East Berlin is very cool. Not only does Berlin have an economy that is the engine and envy of Europe, its revitalising east side is the place to be for art, culture, design, property, dining … you name it. That’s not to say the rest of the city has nothing to see; Berlin is an exciting place where the emerging east and established west proudly mingle.
Clean but not sterile, welcoming but not disingenuous, Berlin is ideal for five perfect days. Public transit is efficient and easy to use (primarily the U-Bahn and overground, red and yellow S-Bahn), and it’s increasingly cosmopolitan. Berliners are quick to chat, but only if you engage them first; butting in would be gauche.
It’s hard to visit Berlin and overlook the remnants of its past, however gruesome. Pieces of the Berlin Wall are still embedded in the roads, and many of its major monuments are dedicated to Germany’s Second World War activity and its aftermath. And though the central Mitte district has seamlessly integrated the former East and West sectors, the old East makes for a more fascinating trip. The government (Bundestag) now meets in the Norman Foster-restored Reichstag Building. Potsdamer Platz (“platz” are all over Berlin and are the German equivalent of piazza in Italy or plaza in Spain), cut in half by the Wall, is currently one Mitte’s key squares, and is the location of the Berlinale Palast, main venue for the Berlin Film Festival since its 50th anniversary in 2000. The iconic Brandenburg Gate sits adjacent to the city’s historic Adlon hotel. They’re all within a few minutes’ walk of each other, and all fell on the east side at one time. Farther past the old border is Alexanderplatz, the bustling heart of East Berlin and now a quickly developing hub unto itself.
Alexanderplatz is a good jumping off point to the area; it’s not far from the interconnected, formerly neglected courtyards, streets and 19th structures of funky Hackescher Markt. Centred on the S-Bahn station and Hackescher Höfe, it’s now one of Berlin’s buzziest nightlife districts. During the day it’s a great place for fashion, because no matter what you’re looking for you’ll find a local alternative that puts more famous brands to shame for elegance, function and innovation. By evening, the area is flooded with locals and tourists enjoying the balmy, boisterous social evenings in summer. A good place to stay is the nearby Casa Camper, a boutique hotel that fits in philosophically with the neighbourhood. It’s low-key, democratic (the lounge is open to all guests) and prides itself on quirks that set it apart from traditional hotels.
From Alexanderplatz and Hackescher, no trip would be complete without a stop at the Berlin Wall Memorial (Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station). Though a ghost of what it was, the memorial is a vivid indicator of a divided city and an elegant reminder of the real impact of extreme ideology. The highlight is the Window of Remembrance, a stark, droning installation that lists, one by one, the people who died trying to cross the Wall. From here, head just north to Kollwitzplatz, the heart of Prenzlauerberg. The leafy, café-lined streets and early-20th century (much of it earlier) architecture form the backdrop for a young, hip, bohemian neighbourhood that marries past and present.
Elsewhere in Mitte is the Holocaust Memorial, equally stark for its haunting silence. It’s a bold confession of an ugly past and should at least be strolled through for a sense of the claustrophobic disorientation it’s meant to convey. Try and ignore the tourists who feel fit to pose for selfies on its blocks.
The Holocaust Memorial is just behind the Hotel Adlon Kempinski on Unter den Linden. Originally opened in 1907, Berlin’s grand hotel has hosted heads of state and celebrities of all stripes during its history, which was interrupted just after the Second World War when it burnt to the ground. Abandoned during the Cold War, it was restored to its former glory and reopened in 1997. This is the hotel to stay at if you’re looking for old world luxury.
Its place on the Wall makes The Adlon a good spot from which to investigate new Mitte as well and the former West. Head south first to Kreuzberg for open-air markets and Berlin’s active LGBT and counterculture scenes. Like Kollwitzplatz, the old district is quickly renewing without losing its edge. Unter den Linden leads directly to the international retail corridors at Friedrichstrasse (which crosses Checkpoint Charlie). Farther into the heart of old West Berlin is Zoologischer Garten (Zoo Station as U2 fans know), with its broad boulevards running from the traditional KaDeWe department store at Wittenbergplatz. For foodies, the sixth floor supermarket and the seventh floor wintergarden food court are tempting for the sheer breadth of choice of gourmet delicacies. The wurst (sausage) selection alone is mind-boggling. Fortunately Berliners are a helpful bunch, and if you get stuck trying to order something vacuum packed, someone will come to your rescue.