TO DESCRIBE THEIR city of 3.6 million people, Berliners love the quip “poor but sexy,” coined by Mayor Klaus Wowereit. The German capital may be financially poor, but almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is riding high on a wave of cultural prominence. The city has always been a place where locals get along, with their brisk sense of humor and energetic embrace of life. And thousands of students, artists, and free spirits have turned this bustling European metropolis into a unique, at times even wild, laboratory of 21st-century art, culture, and entertainment. June is the perfect time to dive into life here, as the streets in this surprisingly green city pulse with summertime activity.
Author Jürgen G. Scheunemann Photography Olaf Hauschulz
DAY ONE / You’re staying at the Hotel de Rome, the latest ingenious venture of British hotel mogul Sir Rocco Forte. Opened in late 2006, the hotel is along Bebelplatz in the city’s eastern heart. Offering great views of the square, this over-the-top yet intimate luxury hotel, smartly designed and adorned with modern art, occupies a former bank building. Start your day with a plunge into the chic pool hidden in the former bank vault.
Refreshed and ready, take a five-minute walk to Café Einstein Unter den Linden to indulge in an Old World breakfast: It’s your choice among croissants, ciabatte, or good old Berlin Schrippen (simple, crispy rolls), but Einstein’s delicious coffee is a must. Try to grab an outside table to do some people-watching while rubbing shoulders with the politicians and diplomats who come here for the first meeting of the day.
The avenue right in front, Unter den Linden, is the capital’s grand old boulevard, named for the linden trees on both sides. “As long as the linden trees blossom, Berlin is still Berlin,” Marlene Dietrich once sang, and despite all the shadows of history that have haunted the linden, the boulevard has persevered just as the city has. Stroll toward Schlossbrücke in the east. Behind the bridge, you will see a vast open space that was once the site of the imperial Hohenzollern palace (this Prussian residence was heavily damaged in World War II and then blown to pieces by the socialist regime). Now, plans for the square include a new museum and culture complex, the Humboldt-Forum, in 2010.
Just a few steps away, one of the world’s top museum complexes is awaiting your inspection: the Museumsinsel (Museum Island). Its crown jewel is the Pergamonmuseum, whose original Roman and Greek monuments, including the famous Altar of Pergamon, are breathtaking.
After a couple of hours wandering through the collections, it’s time for lunch. Take a 10-minute cab ride to Gendarmenmarkt and Lutter und Wegner. Grab a table on the terrace and order the giant, crispy Vienna schnitzel with potato salad (lukewarm, as it should be). Just across the way is the 19th-century Gendarmenmarkt, with its twin Deutscher and Französischer Dom (German and French cathedrals) flanking the Konzerthaus (concert hall). Take in the symmetrical beauty of this grand piazza before walking west to the hallmark of all Berlin sights, the Brandenburger Tor, the only remaining city gate. Opened in 1791, it leads to the embassy- and hotel-lined Pariser Platz, the gute Stube, or “living room,” of Berlin. Look out for the line of cobblestones in front of the gate; it marks the former location of the Berlin Wall, which separated East and West Berlin for 28 years.
Turn south and follow Ebertstrasse past an ensemble of dark-gray monoliths, the Holocaust-Denkmal. Germany’s central memorial to the victims of genocide, designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman, was completed in 2005.
A mixture of past and present is typical for Berlin, as you’ll see with a leisurely 10-minute walk east toward Friedrichstrasse, the bustling locus of elegant 1920s nightlife and shopping that symbolizes Berlin’s rise during the Jazz Age. Heavily damaged during the war, the street was almost forgotten for 60 years. Reunification led to Friedrichstrasse’s rebirth. These days, it’s as lively as ever, with the French department store Galeries Lafayette and the luxurious designer department store Quartier 205 attracting an international clientele.
An early dinner awaits on Französische Strasse at Borchardt (reservations are strongly advised), one of the best places for you to feel the pulse of the city. The noise of the nation’s top politicians and journalists and the occasional Hollywood star chit-chatting may be overwhelming at this French brasserie–style restaurant, but the nightly “see and be seen” game is fascinating. Try some tasty beef dishes and soak in the atmosphere before heading north on Friedrichstrasse to catch a show at Admiralspalast, a magnificently restored variety and music theater. Afterward, end the day with a leisurely stroll back to your hotel.