I first visited Berlin a few years ago, and was left marveling that a city carrying the weight of so much history could be in such a state of flux. New building, new roads, new monuments everywhere you looked. On that trip, the Holocaust memorial had just been unveiled (if one can unveil something that covers 4.7 acres), and was the subject of much debate amongst my girlfriends and I: I found it powerful and moving, a field of monolithic blocks that grows deeper and darker and more over-powering the further you walk into it; one of my friends, who had just published a novel with a Holocaust theme, was horrified that children were running in and out of the lanes of stone, playing hide-and-seek. That might sum up the challenge facing the visitor to this city – how to balance its history with its present?

Visiting again recently, it seemed to me that the balance between old and new, East and West, was better-established, albeit just as surprising. The streets of Charlottenburg, the Kensington, if you like, of West Berlin, might have been those of almost any Western city, prosperous and rather dull. But what had been the East was buzzing with life and energy, with explosions of colour and art: the joyously colourful, and now, I suppose, historic outlaw graffiti with which the inhabitants of the East broke up the greyness of their city, and some of the finest examples of public sculpture anywhere in Europe – Käthe Kollwitz's Mother with Dead Son, for example. Kollwitz lost a son in World War I, and a grandson in World War II, and her heartbreaking sculpture stands as a monument to all victims of tyranny, alive or dead. It's a reminder that there is much in Berlin that is not comfortable to look at or think on. 

And of course, this presents some enormous challenges for those involved in curating the city's history as well. The German Historical Museum, which you will reach if you walk up Unter den Linden from the Kollwitz sculpture, addresses the most difficult part of Germany's history – that since the 1930s – with head-on directness and honesty, as part of an almost exhausting overview. It's a handsome building, but a thoroughly depressing experience – it's clear that the most constant element in Germany's history has been war. The museum merits visiting, but not for too long. Come out onto Unter den Linden, take a deep breath, look toward the Brandenburg Gate, and remind yourself that things can change.

This is a city to explore on foot, and happily for the museum-goer in Berlin, five of the most important (be warned, Berlin has over 170 museums in total) – the Old Museum, the New Museum, the Old National Gallery, the Bode Museum and the Pergamon Museum – are all gathered together on so-called "Museum Island". If you enjoy the art of the classical world, this is the place for you – the collection of monumental buildings from the ancient world in the Pergamon Museum in particular are so astounding as to almost make you feel you have wandered through a time-slip. If you want art of the modern period, go to the New National Gallery, and discover masterpieces by Munch, Klee, Dix, Kokoschka, and Richter.

Finally, when you are almost stupefied by art, finish with a visit to the Reichstag. You will need to book tickets at least the day before, but ending a day in Berlin watching the sunset from its extraordinary rooftop glass dome is not to be missed.