Well, if you come to Berlin you will most probably arrive at Tegel Airport. I must admit that this place is a slap into one`s face – too small, too shabby, too much charme of the 70s. And no one knows if the new airport (opening was scheduled for 2012!) will ever be finished at all. German efficiency? Pffff – not in Berlin. The sometimes chaotic style of this city is probably the reason why people think it`s so cool – „poor but sexy“ as former Lord Mayor Klaus Wowereit once described Berlin.
Hardly any headquarters of German companies are based here. The unemployment rate and public debts are way higher than in most other big German cities. But – celebs like "Brangelina" and George Clooney come here to shoot films or to attend the famous Berlinale Film Festival. And not only they love Berlin. Every year the city reports more international visitors who come to learn about the history, enjoy the many sites ... and ... to party (some of the clubs are legendary)!! Anyways, I love Berlin, too. And the development this city has made since the German reunification 25 years ago is breathtaking. I remember my first flight to Berlin in the early 80s – Lufthansa was not allowed to fly, just PanAm, BA, PanAm and Aeroflot. And they had to use the so-called „corridor“ over former East Germany – no matter what the weather conditions were. Boy, the flight could get pretty bumpy. I was shocked when I saw that ugly wall surrounding Berlin – it looked like a big prison from above. And I had never thought that one day we would be able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate – this was a forbidden zone for us „Wessies“ (West Germans) in those days. And you may imagine how emotional it was when East Berliners stormed that wall in 1989 – goosebump moments! And by the way, on Oct 03 Germany will celebrate the 25th anniversary of reunification. A good reason to open a bottle of champagne!
Photo: Old, new, rather new, brand new, ugly and beautiful – in Berlin you get it all.
How about spending a weekend in Berlin? Tips for first-time visitors.
Not a bad idea. There is so much to do and see – history above all, good and bad.
And all kind of architecture. Gardens, parks, castles. It is one of the greenest cities in the world. So let me give you a few tips – and don`t expect my list to be complete, that is impossible unless you spend at least a week there. Just a few suggestions.
Oh la la, this is almost Paris! Domes with golden statues on top, bistros with outdoor service even when it`s a bit crisp, the Berlin version of Galeries Lafayette close by (on Friedrichstrasse, very high-end shopping!) and even a street called „Französische Strasse“ (French street). That street hosts one of the best known (and most expensive) restaurants – „Borchardt“, often frequented by German celebs and politicians. And not to forget the beautiful concert house. Neo-classical architecture par excellence and a nice combination with the German and the French Dome.Très chic indeed! And many other sites are within walking distance.
Photo: The German Dome at night
Museumsinsel (Museum island) and GDR Museum
Well, it looks like construction never ends here. These buildings are so old (not to talk about the art inside) and were run down during the GDR regime that they really need face lifts.). Today they are a UNESCO World Heritage with art from the pre-history up tot he 19th century. And the extensions go on – you can see the impressive masterplan on their website mentioned below. - And if you see a house just opposite the Bode Museum – with policemen walking around – that`s where our „Mutti“ (Chancellor Angela Merkel) lives, no kidding! I could not spot her during my visit, maybe you will be more lucky. - Just walk over a bridge to get to the other side of the Spree river – there you will find a small interactive museum featuring stuff of the former „German Democratic Republic“. Needless to say that you can see an original „Trabbi“, those funny cars which were produced in East Germany (and exactly the contrary to a BMW I would say). However, there is no reason to trivialize this former country – let`s not forget that the regime murdered people who tried to climb over the wall into the Western sector. A brutal dictatorship that luckily does not exist anymore.
Photo: Beach bar at the backside of the Bode Museum
It is just next to the Museumsinsel, close to the Spree (by the way, take one of the boat trips). There is a beach club where you can chill on deck chairs and put your feet into white sand (open until early October). Beach clubs like that are booming in Berlin – some Mediterranean feeling in the middle of a (rather) Nordic city! And try to watch a performance in this fancy little theatre, they have English sublines. How about good old HAMLET?
This is a must, honestly. And just a nice walk away from the Museumsinsel. An old inner courtyard – fancy shops, art galleries, restaurants (my favorite: Oxymoron) and the Chamaleon Theatre. I strongly recommend to see a performance there – outstanding and very creative entertainment.Their founders also worked with the world-famous Canadian Cirque du Soleil – that says it all. On your way there have a look at Alexanderplatz – you can`t miss it since Germany`s tallest building stands there – the „Fernsehturm“ (TV Tower), 368 m high. And get an idea about the crazy constructions of the communists (the tower is one of them...) – broad streets for big parades and ugly buildings that don`t have a soul.
Photo: Cool fashion at the „Hackesche Höfe“
This has become sort of a chic neighbourhood over the past years – the ideal place for the „Latte generation“ (if they can afford to pay the rents here...). No real highlight but a glimpse of Berlin lifestyle with over 300 buildings under monument protection (mostly from the end oft he 19th century), churches, a synagogue, shabby patios and a few interesting eating places (many Vietnamese restaurants) and „water holes“. Reco: stroll on the Schönhauser and Kastanienallee and have an espresso at The Barn (waiters speak rather English than German) – when ordering an espresso I was offered either Ethiopian or Guatemalan roast. I went fort he first choice – and that coffee almost hit me out of my shoes. Strong but soooo good! And the cheesecake wasn`t bad either.
Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz
Sure, these are the basic sites you MUST see. Take a walk on „Unter den Linden“ – that`s where the roaring 20s were going full steam. Have a tea at the famous Adlon Hotel where many movies were shot and walk through the Brandenburg Gate with the beautiful „quadriga“ monument on top. Just to your right you will see the historic Reichstag, the German parliament – with the famous glass roof by Sir Norman Foster on top. Buy a ticket in advance (LOTS of tourists) and go up to that roof – preferably at sunset, the view is fantastic. From there you can see Potsdamer Platz which until 15 years ago was no man`s land – there was just NOTHING. On your way you will pass by the Tiergarten, Berlin`s green lung and the much disputed Holocaust Memorial. Today the Potsdamer Platz houses fancy skyscrapers (you won`t find too many in Berlin) and the spectacular SONY building with movie theatres, cafés and restaurants. The Ritz Carlton, certainly one of Berlin`s best hotels and a great spot for celeb spotting during the film festival, is just next door.
Photo: Having fun at the historic Reichstag!
Starbucks? No. Sip your coffee at Caras, Einstein or Balzac (just to name a few...)
Yes, Berlin is full of Starbucks. But why not trying one of the local chains? The coffee there is much better (means stronger...). Einstein is certainly the best one – and they have a huge coffeeshop at „Unter den Linden“ where you can have a full breakfast and watch German politicians – they love that place.
This was (and still is) THE boulevard in former West-Berlin. After the reunification most of the taxpayers`money went into the new city centre, i.e. East Berlin. But luckily Charlottenburg with the Kurfürstendamm has seen a great revival. Shopping from low to very high budget, tons of new hotels such as the Waldorf Astoria, cafés,bars, theatres, restaurants and .... beautiful architecture. Don`t miss to stroll down this beautiful boulevard and have a look at the side streets. One of the most beautiful hoods of this city.
And yes, here you will also find Europe`s largest high-end department store! It is not Harrod`s in London or one of the major stores in Paris – it is Berlin`s good old KaDeWe („Kaufhaus des Westens“ which means „Department store of the West“.) You will find this shopper`s heaven (North Americans LOVE it) just next to the church „Gedächtniskirche“ which Berliners call „The Empty Tooth“ since it was destroyed during the war and never 100% re-built 100% - a real memorial of the Second World War and one of the landmarks in (former) West Berlin.
Photo: Of course you get the best champagne brands at the KaDeWe!
And where to sleep and eat?
There are a few good news: Berlin has an excellent hotel offer for every budget. And the high-end hotels are rather affordable, at least in comparison to London or Paris.
This time I stayed at the new Titanic Deluxe (opened in March 2015) – a small 5-star-property right at the Gendarmenmarkt. Nice hotel and yet great rates (this may change soon). Rooms are too small for a 5-star-hotel ... the wall picture behind the bed is a bit kitschy ... and come on, I really don`t want to have an old-fashioned coffeemaker in a modern boutique hotel. Get a fancy espresso machine, guys!
And why on earth is this Turkish hotel chain called TITANIC? Is that a good idea? It reminds me of the famous movie but also of one of the most tragic desasters of all times.
Most of the staff are friendly (and some don`t speak any German at all) but I also remember a guy in the bar ... he achieved to serve us without speaking one word! Maybe he was too shy ;-) – or maybe his girlfriend had left him ... or whatever.
To end with a positive thing: the gym is pretty cool – latest Technogym equipment, loved it! And there are SAMSUNG tablets in the rooms.
There are three more high-end properties where I have stayed before and which I can recommend:
The Swissotel close to Kurfürstendamm – a very modern hotel with an excellent service and The Mandala, a privately owned small boutique hotel right at Potsdamer Platz with quite fancy rooms. The Radisson Blu between the Cathedral and Alexanderplatz has been selected twice as Berlin`s best business hotel (World Travel Awards). Go and see the giant aquarium (Aquadom) with an elevator inside – just spectacular. A less expensive option is the small boutique hotel California right on Kurfürstendamm (and whenever i mention that name the famous song comes to mind).
You may wish to try the very Berliner „Currywurst“, a sausage with a special spicy sauce invented by a Berliner housewife. You will find snackbars everywhere in the city offering Currywurst. My all-time favorites are Italian restaurants ... Essenza at Potsdamer Platz and Malatesta at Gendarmenmarkt. For new German cuisine check out Oxymoron at the „Hackesche Höfe“, Gendarmerie at Gendarmenmarkt or Florian close to Kurfürstendamm. – And now: enjoy BERLIN!
For more Berlin recommendations, visit this site.
Photo: Spa entrance at the Titanic Deluxe Hotel
Photo: The Titanic Deluxe Hotel close to Gendarmenmarkt
Photo: An elevator in an aquarium – Radisson Hotel Berlin