While Berlin lacks an official centre, the district of Mitte (Middle) is a pretty good place to start. One of the first sections of East Berlin to be gentrified after the Wall fell, it’s a buzzy mix of contemporary glamour and historical grit, where fashion boutiques and swish bars rub shoulders with bleak DDR architecture, world-renowned museums and gut-wrenching memorials. It’s a large area, stretching from the lively ‘downtown’ area around Hackescher Markt and Oranienburgerstrasse through Alexanderplatz — marked by the TV Tower — the stately Museumsinsel (Museum Island) and along Unter den Linden to one of the city’s major icons, the Brandenburg Gate.
We recommend: Soho House
Plush members’ club Soho House raised a few eyebrows when it opened its Berlin branch in 2010. In a city known for its radical aversion to gentrification, it was never a safe bet the concept of glam sunbathing and pricey cocktails would work. But over time it’s been accepted as one of the city’s more interesting sleeping spots, representing a new Berlin; one where money, culture and history mingle comfortably. Located in a late Bauhaus building, once a Nazi HQ and an archive centre for the communist regime, it occupies eight floors and offers 40 idiosyncratic rooms, from the tiny to the huge. Those at the front have great city views, but some of the smaller rooms, in attic roofs, can feel a little poky. The decor is contemporary — free-standing bathtubs, rain showers and flatscreen TVs — punctuated by quirky items like antique hat boxes. There’s also an excellent spa, swish library and an in-house cinema for up to 36 people. The restaurant on the Club Floor serves good-quality pasta and tapas but the piece de resistance is the rooftop, with its slick bar, sweeping city views and small, heated pool.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €75-€400 (£61-£329). Members get discounts. Torstrasse 1. T: 00 49 030 40 50 440. www.sohohouseberlin.com
■ X-factor: This members-only club is a perfect meld of ‘old Berlin’ history and ‘new Berlin’ glamour.
Best for food: Casa Camper
Run by Spanish shoe company Camper, this hotel has been the talk of the town since it opened last year. Designed by Jordi Tio and Fernando Amat, the interior is slick and minimal but the atmosphere down-to-earth and welcoming. Vibrant red walls dominate the 51 rooms, complemented by stone floors and pale wood wardrobes, while added touches include iPod docks and Camper slippers. The Tentempié service offers free snacks, ranging from sandwiches to soups, available around the clock, but the real culinary highlight is restaurant Dos Palliolos, serving exotic Asian tapas from El Bulli’s former chef, Albert Raurich.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €205-€305 (£168-£251). Weinmeisterstrasse 1. T: 00 49 030 20 00 34 10. www.casacamper.com
Best for location: The Circus hostel
Looking to be in the heart of the action? One of the city’s most popular hostels, The Circus Hostel is on buzzing Rosenthaler Platz — next to numerous drinking, shopping and dining dens. You’ll quickly realise this sophisticated spot goes way beyond your average hostel for backpackers. The pleasant cafe has been recently refurbished, the dorms are spotless and its top floor is home to smart apartments with excellent views. It also runs free city tours hosts events, and offers free beer on Mondays, plus there’s a decent bar downstairs with occasional live music. The owners also own the moderately priced Circus Hotel just across the Platz, as well as apartments further north in Prenzlauer Berg.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €43-€56 (£35-£46); dorm beds from €19 (£15). Weinbergsweg 1a. T: 00 49 030 2000 39 39. www.circus-berlin.de
Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain used to be two distinctly different areas: Kreuzberg was West Berlin’s famous hangout for bohemians and squatters when the Wall was up; Friedrichshain, on the other side of the wall, was another world. Since 1989 the two areas have merged to become popular places for artists, clubbers and hipsters — especially those attracted to alternative politics and lifestyles. Though they lie on opposite sides of the Spree, the two areas are today symbolically connected by the handsome Oberbaumbrücke and since 2001 have actually been joined together as the borough of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain. As well as clubs, bars and restaurants, big sights include Kreuzberg’s Jewish Museum and Friedrichshain’s East Side Gallery, the longest stretch of Berlin Wall left in the city.
We recommend: NHow
Designed by New Yorker Karim Rashid, the music-themed nhow is trendy, while delivering all you’d expect from a top hotel. Enjoying an enviable location on the Spree — the front rooms have great views of the Oberbaumbrücke and some of the city’s best clubs such as Watergate and Arena — it wows with a bright pink lobby area whose reception and concierge are housed within Rashid’s curvaceous design elements. The 304 rooms are no less showy, with multi-coloured lighting displays and iPod docks. In keeping with the music theme, there are two recording studios here and it’s even possible to order a Gibson guitar or electric piano to your room. The Envy Bar, with its quirky cocktails and open mic nights, pulls the punters in, and its restaurant is flanked with large windows looking right on to the river and bits of the Berlin Wall. Inside you’ll find a sauna and fitness centre and a short walk away are the East Side Gallery and O2 World.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €115-€275 (£94-£226). Stralauer Allee 3. T: 00 49 030 290 2990. www.nhow-hotels.com
■ X-factor: This unashamedly trendy hangout is full of innovative surprises.
Best for singles: Grand Hostel Berlin
The 19th-century Grand Hostel is one of the city’s most refined budget options. No bunks here; even the (big) dorms have comfy beds. Staff are friendly and you can hire bikes on site. While not in the midst of Kreuzberg’s hotspots, there are decent transport links to all the area’s best bars and cafes; plus it’s not far from central sights like Checkpoint Charlie.
■ Rooms: Singles from €35 (£28); twins from €19 (£15); dorms from €14 (£11). €3 (£2.46) linen charge. Tempelhofer Ufer 14. T: 00 49 030 20 09 54 50. www.grandhostel-berlin.de
Best for party people: Michelberger Hotel
Combining the buzz of a backpacker bolt-hole with the imaginative design of a boutique, the Michelberger Hotel has a charismatic cafe, bar and lounge with DJs. The 119 rooms are themed — like chalets or libraries, for example. The courtyard serves as a beer garden and concert venue. It’s also close to Friedrichshain’s clubs and bars and the East Side Gallery.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €60 (£49). Warschauer Straße 39. T: 00 49 030 29 778 590. www.michelbergerhotel.com
The former heartbeat of West Berlin may have lost out in the cool stakes to the east’s edgy creative scene after the Wall fell, but it’s not devoid of its own intriguing appeal. It’s an upmarket, historical hotspot, filled with fascinating architecture — plus a bohemian past that puts East Berlin’s to shame. As well as housing some of the city’s most charming hotels and smartest squares, like Savignyplatz, its main draws include the world-famous Berlin Zoo; palace Schloss Charlottenburg, on the edge of the sprawling Tiergarten (Animal Garden); and the historical Kurfürstendamm, home to high-end shops, such as KaDeWe, Berlin’s take on Harrods.
We recommend: Hotel Concorde Berlin
This French-owned five-star opened in 2005 and remains one of Charlottenburg’s classiest hotels. Built to resemble the bow of an ocean liner, its 17 storeys are surprisingly intimate and elegant; all 311 rooms — including 44 huge suites — are spacious and uncluttered, with natural fabrics and muted colours to contrast with bold contemporary art. Ask for a room overlooking the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church if you can. Breakfasts of eggs, crepes and waffles are taken in the charming Saint Germain restaurant, while fine French fare is on the menu at Brasserie Le Faubourg — if you’re visiting in summer, bag a spot on the attractive terrace. The plush Lutèce Bar knocks up a formidable cocktail, meanwhile, and the chilled Club Etoile lounge has excellent city panoramas — only for the eyes of those staying in the suites and executive rooms. There’s also a smart wellness centre and the hotel is a short stroll to the Kurfürstendamm, zoo and aquarium.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €180-€570 (£148-£469). Augsburger Strasse 41. T: 00 49 030 800 9990. www.concorde-hotels.com
■ X-factor: One of West Berlin’s best big hotels offers stylish, refined accommodation right next to buzzing Ku’damm.
Best for music lovers: Ellington Hotel
This former ballroom once hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and the Duke Ellington. The surrounding area still has an affinity with the jazz era, including venerable jazz clubs. The 285-room hotel blends cool, informal elegance with warm nostalgia: staff sport flannel flat-caps, the Duke restaurant has great food and the Sunday jazz brunches are legendary.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €118-€258 (£97-£212). Nürnberger Strasse 50-55. T: 00 49 030 68 31 50. www.ellington-hotel.com
Best for romantics: Hotel Art Nouveau
This elegant 1908 townhouse is tucked away on a quiet street close to Savignyplatz and Kurfürstendamm — an antique lift takes guests to the fourth-floor reception, with its stuccoed ceilings, hardwood floors and abstract art. The 22 rooms have sumptuous beds and antiques. There’s also room service and an organic buffet breakfast in the salon.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €126-€176 (£103-£144). Leibnitzstrasse 59. T: 00 49 030 327 7440. www.hotelartnouveau.de
Potsdamer Platz is one of the most striking examples of Berlin’s push into the 21st century following the turbulence of the previous era. Once one of Europe’s busiest squares, it was ravaged by war-time bombs and remained a no-man’s land during the GDR years. Now rebuilt, the area is filled with distinctive modern architecture like the DaimlerChrysler Atrium and the Sony Centre plaza, whose glass and steel structure contains myriad shops and restaurants, and hosts the Berlin International Film Festival every February. Nearby, you’ll find a cluster of museums known as the Kulturforum, and the sprawling Tiergarten — one of Europe’s largest parks.
We recommend: Ritz-Carlton, Berlin
Situated on Potsdamer Platz, within walking distance of the major sights — including the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Unter den Linden — the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin, is one of the city’s best upmarket options. Although the tall, skyscraper-esque structure looks distinctly American from the outside, the interior is much more ‘Old Europe’. Baroque chandeliers, a grand, marble staircase and art deco furnishings carry through into the 303 guest rooms (including 30 suites). The beige and brown colour scheme, Markus Luepertz watercolours, cherry-wood furnishings and marble bathrooms are hopelessly elegant and decadently comfortable. Service is immaculate, yet welcoming, and on the ground floor is the excellent French-style Brasserie Desbrosses, plus lounges for afternoon tea and deluxe spa La Prairie.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €345 (£284). Potsdamer Platz 3. T: 00 49 030 33 77 77. www.ritzcarlton.com
■ X-factor: A high end classic, it has excellent views across Potsdamer Platz and the city.
Best for seclusion: Grand Hotel Esplanade
Overlooking the Landwehr Canal and close to the Tiergarten, the Grand Hotel Esplanade feels pleasantly removed from the city — though in reality it’s around the corner from everything you’ll need. Despite its name, this contemporary property is devoid of anything embarrassingly baroque on the decor front. The 394 rooms are light, spacious and tastefully modern, and there’s also a fitness centre with a triangular swimming pool. There are no less than three restaurants on site, as well as the much-adored Harry’s New-York Bar on the ground floor.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €120 (£98). Lützowufer 15. T: 00 49 030 25 47 80. www.esplanade.de
Best for design lovers: The Mandala
If you’re seeking something more modern, consider the Mandala. Comprising 144 rooms and suites, most of which face a cheerful inner courtyard, its white and beige colour scheme, minimalist furnishings and flatscreen TVs blend in perfectly with the slick modernity of the surrounding area. The apartment-style rooms are simple but comfortable, and the Qiu is a glam cocktail bar and restaurant on the first floor. On the fifth floor, you’ll find one of the city’s best restaurants, the Michelin-starred Facil, under the direction of chef Michael Kempf; and above that, Ono Spa offers some serious pampering.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €270 (£222). Potsdamer Strasse 3.
T: 030 59 00 50 000. www.themandala.de
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)