48 hours in ... Berlin

Worldwide; You need a break - and a short-cut to the soul of a city. This week, James Woodall visits the old - and new - capital of Germany
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Because Berlin is emptier of Berliners at this time of year than at any other - and the tourist hordes prefer Paris or Venice. Because the exchange rate of nearly DM3 to the pound is the best in years. And because you can sunbathe nude in many parks without being thought a pervert.

Beam down

British Airways and its affiliates fly from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester; call 0345 222111 for timings and fares - the lowest is around pounds 150 - to Tegel airport. You are likely to find a cheaper deal on AB Airlines (0800 4588111), which flies to Schonefeld.

Tegel airport, though not on the U-bahn (underground railway), is a 20- minute bus ride from Berlin Zoo Station, west Berlin's transport hub. Buses leave every five to 10 minutes. To catch the U-Bahn a few minutes out of Tegel, get off the bus at Jakob-Kaiser-Platz: nowhere in central Berlin is more than 30 minutes awa by U-Bahn. From Schonefeld airport, south-east of the city limits, a bus (171) goes to S-Bahn Schonefeld; the S-Bahn (the overground rail network) then reaches vital hubs, Alexanderplatz and Friedrichstrasse, as well as Zoo.

Get your bearings

The heart of the city is a building site: Potsdamer Platz, where by mid- 1999 apparently some of the most exciting buildings in the world will stand. Until then, you have a choice of "centres": in the west, around Zoo and Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche; and in the old east, Mitte, especially Hackescher Markt - once moribund, but which now teems with bars and restaurants. Peacenik Kreuzberg, famously alternative in Wall times, has lost its hippie character but is still fun. More typical of old Berlin and now the coolest corner of town is Prenzlauer Berg - a former working-class zone east of Hackescher Markt.

Public transport in Berlin is a joy, but not as cheap as in West Berlin days. Still, you can get everywhere by U-Bahn, bus and (in the east, from Hackescher Markt) tram, as well as by S-Bahn. Tickets cost DM3.90 and last two hours. A Tageskarte (day ticket, DM7.80) is valid all day, on all Berlin public transport. Free maps of the city and the transport system are available at most U-Bahn stations.

Checking in

West and agreeably flash: the Inter-Continental, next to the Zoo. Try to get a room at the top. (Budapester Strasse 2, tel. 26 02-0, from pounds 90). East and steeped in Mitteleuropa: the Newa-Be-Rugia (Invalidenstrasse 115, tel 282 3305). Central, cheap and cheerful: the Transit (Hagelburger Strasse 53-4, tel 785 5051, pounds 25).

Take a ride

Easily the best overview of the re-emergent city centre is from the S- Bahn on the Zoo-Ostbahnhof line. The train threads sinuously from the brash west through to the construction chaos of the east; the extent of the rebuilding everywhere east and south of Bellvue station (Bellvue being the German President's residence) is astounding. As the train slides into Friedrichstrasse station you might also feel a faint shiver to think that this, and not Checkpoint Charlie, used to be the main conduit between East and West.

A pleasant alternative to the S-Bahn is the 100 bus from Zoo, which twists through Tiergarten (Berlin's Hyde Park, only with more trees) to re-emerge the other side of the Brandenburg Gate heading up Unter den Linden.

Take a hike

Unter den Linden is Berlin's regal boulevard, a monument to Prussian bigheadedness. A walk eastwards from Tiergarten up to the sullen Dom (cathedral) provides a real flavour of the multifarious 18th and 19th century architectural ambitions of Prussia's emperors. None of the buildings - state opera house, university library, old arsenal (now the German Historical Museum) - is original. All were bombed out of recognition in the last years of the war. Since the Wall fell in 1989, meticulous restoration ensures that this mile-long avenue will remain the reunited capital's showpiece. Turn right just before the baroque library and you'll come to the elegant Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's only real piazza.

Lunch on the run

Imbiss stands serving most types of wursten with a bun are everywhere: snacks rarely cost more than DM3. Bagels & Bialys near Hackescher Markt do excellent chicken kebab, and all kinds of bagel and sandwich - a pitstop ideally placed for the sights in Mitte (Rosenthaler Strasse 46/48).

Cultural afternoon

One of the greatest art collections in Europe used to be housed in Dahlem, a west Berlin suburb. In June of this year, a sleek new building for the nearly 1,000 paintings was opened opposite the famous Philharmonic concert hall, near Potsdamer Platz. Called the Gemaldegalerie - literally "paintings gallery" - its range of old masterworks, from the early German and Dutch periods to the Italian Renaissance, makes this one of the richest, and most exhausting, art experiences available anywhere. So allow several hours. Along with the Durers, Cranachs and Holbeins, look out for Van Eyck's Madonna in the Church, Fra Lippo Lippi's Adoration in the Forest and Rembrandt's portrait of his wife Saskia.

Window shopping

Most Saturday afternoons, that is all you will be able to do. Shops all over Germany have to close at 4pm, some close at 2, though on the first Saturday of each month many stay open later. Kurfurstendamm, west Berlin's swankiest commercial boulevard, has lost none of its market-share to Mitte; all the big designer names and best boutiques are still here, though Friedrichstrasse is trying to catch up - notably with a huge Galeries Lafayette.

An aperitif

One of the more relaxing things to do on a Berlin summer's evening is to sit in a Biergarten with a cold beer - and there are now as many locations for this as there are beers to sample. A peaceful hangout is the Kastanie ("chestnut tree") at Schlofstrasse 22, a tree-lined avenue leading up to Charlottenburg Palace. Weizenbier, brewed from wheat and best drunk vom fass (draught) in a fish-shaped half-litre glass, is highly recommended; likewise Berliner Kindl, a local brand of helles Bier, light beer, or what we call "lager", but which has nothing to do with the swill drunk in Britain.

Demure dinner

Aroma is hidden away in an unusually picturesque corner of the city, on the border of the Kreuzberg and Schoneberg districts. It's a relaxed Italian place, with more of the cafe about it but serving excellent food, particularly the starters, and good wines. Also, there's always a photo exhibition.

Allow pounds 20. (Hochkirchstrasse 8, tel,782 5821, U- and S-Bahn Yorckstrasse.)

Sunday morning: go to church

The Marienkirche on Alexanderplatz is the oldest church in Berlin, dating from the 13th century, and the most attractive building in Mitte by a long shot. It's full of interesting paintings, sculptures and tombs, and has a wonderful baroque organ. Services at 10.30.

Bracing brunch

Berliners are power Sunday brunchers, which is surprising: service at this time of day in cafes is abominable. Unless you want to waste an entire morning, buy your own Brotchen (rolls) and fillings from a delicatessen or grocer and picnic in the sun.

A walk in the park

The Second World War is never far away wherever you walk in Berlin. In Treptower Park, in the east, you encounter one of the city's more formidable reminders of the conflagration: the Soviet Memorial stands on a graveyard for 5,000 Soviet soldiers killed during the battle for Berlin, in which more than 300,000 of them died. Having absorbed the sheer scale of the monument, unwind in the Planterwald beyond.

The icing on the cake

Treat yourself to Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at the Hotel Adlon, on Pariser Platz next to the Brandenburg Gate - a symbol of 1930s Berlin high life. It has been rebuilt, of course, having not existed for more than 50 years, but that detracts nothing from its luxury, nor its location.