Honestly, I can’t believe I waited so long to visit Berlin. Sure, Rome is more romantic and Paris is more conventionally beautiful, but it’s been a long time since I visited a European city—or any city for that matter—as edgy and exciting as Germany’s capital. We all know its dark history spanning most of the 20th century, from the WWI and WWII up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but today the city is the nexus of Europe’s art world, a paradise for thrift shopping, and an emerging culinary capital to rival Copenhagen. Germans mix with expats and immigrants, including a large Turkish population. The public transit system—which consists of the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams, and buses—is extensive and reliable. It’s one of the few cities where it’s both affordable and exciting to be an artist and one of the most progressive cities in Europe.
The more I wandered Berlin’s streets and peeked inside the courtyards of its historic buildings, the more fascinated I became. The city wears its scars on its sleeve, yet it’s extremely forward-thinking. In posh Mitte, a building’s graffiti-covered exterior might hide a Michelin-starred restaurant or art gallery. Orianenstrasse in Kreuzberg is lined with indie and vintage clothing boutiques. You’d need weeks or months to truly get to know Berlin, but if you only have a few days, this guide is a good place to start.
Where to StayHotel de Rome: At $349 per night, a room in this five-star hotel is actually a good deal for what you're getting. Located in the historic east side, just off the major thoroughfare Unter der Linden, steps from the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island, this bank-turned-hotel is a member of Rocco Forte Hotels, whose luxury properties across Europe are known for their tasteful modern style, excellent cuisine, and white-glove service. Take advantage of the pool and spa in the former vault and enjoy a sunset cocktail on the rooftop terrace overlooking Humboldt University and the cathedral.
Hotel Zoo: A member of Design Hotels, this chic property is located on the west side near the zoo and Tiergarten. The rooms and suites feature glam touches like tufted headboards, mirror-top desks, plum-colored curtains, rotary phones, and bathrobes by Maison Margiela. The location puts you right in the heart of the commercial district, near department stores like KaDeWe and the park.
Where to Eat
Pauly Saal: Tucked inside a former Jewish girls’ school in Mitte that shares real estate with a handful of galleries, this Michelin-starred spot exemplifies Berlin’s polished new restaurant scene. Forest green banquettes and white-napped tables line the former gymnasium, combining with the earthen tiles, Murano glass chandeliers, and a life-size rocket to create a sophisticated but unstuffy space. Entrust yourself to the young chef Arne Anker, whose tasting menu conveys a nuanced idea of what contemporary German cuisine can be.
Nobelhart & Schmutzig: You have to ring a doorbell to gain entry to this hip Michelin-starred restaurant near Checkpoint Charlie, and you’d better have a reservation. Once inside the dimly lit, vaguely Scandinavian space, you’ll be led to a seat at the long L-shaped counter where diners watch the chefs prepare a tour de force tasting menu of New German cuisine in the open kitchen to a soundtrack of vintage vinyl playing on a turntable. The food is aggressively local and seasonal—nothing except the wine comes from farther than 200 km away and Billy Wagner and his team source exclusively from small farmers and producers.
Sra Bua by Tim Raue: Germany’s most famous chef (and star of the Netflix series Chef’s Table) has a handful of restaurants in Berlin, and you should definitely check out at least one of them while you’re here. Sra Bua is his Asian restaurant inside the historic Adlon Kempinski Hotel right near the Brandenburg Gate—a classic on par with New York’s Plaza Hotel. Raue’s modern take on Asian cuisine mixes Thai and Japanese flavors with German ingredients to fantastic effect.
Markthalle Neun: A collection of food stalls inside a 19th-century market in Kreuzberg—Berlin’s hippest neighborhood—this place unites vendors selling everything from local cheeses and salumi to Japanese noodles. Choose from fresh pasta, American-style BBQ, Turkish mezze, and Belgian waffles. This is a great spot for a cheap, quick lunch.
Where to DrinkMonkey Bar:The rooftop bar at 25Hours Hotel Bikini Berlin is one of the city’s most popular spots for great cocktails with a view. From up here, you can see the Tiergarten and monkey cages in the zoo, which inspired the hotel’s cool jungle-esque design.
Buck & Breck: Ignore the closed sign glowing in the window—ring the bell, and you’ll be admitted into Berlin’s best speakeasy. The city may be known for all-night techno ragers, but this is a decidedly more grown-up way to spend your night. It’s seating room-only, smoking is allowed, and jazz croons on the stereo. In a show of stereotypical German precision—the bartenders don’t use jiggers or other measuring tools, but always get the cocktails right.
What to DoBauhaus Archiv: Fans of architecture and design should make a beeline for this small museum, designed by Walter Gropius, to learn about the Bauhaus School. A free audio guide supplies enlightening information about the furniture, paintings, design objects, and photographs by its teachers and students, including pieces by Marcel Breuer, Mies Van Der Rohe, Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee.
Trabi Safari: If there’s a more fun way to get an overview of Berlin, I don’t know what it is. Sign up for a self-driving tour at Trabi World near Checkpoint Charlie, and you’ll be led around the city in a convoy of little vintage Soviet cars with a guide narrating the sights via walkie talkie. The hour-long tour takes you past the Holocaust Memorial, the TV Tower, the East Side Gallery, and into Kreuzberg. If you can’t drive stick, rent a vintage Mustang for a few extra euros.
KW Institute for Contemporary Art: For a taste of Berlin’s world-famous contemporary art scene, seek out this gallery in posh Mitte, which is often compared to Soho. Located in a historic building accessed through a leafy courtyard, it shows exhibitions by emerging and established artists spread over several floors.
Pro Tip: For tips and discounts on the above activities and dozens of other museums, purchase a Berlin WelcomeCard from the VisitBerlin tourism office.
Where to Shop
Voo: Tucked away behind a courtyard off of Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, which is lined with indie clothing boutiques, bookshops, and cafes, this shop sells a curated selection of secondhand clothes and shoes by major labels like Marni, Acne, and Proenza Schouler at discounted prices, in addition to lifestyle books and magazines like Monocle.
Bikini Berlin: At this concept department store in a mid-century building in the City West, you’ll find international brands like North Face and Scotch & Soda mixed in with indie designers from Germany and the rest of Europe.
KaDeWe: Sure, Berlin’s largest and swankiest department store sells all the major international fashion labels, but the real reason you’re coming here is for the gourmet section on the sixth floor. It’s a great place to pick up German chocolates and other gifts.