Find out how both 20th-century art and the gay community gave Berlin its unique identity by spending three cultural days in the German capital
For the visitor, Berlin has a wealth of interest, ranging from what is left of the Berlin Wall to the iconic Reichstag building. It pays to plan your days. Why not take in a mixture of the famous and the unusual? Whether you are a first-time visitor or have been before, these suggestions may appeal.
Day 1: The Reichstag - at the heart of the German Government
Visit what I think is the heart of new Berlin - the 19th-century Reichstag building - home of the German Parliament. Today's neo-classical building was redesigned by Sir Norman Forster and its glass cupola or dome, dominates the area with its sheer size and presence. It evokes images of a turbulent 20th century.
Don't be put off by queues of people waiting to enter the building. Security checks mean that progress can be slow. The flipside is that you don't have to jostle with hoards of visitors. If the queue is well outside the cover of the building, buy a pretzel and a drink and watch the world go by. Better still, arrive at the building before it opens at 08.00hrs. Entrance is free. www.bundestag.de
From the ground floor, you will be taken by lift to the cupola's entrance. Walking up the spiral ramp, you get a glimpse of the Berlin skyline. But, before taking the ramp, stop to see the history panels charting the building's place in German history. If you wish to visit the debating chamber, this needs to be planned well in advance via the website.
As of January 2011, please note that, until further notice, the dome and roof terrace are closed to visitors who have not a reservation at the rooftop restaurant or registered to attend a sitting or guided tour.
A rooftop restaurant is open from 09.00 - 16.30 hrs and again from 18.30 - midnight.
For me, the highlight is the panoramic walk on the roof to see Berlin's ever changing cityscape. Make sure you have a map with you to pinpoint landmarks such as the Berlin TV Tower, the expansive Tiergarten and various railway stations. This will help you get your bearings during the remainder of your stay in the city. Now you feel as though you are at the centre of power, surrounded by modern government buildings including the Chancellery.
From outside the Reichstag, you can hop on buses heading towards the Kurfürstendamm (Ku'Dam) and the zoo or along Unter der Linden. Now trying to regain its former glory, the iconic thoroughfare is home to upmarket luxury car showrooms and iconic fashion brands.
We stayed at the Hilton Hotel - Berlin at Mohrenstrasse, 30, overlooking the historic Gendarmenmarkt. With Stadtmitte u-bahn station right outside it was very convenient and a mere 20 minute walk to the Reichstag, for example. Rooms were comfortable and whilst not spacious, were ample. Ask for a room facing the square. The hotel has five restaurants. We dined at the Restaurant Mark Brandenburg one night for convenience. The food, which focused on German cuisine, was good as was the service. Expect to pay in the region of 35 euro for a two course meal.
Day 2: Art Nouveau and Art Deco near Charlottenburg Palace - Broehan Museum
If you enjoy admiring Art Nouveau or Art Deco pieces and you intend to visit Charlottenburg Palace, allow an extra couple of hours and visit the nearby Broehan Museum. Approaching the Palace (from Sophie Charlotte Platz u-bahn stop) the museum is situated just before the Palace gates on the left hand side of Schloss Strasse.
Inside this former barracks, you will discover a wealth of works by Berlin Secession painters such as Leistikow, porcelain from Meissen & Sevres as well as furniture and other objects from the late 19th century to 1939. We were particularly taken by a collection of USSR objects. A stylised teapot with clean lines in the form of a train, for example, evoked the country's industrial aspirations.
Entrance costs 8 euro, with a discount for Berlin Welcome Card holders. Open Tuesday - Sunday, 10.00 -18.00 hrs; www.broehan-museum.de; +49 (0) 30 32 69 06 00.
For lunch, the nearby Brauhaus Lemke, located at Luisenplatz 1, is a good choice, with traditional German food, good service and reasonable prices. We tried Bavarian style sausage and pretzel accompanied by one of their micro-brewery beers, the Lemke Pils. Expect to pay around 10 euro. (www.brauhaus-lemke.com; +49 (0) 30 30 87 89 79).
Day 3: Berlin's gay history - the Schwules Museum
As it was raining, we opted for some retail therapy and breakfast. Europe's largest department store, the Ka De We is located on Tauentziestrasse. On the top floor is a self-service restaurant where breakfast comes with another view of the city. A typical continental style breakfast will cost around 7 euro (www.kadewe.de; +49 (0) 30 21 210). The food hall on the same floor rivals Harrods for that jaw-dropping moment. The dilemma is whether to eat first or shop for those treats to take home.
An alternative is Fassbender & Rausch a few doors down from the Hilton Hotel at Charlottenstrasse 50. You cannot miss this chocolate shop as it is usually very busy and has large chocolate sculptures of famous Berlin landmarks in the windows. They even have a restaurant which, sadly, we didn't have time to visit (www.fassbender-rausch.com; +49 (0) 30 20 45 84 43).
Many will have seen the decadence portrayed in movies like Cabaret, but this is only one aspect of Berlin's gay history. In the Kreuzberg District, tucked away at Mehringdamm, 61 is the Schwules Museum, charting gay life from the earliest times to the present day. This is a museum that should appeal to a wider audience than the lesbian and gay communities. Persecuted in the 1930s and then struggling to be acknowledged in the post-war era, you witness the city's history from a different angle.
In addition to the permanent exhibition, there are also temporary exhibitions. When we visited there was a recreated room showing many iconic gay items over the past 30 years. A guidebook in English is available and translated notes appear throughout the exhibitions. Don't expect a high-tech modern museum but one that focuses on content. Delve into the material at your own pace.
Entrance is 5 euro and again discounts are available to Berlin Welcome Card holders (www.schwulesmuseum.de; +49 (0) 30 69 59 90 50). Open Wednesday to Sunday 14.00 - 18.00 hrs (19.00 hrs on Saturday.)
That evening, for a special occasion, we dined at the Gendarmerie Restaurant at Behrenstrasse, 42, not far from the Hilton (www.gendarmerie-berlin.com; +49 (0) 30 76 77 52 70). The service mirrored the food and surroundings - excellent! After a glass of Sekt, I tried schnitzel with potato sauerkraut followed by pumpkin pie and rosehip ice cream. A two course meal here will set you back in the region of 55 euro but it is worth it just for the modern art that entertains you between courses.