The Beginner’s Guide to Berlin
Where to eat, stay and play in the arts and culture capital of Europe.
Lux 11 is a boutique hotel that doesn’t try to hide its shady past: the KGB operated a phone surveillance station here to monitor calls between East and West Berliners. It’s hard to imagine spies hunkered over utilitarian desks in the space as it exists today: the building, like most of the East, is hipped up in bold fuchsia accents and club music played as we checked in. Arriving after midnight? They’ll have warm sausages waiting to tide you over until morning.
The aforementioned Soho House Berlin is the current darling of the non-starving artist crowd—Damien Hirst recently threw a party here. The 40 unique rooms set in this former Jewish department store are frequently booked, and not with the jeans and T-shirt crowd—yet the Club Floor is surprisingly comfortable and unpretentious, full of plush sofas that recall grandma chic.
Though classic German cuisine looms large in many of the city’s restaurants, Berlin wants to be taken seriously as a cosmopolitan culinary city. You’ll eat some streetside currywurst, sure, but Berlin also boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other German city. (Just have one night? Henrik’s Gastro Rallye is worth it for his stories alone—and if you’re lucky, he’ll sign you into the members-only Soho House Berlin, the first German outlet of the posh London chain.)
A classic imbiss in Berlin is a food truck by North American standards, serving sausage and fries or other quick snacks. Der Imbiss turns it on its head with a storefront and elaborate pizzas that border on healthy and mainly vegetarian: the avocado naan was loaded with guacamole, chipotle, sun-dried tomatoes and arugula.
Vietnamese food is (perhaps not surprisingly, given their shared communist past) doing well in the city, and there’s no prettier spot than the courtyard at Chén Chè. And it’s ridiculously affordable: a tasting box of rich, coconut-based beef curry, mild chicken soup, fresh kimchi and battered fish topped with sweet and tangy sauce clocked in around 8.50.
German modern in a moody, boîte-style environment. With an emphasis on local in the European regulations sense of the word (Rutz works with a local hunter to secure their venison, unlike the deer farms in Canada), the Michelin-starred restaurant—and one-time host to the Pope—features updates on local cuisine, like wagyu beef paired with braised red cabbage and black cherry.
Berliners love weekend brunches, and Anna Blume’s pretty patio is the perfect spot to order up a breakfast tower for two, stacked with crepe rolls filled with mixed cheese, homemade jams, fresh fruit, smoked salmon and shrimp in a dill sauce. Something simple? Two poached eggs in a glass, topped with fresh herbs, is a mere 3.80.
The 100-plus-year-old fashion institution KaDeWe (pictured above) has a jaw-droppingly expansive gourmet food section on the sixth floor—endless aisles of chocolate, pickles, sausages, mustards and schnapps that are as much a feast for the eyes as the belly. Look for the “Grab One!” line of individual pickles, canned in a time-capsule-like vessel (and the perfect souvenir).
The city lays claim to inventing curry wurst: essentially, sliced sausage topped with tomato sauce dusted with curry powder. They’re cheap (about 2) and vary wildly in quality—but Konnopke’s, tucked under the train line, is one of the city’s oldest and best, with the line-ups to prove it. If it’s cooler weather, you’ll want to pair it with a glass of mulled wine (Glüwein) for just a couple of euros more.
For a taste of Pregnant Hill, hit the market in Prenzlauer Berg on Saturdays for the usual farmers market fare and then some: oysters and champagne, Glüwein, cakes and Turkish crepes stuffed with spinach and feta. Saturdays at 9 a.m.,
Grab a table close to the dance floor at Clärchens Ballhaus (pictured above) to dine on cheese spaetzle or meatballs with lemon sauce and capers (Königsberger Klopse), as several generations whirl past under decor that—though the room was restored in 2005—feels a little like a ’70s-era Legion hall. But heartwarmingly so, and for those who want to relive the Roaring Twenties, when Berlin ballrooms were common as currywurst stands, there are free ballroom dance lessons every night. Just make room for the pros, who mob the floor at 9.
The underground dining scene is thriving in Berlin, whose lax alcohol laws (you can openly consume on the street, bars never close) seem to fuel the concept. A Google search will lead you to a number of them (they’re underground, but not off the internet)—I dined at Metti Una Sera A Cena, run by two Viennese artists in their spacious ground-floor flat. Neither’s a pro, but they serve lovingly prepared dishes to guests at a long communal table—think handmade tagliatelle sprinkled with chanterelles and black olives, and creamy white chocolate mousse with matcha tea, topped with homemade candyfloss. The conversation with fellow tablemates is as fun as the food: expect to walk away with a few tips for brunch the next morning.
The Daniel Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum Berlin (pictured above) elegantly displays the power architecture has to create emotion in a space. Skinny, vertical windows allow slashes of light into the space, and floors slope up and down to disorient visitors; a chilling memory room is left empty and unheated as an homage to those lost in the Holocaust.
Contemporary art is the lifeblood of the new Berlin. In the middle of Museum Island—a grouping of five historic museums, designated a UNESCO World heritage site—the modernist Contemporary Fine Art Gallery building, housing works by Georg Baselitz and Jonathan Meese, is in stark contrast.
The city owes much of its heritage to Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who, in the early 1800s, was responsible for such monuments as the Altes Museum and Konzerthaus Berlin. For a rare glimpse of his work on a small scale, poke into the St. Marien Cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg—a pretty walk on a cool day, and Schinkel has small art plaques on the gates and cemetery walls.
The once-gritty neighbourhood of Scheunenviertel is filled with chain shops now—Scotch & Soda, Converse, Diesel all have outlets along Münzstrasse—but Mulackstrasse, formerly a red light district, is a skinny little street full of indie shops run by local fashion designers. Pop in to Lala Berlin for airy knits, and llot llov for high-concept home accessories, like the Earl light, crafted from wooden beads threaded on a cable.
The eight interconnecting courtyards of Hackeshe Höfe were restored back to their Art Nouveau glory in the last decade. It’s worth strolling through all eight to visit the galleries and restaurants that now line the former factory quarters, but the first is most striking: brilliant blue ceramic mosaics line the walls. Save a little time to zip around the corner to Hackescher Markt—an open square filled with outdoor patios, perfect for a tall Berliner Kindl beer—and a visit to an outpost of Muji, the cult-favourite Japanese design shop.
Oh, the irony: the Bauhaus Archive is surprisingly confusing to navigate, and the information is a little thin. But the famous design school’s “form follows function” objects are on display in a decent collection, and modernists will want to stop by if only to raid the well-stocked museum store (including an excellent collection of font posters).