The German capital continues its phenomenal post-unification transformation. Though dozens of the great buildings begun in the mid-90s are now a reality, construction cranes still hover over the skyline and several huge projects—notably a new five-level rail station—are underway. Without so much as a blink in the German resolve to restore their centerpiece city, billions are still being lavished on the world's top architects and builders.
For those who remember the pre-1990 Berlin, both East and West, the changes are often disorienting; one must search diligently for a trace of the famous Mauer (wall), Checkpoint Charlie is gone, and the popular museum of the same name has been relocated from its former tacky, rundown digs to modern, air-conditioned quarters.
The focus of tourism has shifted from the Wall, and all that it represented, to the restoration. The Reichstag, a deserted hulk surrounded by weeds in the 80s, is again the center of government with a brilliant new glass dome. After a recent multi-million euro buff and polish, the Brandenburg Gate has never looked better. A new German Chancellery is breathtaking. Foreign countries compete to build the grandest embassy - the British version is particularly splendid while, architecturally at least, the Swiss seem to have struck a sour note. The Jewish Museum, designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind (Twin Towers replacement), is the town's most popular. Crumbling and, in some cases, abandoned U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations have been turned into shiny steel and glass emporiums of transport with restaurants and shops.
Under communism, East Berlin's Friedrichstraße was a dispiriting row of ugly buildings. These days, with its glittering Galerie Lafayette, five-star hotels and shops such as Prada and Hugo Boss, it's making noises about challenging the West's Kurfürstendamm as the city's premiere shopping street.
The pièce de résistance of Berlin's comeback is Potsdamer Platz, once the city's center but a post-war vacant lot. In the 90s it was Europe's biggest building site and today it seems the incarnation of every futuristic architectural dream design of the past half-century. Housing an IMAX theater, a fascinating film museum, and the great buildings of Daimler-Benz and Sony, it is a must-see for every Berlin visitor.
At Gemütlichkeit we think Berlin should stand atop the itinerary of every first-time visitor to Germany, and that frequent travelers will find the city continues to reward regular visits. As New York is to the U.S., Rome to Italy, London to England, and Paris to France, Berlin is to Germany.
And it is our good fortune that the city is not as expensive as Rome, London and Paris. Last year, our survey of the top hotels as listed in the Michelin Red Guides showed that five-star hotels in Berlin are about half the price of their counterparts in Paris, London and Rome. In lower priced hotels the ratio is similar.
What follows is a summary of our discoveries of the past year as well as a recounting of a few old favorites:
What to See
The focus here is not on the Holocaust, as many assume, but on Jewish life in Germany. Plan at least half a day and don't, as we did, spend too much time on the early exhibits. There is a great deal to see and you can wear yourself out before you've been through half of it. Museum personnel are extraordinarily helpful and you can expect security measures upon entry. There is an excellent, reasonably-priced restaurant. Admission to the museum is inexpensive: €5 for adults and €2.5 for seniors.
Mercedes Welt am Salzufer
Yes, it's a new car showroom, but probably unlike any you've ever seen. In an ocean liner-shaped steel and glass atrium-style enclosure (designed by Bernard Maybeck) that rises some five stories above ground level are two restaurants, a private club with indoor climbing wall and racquetball courts, and, of course, all those gleaming Mercedes Benz cars, priced from about $15,000 to more than $150,000. Brand new and rare vintage models, they are everywhere; on the ramps that wind to upper levels, perched here and there at various heights, and hanging on long cables from overhead steel girders.
About a dozen feet above the main floor, on the flat roof of interior office spaces, is an upscale, open-air restaurant whose tables are elegantly set with white linen and fine crystal. We chose a table in the main floor's more informal eating area where we kept one eye on huge, high-definition TV screens tuned to CNN and enjoyed a cool bier vom fass (on draft), salad and excellent bowls of soup - potato with sliced Wurst. Cost for two: 14 ($16).
• Mercedes Welt am Salzufer Salzufer 1, off Strasse des 17. Juni, near the Tiergarten S-Bahn station.
This surprisingly spectacular Las Vegas-style revue in the Mitte is a pleasant leftover from communist times, when tickets to it were used to reward favored party apparatchiks. There are acrobats, a full orchestra, singers, dancers, opulent costumes and elaborate stagecraft that includes a retractable, mermaid-filled glass swimming pool arising from the center of the stage.
The theater itself, which seats perhaps 3,000, has good sight lines and there is not, as they say, a bad seat in the house. Though only the cheapest tickets ($17) were still available on the day of the performance, the seats were excellent.
Delightful, moderately-priced Italian restaurant on Bleibtreustrasse in the Savignyplatz neighborhood. Both the welcome and decor are warm, with the latter featuring brick walls, candlelight, large vases of fresh flowers, polished bare wood tables, and huge, deep stoneware plates. Dishes range from €11 ($13) for pasta to €34 ($39) for the five-course menu. Without beverages we paid €47 ($54) for a late supper for two that included a shared antipasti plate (thinly sliced, very rare beef and salmon in top-grade olive oil, scattered with capers and finely chopped onion); hearty helpings in those stoneware bowls of bow-tie pasta with wild mushrooms and sautéed chunks of seafood and vegetables (€14/$16); and, for dessert, a shared panna cotta (€7/$8).
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
Die Zwölf Apostel
Moderately-priced, but tasty Italian food served in a room that is more Sistine Chapel than Berlin restaurant. Opulent wall and ceiling frescoes. Good pasta, fresh salads, and large, delicious pizzas.
There are two 12 Apostles—one in the Savignyplatz neighborhood (open 24-hours) and another on Georgenstrasse in the old East, where we dined. The restaurant is located in a building under the S-Bahn tracks in a row of fascinating antique shops.
Dinner for four was €64 ($74), a price that included rather a lot of the house red wine, a decent merlot. Fettuccine Pomodoro was €8 ($9), and a large pizza cost €11.25 ($13). The latter is half-price at lunch time and there is live piano music after 9pm at the Georgenstrasse location.
• Contact: Georgenstrasse 2, tel. +49/030/201 0222, or Bleibtreustrasse 49, tel. +49/030/312 1433.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20
This slick little bistro not far off the Ku'damm produced one of the best Berlin meals in recent memory. The original of three locations, Diekmann has successfully inserted itself into that hard-to-locate slot between the expensive, fussy restaurants Michelin likes to award stars to, and the traditional meat and potatoes places.
Simple but attractive decor features herringbone wood floors, bent wood chairs, and white tablecloths.
What comes out of the kitchen - fillet of beef in a brown reduction sauce accompanied by mashed potatoes with celery, for example - sounds simple, even pedestrian, until your first bites. There must be secret ingredients. Given the atmosphere and quality of food, Diekmann is a bargain. The three-course menu is €35 ($41); add a fourth and it's €41 ($48).
A very pleasant surprise was the silky half-liter of Rioja house wine for 21 ($24).
Dinner for four without beverages was 152 ($176).
• Contact: Restaurant Diekmann Meinekestrasse 7, 10719 Berlin Charlottenburg, tel. +49/030/883 33 21, fax 857 294 77
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 16/20
Where to Stay
Hotel Art Nouveau
Savvy, world-wise travelers themselves, Christine and Gerd Schlenzka own and operate the hotel we think offers Berlin's best combination of comfort, location, charm and value. The Savignyplatz neighborhood—near the Ku'damm and full of good restaurants and interesting shops—is our recommended Berlin headquarters locale and the Art Nouveau is on its southwestern edge.
Rooms in the pre-war building have hardwood floors, high-ceilings, tall windows, and no two are alike. Furnishings and art pieces are personally chosen by Frau Schlenzka, who has a decided flair in such matters.
The hotel's pleasant common room, with its view of the Berlin skyline, seems always full of sunlight and is a cheery spot to partake the daily breakfast buffet or, in the evening, to sip a beverage from the honor bar (just write down your room number and what you had).
The Schlenzka's steer their guests toward the neighborhood's best restaurants and recommend worthwhile sights that aren't in the guidebooks - the previously mentioned Mercedes Welt am Salzufer, for example.
Daily Rates: Singles 95 to 140 ($110-162), doubles 110 to 165 ($127-191). Gemütlichkeit subscribers get 10% off.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
Art Hotel Am See
For bargain hunters who don't have to be in the center of the city, the Schlenzka's second hotel is our choice. Located in the Kladow district on the lake formed by the Havel, it was recently refurbished and has been open under Schlenzka management only a few months.
Rooms are large, decorated in the Art Nouveau style and many have lake views.
Frequent public transportation takes guests to the center in about 20 minutes. There is a 10% Gemütlichkeit discount.
Daily Rates: Singles 65 to 110 ($75-127), doubles 80 to 140 ($93-162)
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 16/20
Notes & Opinion
We still think the place to headquarter during a Berlin visit is the Charlottenburg district in the vicinity of the Ku'damm. As we've often mentioned in the past, we particularly like the Savignyplatz neighborhood.
The talk that Friedrichstrasse will supplant Kurfürstendamm as the towns premiere shopping street seems to us wishful thinking. The Friedrichstrasse's relatively narrow sidewalks will never physically be able to accommodate the crowds that roam the Ku'damms vast, more inviting, tree-shaded spaces.
• For truly inexpensive and surprisingly good food it's Alibaba (Bleibtreustrasse 45). A slice of top-notch pizza is an even one euro ($1.16).
• At Tavola Calda (Leibnizstrasse 45) a continuing Editors Choice, don't miss the calf's liver for €15.50 ($18).
• Sachs (Knesebeckstrasse 29), one of many trendy, affordable Charlottenburg district restaurants, doesn't measure up to others mentioned in this story.
• A stand-up lunch at Rogacki (Wilmersdorfer Strasse 145/46) gets our strongest possible recommendation. Eat at the four-sided bar and grill, not the cafeteria. Compared by a British website to the Oyster Bar in New York's Grand Central Station.
• Paris Bar (Kantstrasse 52), though discovered by tourists long ago, still has good food and is the Berlin version of another New York institution, Elaine's. Berlin people-watching at its best. Reserve ahead.