“Paris is always Paris but Berlin is never Berlin” – so said the former French minister for culture, Jack Lang. And that still rings true for the German capital, which is constantly reinventing itself. Case in point is the Mitte district. Once the backdrop for much of Europe’s 20th-century tumult, it’s now Berlin’s main business hub and home to tech giants such as SoundCloud.
Despite a population of 3.7 million and a landmass nine times the size of Paris, Berlin maintains the intimacy of a village, with each neighbourhood offering a different feel. Mitte is lined with upmarket boutiques and coffee houses, Neukölln is home to Turkish bakeries and hipster bars, while Prenzlauer Berg is most remarkable for its rows of colourful terraces that defy the metropolis’ “grey city” label.
The creative economy is booming, too, with thousands of international artists lured by Berlin’s cheap rents and ample studios. There’s also green space aplenty, such as Tiergarten park and Grunewald forest. But despite its evolution, Berlin is still a place for oddballs and anarchists, their presence felt in lively protests and street art. Business is done with more than a hint of rebellious freedom and it looks like that quality is here to stay.
Coffee pit stop
The love for coffee runs deep at Mitte’s Röststätte, which is led by German barista royalty Nicole Battefeld, who won the 2018 national championships. Weather permitting, enjoy your kaffee on the leafy street outside. The café also stocks a range of beans and recently launched Cold Brew X, a coffee liqueur made in collaboration with mixologists from Berlin’s Ritz-Carlton.
Sink your teeth into a taste of home at Commonground, a popular Australian-owned breakfast spot in a warehouse-style space in Mitte. Try the avocado on sironi toast with beetroot relish and hummus and the house-roasted Fjord coffee. The café takes bookings for groups of eight or more.
Housed between some of Berlin’s most prestigious art galleries, Panama is airy, bright and laid-back (with a bar where you can pull up a high stool). Head chef Sophia Rudolf combines familiar ingredients with surprising accents, such as beef tartare with preserved shiitake and red currants. The two-storey space brims with artworks, including a show-stopping light installation by Björn Dahlem, plus exotic plants and terrazzo-tiled tables.
Image credit: Robert Rieger
With green velvet banquettes and exquisite 1920s Murano chandeliers, Michelin-starred Pauly Saal is without doubt one of Berlin’s most spectacular dining experiences. Overseen by renowned chef Arne Anker, the tasting menus, ranging from three to seven courses, feature visually stunning concoctions such as scallops with zucchini, black garlic and yuzu. Equally special is the building itself – once a Jewish girls’ school, it was designed by famed German architect Alexander Beer.
Drinks with clients
Housed in a former pharmacy in Kreuzberg, Ora is a sleek all-day bistro and cocktail bar perched on a historic square. Get comfortable at the long wooden bar, with its array of bottles and potions from the building’s heyday, and savour a Wacholder-Fizz cocktail, with Eversbusch double juniper spirit, oloroso and lime.
Best co-working space
Unicorn.Berlin offers co-working areas, meeting rooms and event spaces across its six city locations, plus excellent coffee from onsite cafés. Memberships start at €10.
1. Catching a flick at a traditional kino (cinema) is akin to a religion for Berliners. Babylon Kino in Mitte retains much of its timeless glamour. Alongside arthouse films, the venue plays silent-movie classics with “soundtracks” provided the old-fashioned way – with a live organist.
2. Liquidrom spa in Kreuzberg fuses two of Berlin’s greatest pastimes – hot spas and electronic music. It’s designed in the shape of a circus tent and visitors float in a pool of saltwater while zoning out to techno, electronica and classical music played by guest DJs.
3. Boutique cooking school Schöne Heimat – translated loosely as “home is where the heart is” – gives visitors a taste of modern German cuisine and culture. Its half-day tour includes a trip to a farmers’ market to sample and shop for ingredients, followed by the preparation and sharing of a meal using what you’ve bought.
In an Art Nouveau building in bohemian Kreuzberg, the Orania.Berlin features a restaurant overseen by noted chef Philipp Vogel and a penthouse literary salon and bar, where you can catch jazz, classical and world-music concerts.
If you have a couple of hours…
A few months before his death in 2004, Helmut Newton, the German-Australian fashion photographer, established the Helmut Newton Foundation, inside the Museum of Photography. Here, you can see many of his signature black and white portraits as well as temporary exhibitions. On show until May 2019 is Saul Leiter/ David Lynch/ Helmut Newton. Nudes, featuring never-before-seen images.
If you have half a day…
In Neukölln, a buzzing south-eastern borough 15 minutes by train from the city centre, you’ll find some of Berlin’s most exciting cafés, bars and art galleries. Start with breakfast at the plant-filled café Roamers then wander over to the Kindl – Centre for Contemporary Art, a lesser-known gallery located in the former Berliner Kindl brewery. If the sun is shining, head to Tempelhofer Feld (enter on the corner of Oderstrasse and Herrfurthstrasse), an airport-turned-public-park popular with picnickers, joggers and rollerbladers, then cap off your visit with a beer at the rooftop bar Klunkerkranich.
If you have a day…
Need a respite from Berlin’s grunge aesthetic? South-west of the city (an easy one-hour trip on the S-Bahn), Potsdam is Berlin’s answer to Versailles. Pay a visit to Frederick the Great’s summer residence, the exquisite World Heritage-listed Sanssouci Palace, where you can stroll through its Italianate gardens. Then make your way to Brandenburger Strasse, with its array of shops, boutiques and restaurants, to admire the beautifully preserved Baroque architecture.
If you have a weekend…
Only a two-hour train trip from Berlin, Dresden is a city where you can flirt with the past while revelling in the future. The old city is a treasure-trove for art lovers, while just across the Elbe River, the Neustadt (new city) is known for its youthful spirit and concentration of bars and restaurants. Boutique hotel Gewandhaus Dresden in the city centre is an ideal base from which to explore it all.