Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Berlin

Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Wall, Berlin lays bare its painful past while enjoying a vibrant present rich in art, culture and good times. Jamie Reid finds the city in high spirits.

October 03 2009
Jamie Reid

It may be 20 years this November since the Berlin Wall came down, but it hasn’t disappeared completely: 18 sections remain, along with rusting guard towers and other chunks of cold war debris that Berliners have reclaimed, rejuvenated and added to the city’s already fascinating range of sights and attractions. The city centre which it bisected is once again the heart of one of the most dynamic and exciting capitals in the world, replete with smart hotels and restaurants, museums, galleries and concert halls.

It’s no surprise, though, that the Wall is far from forgotten. A trail of cobblestones has been laid through the city plotting the course of the so-called Hinterland Wall – a precursor to the Wall itself – which are linked by a 14km bicycle trail. On a fine day, it’s an enthralling way to explore Berlin and its cold war past, not to mention its heritage as the city of Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang during the golden age of the German film industry.

More intriguing still is to take one of the Zeit Reisen “video bus” tours. Curated by an enterprising group of university graduates, they use original film and TV footage cleverly intercut with old photographs to bring history to life as you drive around. The tour begins at the former Sandkrugbrücke border crossing on Invalidenstrasse, just outside the controversial Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, the provocative collection of contemporary art amassed by Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick, whose grandfather made his fortune as an arms manufacturer during the second world war, and continues to the eerie official Wall memorial, Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, at Bernauer Strasse, where 57 East Berliners tunnelled their way to the West and freedom in 1964.

To get a flavour of the society that so many East Germans were literally dying to get away from, it’s worth going to Alexanderplatz, centre of the old Communist East Berlin. Even if it’s become something of a tourist sight, the monolithic Soviet-era architecture makes it worth the detour, especially if you continue along Karl Marx Allee, where many of the uniform Plattenbauen apartment blocks are now historic monuments and highly sought-after places to live. Look out for the Café Moskau, recognisable from the miniature sputnik on its roof. It once served the best food in the East to top-level intelligence operatives from both sides of the Wall who would meet here for dinner and off-the-record briefings.

A short ride away on the U-Bahn, the Stasi Museum on Ruschestrasse is actually inside the former HQ of the GDR’s secret police, which in 1989 employed 93,000 people and had more than 170,000 informants, and will be familiar to anyone who has seen the brilliant 2006 film The Lives of Others.

An inspiring retort to all the surveillance and paranoia is the celebrated East Side Gallery. In 1989 more than 118 artists covered a 1.3km section of the Wall – the longest surving section on Mühlenstrasse near the Oberbaumbrücke in Friedrichshain – with graffiti and murals, so creating the “biggest open-air gallery in the world”. Recently the subject of a €2.2m restoration project, it will be a focal point for this year’s celebrations.

Friedrichshain and its bohemian neighbour Kreuzberg are among Berlin’s liveliest districts, packed with artists, clubs and bars. Old industrial buildings have been converted into galleries and performance spaces such as Radialsystem V, a former water-pumping station on the Spree now home to the acclaimed Sasha Waltz contemporary dance troupe. This area is also home to sought-after streetwear such as Berlin-based label Volksmarke, which can be found at cool boutique Cherrybomb on Oranienstrasse. But to enjoy the very best food and most luxurious accommodation, head to the upmarket district of Mitte around the boulevard Unter den Linden.

The Hotel Adlon, situated only yards from the Brandenburg Tor, has been restored to its pre-second world war glory, while The Regent Hotel on Charlottenstrasse boasts the acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant Fischers Fritz. But the most stylish of Berlin’s newer luxury hotels is Sir Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Rome further down the avenue of linden trees and overlooking Bebelplatz. Constructed in 1889, it was originally the head office of the Dresdner Bank. The striking interiors, designed by Olga Polizzi, combine state-of-the art comfort with many preserved features, including particles of grenades dating from 1945 that were found embedded in the wooden panelling of what were once the bank directors’ offices and are now the first-floor suites. There is a similar feel to the hotel pool and spa, which is in the former vault in the basement. The old bullet-ridden safe designed by Panzer is used to store what are jokingly described as “the best protected towels in Germany”.

The hotel’s restaurant, Parioli, concentrates on a light but delicious Mediterranean menu, and the Bebel Bar, all black leather stools and Bauhaus lines, feels glamorous and chic, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when many of Berlin’s movers and shakers pass through.

Bebelplatz, which adjoins the former royal library, is where the Nazis burned more than 20,000 books on May 10 1933 and the event is commemorated by a simple glass plate in the middle of the square. As you look down through it, you see row upon row of empty white book shelves. But the surrounding streets and squares seem far removed from the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. The beautiful Gendarmenmarkt, for example, is a late-18th-century marketplace overlooked by the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral) and the restored 19th-century Konzerthaus, home to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Some tickets for the Konzerthaus are usually available on the day; as is the case with the fabled and architecturally astonishing Philharmonie, home to the Berliner Philharmoniker, near Potsdamer Platz (where you’ll also find the shiny entertainment complex, the Sony Center).

Gendarmenmarkt is at the hub of some of the best restaurants and cafés in the city. Refugium, in the vaults of the French church, specialises in modern German cuisine such as pike perch with ham and wild herbs, while Borchardt on Französische Strasse is one of Berlin’s buzziest and most fashionable addresses. The large, high-ceilinged room with pillars, mosaic floors and red banquettes has the feel of a Montparnasse brasserie and, appropriately, the steak frites is one of its signature dishes. Also nearby, the Charlottenstrasse branch of Lutter and Wegner, which dates back to 1811, has an exceptional wine list including some delicious dry German whites from the Fritz Haag estate in the Mosel that are rarely available in England.

A few doors down, you come to the Newton Bar, named after the Berlin-born photographer Helmut Newton and a nocturnal hot spot with heavy leather chairs, fabulous cocktails – such as the trademark Dirty Martini – and an 18ft print of the photographer’s Walking Women along the back wall. For more sedate but equally sensual refreshment, visit the former imperial Shokoladenhaus Fassbender & Rausch, also on Charlottenstrasse. The ground-floor shop stocks a vast range of luxurious truffles, pralines and chocolate models of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Tor. Take the elevator to the first-floor café and sink into an armchair to sample the exquisite hot chocolate and freshly made cakes such as the hazelnut and almond-cream tartlet.

Gourmet delights also feature prominently at the massive West Berlin department store KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), which was founded in 1907 and is the Berlin equivalent of Harrods. It stocks every designer label under the sun but its most famous attraction is the sixth-floor food hall, which has mountainous displays of sausages, cheeses, fresh fish, coffees, wines and champagne. Well-heeled Berliners arrive early to bag a lunchtime seat at one of the in-house bars and restaurants. But for a more informal, though still quintessentially Berlin experience, Witty’s organic Imbiss (fast food stand) just across the road on Wittenbergplatz serves the best currywurstbratwurst in a roll topped with ketchup and curry powder, and much nicer than it sounds – in the capital.

The humble currywurst was one of the few popular delicacies to survive in the East during the long years of Communist rule. Other trappings of life in the former GDR are now on display in the new DDR Museum, a brash upstart on Karl Liebknecht Strasse opposite the august institutions of Museum Island. The exhibition tells of collective potty breaks for kindergarten pupils, anabolic steroids given regularly to potential athletes as young as five, and has hilarious shots of the nudist craze – a coded attempt at rebellion – that swept East German holiday camps in the 1960s and 1970s. But the most telling exhibit of all is an authentic 1971 Trabant, the hopelessly unreliable and tinny car that was nonetheless an object of longing for thousands of citizens (who often had to wait up to 10 years to get one and then spent the next 10 dealing with the endless breakdowns, smoking exhausts and lack of spare parts).

The fact that the Trabi has now been accorded retro iconic status, in the confident belief that the era it defines will never return, is perhaps the most eloquent example of just how far all Berliners have come in the past 20 years.