An essential destination for fans of the weekend city break, Michael McHugh checks out the best the German capital has to offer.
Berlin has been on trend for some years now, and the city’s art scene has no doubt played a large part.
However, it’s the German capital’s intense and rich history which is still the real draw for many visitors.
Though more than 20 years have passed since the fall of the Wall separating East and West, and more than six decades since the days of Hitler, Berlin’s past remains etched across the city, in stark reminders of the atrocities and frustrations suffered, as well as symbols of the hope of generations that have emerged since.
Both are key elements of an eclectic, cosmopolitan city, but they’re far from separate entities. Berlin’s art and history are inevitably deeply intertwined.
Earlier this year, following a multi-million pound renovation project, a former Jewish girl’s school reopened as an arts centre.
The school had not long been built before it was seized during the Nazi occupation in the early Thirties and while it was later returned to the Jewish community, it stood empty for years. Now, the Haus der Kunst und Esskultur (House of Art and Dining Culture) has been transformed into a space for all, featuring galleries and restaurants, with works by the likes of Andy Warhol.
It sits in the Mitte district, an area only recently repopulated. It’s also home to Berlin Zoo, with shiny new shops and department stores lining the main streets.
Art is such an attraction in Berlin that new tour company Go Art! Berlin is offering bespoke trips around the city’s highlights. These include tours of neighbourhood and street art, such as the colourful graffiti emblazoned across much of the city, which plays a central role in Berlin’s expressive, Bohemian character.
The highlights don’t end there, though. Filling a weekend break in Berlin is easy – the challenge is choosing what to see and what to skip.
The Clarchens Ballhaus, a dance hall which opened in 1913, is well worth a look. Still popular, it hosts regular swing dance nights, its cracked mirrors and green peeling paint displaying the dilapidated grandeur of the Roaring Twenties. It’s also home to the Gipsy Restaurant, where you can tuck into delicious wiener schnitzel while listening to live music.
Berlin’s public transport system is well set up for tourists. There’s the tram, underground, trains and buses to choose from, but by far the most pleasant way to get around the city’s broad boulevards on balmy summer or crisp autumn days is cycling. Most of the roads have very decent cycling lanes, and motorists are very used to the hundreds of bike-riders whizzing along every day.
Fat Tire Bike Tours, a Europe-wide operation, offers fantastic cycle tours, where a guide will lead small groups around the city’s tourist hotspots, with an informative history lesson along the way.
Stops include the relatively new, stark and stunning Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, which consists of 2,711 stone blocks of varying size, which you can walk between, and the famous Brandenburg Gate.
A short distance away is the Berliner Dom church, a landmark ravaged by the Second World War. It was bombed in 1944, then rebuilt to its 1905 design, and fully reopened in the early Nineties.
Perhaps Berlin’s most unsettling of post-war reference points is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche on Breitscheidplatz. Shattered by Allied fire in 1943, the church’s shell has been left as an anti-war statement. This part of town is a great area to head to if you’re looking for museums. Just a short walk away is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island), Berlin’s cultural shop window, where you’ll find a vast, varied mix of artefacts and art.
Another likely priority for weekend visitors is where to eat. This is a city in transformation – extending to an eclectic cuisine, which is developing from currywurst and other German staples to embrace the finest European cooking.
Rutz, at Chausseestrasse, features a wine list that runs to 800 varieties and serves great American prime beef steak.
Volt Restaurant, at Paul-Lincke-Ufer in chic Kreuzberg, is in a converted electricity sub-station. The decor is predictably industrial – blocky seating, lights on long cables hanging from a ceiling so high that it’s vanishing into the distance.
The food, however, is anything but. A salad of braised cauliflower, mandarin orange, shallots and beurre noisette make an interesting combination of tangy sweet with a kick. The Irish lamb with truffled sunchoke and bok choi is perfectly cooked and the portion size is substantial but not overwhelming. The restaurant, with its well-dressed clientele, has the bustling air characteristic of large parts of the city.
Berlin is on the rebound and its offerings of art and fine cuisine only highlight this reassertion of freedom, balancing the war tourism of relatively recent times with the centuries-old Germany of literature and high culture.
Best for: Art lovers and history buffs who want to marvel at the city’s architecture.
Don’t miss: The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Need to know: Berlin’s shiny new airport, Brandenburg, won’t now open until March 2013. The two airports it is designed to replace will continue to handle flights until then.
Don’t forget: Berlin’s two-day WelcomeCard (under e 20) provides transport and museum discounts.
Where to stay...
Michael HcHugh was a guest of British Airways Holidays which offers two nights’ B&B at the 4.5 star Andel’s Hotel from £289 during October, including return BA flights from Heathrow: 0844 493 0758 and www.ba.com/berlin