The line dividing East and West Berlin has long been blurred, with some of the former East neighborhoods now among the loveliest, but there’s still a disconnect between its glass-and-steel high-rise aspirations and the grittier, history-ridden reality on the street level. An influx of business and government funding has erected super-sleek and modern amenities, such as the major shopping and cultural centers Kurfürstendamm and Potsdamer Platz and the breathtaking new central train station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, while in the residential neighborhoods, the culturally savvy have overtaken abandoned and often dilapidated old buildings—post offices, breweries, power plants—and converted them into arts centers.
Throughout, there’s still a crackling feeling, twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that this is a moment in the life of a city and a country that will never come again—that this balance, between polished and punk, present and past, sleek and street, could tip at any moment. Soak it up while it lasts.
Berlin is unusually diffuse for a major metropolis, so it can be hard to get a good overview. A little-known fact about the German capital is that it has more bridges than Venice, along with a system of canals almost as extensive, making a boat tour an expedient and relaxing way to sample from various pockets. A three-hour tour (try Reederei Riedel) will take you past houseboats and stunning canal-side apartment blocks, through multiple neighborhoods and eras, including the thirteenth-century Nikolai District; the baroque Berlin Cathedral; Museum Island; the storybook Oberbaum Bridge over the River Spree, connecting the hip Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts; the Berlin Zoo; Hans Scharoun’s unusual golden Philharmonie concert hall; and the sleek, post-reunification Potsdamer Platz and Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery).
After disembarking in the central Mitte district, walk or take a cab to Bocca di Bacco, an airy, art-filled destination restaurant known for its exceptional Tuscan cuisine and fresh pasta.
After lunch, stroll past the shops and legendary theaters on Friedrichstrasse and over the Spree River to the exclusive Boros Collection on Reinhardtstrasse, a repurposing of space that stands out even in Berlin, a city that prides itself on its reclamation of historic structures. Built as a bunker for area residents in 1942, the imposing building has been occupied by Soviet troops, warehoused textiles and fruit, and hosted theater, conceptual art, and a hard-core fetish club. Since 2008, it has housed the world-class contemporary art collection of the advertising mogul Christian Boros, featuring work by the likes of Damien Hirst, Olafur Eliasson, Elizabeth Peyton, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Anselm Reyle. Boros’s painstaking four-year renovation created more generous spaces for his prized possessions—some of which have been personally altered by the artists to suit the new setting—but preserved the original character of the five-story, thirty-two thousand square-foot space. The more than six-foot-thick exterior walls still couch prisonlike windows; most of the rooms have no daylight. (Boros’s private living space, constructed atop the bunker, is a different story.) Entry to the private museum is allowed only on Friday through Sunday, via an intimate guided tour, which must be booked in advance on the collection’s website.
Whether you’re browsing for a design-forward souvenir or the latest in contemporary art, you’ll find it in Mitte. For galleries, focus on the area around Linienstrasse. For hip, independent shops, stroll toward Oranienburger Strasse (don’t miss the Moorish, gilt-topped New Synagogue) and the area around the Hackeschen Höfe, a breathtakingly appointed series of boutique-filled courtyards. Note: Although mores have relaxed in recent years, Berlin still adheres to its traditionally strict rules regarding shopping hours, meaning just about everything is closed on Sunday.
Repair back to your accommodations—the legendary Hotel Adlon by the Brandenburg Gate is a good choice. Now officially known as the Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin, the celebrated landmark’s lore dates back to the swinging Weimar era when, as one of Europe’s most famous hotels, it hosted celebrities such as Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, and Marlene Dietrich and served as the model for the Grand Hotel in the 1932 Greta Garbo film of the same name. More recently, it has become home to Germany’s most exclusive social scene, the mega-posh China Club, for which four hundred business and cultural elite have paid ten thousand euros (more than fourteen thousand dollars) to become members. Amenities are top-notch, furnishings are stately and refined, and the location can’t be beat for its centrality and historical relevance.
For an alternative, try the Schlosshotel im Grünewald, a former private estate in one of the city’s greenest and poshest neighborhoods. It’s known for its elegant, unique rooms that bring modern sensibility to old European grandeur.
Like London, Berlin has long relied more on French cuisine and the exotic, inexpensive kitchens of Asia than pledged allegiance to its own. But as of late, a “New German Cuisine” has taken hold, with young chefs applying international influence to the best native ingredients. For his Mediterranean-leaning experimentations at Hartmann’s, the thirty-something chef Stefan Hartmann (Berlin’s Master Chef in 2008) is the latest in the capital city to receive a Michelin star. Choose three to eight courses of dishes like crayfish with cucumber, Granny Smith apples, and pancetta, or order à la carte. Reserve ahead.
After dinner, join the pleasure-seeking models, DJs, and film types sipping champagne and cocktails at the sleek, futuristic Bar Tausend, while trying to highlight their best sides in the glow of the lounge’s trademark doughnut-shaped light fixture. For a little after-hours debauchery, head to the massive Berghain and Panorama Bar, located in a cavernous former power plant on the border between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain (hence “Berghain”) and considered one of the top clubs in Europe. Panorama Bar is outfitted by the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans, no stranger himself to club culture. But don’t even think about showing up until the wee hours; the DJs start spinning at midnight and don’t stop until the next afternoon.
To recover from last night, avail yourself of one of the greatest of Germany’s pleasures: the epic Sunday brunch. Restaurant Quarré at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski offers the splurgiest option (for guests or visitors)—a champagne and oyster buffet bedecked with the titular items in addition to a king’s feast of meats, cheeses, smoked fish, fruit, cereals, eggs, hearty German breads, and exquisite pastries. But just about any café will offer its own (pared-down) version. For an unusual take, try Datscha in gritty Friedrichshain, which offers an array of curious Russian-influenced morsels, from blintzes and blinis to less familiar, but no less delicious, vehicles for caviar, eggs, fruit, and other breakfast staples.
If any one location can capture the essence of Berlin, it’s the Neues Museum on Museum Island. First opened to house various royal collections in 1850, heavily bombed from 1943 to 1945, during World War II, and partially demolished in 1950, this near-ruin was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It reopened to enthusiastic acclaim in 2009 after a massive renovation by David Chipperfield. The museum is now home to the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection (including the world-prized Nefertiti, given pride of place in an exquisite hall all her own) and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History, along with a selection of classical antiquities, but it’s the building itself that’s most poignant. Chipperfield has built around the chips and cracks and crumbling, rather than plastering over them, creating an atmosphere of decrepit grandeur, a testament to a culture that rose to a pinnacle then collapsed in on itself, not unlike the ancient Egyptians, whose attempts at immortality the museum houses.
To catapult yourself back to the present, check out the nearby KW Institute for Contemporary Art, founded by the international mega-curator Klaus Biesenbach in the early 1990s. It has since established itself as one of Europe’s most influential independent venues (in part as the organizer of the Berlin Biennale). Or visit C/O Berlin, which presents thoughtful, inspiring shows of photography in a renovated post office.
Wander over to a string of intimate restaurants along Torstrasse that are drawing Mitte’s chic sophisticates. Start out by discussing the afternoon’s viewings at Reingold, a warmly elegant cocktail lounge on nearby Novalisstrasse that calls itself “The Old Speakeasy in the Modern Century.” Then, for dinner, choose from among Bandol Sur Mer (fresh-from-market bistro fare), Dudu Berlin (predominantly Japanese in a crisp, minimalist space), or Noto (inventive “German soul food”).
Cap off your visit with a cocktail at the seventeenth-floor, glass-walled lounge Solar, accessible by the glass elevator on the outside of the building. Soak up the spectacular panoramic view of the iconic TV tower, and take a moment to consider the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, once a primary depot for deported Jews during World War II. That the central portion of the facade remains is a daily reminder of the city’s painful past.
Kris Wilton is an arts and culture writer whose work has appeared in Modern Painters, Art+Auction, Slate, ARTnews, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and Artinfo.com, for which she was executive editor. She is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.