By Bobbie Leigh
Berlin reinvents itself faster than any other city in Europe. Since the Wall fell 22 years ago, Berlin’s rate of change has been verging on frantic. By way of example, consider that a few years ago the Kreuzberg district was run down and not a place to walk alone at night. Now it is turning into a fashionable, high-rent borough well on its way to gentrification. But there is one constant—Berlin is buzzy . It is one of the most free, open, dynamic cities in Europe.
It’s also playing a rapidly growing role in the Internet startup scene, so fast moving and chaotic that no one seems to know where it is headed. The migration of all kinds of talent to Berlin has given rise to this startup bonanza, centered around Rosenthaler Platz in the central Mitte district, dubbed Berlin’s Silicon Allee.
No wonder writers, artists, musicians, and performers continue to settle in Berlin. The living is easy with lower rents and living costs than in most other European cities. Restaurants and bars tend to keep their prices within reason and the nightlife goes on until all hours.
Berlin is also one of the few cities anywhere where nobody complains about the graffiti, drinking in public, and loud music. But if you toss a beer bottle into the wrong container, you’re bound to get the evil eye. Sustainable living is much more a visible priority here than elsewhere. Berlin enjoys a freedom of expression that is ebullient. When the Pope visited in September, protesters and signs urging him not to visit were ubiquitous perhaps because of the Church’s stand against homosexuality. Berlin’s popular third-term mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is an openly gay Social Democrat who champions the city’s bohemian, creative, hip image.
The Berlin art scene is so vibrant that contemporary art galleries from London, Paris, and New York are opening branches here. Part of this is due to the support of the local government. The city doles out “Berliner Grants,” 10,000 euros to individual artists and collectives. Many of Berlin’s cultural institutions also award artist-in-residence grants that can last as long as a year. To get a greater appreciation of the gallery scene consult Miriam Bers of GoArt Berlin. She is an art consultant whose company can arrange guided visits to artists’ studios as well as galleries. (www.goart-berlin.de; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Typical of the expats who are drawn to Berlin are Caroline Burnett and Damien Poinsard who operate a small neighborhood café, Heroes, in the blue-collar Neukolln district. Burnett, an American editor, presents art shows in the café, while Poinsard, a French-born cook, helps run a theater group when he’s not at the stove. Go there for good coffee, an American brunch, hearty French- or American-inflected meals, and a weekly portion of films, music, talks — even book exchanges.
Plan to spend at least a week, especially if you would like to visit some of the great museums on Museum Island, take a few Berlin bunker tours, hang out in one of the so-called beach bars and seek out some of the young designers who are making Berlin a must-visit for shoppers. New shops crop up daily, but one standout is ha duong, which showcases the work of a Vietnamese designer whose slinky, silk dresses are among the most sought-after in the city.
Among the private and public museums you should not miss are the Altes Neues Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the Neue National Galerie. The Pergamon Museum has a stunning new exhibition that opened in September. “Pergamon. Panorama of the Ancient City” takes you back to 129 AD to the ancient Greek-Roman city in Western Turkey. A photo-realistic 360 degree panorama with simulations of sunrise and sunset accompanied by ambient sounds enables you to experience a whole day in this once-thriving ancient city, located near present-day Bergama Turkey, about 60 miles north of Izmir. (Tickets at www.visitberlin.de). For detailed information about museum visits, get a copy of Lonely Planet’s Berlin guide which is one of the most up-to-date and carefully fact checked guides to the city.
When it comes to a hotel, go where the rock stars go – and that can only mean the nhow hotel, a bright, shiny, totally futuristic new-look hotel with pink pods in the entry way, pink, blue or gray pastel bedrooms, and electronic keyboards and guitars delivered to your room via room service.
Located on the banks of the Spree River, the hotel created a Freedom park with large concrete sections of the Berlin wall as well as a few new sculptures – one of Obama – on a terrace facing the river. The unconventional interior design is the creation of Karim Rashid whose sense of play and fun is in all 304 rooms and suites and extends to the little bonnets and uniforms of the hotel employees – all of whom seem incredibly young, informal, and friendly. Women at the reception desk wear extravagant pink bonnets while the doormen look as if they had just stepped out of a cabaret show. The only other nhow hotel is in Milan.
Closer to the center and especially convenient to Museum Island and the opera house is the Hotel de Rome, a totally updated 19th-century former bank building in the Mitte district with 146 rooms and suites. Best bets are the spa, the roof garden, and the central location.
With restaurants opening and closing like subway doors, get some foodie advice from gastro guide Henrik Tidefjard. From funky to fine dining, go with him on a roaming Gastro Riverside Tour. Be sure to give him some idea of your budget, and he’ll do the rest.
Many thanks to Air Berlin which graciously arranged for my flights. Air Berlin has non-stop flights to Berlin from JFK and Miami. From Ft.Meyers, Los Angeles, , and San Francisco AB flies to Berlin via Dusseldorf. Typically, AB is competitively priced compared to other carriers, especially in its quite comfortable Business Class. Next year the new Berlin airport is scheduled to make its debut so many airlines including Air Berlin are expected to increase service.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.