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Ever since Germans from both sides danced on the Berlin Wall in 1989, ending 40 years of communist rule in the East, Germany has toiled to transform a scarred enclave into a world-class capital. Although Berlin's makeover is far from complete, the city has become one of Europe's most vibrant cultural centers.
Even if business doesn't take you there, it's worth a side trip from London or any city on the Continent. Famous for its museums and world-class music, Berlin now boasts eye-catching modern architecture, a thriving contemporary art scene, a boom in design and concept stores, and serious global gastronomy. It's also a bargain: Luxury hotels are among the cheapest in Europe, and an ice cream cone that costs $5 in London is $1 here. As Mayor Klaus Wowereit says: "Berlin is poor, but it's sexy."
The city hums with life yet is not frenetic, despite a population of 3.4 million. Traffic is tame, and residents are decidedly unharried. Walk into any café and people are more likely to be reading philosophy and fiction than stock reports. "Berlin is about the good life. The city does not move fast. There's not a lot of pressure," says Nicola Bramigk, founder of online travel guide Smart Travelling.
Choosing which facet of Berlin to explore first is the hard part. For a quick overview of the historic center, take a one-hour boat ride ($14) down the river Spree past museum island, home of the Pergamon, the Bode, and the Old National Gallery. If you have time for only one of the city's 153 museums, a good bet is the Pergamon, which houses Babylon's stunning 47-foot-high Ishtar gate, constructed in 575 B.C.
The refurbished government quarter is the best place to see 21st century Berlin. British architect Norman Foster remodeled the house of Parliament, or Bundestag, in the '90s, adding a striking glass dome over the plenum—a visual symbol of reunited Germany's commitment to transparency and democracy. Other government buildings echo the glass-and-light theme, making the area stunning to view at night.
UNSPOILED LAKES, TOO
The Mitte District is a focal point of Berlin's creative spirit. Contemporary art galleries, designer ateliers, eclectic concept stores, and cafés line Auguststrasse and Linienstrasse. You can also immerse yourself in film subculture, dive into the Cold War past at the museum of the Stasi (East Germany's secret police), or wander into the many enticing inner courtyards full of cafés, shops, and exhibits.
A surprising aspect of Berlin is its proximity to a belt of unspoiled lakes and outdoor activity. Schlachtensee ("see" means lake) is a 30-minute ride by train or car from the city center. A ring of lush green pine trees surrounds the water, and willows bent over the shore reflect on the surface. Stroll around the lake, rent a boat, take a dip if the weather is warm enough, or enjoy the view from the terrace at the Café Fischerhütte am Schlactensee.
In Berlin a five-star hotel is half the price of those in London and Paris, so book a room at the Mandala hotel at Potsdamer Platz at weekend rates as low as $250 a night. The breakfast buffet—a spread of meats, cheeses, pastries, jams, and fresh salmon that looked like an artist's creation—was the most perfect I've had in 20 years of European travel. At night, the same room becomes one of Berlin's best restaurants, Facil. Another gem is Rocco Forte's Hotel de Roma, with its monumental façade and entryway, red-and-black décor, and massive furnishings. The spa is wonderful. Terraces offer panoramic views from the rooms, which are often $300 a night on weekends.
Borchardt's is the hip address for dinner, with its blend of French and Mediterranean cuisine (dinner for two, $130). The Art Deco interior, with its high ceilings, mosaics, and massive columns create the ambiance of a Parisian brasserie. Café Einstein on Kurfürstenstrasse is quintessential Berlin: Bring a book and snuggle up in the corner with a glass of wine or a schnitzel. Vau and Margaux are Berlin's two gastronomic temples, each awarded a Michelin star. Italian restaurant Bocca di Bacco is a favorite of celebrities during the Berlin Film Festival.
Off the beaten track is Oki on Oderbergerstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg, a tree-lined residential zone. Oki marries Japanese and northern German cuisine with Spätlase rieslings. But the wait can be long since owner-chef Otto Pfeiffer rustles up all the food alone in the kitchen.
Berlin is easy to get to by train or air. Its centrally located, modern glass-and-steel train station by architect Meinhard von Gerkan is Europe's largest. Low-cost fares on Air Berlin and easyJet abound, and flights from most European cities are only an hour into Tegel International Airport, an uncrowded gateway that is a breeze to escape from quickly after landing. That accessibility is a plus because one visit just scratches the surface of this vibrant city.
By Gail Edmondson