The overriding impression of Berlin, for me, is of a vibrant city, full to the brim, and yet with plenty of space. The first time I came here, in 1999, I walked around sections of the former East — Alexanderplatz, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg — impressed at the way the mix of elegant 19th-century Altbaus and bleak, imposing GDR buildings didn’t crowd me in like in other cities.
While there are busy and congested areas of the city — the shopping areas of Mitte and Charlottenburg, the tourist zones of Brandenburger Tor and Unter den Linden — I found, and still find now I live here, myself alone on main streets at peak times; an eerie experience for someone used to a busy city like London.
The sense of space can be partly explained by the city’s vast size and turbulent history. It’s compounded by a relative dearth of people — around 3.5 million, or half of New York or London — a distinct lack of skyscraper culture (Potsdamer Platz aside) and the awkwardly blank spaces that remain from WWII.
The buzz is borne of a city still finding itself following a unique 20th-century rebirth. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, the former East became a magnet for artists, bohemians and dilettantes drawn by cheap, available housing and an alternative lifestyle largely unimaginable in Europe’s more commercial cities.
Twenty years on, the reunited city has held on to its reputation as creative hub: according to statistics, 60,000 artists live in Berlin today despite the gentrification of many former boho areas and a general rise in rents and lifestyle costs. And the creative and service industries are the fastest-growing economic sector in the city.
Thus the wealth of independent cafes, bars and some of the best nightlife to be found in the world. Hence also the newer, more stylish Berlin that’s been emerging lately in the shape of private members’ clubs, Michelin-starred restaurants and large-scale events.
Then there’s the flourishing cultural scene — you can literally spend days exploring it alongside the city’s fascinating past. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Museum Island, Potsdamer Platz’s Kultur Forum and the Stadt Museums in the Nikolaiviertel reveal pre-war Berlin, while the Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum, Museum at Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery will give insights into the darker and more recent side of the city’s history.
Berliners are a pretty relaxed bunch — certainly more open and spontaneous than their national stereotype suggests. And rightly so, given they live in one of Europe’s buzziest, most spacious cities.
See & do
■ An Island of Art: The 18th-century Museum Island in the city centre comprises five separate museums spanning thousands of years of human history, such as Renaissance paintings and artefacts like the Market Gate of Miletus. www.museumsinsel-berlin.de
■ Holocaust Memorial: Comprising 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid across 4.7 acres near the Brandenburger Tor, the memorial to the Jews of Europe is a poignant reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. Underneath lies an even more emotive underground information centre featuring witness testimonials.
■ Cold Wall: The largest remaining section of the Berlin wall, The East Side Gallery is one of Berlin’s biggest tourist sights and the largest open-air gallery in the world. The 0.8 mile-long concrete wall was originally painted in 1990 after the wall fell but was redaubed by many of the same artists in 2009 in time for the 20th anniversary of its demise.
■ Troubled Politics: Destroyed by fire, damaged by war and neglected by communists, the Reichstag has lived through it all. It was restored to its former glory between 1995 and 1999, when the German government began working from here again and the Sir Norman Foster-designed glass dome, which gives great views across the city, was added. www.bundestag.de
■ Ostalgie: Checkpoint Charlie, as it was called by the Western Allies, was the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West during the Cold War. When the wall fell, the building at the checkpoint became a museum and is today one of the key places to learn about life in Berlin during the GDR years. www.mauermuseum.de
■ A walk in the park: Tiergarten, Berlin’s oldest and most beautiful park, offers walking paths, forested areas, lakes and plenty of places to relax. Designed in 1830, it began its life as a hunting ground for the electors of Brandenburg, but is now a wonderful leisure space with access to great sights like Berlin Zoo, the Victory Column (Siegessäule), Bellevue Palace (Schloss Bellevue) and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt.
■ Jewish history: Every element of Daniel Libeskind’s epic, zinc-clad Jewish Museum relates to various concepts around the Jewish experience. The building features more than 2,000 years of Jewish history across 14 themed rooms as well as vertical voids, walls of dark concrete and a stunning glass courtyard. It makes for a profound experience. www.jmberlin.de
Like a local
■ Public transport: Cheap, extensive and efficient, it operates on an ‘honesty system’ with no ticket barriers. Buy a ticket at your departure point and stamp it in the yellow box marked ‘Entwerter’ (unnecessary on trams). Single tickets for zones AB costs from €2.30 (£1.95), day tickets from €6.30 (£5.30) and a week ticket’s from €27.20 (£22.90). www.bvg.de
■ Visitor cards: The tourist office has cards offering discounts plus free travel and entrance to attractions. Check out the Welcome Card and Museum Pass plus the Berlin City Tour Card.www.citytourcard.com www.visitberlin.de
■ Feeling peckish: Don’t want to sit down in a restaurant? Do what the locals do and grab a currywurst — grilled sausage with a topping of curry powder and ketchup. You’ll find them just about everywhere.
Berlin has everything from boat hostels and boutique options to deluxe five-star hotels.
Perfectly pitched between hotel and hostel, the Michelberger is close to both nightlife (Watergate and Suicide Circus) and sights (East Side Gallery). www.michelbergerhotel.com
££ Soho House
This Berlin hotel-cum-members’ club has 40 quirky rooms ranging from itsy-bitsy to huge, featuring imaginative decor and design. Amenities include a spa, bar, library, and 36-person private cinema.www.sohohouseberlin.com
£££ Brandenburger Hof
Charlottenburg’s Brandenburger Hof offers Bauhaus influences, in-house Michelin dining (the restaurant Die Quadriga) and refined intimacy. The rooms and suites are all different shapes and sizes, but beautifully appointed. www.brandenburger-hof.com
■ Mitte, bitte: The streets around Alte Schoenhauer Allee and Munzstrasse are a shopper’s paradise. Aside from the high street outlets you’ll find designer boutiques and streetwear shops.
■ Bargain hunting: Every Sunday a large storage area near the ‘death trip’ of the former Berlin wall becomes a popular flea market called Mauerpark. Grab a coffee and immerse yourself in the crowds.
■ Fancy goods: KaDeWe is Berlin’s oldest and grandest department store, hosting Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and more. The food hall on the sixth floor is renowned for its staggering range and oyster bar.
■ Going West: Ku’damm is Charlottenburg’s main shopping street and home to a wealth of major brands and smaller boutiques. Be sure to check the side streets for some pleasant surprises.
While it’s not a foodie destination like Paris or London, Berlin does have everything from cheap, tasty currywurst to Michelin-starred cuisine.
£ Monsieur Vuongs
Serves simple Vietnamese dishes in a buzzy environment. The menu changes every few days (check the chalkboard for daily specials), but always has fresh and fragrant soups and noodle dishes. Be prepared to wait at peak times. www.monsieurvuong.de
££ Cookies Cream
Creative vegetarian food in a loft-style interior with exposed walls, low ceilings and stylish decoration. Dinner gets you free entrance to Cookies club downstairs. www.cookiescream.de
Stefan Hartmann recently won a Michelin star for his excellent German-fusion cuisine served in an unpretentious setting and available a la carte or as tasting menus. www.hartmanns-restaurant.de
Berlin is one of Europe’s best party towns. Bars and clubs don’t close until the last person’s down — and some stay open after that.
■ Berghain: One of the best clubs in Berlin, if not the world. The fantastic soundsystem, uncompromising music policy and awe-inspiring industrial interior make it a must for lovers of electronic music. www.berghain.de
■ Bierstube Alt Berlin: A traditional ecke-kneipe (corner pub), Bierstube Alt Berlin has successfully resisted time and gentrification in an area that’s all but lost to modern cosmopolitanism.T: 00 49 30 28 19 68 7.
■ Rheingold: This classy cocktail bar serves excellent drinks in a timewarp interior featuring a memorably long bar, a large mural of Thomas Mann’s offspring and an enchanting 1920s ambience. www.reingold.de
Berlin is served by two main airports: Berlin-Tegel and Berlin-Schönefeld. Several airlines fly to the city from various parts of the UK, including British Airways, Air Berlin, BMI, EasyJet and Ryanair. www.berlin-airport.de
Average flight time: 2h.
While it’s a pleasure to stroll around Berlin, it’s deceptively vast. Luckily the public transport system is excellent and includes the U-Bahn (underground rail), buses, trams, S-Bahn (suburban rail) and ferries. Using this system you can pretty much get anywhere in the city 24 hours a day. BVG, the main operator, has an information kiosk (Hardenbergplatz; 6am-10pm) outside Zoo station, or book online. www.bvg.de
When to go
Berlin is cold and grey from December to February (sometimes longer) and usually pleasant in the summer (May to September). There are plenty of events all year round but the city really comes alive in the spring and summer.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€).
£1 = €1.18.
International dial code: 00 49.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Guidebooks: The Hedonist’s Guide to Berlin. RRP: £8.
Berlin: City Guide. RRP: £13.99.
Time Out Berlin. RRP: £12.99.
The Rough Guide to Berlin. RRP: £12.99.
Online Resources: www.visitberlin.de
How to do it
Citybreaks-direct.com offers three nights at the four-star Holiday Inn Berlin City East from £224 per person, including flights on a room-only basis.
Did you know? Stadtschloss, Berlin’s royal palace, was ruined by Allied bombing then demolished by the GDR which built its own Palast der Republik. This was then torn down and a rebuild of the original palace mooted. Parliament opted to rebuild three façades of the palace; cuts have delayed this until at least 2014.
Published in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)