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The Berlin Travel Guide

By Mark Southern on 8th February 2015

Back in ’86, soft-rockers Berlin soundtracked Tom Cruise’s Top Gunning adventures with their ode to inhalation. Luxury travel writer Mark Southern jetted to the German Capital to discover if the city nobody’s favourite band took their name from lives up to the hype.

Hype, it’s a funny old creature.  Decades of celebrity tabloid tittle-tattle and ever-increasing hyperbole have conditioned us to a life where even the most mundane of things claims to be the biggest or the best, the most this or the greatest that.

And, just as it’s not possible to leave the house without being beaten across the face with a Harry Potter branded broomstick, the hype machine has worked its mechanical tentacles into international tourism.

So we get New York telling us it’s the busiest, Vegas the most ‘fabulous’, Paris the most romantic, and Dubai the fastest growing.  It’s a global game of mine’s bigger than your’s, which almost everyone’s playing.

But the truth is nearly always far removed from the tourist board’s spurious claims.

But there’s one city out there that you don’t often hear from, and you absolutely should.  It’s a city which could make a serious claim to be the most historic of the past hundred years, that could state a case for being the most welcoming destination on the planet and, less positively, a pretty decent argument for the worst food in Europe.

That city is Berlin, and it is remarkable.  Perhaps the most remarkable city you’ll ever visit, and they can put that on the poster if they like.

But they won’t be putting that on any promotional material because, unlike almost every tourist destination anywhere else, you’ll struggle to find a more self-effacing and humble people than that of Berlin.

Berlin football stadium. Image copyright: FreeImages.com/Dinko Verzi
Berlin football stadium. Image copyright: FreeImages.com/Dinko Verzi

For whilst most cities you’ll visit wear their history on their sleeve broadcasting a proud symphony of their past, the modern Berliner walks amongst visual icons they’d wish had never happened every day.  From dozens of World War museums and monuments to parts of the infamous Wall still on show, the chilling past is displayed in a respectful way that complements the bustling metropolis the German capital has become.

It’s a truly astonishing place for anyone with even the smallest hint of historic interest, and it makes for possibly the best weekend break you’ll ever take.

From fascinating retellings of the bleak past in the meticulously maintained museums to the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie, the modern history of this beautiful city is laid out in a very honest and open way.  They don’t hide anything, but simply accept the city’s past and try to make a better future both for themselves and the people that visit.

This frank and sincere attitude has itself stamped across everything and everyone you’ll meet, and it’s genuinely moving to see how the people of this great city have come together to create a capital that is a credit to its nation.

President Kennedy once famously said in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.  Nearly fifty years later, the world would be a much better place if we could all say the same thing.

STAY

As you’d expect from a city with so much to see there are plenty of hotels in town.  However, to visit Berlin and not stay at the world-famous Hotel Adlon Kempinksi would be a the kind of mistake you’ll wake up dreaming about in years to come.

Situated just yards from the Brandenburg Gate, the hotel is a subtle blend of classic epic quality with a modern flourish.  Everything from the stunning lobby to the exquisitely appointed rooms is finished in the most stylish of styles, with pieces of the original hotel not destroyed in the war lovingly restored in the most seamless of ways.

Don’t be cheap though, and splash out on quite literally the very best hotel room in the city, the Presidential Suite.  Not only is the spacious suite one of the most gloriously decadent you’ll ever experience, with a birds-eye view of the Brandenburg Gate, but you’ll also be able to tell friends you stayed in the now infamous suite where Michael Jackson hung his baby from the window.  When we say history is around every corner in this town, we’re not kidding.

Whilst there, make sure you take at least a couple hours out to visit the hotel’s award-winning spa, and book two hours in the self-contained private spa rooms, which feature your own hot-tub, sauna and steam room.  In a weekend where you’ll be on your feet a lot (hint, take sensible shoes; it’s a big place, and you’ll walk most places), the hotel’s spa is a lovely way to kick back and relax.

www.kempinski.com

EAT

For all of Berlin’s many, many qualities, culinary heaven it is not.  There is a reason why Germany, along with Britain, is the butt of chefs’ jokes from around the globe, and don’t be expecting a tremendous taste experience on every street corner.

However, there are some excellent places around, including the gourmet fine dining restaurant at the Hotel Adlon, Lorenz, where the tasting menus are as good as any you’ll find.

If you’re looking for something different try dining in pitch darkness at the Unsicht Bar, where diners are served by blind waiters who can navigate the complete blackness with ease.  The added sensation of losing the sense of sight takes a while to get used to but is worth it for the increased taste.

www.unsicht-bar.com

PARTY

In the 1920‘s Berlin was considered the most partylicious hotspot in Europe, with a liberal anything-goes attitude to its nightlife.  These days, it’s getting that reputation back, with hundreds of cool bars and clubs.

For something memorable (or not as the case may be), get along to the Absinthe Depot for a tasting session of the finest vintages of the green fairy that you’ll ever experience.  Hosted by a fun and knowledgable English speaker, guests taste a variety of absinthes and party the night away.  Just don’t blame us if you start seeing things.

www.erstesabsinthdepotberlin.de

GET ABOUT

It’s a big old city, and taxis are sometimes tricky to find.  However, it’s also the kind of place you really need to see from the ground level with an experienced guide who can talk you through some of the century-defining history you’d otherwise miss.

The very best way of doing this is via segway.  Regular readers of this column will know we’re quite the segway fans, with its high-tech, gravity-defying nature, but it’s in Berlin that this really comes into its own.

The Central Station in Berlin shortly after sunset. Image copyright: FreeImages.com/Phil dase
The Central Station in Berlin shortly after sunset. Image copyright: FreeImages.com/Phil dase

Being a progressive city, much of it is very cycle friendly, with wide open squares and safe road-side paths, and zipping around at 20kph on a segway is the perfect way to get a feel for the place.  Very highly recommended.

www.citysegwaytours.com/berlin

CULTURE

Simple words cannot hope to do justice to the sheer number of important landmarks and museums in Berlin.  The handy thing is that many of the most don’t-miss destinations are within close proximity of each other, and a visit to Museum Island will see you learn about everything from German culture to ancient Egyptian art.

However, it’s the World War and subsequent fall-out museums that hold a special interest in this city above all, and the Topography of Terror and the Wall Museum are both fascinating beyond belief.

www.topographie.de

BIRD’S EYE VIEW

The contrast between the beautiful classic German architecture and the far less attractive but pragmatic Soviet communist buildings is as stark as you would imagine.  A great way of taking all this in is to go up the TV tower and enjoy the stunning views of Berlin by sky, whilst enjoying a cocktail or even dinner in the rotating restaurant.

www.tv-turm.de

GET TO AIRPORT

The trek to the airport is a regular hassle that most frequent international travellers have learnt to manage over the years.

However, stop all you think you know and instead change your habits to get valet parking from the truly brilliant Looking 4 Parking, who will collect your car from outside the terminal front doors, and return it to you on your return spotlessly clean.  Try it on your next trip and we’re confident you’ll never look elsewhere again.

www.looking4parking.com

GETTING THERE

BMI fly to Berlin from Heathrow, and their business class has become truly world class, with great food, service, comfort and lounge.  Check it out on your next flight as it’s not to be missed.

www.flybmi.com

Main image above copyright: FreeImages.com/Klaus Stenzel