It maintains the unpretentious charm of an international village with a laid-back lifestyle, and has an emphasis on personal freedom and creativity rather than on material wealth and status symbols. Sail through the city centre, taking in the historic sites, or take a longer trip along the Spree and the Landwehr Canal as you travel under dozens of Berlin’s historic bridges. Don’t over-plan and leave a little to serendipity; Berlin has this in spades.
Mitte is Berlin’s central borough and home to its world-famous cultural and historical sites, as well as elegant boulevards with beautifully restored pre-war buildings such as the domed Reichstag, Alexanderplatz, Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. Only minutes away are the eclectic, hip inner-city neighbourhoods of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Schöneberg, as well as the charming back streets of Gipsstrasse, full of independent shops, ateliers, galleries, and cafes.
In Berlin’s east, Friedrichshain has a punk and alternative vibe, dubbed as the “new hip place” and giving popular Kreuzberg a run for its money. Linked to the Kreuzberg district by the castle-like Oberbaum Bridge over the Spree, it was one of the most severely damaged spots during the Second World War. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, artists moved east. They began to make art that conveyed what it meant to be free – expression born from repression. Friedrichshain is a great place to start your street-art journey. Everything here is covered in graffiti – houses, shop fronts, trains and historical monuments. Berlin has embraced street art so much so that Emilie Trice, a critic and curator, dubbed the city “a site of pilgrimage for urban art” and a “graffiti mecca”.
Art-gallery-turned-street-art-museum Urban Nation Museum is Berlin’s first museum dedicated entirely to urban contemporary art, while the open-air East Side Gallery on a 1,300-metre section of the old Berlin Wall is covered on one side in famous works by commissioned artists, including the iconic My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, depicting the infamous kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German president Erich Honecker. The graffiti-covered RAW-Gelände is an old industrial district with derelict crumbling buildings that’s now a chill space full of markets, restaurants and art studios.
Creatives mingle with equally hip guests at Soho House Berlin, the über-cool outpost of the London club. Super-luxe design reigns over eight floors of a Grade II-listed Bauhaus building in the vibrant Mitte district with a gym, spa, cinema, rooftop terrace bar, restaurant and pool. On the ground floor, you’ll find a branch of the Soho House-owned Italian restaurant Cecconi’s with a slick Berliner vibe. A bold spray-painted Damien Hirst artwork presides over one wall amidst the high glamour and effortlessly cool lobby, adding a splash of colour to the open-plan minimalist interior with its glittering chandeliers.
West Berlin’s funky 25hours Hotel Bikini, located in a 1950s high-rise, is ideally located to explore City West – Ku’damm, the Zoo and the Tiergarten opposite. The playful interiors by Werner Aisslinger are a mix of an industrial aesthetic, with lots of exposed concrete, and a jungle vibe with plants on all surfaces (including the ceiling), in a theme that echoes the views of the zoo opposite. Dark corridors, with glowing numbers that appear to float, lead you to the rooms that come with a choice of vistas: the Jungle rooms have views across the ape and elephant enclosures of the Zoo, while the Urban rooms look over the war-damaged spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the City West skyline.
The Hackescher Markt area has hip cafes and shops in a series of labyrinthine courtyards. One of them, Haus Schwarzenberg, is a chill spot for a coffee break, a beer and people-watching. With its chipped walls and Second World War bullet holes, this building complex is one of the very few non-restored buildings in the area. Katz Orange, set in a castle-like former brewery, is another popular place for the Berlin-Mitte crowd. It’s famed for its salt meadow lamb, short ribs and pork Duroc that is roasted for 12 hours at a low temperature, all served in a rustic interior with exposed old brick walls and a pretty courtyard.
25hours Hotel Bikini’s buzzy roof top Monkey Bar, with its colourful lounge furniture and fabulous views, has an outdoor terrace and a DJ spinning tunes nightly. Neni next door is a spacious, plant-filled space serving up a yummy mix of Middle Eastern, Israeli and Mediterranean food as small sharing plates and has a fabulous vibe.
Once the American quarter, the multicultural Neukoelln has large Turkish, Arab and Kurdish populations, so it has superb Middle Eastern restaurants and food markets. Once one of the poorest neighbourhoods before Berlin’s creatives and students moved in, they brought the area some charm and “hipster” factor. Some fabulous culinary delights can be sampled here, with a drink in the coolest bars and cafes.
Berlin has a fabulous shopping scene. Check out Store 81, located in the former printworks of the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Potsdamer Straße in Tiergarten. It’s an expansive industrial space showcasing owner Andreas Murkudis’s unique edit of products in a gallery-like environment. The 10,000-square-foot space contains a thoughtful collection of up-and-coming brands along with noted designers, unique beauty products and tasteful home accessories.
Sunday in Berlin is flea market day and every neighbourhood across the city has its own local flea market, if not several. The Arkonaplatz flea market in Prenzlauer Berg is in an old square sheltered by beautiful chestnut trees; it’s a lovely place to stroll around, with all sorts of retro knick-knacks from the 1950s and ’60s, vintage furniture, signage, kitchen utensils and old wares for the home.
Scroll through the gallery below to see more of Berlin's best street art and Instagram-worthy spots: