November 9 this year marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. Still trying to piece it-self together, Berlin is a city in the middle of an accelerated transition. From the headquarters of the holocaust and then Western division between communism and capitalism, the German capital is now throwing off last century’s scars and emerging in an entirely different stratum: Berlin the cool.
The most profound of these changes have centered in Mitte, the heart of former Russian controlled Berlin. While littered with graffiti, and bullet scarred buildings, this eclectic neighbourhood fanning out from Alexanderplatz is also home to a swirl of bohemian art enclaves, an island brimming with mind-blowing museums and some of the finest shopping in Europe.
Berlin is a city of the night, not morning, so when in Rome… Wake from your slumber at Lux 11, a peachy 72 roomed apart-hotel with minimalist white interiors and peek-a-boo showers in a building that used to be inhabited by the KGB. The rooms are small but the location couldn’t be better; skirting Rosa Luxemburg Strasse – named after the socialist revolutionary credited with forming the Communist Party of Germany- now the heart of Berlins uber-coolness. www.lux-eleven.com
Layer up (Berlin’s weather can be temperamental), done your best walking shoes and head down to Munzstrasse and Oliv, the local breakfast haunt for coffee, pastries, fruit and muesli and outside benches to watch the passing parade. (Munzstrasse 8, open Mon-Fri 8 am-7 pm, Sat 9 am-7 pm)
Follow your eyes to the soccer-ball-atop-a-pin Soviet style TV tower, the Fernsehturm, Berlin’s iconic bearing setter smack bang in the middle of Alexanderplatz. Soar the 203 meters to the observation deck (10 euro/ AU$16.50) and get your bearings of this city of 3.5 million people with a swooping 360 degrees. 9 am- midnight Mar-Oct, 10 am- midnight Nov-Feb; www.berlinerfernsehturm.de
Berlin is a great walking city- but bicycles rule the footpaths here (be aware of them if you do walk or prepare for some real German austerity). Grab a two-wheeler from the Fat Tire Bike Rentals under the TV tower ($11.50 for four hours; www.berlinfahrradverleih.com) and peddle up Under den Linden, the cities fabulous grand boulevard, lined with a collection of old grand dames which have been carefully restored since WW2. At the end of this decadent drive is the Brandenburger Gate- the divide between East and West during the Cold War. Recently restored, it’s now a symbol of German reunification, and favoured spot for tourists to have their pictures taken with pseudo soldiers from opposing sides.
Turn left at the gate and head straight for the Holocaust Memorial, American architect Peter Eisenmann’s eerie grid-like cemetery which pays homage to the Nazi-led genocide of Jews during WW2. Head downstairs to the museum (free admission 10 am- 8 pm, closed Mondays) for a harrowing glimpse into the madness that descended on Berlin in the early 40’s, or sit on one of the blocks watching the play of light and shadow while contemplating how honest Berliners are to their past. www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en
The history lesson isn’t over just yet. Weave your way down to Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway between Cold War East and West, this is where Russian and US forces faced off in 1961, almost causing WW3. The check-point has since gone, but an installation tells the story of the city from the end of the Second World War – to the end of the Wall. For those with wheels, there is a 1.3 kilometer intact stretch of Berlin Wall called East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, a 10/ 15 minute ride away. An international memorial for freedom, the wall has recently been restored, featuring works by 106 international artists and reviving many of the classics like ‘Communist Kiss’ which pictures comrades Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev smooching. www.eastsidegallery.com
Eyes to the sky, head back to the TV tower, drop off your bike and head back to Munzstrasse. It’s time for lunch. Berlin isn’t renowned for its fabulous eating places- but the home-style German food and friendly service at Lebensmittel in Mitte is worthy of the trip. Recharge the batteries with hearty organic dishes like Bavarian roast pork with saeurkraut and potatoes (14.50 euros) and a glass of German wine (from 3.50 euro). (Rochstrasse 2; +49 (0) 30- 27 596130)
Contemporary art buffs should head to Auguststrasse, Mitte’s informal art mile, where the city’s young and creative have formed an art enclave. Good and free galleries along this strip include Gelerie Gerken, Galerie Dittmar and multi-cultural DNA Galerie. Those inclined for the classics should head to nearby Museum Island, a cluster of five world class museums established by the Prussian royal family in the early 1900’s. Recently re-opened after an extensive 9 year restoration the Bode Museum’s collection (Byzantine art, Middle Ages sculptures) is just as mesmerizing as the building itself. The Neues Museum is soon to reopen after an AU$400 million restoration. (8 euro each, open daily 10 am- 6 pm, Thurs 6- 10 pm free)
Wander back to Lux 11 stopping off at Mitte’s ultra-hip boutiques. Pick up cute and affordable t-shirts and sweaters at Cyroline or leather footgear at Vialis on Gormanstrasse. Swedish comfort clothes can be found at Dunderdon on Rochstrasse or exquisite designer threads at Ulf Haines on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse. Don’t miss the quirky and whimsical Respective further up Rose Luxemburg Strasse with its Soviet inspired goodies. Yes, that’s right- what was Dad’s loath is now little Johnny’s love: Berlin’s communist past is currently making a thunderous come-back into the world of cool.
Trot along the banks of the Spree River for dinner at Grill Royal, a hi-so steak house and darling of Berlin’s social scene. The Argentinean chunks win the best value prize (from 21 euro). Match them with the goat’s cheese salad (11 euro) and a bottle of red from the extensive wine list. If the food doesn’t tantalize, the location, by the lapping waters of the spree, surrounded by twinkling lights, should. (105 Friedrichstrasse, +49 (0) 30 28879288, dinner only)
End the day at Kunsthaus Tacheles on Oranienburger Strasse, the former Jewish quarter, for a glimpse of Mitte’s fading fringe scene. The burnt-out former department store was set for demolition before being taken over by a group of artists and squatters in the early 90’s and converted into an art centre and night club. www.tacheles.de