Even in Berlin, the jewels are in the East

By Anthea Gerrie, July 22, 2010
Berlin’s Concert Hall (Konzerthaus), Schiller Statue (1871) and the French Cathedral (Französischer Dom)

Berlin’s Concert Hall (Konzerthaus), Schiller Statue (1871) and the French Cathedral (Französischer Dom)

Can there be a city in the world whose centre has shifted as often as Berlin?  We're not just talking pre- and post-Cold War here… at every one of my three visits since the Wall came down, I've found the hub of all that was happening marching relentlessly eastwards.

Blame it on the rich stock of buildings going for very low rents in the depressed east when this city of two halves was reunited in 1990.  

Artists, designers and all kinds of other creatives felt encouraged to set up in the grim but affordable corners of what was already perceived as a buzzy and happening metropolis.

It was once very different. On my first foray into the east through Checkpoint Charlie during the days of the Iron Curtain, I was shocked by the difference between the miserable, grimy buildings of East Berlin compared to the sleek, green and affluent - but decidedly dull - western half.

Decades later I arrived on the doorstep of the new Berlin at Potsdamer Platz,  where the British, American and Soviet zones converged and once a centre of black market trade.  After 28 years of languishing derelict in No Man's Land, it was one of the first places an ad hoc crossing was made between east and west after the wall was breached in 1989.

The architecture of the rebuilt square was - and remains - dazzling, and the transition from a divided, deprived city back into a grand metropolis was already almost seamless. Even in 2000, a Martian landing would only have had a couple of clues - in the remaining bits of Wall which resembled art installations - to Berlin ever having been split in half.

Getting there

Bmi (0844 8484 888, www.flybmi.com) serves Berlin from London Heathrow from £99 return. Rooms at Soho House Berlin (0049 30 40 50 44 0, reservations@sohohouseberlin.com) from 100€ (£84). More information from Berlin Tourism Office, 0049 30 25 00 25, www.visitBerlin.de

When I returned a few years later, the place to be was Unter den Linden, the iconic boulevard stretching east from the Brandenburg Gate which is once again as fashionable a thoroughfare as the Ku'damm - as Kurfurstendamm is known - its counterpart in the west.

By now, top international designers were established on the once grey, grim and ghastly Friedrichstrasse, which - considering the Stasi had their headquarters there was fine revenge on a repressive regime which even sought to dictate what was fashionable.

The arrival of five-star hotels often signals a newly-happening neighbourhood, and in the wake of a new Ritz-Carlton on Potsdamer Platz and the rebuilt Adlon - Berlin's Savoy - on Unter den Linden, came Rocco Forte's Hotel de Rome on Bebelsplatz, site of the Nazi book-burning. This all happened yet further east, near the cultural hub known as Museum Island.

But today's fashionistas are hanging out a good couple of miles closer to the sunrise. At the eastern end of the big central district known as Mitte, they have found a perfect perch at the newly-opened Berlin branch of Soho House. 

This private members' club allows anyone with a mere 100 euros (around £84) to rent a room on its hotel floors and merge, at least temporarily, with the Beautiful People who eat and lounge in the club, bar and restaurant above (the rooftop pool is a delight in summer).

The fact that the hotel looks, on first approach, to be in an empty building in the middle of nowhere is par for the course in today's Cool Berlin. 

A trot out into the neighbourhood with a "lifestyle guide" revealed a whole raft of secret venues with no name over the shop - presumably so only the truly cool can track them down. There was Drei, for a start, named for its address at three Weydingerstrasse, a hangout café for intellectuals, and Apartment, a cutting-edge clothes emporium you would never know was in the basement of a deserted, signless shop unless you spotted the tell-tale spiral staircase leading down. 

This last is on the corner of Munzstrasse, one of Berlin's new shopping streets, mercifully full of boutiques which actually have tempting merchandise in the windows.

Some of the hippest establishments have interesting histories, like the design hotel Lux 11, which is in a gorgeous old building you'd never know was once used by the KGB, Cookies Cream, a chic vegetarian restaurant in the old French cultural institute hidden behind the Westin Grand Hotel, and Weekend, a bar tucked away on Alexanderplatz.  

This hot bar and club is on top of the old Interflug building, where, once, the only tickets available for East Berliners - and only to other Iron Curtain countries - were grudgingly written. 

Enticing but more conventional shops line the courtyards of the Hackescher Markt area, where they have infiltrated old apartment blocks and factories. This area is close to the former Neue Synagogue, once Europe's largest, destroyed on Kristallnacht and partially restored by the Communists. An exhibition on the site recalls Jewish life before the War, and Shabbat services are held in a modern annexe.        

Clarchen's Ballhaus, an old dance-hall which does have its sign clearly displayed in the gallery district, still has bullet-holes in the top room recalling the Battle of Berlin,  when it was occupied by soldiers in hand to hand combat rather than dancers.   But today the hall is back in use - Berlin is the world's leading centre of tango after Bueno Aires - for all kinds of  evening events and Sunday tea-dances, while the delightful garden café is perfect for an alfresco summer lunch.

The alfresco life totally preoccupies Berliners during the summer, when they do their best to convince themselves they are a resort, rather than a landlocked city. This could be partly the influence of young Tel Avivians, who have infiltrated the city in droves in recent years. 

Every riverbank is lined with rows of deckchairs, just like Brighton Beach, and the student/immigrant neighbourhood of Kreuzberg is the home of numerous "beach" bars floating on pontoons in the River Spree, alarmingly packed-out places only to be visited by the young and/or intrepid.   

The city's favourite haunt at the weekend is the Badeschiff, a floating public swimming pool sunk into a ship's hull at the end of several jetties; expect DJ's and a bar, as well as more orthodox aspects of lido life.  This joint jumps until midnight, when the Strandbar next door is the place to repair to.

The Badeschiff is one of several good reasons to visit West Berlin while in the city, despite the draw of the cool - and the world-class museums - of the east.  

Others include Daniel Liebeskind's utterly fascinating Jewish Museum, the delightful neighbourhood of Charlottenberg with smart shops and great little cafés, the once Jewish-owned KaDeWe department store on the Ku'damm, and the museum behind Zoo station devoted to the racy works of fashion photographer Helmut

There is also the shell of the burnt-out church on the Ku'damm which recalls Berlin's wartime history; this is one city which wants no-one ever to forget. To that end, a new documentation centre has been built on the Topography of Terror site where Gestapo headquarters once stood. 

It tells in unflinching detail the grim story every German now knows, and is worth visiting while the current exhibition of poignant photographs taken by Jewish photographers in the Lodz ghetto is on show.

Like most of what today's Berlin has to offer the visitor, this compelling "attraction" is in the city's equally - and undeniably - compelling eastern half.

Last updated: 5:13pm, August 3 2010