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Between glamour and grit
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The Lowdown | Berlin

Between glamour and grit Words by Gisela Williams

Where Germany

Quick Quote $800 per day (for 2 people)

Best Season Late Spring, Whole Summer

Thinking of Urban Culture, History

Best Portrayed in Cabaret, Good Bye Lenin!

More than a quarter of a century after the Wall came down, Berlin is a city still in a dynamic and constant state of flux. A youthful capital booming with contemporary artists and ideas, Berlin is reinventing its history (architectural and political) without brushing over it. Long a wildly popular destination for clubbers and young urban adventurers, Berlin is also growing up; now there are finally plenty of stylish upscale addresses for the adults to enjoy.

Art and Culture checklist

Berlin is not just the capital of Germany; most people would say that it's the capital of contemporary art and culture in Europe. Packed with noteworthy, world-class museums, the city is also filled with living artists and thinkers who help shape the contemporary art scene: Everyone from photographer Thomas Struth to video artist Marco Brambilla to designer Hella Jongerius lives or spends time here.

Among many excellent choices, photography lovers should visit the Helmut Newton Foundation and for contemporary art, Max Hetzler, Blaine/Southern, and SpreuthMagers are top galleries, while the Boros Collection features top contemporary art in revamped WWII bomb shelter, the Neue Nationalgalerie is an ode to Mies van der Rohe’s modernist vision and the Liebermann Villa offers top modernist works.

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Words by Gisela Williams Berlin Editor

Gisela Williams is a European correspondent for Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine and contributes to Surface and Vogue, among other publications. Born in Connecticut, Gisela lived in Bali, Bermuda, and Brooklyn before moving to Madrid in 2001. Three years later she left Spain for Germany. She has now happily settled down in Berlin with her husband and three children.

What to See

The Reichstag is a good place to start. The seat of the German Federal Parliament is also a stunning architectural landmark: a 19th-century building crowned by Sir Norman Foster's remarkable modern glass dome. Five monumental museums on Museum Island in the Spree, all of which has been slowly renovated by the city's favorite starchitect: David Chipperfield. Checkpoint Charlie is undeniably (and perennially) touristy, but for the first-timer, this replica of a former guard house at a crossing point between East and West Berlin is not to be missed. A dramatic, profoundly moving public memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman, The Holocaust Museum is a maze of monumental rectangular concrete slabs of different heights, the size of a city block. The Berlin Tower is a quirky 1960s tower, erected by the communist German Democratic Republic in Alexanderplatz. Take an elevator to its bulbous top and you'll have a uninterrupted view of the entire city.

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Where to Shop

While Berlin has its glitzy high street, the newly reinvigorated “Ku'damm” (Kurfurstendamm), with all the expected international luxury outposts, most of the trendier small boutiques and quirky homegrown designers are in the neighborhood of Mitte, the city's new heart. Because the best of both are scattered far and wide around town, serious shoppers will find it worthwhile to hire a car and even a guide.

Go to The Good Store for excellent vintage frocks, and to Jochum Rodgers for mid-20th century and contemporary furniture designers. New Tendency is a one of the most interesting design collectives in the city. Happy Shop is small but filled with wildly-hued frocks by insider fashion labels and LaLa Berlin for beautiful, hand-printed silk scarves and modern, structures knit sweaters. For high end brands it’s the Departmentstore Quartier 206, the Barney’s of Berlin. 

Where to Stay

The Hotel Adlon Kempinski is to Berlin what the Plaza Hotel is to New York: an iconic landmark on a grand avenue that has hosted a who's who of celebrities. The Soho House Berlin, situated in a towering Bauhaus-inspired building that once served as a department store and then later as headquarters for East German communist leaders, is now a major meeting place for Berlin’s fashionable Mitte crowd. For a less pricey but cool-vibey hotel, the Michelberger is where it is at with its eclectic lounge and apartment-style rooms. In the tranquil Potsdamer Place, with all of its starchitect buildings, the Mandala Hotel is a tasteful and discreet property, with some monumental suites and a serene rooftop spa.

Where to Eat

Berlin has long been a city that's about celebrating its underground art and nightlife scene; no one really cared much about the food. That is now changing—and fast.

“Berlin is a city that’s more about laid-back cafés and bars than restaurants. That's because many of Berlin's scene makers would rather be dancing than sitting in a formal restaurant eating four-course meals”

The city might not yet be able to measure up to New York and London's dining scene but watch out. Berlin has a handful of international restaurateurs and food provocateurs that are really shaking things up. For casual and elegant, farm-to-table style cuisine, don’t miss Katz Orange or Lokal, which draws a fashion and art crowd enamored of its seasonal menu and cozy, rustic décor. For a taste of Vienna and old-world elegance, visit Café Einstein Stammhaus and sit in the tranquil courtyard if it is a nice day. The stylish and art-filled Panama is a hidden, two-story, space with innovative cooking. For Michelin stars, Restaurant Time Raue, and for gluten-free, cold-pressed juice and kale-spiked salads, itsThe Store Kitchen in the fashionable Mitte. Go to Kin-Dhee for family-style Thai dishes in an art-inspired setting.

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