A Free Day in Berlin

Berlin is often thought of as a hippie-dippy artist's colony that's low on luxury. In recent years the city has grown into an edgy art capital with a sophisticated array of hotels, galleries, and restaurants. Since it's easily accessible from London and Paris (flight times are under two hours from both hubs), Berlin is the perfect place to spend a day indulging in the sort of gritty, old-Europe bohemia you won't find in Milan or Rome—while paying a fraction of what you would in those cities. Go next month to catch the Berlin Biennale, which runs from June 11 to Aug. 8.

The most recent sign of Berlin's ritzy rebirth is the month-old Soho House, a luxe hotel with 40 retro-glam rooms (around $120 a night) and a rooftop lounge with views of the iconic TV tower. At an even lower price, the $80-a-night Michelberger Hotel (is there any hotel in London that's this cheap?) epitomizes boho-Berlin design with cuckoo clocks, exposed wood, and lofted beds. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the grand Hotel de Rome (where rooms begin at $500) inhabits a 19th century bank: The hotel's suites were once executives' corner offices, and the vault is now a dim-lit basement pool.

Most things arty are in Mitte, the city center, home to well-known historical sights (Museum Island, the cathedrals of the Gendarmenmarkt Square) as well as Scheunenviertel, a quaint cluster of side streets and prewar buildings. Start there at the Biennale's headquarters, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, a converted margarine factory with five floors of exhibition space that will remind New Yorkers of the Museum of Modern Art's P.S.1. Next door, collector Thomas Olbricht just opened Me Collectors Room, an expansive mini-museum filled with his own eclectic stash of work by everyone from South African artist Marlene Dumas to American photographer Cindy Sherman. Nearby, the Eigen+Art gallery is a buyer's favorite for paintings, video, and sculpture by young innovators, and Andreas Murkudis is a design-concept shop selling soft, minimalist Schiesser cotton sweaters and Damien Hirst-style porcelain skulls. From there, venture north to Chipps, an industrial-style eatery serving cheese dumplings and potato pancakes. Its unfortunately named but well-regarded sister restaurant is a prix-fixe vegetarian joint called Cookies Cream. On nice days, locals play frisbee or sunbathe on a five-acre field in the middle of East Berlin, where the East German Parliament building stood until 2008.

The Neues Museum, which sat in ruins for 60 years after it was bombed during World War II, reopened in late 2009 with a new design by architect David Chipperfield and a permanent collection of Egyptian and classical objects, including Nefertiti's famous bust. Spend a few hours amid its 9,000 ancient artifacts, then travel further afield to see jarring neon art by Martin Kippenberger and his ilk hanging in Capitain Petzel, a 1960s glass pavilion once used to show socialist propaganda. For a fancy dinner, the Michelin-starred Fischers Fritz is a high-ceilinged restaurant famous for French-influenced dishes like frog legs with sauerkraut. If it's warm, try the more casual Rodeo Ressort, an alfresco canal-side spot that serves Argentinian-style grilled meat. End your day with a crisp, gingery Moscow Mule at Tausend Bar, with its unmarked door and futuristic interior. If an artier scene is what you're after, opt for a nightcap of Kölsch beer at the dark, U-shaped bar in Bar 3.

SIGHTS SCENE

Hit the main attractions while avoiding the throngs

Brandenburg Gate

Book an outside table at Hotel Adlon's Restaurant Quarré to get a view of the Gate—and an elegant meal (Unter den Linden 77, hotel-adlon.de)

Berlin TV tower

For an expedited trip up the 680-foot-tall ball on a stick, order a VIP ticket online. This also gets you a table in the rotating restaurant (Panoramastrasse 1A, tv-turm.de/en)

Berlin Wall

Skip the packed memorial for the East Side Gallery to see a 4,000-foot stretch painted by 100 artists (Mühlenstrasse 1, eastsidegallery.com)

PRICE POINTS

Flights (June round-trips)

London/$170, Milan/$120, Paris/$250

Food & Drink

Lunch for two, Chipps: Cheese dumplings, $22

Dinner for two, Fischers Fritz: Frog legs with sauerkraut, bretonian lobster, Hokkaido-pumpkin brittle to share, two glasses of Spanish red), $210

Dinner for two, Cookies Cream: Cabbage- and-orange soup, grilled asparagus with capsicum ravioli, chocolate-rosemary-fondant), $82

Moscow Mule at Tausend Bar: $10

Hotels

Cheap: Michelberger Hotel, $80

Mid: Soho House, $120

Awesome: Hotel De Rome, $500

Etc.

Taxi from Tegel Airport to Berlin Mitte: $25

KW Institute for Contemporary Art: $8 admission

Me Collector's Room: $8 admission

Neues Museum: $13 admission

Porcelain skull from Andreas Murkudis: $300

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