Insider Guide: What to do in Berlin
Long known as a city that’s always becoming, never being, Berlin is ever in a state of flux.
Filled with historic relics that mark its role as imperial capital, seedy Weimar stomp, Nazi hive, Soviet stronghold and liberal bastion of the West, Berlin's latest transformation has been from post-Wall bohemian free-for-all to culture capital with global cred and a booming tech industry.
Whether you’re here for the world-class museums or fringy techno saturnalia, Berlin is as fascinating as it is protean.
For anyone who knows where to look -- us, for example -- it’s also full of surprises: contemporary art in a converted Nazi bunker, Michelin-starred restaurants, the massive “Little Istanbul” area and a vast system of navigable waterways that allows visitors to take it all in by boat.
Wondering what to do in Berlin? Start here.
Hotel de Rome
Just off Berlin’s grand royal boulevard of Unter den Linden, the imposing Hotel de Rome is popular with visiting diplomats and politicians.
Like seemingly everything in the German capital, it has an unexpected back story: as the central bank of the German Democatic Republic, it likely played host to even more backroom deals than it does today.
In the mid-2000s, the elegant neo-Classical building was converted by British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, a one-time playboy who decked out the former bank in imperial reds and blues, installing flat screens and black marble and filling the old vault with a swimming pool and spa.
Behrenstrasse 37, Berlin; +49 30 4606 090; from €395 per night; www.hotelderome.com
Soho House Berlin
In 2010, the Soho House Berlin, a 40-room hotel and private club aimed at the city’s upwardly mobile “creative” class, became the newest tenant on Torstraße, a street in central Berlin once peppered with squats and illegal art spaces.
Housed in an imposing late-Bauhaus structure that opened as a department store in 1928 and was seized by the Nazis and, later, the postwar Communist regime, Soho House underwent a €40-million renovation and now includes a movie theater, spa, state-of-the-art gym and heated rooftop pool.
Comfortable rooms include heated floors, fresh-baked cookies and, in true bohemian-bourgeois fashion, an old-time gramophone and selection of vinyl LPs.
Torstraße 1, Berlin; +49 30 405 0440; from €130 per night for nonmembers; sohohouseberlin.com
Touted as “the city’s smallest hotel,” this quirky, two-room Pension Berlin opened in August 2011 in Kreuzberg’s tree-lined and swiftly gentrifying Graefekiez neighborhood.
Part gallery, part art studio, Pension hosts rotating exhibitions by local artists in the reception area and even houses an art shop and a cinema.
A gilded motif accentuates the cozy, single-occupancy “Gold” room, while the larger “Fassbinder Alexanderplatz'” room features a wall collage of stills from the director’s seminal miniseries, a double bed and an electric fireplace.
Schönleinstraße 33; from €35 per night; www.airbnb.com/rooms/181160
One of only three Berlin restaurants with two Michelin stars, the stylish Mitte eatery has become one of the top addresses in the city for "neue deutsche kuche" (new German cuisine) since opening in 2009.
A proponent of the “molecular” school of cooking, chef Daniel Achilles splits his concoctions into two different menus: “quite near” and “far away.” The first features revamped regional dishes made with local ingredients. The second is for more experimental fare.
Schlegelstrasse 26C, +49 30 3088 1214; expensive; www.reinstoff.eu
Concocting delicious farm-to-table regional dishes, Lokal is the follow-up to Kantine, a popular restaurant that popped up for a year in the office space of British architect David Chipperfield.
Each morning, the owners, Marin Thimm and her American boyfriend, chef Gary Hoopengardner, announce the changing menu on their blog.
By night, well-heeled diners pack in under lamps made of glass fish traps to dig into dishes like leg of beef with Chinese cabbage, turnips, beans and homemade bacon.
Linienstraße 160, +49 30 2844 9500, moderate; lokal-berlin.blogspot.com
In Berlin, brunch can be an all-day undertaking, and the epicenter is lovely, leafy Prenzlauer Berg, the former Eastern workers’ district now swarmed by organic markets and stroller-pushing 30-somethings.
If you prefer to skip the all-you-can-eat bloat-ups, the place to go is Anne Blume, a combo café and flower shop that serves multi-tiered mini-banquets of imported cheeses, meats, homemade compotes, marmalade and brimming bread baskets.
Kollwitzstraße 83; +49 30 4404 8749; budget to moderate; www.cafe-anna-blume.de
Known to locals as “anarchist pizzeria,” Il Casolare is run by a ragtag collective of languid Italian punks.
At the large, canal-side Kreuzberg institution, service typically ranges from slightly negligent to flamboyantly hostile, and you’ll never wait less than 45 minutes.
But hang in there and you won’t regret it: thin, hand-tossed, wood-fired crust, generously topped to real-deal Italian perfection.
The “Incredible” is an unlikely but brilliant mix of bresaola, walnuts and pecorino.
Grimmstraße 30, +49 30 6950 6610; budget to moderate.
In the wrong hands (OK, most hands), currywurst, Berlin’s official street food, is as unappetizing as it might sound: steamed pork sausage sliced and seasoned with warm curry ketchup.
But more than 80 years of practice have made Knopke’s Imbiss (Imbiss means fast food), located under the tracks at the Eberswalder Straße U-Bahn station, the best in town.
Still, you’ll probably need to suffer through a signature Berlin hangover to really get its appeal.
Schönhauser Allee 44 B; +49 30 4427 765; budget; konnopke-imbiss.de
Widely considered the “best nightclub in the world,” Berghain draws a singularly eclectic mix: scenesters, misfits, bondage-clad muscle gays, rich kids, Skrillex-haired lesbians, DJs, drag queens, tourists, old, young, whoever.
The line can take hours to get through, and then you might not make it past the doorman. But if you do, don’t be surprised if you’re there till next Monday morning.
Berghain is a bit of a rite of passage for visitors looking for what to do in Berlin.
The sybaritic techno temple is housed in a massive former power plant in the industrial sprawl near Friedrichshain’s Ostbahnhof train station.
Am Wriezener Bahnhof; +49 30 2936 0210; berghain.de
Open since the 1940s, the classic brasserie-style Paris Bar in the now-bougey Charlottenburg district was once the hangout for Berlin’s beau monde. It’s still popular with local artists and actors and their hangers-on.
Though actually a restaurant (with more-than-decent bistro fare), Paris Bar’s black-and-white checked floors and red walls lined with paparazzi shots are the perfect setting for sipping Sekt Aperol (Aperol and Champagne) into the early hours.
Kantstrasse 152; +49 30 3138 052; www.parisbar.net
Club der Visionäre
A club set on wooden piers on a tributary just off the Spree River, Club der Visionäre is ideal for a relaxed afternoon beer -- or a 12-hour binge.
Though the owners had to install railings a couple of years ago when an overly enthusiastic reveler decided to swim home, they also winter-proofed the place for the cold months.
Back when it was still an illegal after-hours spot, CdV was a hub for the then-emerging minimal techno scene -- the now-ubiquitous subgenre still dominates.
Am Flutgraben 1; +49 30 6951 8942; clubdervisionaere.com
Open 24-hours, the ultimate Berlin dive is covered floor-to-ceiling with weird German kitsch: misshapen pieces of furniture, old neon signs, a table supported by carved wooden elephants and a giant painting of two sad-eyed babies drinking beer.
Booze is cheap, the music is hilariously horrible, and you can almost always count on seeing someone being forcibly removed. The place draws a mix of expats, young Berliners, foosball enthusiasts, grizzled old-timers, tourists and dissolute day drinkers.
Schönleinstraße 34; +49 30 6932 015
Visitors in search of great mid- to high-end local fashion boutiques should head to Mulackstraße, a cobbled back alley in Mitte’s Schönenviertel (it means “beautiful quarter”), where nearly every facade hides a trove of locally designed swag.
From intricate knitwear and Bedouin-inspired cashmere scarves at Lala Berlin (#7) to accessories at Hecking (# 26) or cute, crafty stationery at RSVP (#14), the narrow street is an embarrassment of riches.
Mulackstraße between Alte Schönhauser Straße and Gormannstraße
In 2011, heads turned west when Andreas Murkudis’ chasmal concept store opened in a former newspaper printing press in the emerging Potsdamer Straße gallery district.
A bellwether of the Mitte retail scene since setting up three boutiques there in the early 2000s, Murkudis filled his sleek new 1,000-square-meter digs with an expertly edited range of items, from leather Neri tote bags to a Nynphenburg porcelain skull to a metalized ascot by Uncommon Matters.
The space also hosts exhibitions and special events.
Potsdamer Strasse 81E; +49 30 6807 98306; www.andreasmurkudis.com
Berlin is home to an estimated 500,000 people of Turkish origin, and the teeming market that spreads along the south side of the Landwehrkanal between Kreuzberg and Neukölln on Tuesdays and Thursdays is a great place to take in the culture.
From noon till 6 p.m., local farmers, merchants and craftsmen line up along the swan-flecked canal under the willow trees to sell a vast and colorful miscellany of produce, spices, meats, textiles, clothing and household items.
Maybachufer between Kottbusser Damm and Hobrechtstraße
Part of Berlin’s world-class Museum Island complex (set on an actual island), the Pergamon draws more than a million people a year with its extraordinary assemblage of reconstructed, original-size monuments sourced from Turkey and the Middle East.
Among them are the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate, which led to the inner city of Babylon.
The museum also houses an antiquity collection, Middle East museum and museum of Islamic art, all of which contain wonders of their own.
Museumsinsel, Am Kupfergraben; +49 30 2090 5577; www.smb.museum
In 2003, advertising magnate Christian Boros purchased a 3,000-square-meter concrete Nazi air raid shelter to house his extensive private art collection. With works by Olafur Eliasson, Damien Hirst, Terence Koh and Elizabeth Peyton, it’s easily one of the best in the city.
After a five-year renovation that installed a glass atrium into the center of the cement cube, Boros and his wife moved into the penthouse and opened the bunker to the public in 2008.
There’s sometimes a four-month waiting list to see it, but the Boros Collection shouldn’t be missed.
Reinhardtstraße 20; Admission €10, visits booked only through website; +49 30 2759 4065; www.sammlung-boros.de
The great outdoors
A lot of first-time visitors are surprised to find that Berlin is one of the greenest cities in Europe. Here are two great ways to commune with "Natur."
With more bridges than Venice, Berlin is veined by a vast system of waterways.
While the Wall stood, many of Berlin’s rivers, lakes and canals became border-zone
Wastelands. In the years since reunification, however, the banks have been developed and droves of Berliners are taking to the water by boat.
Companies like Reederei Riedel (Planufer 78; +49 30 6165 7930; reederei-riedel.de) and Exclusiv Yachtcharter & Schifffahrts (Holsteiner Ufer 32; +49 30 4366 6836; exclusiv-yachtcharter.de) run tours within the city.
Self-propelled watercraft are available from the Rent-a-Boat office in Treptower Park (Abtei Bridge; +49 177 2993 262; rent-a-boat-berlin.com).
Since reunification, Berlin has invested approximately €5 million per year into the city’s bicycle infrastructure and programs -- and it shows.
This, plus the fact that the city is fairly flat and relatively spread out, makes the city perfect for two-wheeled exploration.
Tiergarten is optimal for biking -- it’s a former royal hunting ground and one of Europe’s largest and most beautiful urban parks.
From East Side Gallery you can bike along the largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall.
Many bike shops, tour companies and youth hostels provide rental services. Popular options include Mietradmitte (Linienstrasse 58; +49 30 2809 6600; www.mietradmitte.de), Radlager (Dieffenbachstr. 35; +49 30 6951 9772; www.radlager-berlin.de) and Lila Bike (Schönhauser Allee 41; +49 176 611 24 909 ; www.berlin-citytours-by-bike.de).
Cyclists can find out the best route between any two locations in Berlin by checking the online router at www.bbbike.de.