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Berlin: A City on the Verge

Pergamon Museum. Copyright Asisi.


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.

Kater Holzig: restaurant, bar, lounge and nightclub of the moment in Berlin.


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; bers@goart-berlin.de)

Heroes in Berlin.


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.

nhow hotel

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.


Obama keeps watch outside the nhow hotel

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.

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