Each time I arrive in Tegel (surely Germany’s most unpleasant airport) and take the bus into town, through some of Europe’s most unappealing suburbs, I ask myself the same question: why on earth are so many people so eager to travel to Berlin? The city is a gigantic building site, festooned with ugly graffiti. Much of it was bombed during the Second World War and rebuilt in the worst brutalist style. But then I get off the bus at Savignyplatz, where my grandparents used to live, and I remember why I keep on coming back. Partly it’s the lure of history, partly it’s the exhilarating nightlife, but above all it’s something in the air – what Berliners call the Berliner Luft: that thrilling mix of adrenlin and expectation which you only get in a few metropoles: London, New York and (above all) Berlin.
I first came to Berlin in 1991. The Wall was already long gone, save for a few touristic souvenirs, but the city was still divided. West Berlin was brash and bustling. East Berlin was funereal. Despite the Mauerfall (as Germans call the fall of the Wall), Berlin remained two cities, both equally unreal – an ersatz Americana in the west, a Soviet mausoleum in the east. The Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s main shopping street, was ablaze with neon. Unter den Linden, East Berlin’s grandest boulevard, was silent and austere.
I returned to Berlin many times during the frenetic decades that followed, and watched with wonder as the two halves of this fractured city began to merge. For a while it felt like a town where anything could happen, especially in the east. Artists and musicians requisitioned ruined buildings and turned them into ad-hoc nightclubs. There was a place called Tacheles, a huge department store, bombed out during the war and abandoned by the communists. During the Nineties and the Noughties it was an anarchic mélange of gallery, cinema and concert hall. It’s no longer there, and lots of similar places have gone with it. Capitalism has worked its magic, restoring and renovating redundant relics with an efficiency that socialism could never muster. Has something been lost along the way? Maybe, but it’s now a much better city to live in – and in the streetlife and the nightlife, some of its old allure survives.
For me, Berlin has become an old friend, frustrating yet familiar – but every time I come here, I discover something new. Anyone who comes here is only ever scratching the surface. The city is too big for one lifetime. It’s changing far too fast. If it’s your first time you’ll see things I’ve never seen, even after countless visits. That’s the beauty of the place, what makes it so beguiling. Berlin belongs to its newcomers, seeing the city with fresh eyes. Here are a few of the things I like to do. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them too, but after you’ve spent a weekend here you’ll have a list that’s all your own.
What to see
Some travel writers seem to think it’s beneath them to recommend places that everyone has heard of. To me, that seems like the worst sort of vanity. These places are popular for a reason and most are well worth seeing, despite the crowds. The Brandenburg Gate still exudes a strange magic in spite of all the coach parties – the crossroads of Europe, past and present. Norman Foster’s Reichstag cupola is a spectacular vantage point from which to survey the city (book a table at the rooftop restaurant if you want to beat the queues). Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is profoundly moving, a vast undulating maze of tombstones above a sombre subterranean museum.
Checkpoint Charlie is now a tawdry tourist trap and best avoided, but the adjacent museum (which predates the Mauerfall) is an inspiring, uplifting place. The main remnants of the Wall are at Bernauerstrasse, in the north, and at the East Side Gallery, where an entire kilometre of the Wall, adorned with murals made soon after the Mauerfall, has been lovingly preserved. Elsewhere this zigzag borderline is now virtually invisible. Downtown, it’s often difficult to work out which side of Berlin you’re on. Nowadays the eastern side of town seems more modern: more new buildings, more sightseers. The western side is quieter now, more sleepy and sedate.
What to do – further afield
Despite its reputation for grunge and grime, Berlin is a remarkably green city. The Tiergarten, its leafy, scruffy central park, is a great place to wander, but the subway system is so good that it’s easy to venture further afield. Wannsee is Berlin’s biggest lake, with a sandy beach and an Art Deco lido, and a grim museum in the lakeside villa where the Nazis drew up the plans for the Final Solution. Right next door is the handsome waterfront home of Impressionist painter Max Liebermann (a German Jew), now an evocative gallery – as so often in Berlin, the best and worst of Germany, side by side.
Potsdam is Berlin’s equivalent of Versailles, a cluster of baroque palaces amid a glorious array of ornamental gardens. Hire a bike and do a round trip, past Cecilienhof, where Churchill, Truman and Stalin met to carve up postwar Europe, and over the Glienicker Brücke – the old border between east and west which starred in the Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies. Potsdam is a city in its own right, with a historic, atmospheric centre and some superb museums. Pick of the bunch is the new Barberini Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of art from the German ‘Democratic’ Republic.
Where to eat and drink
Berlin’s bar and restaurant scene changes so rapidly that it’s often best to head for general districts rather than specific addresses. Prenzlauerberg is grungy. Potsdamerplatz is more glitzy. The western suburbs of Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf are less fashionable but more authentic, full of unpretentious places where locals go to eat and drink. My favourite spots are the Paris Bar, a lively brasserie where Helmut Newton hung out, and Lutter & Wegner, an elegant old restaurant on one of Berlin’s smartest squares.
Where to stay
The Adlon is Berlin’s most illustrious grand hotel, a legendary rendezvous between the wars, but I prefer Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Rome. Occupying a neoclassical pile which used to house East Germany’s national bank, its vault has been converted into a splendid swimming pool. The location is ideal – a short walk from Museum Island. Right outside is Bebelplatz, where Nazi students from Humboldt University across the road built a bonfire of ‘degenerate’ books. That’s the thing about Berlin – its history is omnipresent, an intoxicating blend of good and evil, light and shade.