From a divided city to an achingly cool capital, Berlin hums with creative energy and exciting things to see and do, says resident Lara Brunt
Known for its cutting-edge culture, 24-hour nightlife and free-spirited vibe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a capital as cool as Berlin.
Founded in the 13th century on the River Spree, Berlin has had a turbulent history. After the devastation of Hitler’s Third Reich, the Cold War left the city brutally divided into East and West by the Berlin Wall. Following reunification in 1990, ample space and cheap rents lured creative types to Berlin and resulted in an explosion of art, music and culture.
Today, Berlin offers history and hipsters at every turn. The central Mitte district is packed with enough attractions to keep you busy for days, including the World Heritage-listed Museum Island and Brandenburg Gate.
Straddling the Spree, the hip ‘hoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are bustling with clubs, cafés and restaurants. Heading west, Tiergarten is dominated by the park of the same name, while upmarket Charlottenburg is home to Ku’damm, Berlin’s main shopping mile. And no trip to Berlin is complete without paying a visit to the splendid palaces of Potsdam on the outskirts of the city.
Our Berlin guide offers a curated list of the best things to see and do, and the hippest places to eat, shop and sleep. So, let’s start exploring…
(Main image: Alexanderplatz and Television Tower.)
From historic properties to boutique hotels, discover the best places to bed down
The number of hotels in the German capital has doubled in the last decade, with an eclectic mix of luxury and design-led spaces that reflect the arty atmosphere of the city itself.
Overlooking the Brandenburg Gate, Hotel Adlon Kempinski is Berlin’s most glamorous five-star hotel. The 385-room hotel is sumptuous as you’d expect, with a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and a tri-level spa.
In a former bank near the State Opera House, Hotel de Rome features four historic suites. Chill out in the subterranean spa and head to the rooftop terrace for impressive views.
The 78-room Das Stue on the edge of Tiergarten, the city’s largest park, was once the Danish Embassy. Plump for a sprawling Stue suite with a freestanding silver tub, then indulge in Catalan chef Paco Pérez’s Michelin-starred cuisine.
Next to Berlin Zoo, 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin is an Instagrammer’s dream – think hammocks in the lobby and a hip rooftop lounge. Choose from rooms overlooking the animal enclosures, or the buzzing streets of West Berlin.
A short stroll from the shops of Ku’damm, Provocateur has stylish rooms with lipstick-red or rich teal hues and plush velvet bedheads. Shimmy along lamp-lit hallways to the acclaimed restaurant serving French-Chinese fusion.
On the banks of the Spree, the Hotel nhow Berlin is close to the city’s best nightlife. It boasts candy-coloured interiors by Egyptian-born designer Karim Rashid and round-the-clock room service offering guitars and decks for post-clubbing parties.
Explore the Wall
Nearly 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, explore one of the city’s darkest chapters
The East Side Gallery Running for more than 1.3km, this open-air gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the wall. It features around 100 murals painted by international artists soon after the wall came down commemorating the pain of separation and the joy of reunification.
Berlin Wall Memorial Bypass Checkpoint Charlie – the old border crossing is now a tacky tourist trap – and instead visit this fantastic (and free) indoor-outdoor museum on Bernauer Strasse in Mitte. Alongside remnants of the wall, the moving monuments and exhibitions show the impact of division on daily life.
From fashion to furniture, Berlin’s shopping scene is as eclectic as the city itself
Opened in 1907 and recently revamped by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, KaDaWe is Berlin’s counterpart to Harrods. Spread over 60,000sqm, the department store stocks a dazzling array of luxury brands from around the world. Don’t miss the sixth-floor food hall, where you can shop for artisan cheese and chocolate, and dine at more than a dozen high-end food counters.
Frau Tonis Parfum
Bottle a bit of the city’s bohemian spirit at this sleek perfumery near Checkpoint Charlie. Founders Stefanie Hanssen and Christoph Niedermeier’s unique fragrances evoke the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties, including the best-selling Violet No.37 inspired by Marlene Dietrich. You can even get a custom-blended scent to match your style, or try your hand at creating your own.
In a former printing factory in the Tiergarten neighbourhood, this concept store showcases an eclectic edit of more than 300 brands in a gallery-like space. There’s a mix of established brands – think Dries Van Noten and Comme des Garçons – and freshly discovered designers that favour a minimalist aesthetic.
Home to more than 400 galleries, Berlin has one of the most exciting art scenes on the planet
The epicentre of Berlin’s post-Wall contemporary art scene, Auguststrasse in Mitte is a great place to start your gallery hop. Stop by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and me Collectors Room, two sprawling galleries showcasing local and international works, and pop into Clärchens Ballhaus to the see the beautiful 19th-century mirrored ballroom.
Wander over to the Boros Collection; you’ll need to book in advance, but both the contemporary art collection and the building itself – a World War II bunker – warrant a visit. Opt for a group tour (Thursdays to Sundays) or a private viewing of the current exhibition, which features works by Andreas Eriksson and Guan Xiao.
Then continue northwest to the Hamburger Bahnhof, one of the world’s largest museums for contemporary art. Housed in a former railway station, works range from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to the German artist Joseph Beuys.
Next, take public transport south to Blain Southern in the same former factory on Potsdamer Strasse as Andreas Murkudis’ concept store (see ‘retail therapy’). The gallery’s roster of artists includes top names such as Lynn Chadwick, Wim Wenders and Bill Viola.
Finish up at the nearby Urban Nation, the world’s first major museum dedicated exclusively to street art and graffiti.
Coffee is serious business in Berlin, with third-wave roasters and independent cafés packed with laptop-toting locals. In Mitte’s gallery district, The Barn focuses on single-origin coffee, while the croissants are so popular you can only buy two at a time. Over in Friedrichshain, Silo Coffee does a mean flat white, while in a red-brick former factory in Kreuzberg, Bonanza Roastery Café serves one of the smoothest cappuccinos in town. Their beans are also served at The Store, an über-cool concept store and café on the ground floor of Soho House in Mitte.
Once a culinary backwater, Berlin now boasts innovative restaurants and a constellation of Michelin stars
Restaurant Tim Raue Not far from Checkpoint Charlie, Tim Raue serves highly creative, Asian-influenced fusion cuisine. Dishes such as wasabi langoustine and Peking duck three ways have earned the Berlin-born chef two Michelin stars.
Cookies & Cream Berlin is Europe’s vegan capital, and the city’s first meat-free fine diner has been awarded a Michelin star. Chef Stephan Hentschel works his magic on dishes such as mushroom ravioli with wild herbs and Parmesan dumplings with Périgord truffle stock.
Horváth This cosy, wood-panelled restaurant in Kreuzberg is another of Berlin’s more unconventional Michelin-starred spots. Chef Sebastian Frank – named European Chef of the Year – serves imaginative twists on Austrian favourites. finesse.
Domingos Ruiz Lepores, editor of Awesome Berlin, shares his top picks for… exploring the city:
“I always take visitors to Dahlem, a leafy residential neighbourhood with the most beautiful houses in Berlin. Stop by the Domäne Dahlem, a small farm where you can buy homegrown fruits and vegetables. My favourite hidden gem is Gartenstadt Falkenberg in the far eastern neighbourhood of Grunau. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed modernist housing estate was designed by architect Bruno Taut, who also influenced the Bauhaus movement. And don’t leave Berlin without climbing the 285 steps of the Victory Column in Tiergarten for one of the best views of the city from above.
To market.. Foodies should make a beeline for Markthalle Neun, a 19th-century market hall in trendy Kreuzberg that focuses on regional farmers and artisan purveyors. Regular events include the hugely popular Street Food Thursday and Breakfast Market, which takes place every third Sunday.
On Saturdays, head to Boxhagener Platz – aka Boxi – in the hip Friedrichshain neighbourhood for the weekly farmers’ market and explore the surrounding cafés and boutiques. On Sundays, Mitte’s Mauerpark market is a must for lovers of vintage and vinyl. If the sun is shining, stroll over to the amphitheatre for Bearpit Karaoke – easily one of the most entertaining afternoons you’ll ever have.”
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