Think Paris, London, New York or Rome. You might raise a skeptical eyebrow if we told you you could find a spacious, quiet, two-room suite in a pleasant hotel for less than $150 per night in a chic, centrally located neighborhood in any of those cities. And then, if we said you could dine well for less than $30 per person in a classy bistro on the most glittering thoroughfare in town, you'd excuse yourself and move to another seat.
The truth is you probably won't find deals like that in the cities mentioned above. You will, however, in Berlin, Europe's most dynamic and exciting capital. Not everyone would agree that Berlin belongs with Paris, London or Rome. Certainly it didn't 13 years ago, when it was two towns, one a democratic outpost in a communist wilderness, the other a drowsy, war-torn relic. But the new, united Berlin is about to join the ranks of Europe's great cities—if it hasn't already.
And amazingly it's not priced like a great city. Using the Michelin Main Cities of Europe Red Guide, we compared rates at the top hotels in four leading European towns—London, Rome, Paris and Berlin—and found Berlin to be far below the rest.
For example, the average price for the top double room in the four leading hotels of Paris - Plaza Athenee, George V, Ritz and Meurice was $676 per night (not including the Bristol, whose best doubles go for a whopping $908) vs. an average of $320 for Berlin's Adlon, Schlosshotel and Grand hotels.
The price differences among these top hotels extends, in more or less the same ratio, to all hotel categories.
As an example, Gemütlichkeit currently recommends Berlin's Art Nouveau Hotel to most travelers. It is in the diverse but affluent Sauvignyplatz neighborhood (see Dec. 1999), just off the Ku'damm. The hospitality is tops, guestrooms are comfortable, airy and cleverly decorated, and breakfast is from a well-stocked buffet. The best room, a huge two-room suite, rents for 340 DM ($148) per night, others range from 180 DM to 270 DM ($78-$118).
Berlin restaurants are also amazingly affordable. Walking the Ku'Damm late one afternoon we were attracted to Dressler, a stylish bistro. It was new, slick and had "big city upscale" written all over it. A beer vom fass at the art deco bar was a modest 6.90 DM ($3). We decided to return later for dinner, which, with salad, main course, wine and a pair of postprandial Sambucas, cost 139 DM ($60) for two persons.
A decade after unification, what's still most impressive about Berlin is the scope and pace of construction. The first Berlin stop for some ICE trains from Leipzig and points south is the Ostbahnhof. They then skirt the "Mitte" (the center of the old East Berlin) as they roll west toward Zoo Station. Looking left (south) one sees a forest of cranes and dozens of excavation sites. Though the most ambitious of them all, the futuristic Potsdamer Platz is nearly complete, tunnels are being bored and foundations laid for giant new rail stations, U-Bahn and S-Bahn terminals. Massive government buildings and private sector projects are starting to go up. American cities thump their chests when a new stadium or sports arena is built. Berlin seems to have dozens of projects of that scope underway. Even for travelers who have visited Berlin as recently as a year or two ago, the changes are stunning.
At any price, Berlin is not to be missed. Plan at least four nights, three full days to sightsee. Here is a short update on where to stay, where to eat, and what to do.
Where to Stay
The previously mentioned Art Nouveau is our top mid-range Berlin choice. Owners Christin and Gerd Schlenzka, who have hosted many Gemütlichkeit readers in the three years since opening, speak excellent English, are helpful in recommending restaurants, shopping and sights, and can even arrange for concert and event tickets. They are the ones who showed us Rogacki, the marketplace lunch counter that is an absolute Berlin must.
The city's finest hotel - and for our money the best in Germany - is the Ritz Carlton Schlosshotel in the suburb of Grunewald, 15-20 minutes by public transport from the city center. Prices are high but through September 1, 2001, you'll pay 225 Euro ($201) per night in a deluxe room and 430 Euro ($393) per night in a luxury suite. The price includes breakfast. The catch is you must use an American Express card to book and pay for your stay. Get details on this special at ritzcarlton.com/.
For well-located, inexpensive accommodations try the Hotel Carmer 16 on a quiet street at the eastern edge of the Savignyplatz neighborhood, not far from the Ku'damm. Rooms are spacious and well-equipped.
Where to Eat
Over the past few years we have made a number of recommendations including Paris Bar, Florian, Spree Athen, Ristorante Mario, and Tavola Calda, all within walking distance of the Art Nouveau. Since we first reviewed it in the late 80s, Paris Bar has become a staple of every Berlin or Germany guidebook and is now loaded with tourists. Florian, too, has become more well-known, but its kitchen has yet to fail us, though we have heard the occasional discouraging word about service. Tavola Calda and Ristorante Mario, relatively unknown outside their neighborhood, are still recommended, especially the former. Of course, the stand-up lunch counter at Rogacki is a unique, not-to-be-missed culinary experience.
The Spree Athen, which features a multi-course dinner and a Berlin cabaret singer with piano accompaniment, is still fun but recently the singer was mediocre and the food uninspiring.
Moving on to restaurants not previously reviewed by Gemütlichkeit, let's start with Samos, an inexpensive, no-frills Greek restaurant just down the street from the Art Nouveau. Forget the Germanic menu items here, this is the place for hummus, tsatziki, dolma, feta cheese, pita bread, and lamb dishes such as souvlaki, all with good Berliner beer or cheap house red wine. About $15 per person buys heaps of good food, though modest appetites can get by for much less with just a plate of mixed Greek appetizers.
The very attractive Dressler, an art deco Paris-style bistro mentioned earlier in this story, gets a restrained recommendation. Late in the afternoon the place buzzed with activity. But returning later for our 8pm dinner reservation, we found the main dining room only a quarter full; seldom a good sign. The service was not very skillful or attentive but the food was better than average. A watery dressing marred the green salads but things took a definite upturn with entrées of six hefty scampi (40 DM/$18) in a garlic-butter-lemon sauce served with spinach and both white and wild rice, and a pair of tender calves liver steaks (34.5 DM/$15) with grilled onions, browned apple slices and buttery, garlicky mashed potatoes. Dinner for two was about $60 with beverages.
The French publishers of Michelin's Red Guides are stingy with their stars, especially if the restaurant is not in France. This was the conclusion we came to after a faultless dinner at Restaurant Adermann, in the Mitte just north of the Pergamon Museum. This downstairs bistro/tapas bar, upstairs elegant dining room with pianist, is in an historic 200-year-old house in the old East Berlin. The dining room's parquet floor is so precious and fragile that a thick, translucent plastic cover has been placed a few inches above it. The old floor is still visible.
In a celebratory mood, we chose the fixed-price, seven-course menu at 120 DM ($52) per person. Expensive, yes, but it was seven beautifully crafted small dishes, the best of which was a juicy, absolutely fresh Zanderfilet (white lake fish) rolled in bacon. Just as good were supple slices of saddle of lamb in a red wine reduction.
You don't have to spend as much as we did at Adermann. Three courses a la carte will be in the $35 to $45 per person range. Or, for even less, you can eat downstairs.
Another splendid dining choice is Wegner & Lutter in the Savignyplatz neighborhood where the ebony wood trim, brass rails, and friendly service, combine to create a cozy, clubby charm. The traditional dishes are skillfully prepared with first-rate ingredients. Try braised-then-baked lamb chops (34.5 DM/$15) in a richly intense red wine sauce; fall-over-the-plate Wiener Schnitzel (32 DM/$14) any Vienna restaurant would be proud of; or perhaps calves liver with Spargel (36.5 DM/$16) sprinkled with crunchy bread crumbs in butter. Top supporting cast members included wonderful roast potatoes and a warm potato salad with just the right touch of vinegar and Speck. An Italian red wine, Pomino Rosso (68 DM/$30) was worth every pfennig.
Things to See & Do
Berlin is huge. The sights most tourists want to see are in an area of about 100 square kilometers, running from Spandau and the Havel in the west to the Soviet War Memorial in the east. You'll need the Berlin Welcome Card for 32 DM ($14), it provides 72 hours unlimited public transport - buses, S-Bahn, U-Bahn - plus discount coupons for much of what you'll want to see.
In no particular order, here are our favorite Berlin sights:
- Potsdamer Platz Sit under the Sony building's vast dome in its futuristic outdoor atrium while remembering before the war this ground was Berlin's Times Square and just a few years ago was a vacant lot in no-mans-land between the two Berlins. Do not miss the Berlin Film Museum.
- The Ku'damm: One of the world's more interesting streets and a great stroll, day or night. Some thought its vitality would be stolen by all that's happening in the Mitte, but it's busier than ever and still Berlin's upscale shopping hub. The Europa Center (see the water clock) is worth a look as is the bombed-out Kaiser-Willhelm Memorial Church.
- KaDeWe's Food Floor Europe's largest food hall: 400 different kinds of bread; 1,200 varieties of sausage, bacon and ham; 1,300 cheeses and dozens of places to have lunch.
- Topography of Terror There are only remnants left of the foundation of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. Powerful, nonetheless. Nearby is a large chunk of the Wall.
- Checkpoint Charlie Museum Fascinating chronicle of the Wall that divided Berlin for some 25 years.
- Soviet Memorial Dedicated to the Soviet soldiers lost in the 1945 Battle of Berlin. Before 1989 every Western tour bus was required to stop at this outlandish but oddly moving monument in Treptow Park. The remains of the soldiers rest in mass graves located around the principal monument. One of the terms of unification was that Germany would continue to preserve and maintain this and the other Soviet WWII memorials on German soil.
- Old East Berlin: Go walk the streets off Oranienburger Strasse, away from the new construction, and see crumbling buildings still with bullet holes. A strange sight on Oranienburger is the Tacheles, a decayed former department store occupied by squatters while the building's ownership is being resolved after unification.
- Museums: There are dozens but no one should miss the Pergamon and its thousands-of-years-old antiquities, the most spectacular being the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate. You can see Raphaels and Vermeers at the Gemäldegalerie and then go next door on the same entrance ticket to view far-out modern stuff in the Neue Nationalgalerie.
This is far from a complete list, we've left out dozens of extraordinary sights: Charlottenburg Palace, the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate (under repair this summer), Unter den Linden, the Gendarmenmarkt, the Tiergarten, the Zoo, the Transport and Technical Museum, the Olympic Stadium, the Airlift Memorial, the Jewish Museum, the Dahlem Museums, Berlin's rivers and lakes, and much more. You'd best get there while it's all still affordable.
(Editor's Choice Selections Underlined)
- Art Nouveau Leibnizstrasse 59, D-10707, tel. +49/030 32 77 440, fax 327 744 40 (Top double: $118, Q-16/20, V-16/20, MOD)
- Hotel Carmer 16, Carmer Strasse 16, D-10623, tel. +49/030 311 00 500, fax 311 00 510 (Top double: $93, Q-12/20, V-16/20)
- Paris Bar Kantstrasse, tel. +49/030 3 13 80 52, (Price: MOD, Q-13/20, V-13/20, EC)
- Restaurant Dressler, Kurfürstendamm 207-208, tel. +49/030/883 3530 (Price: MOD, Q-13/20, V-15/20)
- Restaurant Wegner & Lutter Schlüterstr. 55, tel. +49/030/881 34 40 (Q-16/20, V-17/20)
- Ristorante Mario, Leibnizstr. 45, tel. +40/030/3241048 (Price: INEXP, Q-13/20, V-15/20)
- Rogacki (lunch only), Wilmersdorfer Str. 145, Tel. +49/030/343 825-0 (Price: INEXP, Q-15/20, V-20/20)
- Griechisches Restaurant Samos Leibnizstr. 56, tel. +49/030/883 6111 (Price: INEXP, Q-12/20, V-16/20)
- Spree Athen, Leibnizstrasse 60, tel. +49/030/324-1733 (Price: MOD, Q-10/20, V-10/20)
- Tavola Calda, Leibnizstr. 45, tel. +40/030/3241048 (Price: MOD, Q-14/20, V-15/20)