variations of the recipe.
If that sounds, shall I say, pretty American to you, then you wouldn’t be too far off.
It’s the enduring popularity of Currywurst that has made Berlin famous as the capital of fast food in Europe. Love it or hate it, the Currywurst is here to stay for sure.
21. The Holocaust Memorial
Of course, one of the things Berlin is most known for is its role as the capital of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, and the atrocities committed there under that regime.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why West Germany chose to relocate its government to Bonn after the war!
Nonetheless, the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (reckoning with the past) forced Berliners of later generations to face the city’s connection with fascism and genocide head on.
The current Holocaust memorial has been open to the public in Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gate in the center of town, since 2005.
Its unique aesthetics distinguish it from other Holocaust memorials. Most of the monument is a gigantic, 200,000 square-feet field of nondescript concrete slabs, arranged in sort of a maze.
No clear meaning to these shapes has ever been given by the architect, the famous American Jewish artist Peter Eisenmann. There are no inscriptions, no names, nothing that gives any context to the structure.
While there is a separate information center, containing more explicit memorial information and footage mostly obtained from the Israeli Yad Vashem museum, the main monument is what Berlin is most famous for.
22. A city of canals and bridges
One thing many don’t know about Berlin is that it is divided by not one, not two, but eight rivers! The largest of these are the Havel and the Spree, but the sheer amount of streams cutting up the city like this means that Berlin has a truly gigantic system of maze-like canals and bridges.
Berlin is famous for actually having more bridges than Venice – a whopping 1,700 or so!
23. A lifetime’s worth of museums
Berlin is well-known for having always been one of Europe’s greatest centers of art and culture, but have you heard about the Museumsinsel?
Yes, it’s just what it sounds like – an island in the heart of the city’s central district, harboring six (originally five) of the world’s most renowned institutions in their respective fields.
For example, the Pergamon Museum holds reconstructed and partially restored specimens of legendary pieces from antiquity, such as the Babylonian Ishtar Gate.
The Museumsinsel has been so influential and loved by the public since its initial construction in the 1800s that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Of course, Berlin goes way beyond this one island – the city has one of the highest concentrations of museums, opera houses, theaters, and galleries per square kilometer in the world!
Venice has its own (in addition to the Sanremo Music Festival). So does Cannes.
Of course Berlin, being the birthplace of such masterpieces as M and Wings of Desire and remaining a European capital of cinema ever since, deserved an international movie festival of its own.
This it got in the form of the Berlinale, which has been held here every year since 1951. One of the most prestigious in Europe, it draws countless movie buffs to the city year after year to see who will get the Golden Bear this time around.
What else is Berlin known for? If you think of something, feel free to add it to the comment box below.