Nearly two decades since the Iron Curtain opened, this metropolis of 3.4 million embraces modern life on the cutting edge. The city’s free-spirited ambiance is flush with constant change and an exciting appeal for visitors.
Nothing speaks more to Berlin’s cultural division than the words intoned by my guide: “She is so East Berlin,” complained Andre Sommerfeld (pictured), responding to the stern woman who had barked at us for running a red light on bicycles.
There was no traffic to hinder us, no cars to run us down, but that didn’t matter. East Berliners grew up learning to follow the rules, and even though things have changed dramatically in the past two decades, many Ossis (as the East Germans are colloquially called) still have an inherent sense to always obey authority. They wait at crosswalks, they stand patiently in lines.
Many of them, Andre says, still have the “Mauer im Kopf” or “the wall in the head.” To get a sense of what they’re like, think of the Italians and imagine their opposites.
2009 marks 20 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down, and while in the span of those two decades many of the scars of a city divided against itself for 45 years have healed, visitors can still see the cultural divisions between East and West Germans. Clearly, not everyone has adapted to reunification, and not everyone appreciates it. As recently as 2004, a poll found that a quarter of West Germans and 12 percent of East Germans still wished for the wall.
For visitors, the existence of two Berlins can be somewhat confusing. “Tourists want to know how to find the city center,” says Nicole Röbel, who represents Berlin’s official tourism department. “There isn’t one. Each neighborhood, each part of the city has its own history and character. We often say that Berlin is not a city but a group of villages that became a city.”
While no longer physically split into two halves, the two cultural Berlins provide an exciting venue for those who enjoy urban life, culture, music, and a buzzing, cosmopolitan environment. Rarely have I visited a city with so much to offer — and at a such a good value. Not only is Berlin one of the most inexpensive European capitals but also one of the most vibrant ones.
Almost entirely rebuilt since World War II, Berlin has evolved into a global focal point for young individuals and artists attracted by a liberal lifestyle and a modern world view. Recognized for its festivals, diverse architecture, nightlife, contemporary arts and a high quality of life, the German capital is the third-leading tourism destination in Europe because it offers so much to see and do.
With impressive architecture and a plethora of museums, educational institutions, and events covering everything under the sun, Berlin rightly deserves the title zeitgeist metropolis. The city has a diverse art scene, and is home to around 420 art galleries.
In recent years, Berlin has become a mecca for the young people who drive trends in fashion and the arts. “Berlin is very liberal and cosmopolitan,” says Uta Von Dietze, director of sales at Hotel Concorde Berlin. “There are 15,000 Americans living here as well as many other nationalities, so it’s a very mixed community.”
Young Germans and international artists continue to settle in the city, and Berlin has established itself as a center of youth and popular culture in Europe. Signs of this expanding role was the 2003 announcement that the annual Popkomm, Europe’s largest music industry convention, would move to Berlin, and shortly thereafter, MTV also decided to move its European headquarters and main studios to Berlin.
Moreover, Berlin is easy on the pocketbook. “You get a lot for your money in terms of accommodations, food and entertainment,” Von Dietze says. “Theater tickets are an exceptional value, and you can dine for nothing. I took four people to eat at one of my favorite restaurants. Including drinks, the bill came to about 25 euros. I was almost embarrassed that it cost so little.”
The first of your two perfect days begins at the Hotel Concorde Berlin, where you step into room 1107 for a jaw-dropping view of the stark shell of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, also known as the Memorial Church.
The church was destroyed in a World War II air-raid, and new buildings were built up around the ruins and the surviving spire. The emotional effect of seeing the church is a powerful reminder of the devastating effect of war. Welcome to Berlin.
Begin your day with breakfast. Because you are in a suite, there’s no need to trundle yourself downstairs to the Saint Germain restaurant for the buffet. Instead, head to the hotel’s Club Etoile, hidden away high above the rooftops of trendy Kurfürstendamm. Take a seat by the window for a stunning view over the city and fortify yourself for the day ahead.
Ask Club Etoile’s concierge for a map before heading to the nearby metro station known as the Zoo. There, take bus M45 to Schloss Charlottenburg, the largest palace in Berlin and the only building in the city dating back to the time of the Hohenzollern family, an 18th century noble family and royal dynasty of kings and emperors of Prussia, Germany, and Romania.
To get a sense of the palace, first stroll down Schloss Strasse, a beautiful tree-lined boulevard, then head inside for a tour. The palace was built at the end of the 17th century and was greatly expanded during the 18th century. It includes much exotic internal decoration in baroque and rococo styles. A large formal garden surrounded by woodland was constructed behind the palace. During the Second World War, the palace was badly damaged but has since been reconstructed.
After touring the palace, hop the U-7 subway from Richard-Wagner-Platz to Adenauerplatz to browse the Kurfürstendamm boutiques. Known locally as the Ku’damm, Kurfürstendamm is the Champs-Elysees of Berlin, bustling with shops, hotels and restaurants. Most global apparel and fashion designers have their shops there, including Gucci, Bvlgari, Chanel, Hermes and Swarovski. Don’t miss the large department store, KaDeWe.
No time to sit down for lunch, so make your way to Ku’Damm 195 (near Adenauerplatz) for currywurst. It’s not a working day for you, so go ahead and order a glass of Sekt, the German sparkling wine. You can return later tonight if you wish to splurge on a bottle of Dom Perignon, and you may even see a celebrity or two at this stand-up fast-food restaurant.
Walk along Kurfürstendamm in the direction of your hotel to turn left on Bleibtreustrasse to reach the cafés and restaurants in the fashionable, but casual Savignyplatz area. Named after 18th century King Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s minister of justice, this nostalgic, cobble-stoned square fairly oozes with Old World charm. Antique hounds will love rummaging through the shops.
For dinner, take the concierge’s recommendations to dine near the hotel, either at the award-studded Berlin-Sankt Moritz for upscale French Mediterranean cuisine or at Al Sarago for fine Italian dishes. Before heading out, though, head up to Club Etoile for an appetizer. Once there, you may just decide to make a meal of the evening offerings as you watch the sunset.
If you are still up for it after dinner, the bars and clubs of Berlin are generally open until the wee hours. You’ll find plenty of choices to suit just about any interest.
While boasting a handful of hotspots like Tiergarten’s Bar, the western downtown area off Am Lützowplatz is also a favorite for jazz aficionados, especially because of Charlottenburg’s swank A-Trane.
Within walking distance of Hotel Concorde Berlin is the Europa Center, home to the popular Puro Sky Lounge (look for the Mercedes Benz logo atop the building). Get there well before midnight if you hope to park yourself into one of the cozy sunken sofas. Or stay on your feet and dance the night away.
Get an early start, because this is going to be a long day. Begin with breakfast, then head for the double-decker Bus 100 in front of the Zoo railway station for a look at many of the prime attractions in Berlin using public transportation. Take a seat on top to enjoy the scenic ride that carries you through the Tiergarten (Berlin’s large city park), past the Reichstag, along Unter den Linden, and around Alexanderplatz, the open square and public transport hub.
Exit the bus at Museum Island, an island in the Spree River where there are four internationally renowned museums. Any one of them is worth your time, but since you are trying to maintain a schedule, limit yourself to the most popular, the Pergamon, home to original-sized, reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate, all consisting of parts transported from the original excavation sites.
Other museums here are the neoclassical Old Museum, featuring antiquities; the New Museum, which still is being rebuilt from damaged sustained during WWII but, when it reopens, will exhibit the Egyptian and Pre- and Early History Collections including the famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti; and the Old National Gallery, showing many important 19th century art works.
Leaving Museum Island, stroll along Unter den Linden (pictured) until you reach Pariser Platz (pictured), a prestigious address in prewar times that has returned to its former glory. Surrounding the square are the American, French and British embassies, and on one corner is the beautiful Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin. Take a seat at an outdoor table at Restaurant Quarré and split a Chocolate milkshake, pricey at 9 euros, but worth the experience and the view — and plentiful enough for two.
From your seat outside Hotel Adlon, take time to admire Brandenburg Gate, once the formal entrance to the city and still a grand symbol of Berlin. When you’re done, head through the Gate, across Ebertstrasse, to the Reichstag. The first parliament of the German Empire, the Reichstag was opened in 1894 and housed the German parliament until 1933, when it was severely damaged in a fire supposedly set by a Dutch communist.
This fire proved to be a valuable excuse for the Nazis to suspend most civil rights and increase the state security apparatus. Following World War II, the Reichstag building again became the seat of the German parliament, and in October 1990, the official German reunification ceremony was held there. The building was completely reconstructed in a project led by architect Norman Foster and completed in 1999. Be sure to take the free elevator up into the dome, which the locals call “the light bulb,” for stunning city views and to watch the democratic process take place below.
Head back to Ebertstrasse to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Also known as the Holocaust Memorial, the five-acre site has thousands of irregularly sized concrete slabs arranged in an unpredictable grid. According to the designer’s project text, the slabs are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. About a block away, you’ll find a sign marking the spot of the bunker where Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide.
Move on to Potsdamer Platz, a study in urban renewal and modern architecture, and continue to the Topography of Terror, a free, open-air exhibit on the organizations of the SS and the Gestapo, their crimes and their victims. The site is bordered by a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. Checkpoint Charlie lies another 250 yards further east. After viewing the Topography of Terror, continue on to the Mauermusuem Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, which is open until 10 p.m.
From Checkpoint Charlie, walk up the other side of Friederichstrasse six blocks to Berlin’s most beautiful plaza, Gendarmenmarkt. Twin cathedrals (French and German) topped by tall domes in the gorgeous Baroque style anchor this square, with the grand Konzerthaus standing between them. Each church has attractions: On the south side, the Deutscher Dom offers a government history museum, while the Franzosischer Dom has a nice restaurant and a tower with wine bar and dizzying spiral staircase leading to a panorama view.
Find your way to double-decker bus 200 to travel the opposite side of the Tiergarten to the Zoo, within walking distance of your hotel. Head back up to Club Etoile and pour yourself a glass of complimentary champagne to toast farewell to your two perfect days in Berlin.
For a Berlin photo slideshow click here.
Need Cyber Help In Berlin?
If you’re carrying a WiFi device, such as an iPhone, look for Berlin’s Blue Spot terminals. There are 74 of these kiosks throughout the city. Surf the web or make free phone calls using the terminal or your own WiFi device — all free of charge.