Soak up Berlin's compelling atmosphere and take in countless historic sights before hitting the trendy bars and restaurants for cocktails and cabaret in this coolest of cities
Captivating, compelling and cool, Berlin is a city of contrasts where past, present and future collide. Divided for almost three decades, it wasn’t long ago that East was East and West was West and all that stood between was an empty no-man’s land. Now, with the destruction of the Wall in 1990, new life has been breathed into the city. It’s full of stunning modern art and architecture, fascinating monuments and museums. You can wander around flea markets, smoke sheeshas in Turkish cafés or ride your bike in one of the many green parks. It’s hip and happening and has a nightlife to match, from the slick to-be-seen-in cocktail bars to a smokin’ jazz scene, cutting-edge theatre and the shabby-chic allure of the Turkish and Jewish quarters. You can drink in abandoned warehouses, sip cocktails in old bunkers or dance alfresco on outdoor terraces. The city’s days of division have left an anything-goes attitude – the party starts on Friday and rolls on non-stop through to Monday.
What to do
Start early with a visit to the Reichstag, gutted by fire in 1933; it has now been restored and revamped with the addition of Norman Foster’s remarkable glass dome. Next, head for the triumphant Brandenburger Tor, the grand gateway topped by the Quadriga statue. Make your way from here to Checkpoint Charlie; once a border crossing for non-Germans and Allied forces, the site is unremarkable in itself, but the nearby museum preserves poignant memories. Nearby is the Topographie des Terrors (www.topographie.de), the old headquarters of the Gestapo, and just behind it is a 200-metre stretch of Wall, one of the longest surviving anywhere. A short distance away is Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial. A maze of 2,711 tilting steel blocks, it’s moving, disquieting and a must-see. From here, wander through the wooded grounds of Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest park, and down to the Siegessäule, the victory column. If you can face it, climb the 285 steps to the top for fantastic views of the city. Stop off at Scheunenviertel, Berlin’s historic Jewish quarter, visit the Neue Synagogue, and reward yourself at the end of the day with a local beer on the banks of the River Spree.
Where to stay
The Brandenburger Hof is full of quiet charms. A little oasis of calm, the rooms are decked in warm hues and overlook a winter garden. Utterly serene. In the Mitte district, Berlin’s cultural heart, is Lux 11 Berlin Mitte. The interiors have an Asian feel with chic white walls. Or head to the minimalist and modern Hotel Concorde.
Where to eat and drink
For street snacking you can’t beat Berlin’s currywurst: a pork sausage drenched in warm ketchup and curry powder. Try Konnopke’s Imbiss, a stall in Schönhauser Allee under the U-Bahn tracks. In the afternoon head to the comfort of the red leather sofas in Café Einstein (www.cafeeinstein.com) for Kaffee und Kuchen. Markthalle (00 49 30 6175 502), a schnitzel restaurant and bar, is an institution in the trendy Kreuzberg district; sip a grappa and soak up the scene. Aigner Gendarmenmarkt in Mitte (www.aigner-gendarmenmarkt.de) has its eye on seasonality with fresh, light dishes full of flavour. For high-end glam head to Die Quadriga (www.brandenburger-hof.com), where the Michelin-starred chef whisks up divine combinations, from slithers of tender veal to lobster ravioli.
Where to party
Since the fall of the Wall, the party scene in Berlin has exploded. Start with a cocktail in the secretive Galerie Bremer (00 49 30 881 4908; www.galerie-bremer.de), hidden out of sight in the back room of a tiny art gallery; it feels like a well-kept secret. For a hint of kitsch, surround yourself with the ruby-red walls and plush velvet seats of Würgeengel (00 49 30 615 5560) in Kreuzberg – check out the huge Twenties chandelier. For something a little edgier, Scheinbar (www.scheinbar.de) hosts surreal and experimental cabaret acts. Then head to one of the many clubs and dance until the sun goes down. The slick Watergate (www.water-gate.de) has stunning views.
Time running out?
Stroll round Kreuzberg, the centre of ‘alternative’ Berlin, or Schöneberg, home to Berlin’s gay community.
Go on a guided tour. It’s a great way to unravel the history of this complex city. See visitberlin.de for more information.
Currency is the euro. Berlin is one hour ahead of GMT and a one-hour 45-minute flight from London.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; www.lufthansa.co.uk) flies from Heathrow. Air Berlin (0871 5000 737; www.airberlin.com) flies from Stansted via Düsseldorf.
Berlin Tourist Information: Pariser Platz – south wing (00 49 30 25 0025; www.visitberlin.de). Open daily 10am-7pm.
Berlin: Portrait of a City (Taschen, £39.99). An awe-inspiring photographic showcase of Berlin’s history.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.