TO DESCRIBE THEIR city of 3.6 million people, Berliners love the quip “poor but sexy,” coined by Mayor Klaus Wowereit. The German capital may be financially poor, but almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is riding high on a wave of cultural prominence. The city has always been a place where locals get along, with their brisk sense of humor and energetic embrace of life. And thousands of students, artists, and free spirits have turned this bustling European metropolis into a unique, at times even wild, laboratory of 21st-century art, culture, and entertainment. June is the perfect time to dive into life here, as the streets in this surprisingly green city pulse with summertime activity.
Author Jürgen G. Scheunemann Photography Olaf Hauschulz
DAY TWO / Sleep in if you want; breakfast is next door, at the café in the historical Opernpalais, or opera palace. The selection of breads, rolls, and pastries is enticing, so do as the Berliners do by walking off breakfast. Take a 30-minute jaunt to Potsdamer Platz, where the glittering high-rises mark the rejuvenated heart of the city. After World War II, the completely destroyed area was bulldozed into neglect. With reunification, the square was suddenly reborn, and architects such as Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn rushed in to reinvent the scene. The shining star of their work is the airy Sony Center, a glass-and-steel entertainment complex whose wide, open piazza has emerged as a meeting point for 21st-century whiz kids (not the least due to free Wi-Fi service). Don’t leave without taking a look at another thrilling piece of history, the Kaisersaal. This 19th-century hotel survived the war and was smartly integrated into the modern Sony building. More-recent history is just a few steps away. From Potsdamer Platz, walk southeast toward the exhibition hall Martin-Gropius-Bau. Just behind it is an intact section of the Wall, with graffiti and holes created during the first days of November 1989.
You have surely worked up an appetite during your walking tour of the new cityscape, so go back to Alte Potsdamer Strasse for a business-style lunch at the Michelin-starred Facil. Thanks to his creative mix of German and international cuisine, 31-year-old chef Michael Kempf is one of the country’s rising stars.
Enjoy early afternoon in the surrounding greenery of the vast Tiergarten. Ride a bike to the idyllic Neuer See for a coffee break at the Café am Neuen See or climb the stairs to the Siegessäule (Victory Column), in the heart of the park, for a great view. Once the hunting ground for Prussian royals, the Tiergarten evolved into a public city park, landscaped by one of Europe’s most ingenious 19th-century garden architects, Peter Joseph Lenné. Today, you’ll see Berliners of every kind in the park, including nude sunbathers, Turkish families enjoying a barbecue, couples in love, and jogging politicians.
Through the trees, you might catch a glimpse of the cupola of the Reichstag. This is the center of the German federal government district, and the 1894 Reichstag, with its modern glass cupola designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, takes pride of place. Get in line to visit the cupola for sweeping views, and then explore the other, mostly contemporary, buildings, including the striking Bundeskanzleramt (chancellery).
Tiergarten is for culture, not just politics. Hail one of the Velotaxis, or bike-rickshaws, standing in front of the Reichstag, and have the driver take you to the Kulturforum, a 1960s cluster of museums and art galleries at the southern edge of the park. After a swift 10-minute ride, hop off at the modern Neue Nationalgalerie, designed by Mies van der Rohe and presenting cutting-edge temporary art exhibits as well as a permanent collection of German impressionism.
Afterward, take a cab to the hotel and get dressed for the evening; you’re going to explore Berlin’s nightlife. First, dinner is at übercool Shiro i Shiro, the town’s ultimate Asian-fusion culinary hot spot. Then take a stroll to the Hackesche Höfe, the throbbing heart of nightlife in the Scheunenviertel. The grand art nouveau complex, with its theaters, clubs, and pubs, is an exhilarating locale for Berlin bar-hopping.