Sunshine glistens off the TV Tower’s famous ‘disco ball’ on a Saturday afternoon as I thread my way through the throngs of tourists and locals in Mitte. Global fashionistas stream in and out of fashion boutiques and sip frothy macchiatos at pavement cafes, while an elderly lady puffs on her cigarette and looks on nonchalantly from the window of her communist-era apartment.
With a relatively small population of 3.5 million, even the vast amount of visitors that descend on Berlin annually can’t seem to diminish the compelling tension between the city’s turbulent past and its grab for a cosmopolitan future. For every WWII memorial and GDR museum, there’s a new creative start-up hub occupying a former factory or brewery; for every traditional kaffee und kuchen or currywurst cafe, there’s a ‘third wave’ coffee shop or buzzy street food event.
While many of the major sights are in the centre, a visit to the inner-city neighbourhoods is essential to truly grasp the German capital. Schöneberg, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Wedding, Neukölln… Here, local life is played out beneath leafy, chestnut-tree lined streets as native Berliners, expats and immigrants share space in the city’s famed five-storey tenements and congregate in the endless pubs, clubs, kebab shops and restaurants.
This being Berlin, traces of history beckon from every corner here too, in the shape of Wall remnants, bombed out spaces and abandoned buildings. It’s precisely this blend of the historically weighty and the casually carefree that defines 21st-century Berlin.
What to see & do
The city’s big-hitter sights — the boulevard of Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate, the UNESCO-listed Museum Island, Alexanderplatz square and the neighbouring medieval quarter, Nikolaiviertel, the Reichstag and Government Quarter, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — are all conveniently located within a two-mile radius of Mitte and provide an excellent overview of the city’s multilayered history.
All are worthy of any visitor’s time, although some will take more of it than others. The limitless treasures of the Neues Museum, for example — of which the bust of Nefertiti is merely the most famous — require at least half a day to absorb, but you’ll need a full day to admire the faded frescoes, war-damaged walls and reconstructed doorways of David Chipperfield’s magnificent restoration.
Similarly, the nearby Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), whose exhibits span 2,000 years of German history across several floors, will require some effort and time to explore — and that’s without the additional temporary exhibitions hosted in the architecturally splendid annex designed by US architect I.M. Pei. Thankfully, the large and excellent cafe on the ground floor is perfect for a coffee, cake or lunch break.
Mitte’s cultural highlights inevitably extend beyond the mainstream. Head down Reinhardtstrasse and you’ll spot a looming concrete bunker that has served as a dried fruit storage warehouse and an underground club in the past, although these days its 6.5ft-thick walls host the Sammlung Boros, media magnate Christian Boros’s eclectic collection of contemporary art (Wolfgang Tillmans, Ai Weiwei and more).
For more hidden art kicks, enter the ivy-coloured courtyard at Sophienstrasse 21, and seek out the Sammlung Hoffmann collection. Tucked inside a former factory, the two-floor space showcases the personal collection of Erika and Rolf Hoffmann. Covering painting, sculpture, photography and video, there’s an emphasis on internationally renowned names, such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman, although the pieces change every year.
Hipster streets, such as Torstrasse and Auguststrasse, are also home to a slew of interesting and ever-changing indie stores. Pick up niche magazines at Auguststrasse’s Do You Read Me?!, or browse home furnishings at new opening The Store on Torstrasse. Located on the ground floor of Soho House Berlin, the latter offers everything from sofas and socks to ceramics and candles, not to mention a vinyl record shop, grooming salon Barber & Parlour and a couple of great lunch options.
West Berlin, known mostly for its bourgeois bling — Gucci, Armani and Chanel along Kurfürstendamm, and the vast KaDeWe Berlin luxury department store — has been stealing some of the hipster spotlight back from the east of late, not least with the opening of the new ‘concept mall’ Bikini Berlin. Occupying a spacious 1950s building next to the Berlin Zoological Garden, it offers an impressive array of leisure experiences. As well as a hotel, there’s a cinema, exhibition and events space, plus shops and upscale food outlets, ranging from design store Vitra Loves Artek to the Gestalten Pavilion — a design emporium and cafe set on the rooftop terrace, where you can enjoy great coffee and killer city views. What’s more, having 19 pop-up spaces means there’s usually a nice surprise in store, too.
Where to eat
“Food crazes here, including the Street Food Market and Berlin Food Week, reflect the city’s own uncomplicated, creative atmosphere,” he explains. “They inform our menus, which are modern interpretations of classical German cuisine touched with globalism.”
It’s a neat summing up of the city’s current food trends. With 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, there’s certainly no shortage of high-end cuisine, but the biggest buzz these days is around the burgeoning street food culture, and a growing number of diverse, low- to mid-priced eateries.
The street food scene kicked off here relatively late (2013) with the Street Food Thursday event at Kreuzberg’s revitalised, 19th-century Markthalle Neun. Featuring a slew of young and funky vendors serving up innovative dishes like ramen burgers, vegan ice cream and barbecue ribs with a whiskey glaze, it’s still one of the most popular foodie events. You can also find similar events at Friedrichshain’s Berlin Village Market — hosted in the appealingly rundown RAW Gelände complex — and Prenzlauer Berg’s more sedate Street Food Auf Achse, held in the KulturBrauerei.
A spin-off trend is ‘locavore’ dining — with its celebration of locally produced food — which has been embraced by a smattering of budget and high-end restaurants alike. While places such as Katz Orange, Lokal and Das Speisezimmer have been promoting a local and sustainable food philosophy for a while, the most committed spot so far is Nobelhart & Schmutzig. A collaboration between sommelier Billy Wagner and chef Micha Schäfer, this chic restaurant on Friedrichstrasse serves an imaginative — and exceptional — 10-course menu made with ingredients grown or raised in Berlin and the surrounding countryside.
“In terms of high-quality wine, a couple of years ago you had the choice between one pretty boring place and a bunch of pricey restaurants,” says Christof Ellinghaus, founder of Cordobar, which has been serving up excellent Austrian and German wines in a casual but cool environment since 2013.
“I created this place because there was nothing like it in Berlin; a casual place where amazing wine meets good music. Just really high-end stuff without the stiff upper lip, the snobbery and the 10-course, star-awarded cuisine that usually ball and chains it.”
Other wine bars of note include Vin Aqua Vin in Neukölln, and Weinstein in Prenzlauer Berg, where you’ll also find Le Croco Bleu, one of the city’s newest cocktail spots. Hidden deep within the bowels of the former Bötzow Brewery building, it merges an industrial-chic interior with a drinks list innovative enough to involve smoke injections.
Meanwhile, New Mitte spot Lost in Grub Street serves cocktails in punch bowls for 2-12 people — all impeccably blended with boutique spirits and delivered to your table on a drinks trolley.
Craft beer fans will want to head to the up and coming district of Wedding, where the US owners of Vagabund Brauerei — a crowd-funded neighbourhood brewery — welcome punters with excellent home-made beers and classic Belgian ales. The simple, cosy space offers wooden tables and benches that gradually fill up as the evening wears on.
Where to stay
For a chic and intimate stay, St Oberholz — a trendy hangout for the city’s start-up scenesters — offers a couple of large and gorgeously-furnished apartments suitable for groups of four to six. The Gorki Apartments around the corner are even slicker, but accordingly, more expensive.
Michelberger Hotel, in Friedrichshain, is a lively hotel set in a former factory complex. As well as quirky rooms, it offers a popular lounge space, decent restaurant and spacious rear courtyard featuring regular live bands and events.
For five-star thrills, head west. The sophisticated 31-floor skyscraper Waldorf Astoria Berlin has a stylish art deco interior, sumptuous rooms and Michelin-starred cuisine, while the recently reopened Hotel Zoo Berlin around the corner is straight out of a Hollywood film set, thanks to husband-and-wife design team Dayna Lee and Ted Berner.
And the 25hours Hotel franchise has ensured that West Berlin also has its own luxury hipster hangout. Part of the Bikini Berlin development, the 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin comes with a playful aesthetic, rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar — and its very own vintage Mini that guests can hire out for the day.
The U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (overground trains), buses and trams are all highly efficient.
When to go
Summer’s a great time with temperatures around 20C.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.35.
International dial code: 00 49.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Expedia offers three nights with flights from £147 per person.
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)