Countless artists, musicians and writers have flocked to Berlin over the years to recharge and seek inspiration: Christopher Isherwood, David Bowie, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop (the city seems to come with its own soundtrack). In the 1920s Berlin was all about the decadence and modernism of Weimar culture, the stomping ground of intellectuals and artists from all over Europe. In the ’80s, avante garde ruled and West Berlin was the place to be for underground music. After the wall came down, the creative explosion hit once again. Now the city is ‘Arm aber Sexy!’ (poor but sexy), according to Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit. Saddled with the country’s highest unemployment rate, Wowereit is keen instead to play up the city’s strength as a young, vibrant and creative incubator.
Although locals are quick to point out there is nothing sexy about being poor, the city’s relatively inexpensive lifestyle, large empty industrial spaces, the endless creative possibilities, and openness to art and culture has been luring more and more international creatives. Today, Berlin counts internationally renowned artists like Bernard Frize, Tacita Dean, Elmgreen and Dragset and Olafur Elliason, as well as legions of other young artists from around the world, as part of its creative class. It’s become the Chelsea Hotel of Europe. Music and art can be experimental and creative boundaries can be pushed. Despite being a cash-strapped city, culture and the arts is taken seriously here and supported by a generously funded infrastructure.
There is an endless supply of music venues to hear emerging and established bands, more galleries and museums than you can poke a stick at, and over 2,500 parks and gardens for you to relax in. The night life seems to have no closing time and you can find a club or bar to cater for just about any mood or taste: electro, techno, burlesque, punk, rock, and crazy beats for the sexually uninhibited (head to the techno temple, Berghain, but you’ll have to get past the bouncer with the barbed wire facial tattoo).
As for exploring its history, well, you don’t have to look very hard; Berlin is a city steeped in it. History and memory weighs the city down and has shaped it. Scars of war, and scars of division are visible across the city, from the pockmarked buildings, to the numerous monuments and memorials erected across the landscape. Here the present is mixed with the past. The Soho House was once a Jewish department store, which was seized by the National Socialists during the Third Reich, and in GDR times it served as the headquarters of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The National Treasury is inside a building that was initially built as Hermann Goering’s air ministry. One of the hippest restaurants and cafes, Pauly Saal and Mogg & Meltzer are housed in what was once a Jewish girl’s school in Mitte.
Each time I go back I feel as if I’ve barely scraped the surface in exploring what the city has to offer. Nonetheless, here’s my take on where to go and what to see in Berlin. There are some fiercely guarded local secrets and obscure party spots that are not on the list; you will just have to find them for yourself. After all, the search is half the fun.
Borchardt is an old Berlin favourite, a German take on the French Brasserie, serving up traditional Austrian and French dishes. Considered the ol’ grand dame of Berlin dining, it’s worth going at least once for the schnitzel and people watching. Pauly Saal housed in the Mädchen Schule, former Jewish girl’s school in Mitte, is run by the Grill Royal team (another Berlin dining hotspot) and is popular with hip arty and film types. The building also has popular hip NY-style deli Mogg & Melzer where you can get a decent pastrami on rye, and not the two-pieces-of-bread-and-slab-of-cheese-and-butter than often passes for a sandwich in these parts. On Kreuzberg’s Köpenicker Straße, an area littered with large industrial spaces, is the upscale restaurant, Richard, in a beautiful old space that has retained its original old carved ceilings. The atmosphere is intimate and the fare leans towards French haute cuisine, with a great vegetarian menu too (yay!). For a simpler option, with cheerful lively atmosphere and friendly service, have a homemade pasta at Das Lokal in Mitte. And while we’re on the topic of homemade pasta, for great Italian food head to Lavanderia Vecchia, located in an old laundry (overhanging laundered tea towels decorate the premises) in Neukölln. Our Berliner friend and indispensable guide to all things cool in Berlin, Jorinde, raves about it. Book ahead!
Berlin isn’t a showy city. You’ll have to make an effort to find the city’s latest cool clubs and bars. Buck and Breck has no signs indicating the existence of the bar. To get in, ring the door bell of a gallery displaying a closed sign. Once downstairs, the bar’s proprietor will solemnly mix you a drink based on what he thinks represents you. I had some gin peachy thing that floored me after one sip (don’t go straight off the plane). Another hidden gem is Green Door in Schöneberg. Once again, buzz the doorbell, and step into a world of retro kitsch.
Bathed in red lights and decorated with wallpaper pics of saucy naked girls as well as the occasional rock star, is Muschi Obermaier. Owned by a former sex-pot rock groupie, it looks like an orgiastic inferno, but it’s laid back, plays great music, and attracts a fun crowd of dancing pretty young things. On warm evenings, head to Fluxbau and sit outside by the river Spree to watch the sun setting the sky ablaze behind the Fernsehturm. The venue is also host to Flux FM, a popular Berlin radio station, so you’ll have no end of great tunes to listen to while enjoying a drink and taking in the fantastic view. For live music, Kreuzberg’s SO36 is Berlin’s answer to CBGB’s. Once a bastion of punk and avant garde art –Martin Kippenberger himself was responsible for the artistic programme here at the end of the 1970s — David Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Red Crayola, Suicide, and Lydia Lunch once performed here. While it’s lost most of its punk cachet (what hasn’t?) unlike CBGB’s it’s still kicking along and supporting up-and-coming musical talents.
Although the Berlin uniform of anything black or jeans/t-shirt/flats (for any occasion) leaves much to be desired for sartorially inclined visitors, there are some great shops and designers to check out. For a one stop high-end designer shop, The Corner Shop is Berlin’s answer to Colette, offering a selection of designer brands from ready to wear to jewellery including, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Delfina Delettrez, Martin Margiela, fragrances by Le Labo, and a selection of fashion and photography books.
An ode to minimalism, The Apartment stocks a spectrum of monochrome threads, from black to blackest, with labels such as Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh and LD tuttle. For chaps who are also more Trent Reznor than Tiny Tim, visit Darklands, a concept shop stocking avant-garde design by Damir Doma and Boris Bidjan Saberi, as well as Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens. And if you’re after some local design talent, award-winning label Kaviar Gauche (fans include Florence Welch and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), by young designers Alexandra Fischer-Roehler and Johanna Kühl, will likely have something to make you swoon, from beautiful hand-made bridal couture and seductive evening gowns, to cool and feminine ready-to-wear. If you want a better look at what the Berlin fashion scene has to offer, multi-label shop, Konk, has a wide range of Berlin designers, including Isabell de Hillerin, Anntian, Carocora, Franzius, Tiedeken, Boessert/Schorn, and Reality Studio. While you’re checking out galleries on Potsdamer Straße, swing by Andreas Murkudis‘ 1000m2 concept store, which sells selected fashion, design, art editions, and other luxury items. For design, fashion and luxury all under one roof, or just to admire its beautiful art deco-inspired architecture and elegant black and white spiralling marble staircase and glass ceilinged interior, visit the Quartier 206.
We love Das Stue and head back there repeatedly. Originally housing the former Royal Danish Embassy, the hotel is situated in the Tiergarten, so you can wake up in the morning overlooking the Berlin Zoo’s menagerie of animals. The hotel’s high ceilinged and very roomy suites are fantastic, and hung throughout the hotel is a wonderful private collection of photographs including works by Horst P. Horst, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, and Helmut Newton. In the evenings guests head to the bar to watch classic films from the hotel’s film library.
Hotel de Rome, a converted 19th century bank, is conveniently located in the heart of Mitte’s shopping district and a stone’s throw from many museums and historical landmarks, like Checkpoint Charlie and the Reichstag. It’s quiet and doesn’t have much of a scene, but it has a fantastic rooftop bar and the rooms are the definition of cool modern elegance. If a vibrant social scene is more your thing, then stay at the Soho House, which is always buzzing with a local and international crowd of fashionistas, film types and artists. There’s a fabulous rooftop pool overlooking Berlin, plenty of art by notable names, and the bar is always lively and colourful (yes, a good bar is imperative for us).
Art is everywhere in Berlin. Literally. It’s on the street, in cafes, public squares… I even saw an installation in a tree. The city has almost 600 galleries, more than 170 museums and is home to some 20,000 artists. Potsdamer Straße in Mitte, once a hangout for musos, is now a hotspot for many galleries including Arndt, Klosterfelde Gallery, Blain Southern, Galeria Plan B and Galerie Judin.
Close by on Oranienburger Straße, and currently exhibiting a 3D video installation by German electro band, Kraftwerk, is Sprüth Magers, just around the corner from the Mädchen Schule which houses Michael Fuchs Galerie, the Eigen+Art Lab and gallery Camera Work. Walk for several more blocks and you’ll come across Me Collectors Room, a collector’s space that belongs to Wella-heir Thomas Olbricht, who had a building constructed in Auguststraße especially for his own collection. Here you’ll find works by Thomas Schütte, Eric Fischl, Franz Gertsch, Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas and Gerhard Richter as well as a wunderkammer containing more than 200 objects from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
For something a little more unique book well ahead for a tour of Christian Boros‘ private art collection, Boros Bunker, housed in an underground bunker. The contemporary art collection features works by Olafur Eliasson, Elmgreen and Dragset, Robert Kusmirowski, Sarah Lucas, Tobias Rehberger, and Anselm Reyle.
I haven’t made it to even half the number of listed museums, but I absolutely love the Hamburger Banhof, which is currently presenting a retrospective of Martin Kippenberger‘s work and exhibits a strong selection of contemporary art from several of the world’s leading modern art collections, including the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, Dr. Erich Marx Collection, and the Marzona Collection. Martin Gropius Bau, one of the most beautiful exhibition museums in Berlin, also has a programme of exciting contemporary and modern art exhibitions, with the stellar ‘Kapoor in Berlin, currently on until November. For fashion photography fans, the Helmut Newton Foundation at the Museum of Photography is not to be missed. The foundation exhibits work spanning the Berlin-born photographer’s five decades long career, as well as giving insight into his private life with a collection of personal effects. And architecture fans will really love Daniel Libeskind‘s Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg, a complex of zigzags, tunnels and intersecting axes, reminiscent of a distorted Star of David. Documenting the social, political and cultural history of the Jews in Germany from the 4th century to the present, it is one of the largest Jewish museums in Europe.
Take a relaxing walk through the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Hyde Park, or put your feet up by the small lake and enjoy a beer and a bite in the sun in the garden’s Cafe am Neuen See. The service is dodgy, but the food is decent and the atmosphere more than makes up for it. The former Hohenzollern residence, Schloss Charlottenburg, the largest palace in Germany, makes for a wonderful afternoon escape, and you don’t even have to leave the city. The gardens, which are open to the public, are a beautiful example of baroque landscaping, influenced by the gardens of Versailles. And while the city may be landlocked, that hasn’t stopped Berliners from catching a few rays and perfecting that summer tan. Berlin has a number of urban beaches (basically a stretch of sand with some sun beds and a bar) and bathing spots, notably Wannseebad, a traditional lakeside bathing spot out in the suburbs beyond Berlin’s Grunewald forest. Hidden away behind a warren of industrial buildings and an old tram depot in Mitte is Badeschiff, a huge industrial vessel hull converted into a swimming pool (and sauna in winter) and moored on the left bank of the river Spree. There’s wooden decking where a young crowd gathers to sunbathe, and a bar behind where you can sip your Caipirinha with your toes in the sand.