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Why go now?
The city at Europe's heart has awakened for the new year. On 30 January, the Long Night of the Museums ( www.bit.ly/LongNight ) provides an opportunity to binge on culture, with more than 100 museums and cultural institutions opening their doors between 6pm and 2am. A Kombiticket covering entrance fees and public transport costs €15 for adults.
Schönefeld in the former East Berlin is now the main arrival point from the UK, with flights from Stansted, Gatwick, Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh on easyJet and Ryanair. The best link to the centre is the Airport-Express train, which leaves every half hour from the station a five-minute walk from the terminal. Alexanderplatz (1) and Friedrichstrasse (2) are the best stations for the city centre, while Hauptbahnhof (3) is a sparkling new addition; some good deals by train from the UK start at just €49 each way through bahn.de.
Flights from Heathrow on BA and BMI/Lufthansa arrive at Tegel airport, in Berlin's north-western suburbs. The frequent X9 bus takes you in 20 minutes to Zoologischer Garten station (4) with connections by underground to western parts of the city; for destinations in the east, get the TXL express bus to Alexanderplatz (1) and change there.
Getting around by underground (U-Bahn), overground (S-Bahn) and bus is quick and easy; the standard fare is €2.10 for a single journey and a day ticket is €6.10. The excellent free map, "Discovering Berlin by train and bus" as well as the 48-hour Welcome Card, which includes travel and 50 per cent reductions on many museum and gallery entrance fees, price €16.90, is available from information offices at the airports and in the city.
Get your bearings
The best reference point is the large, central park, the Tiergarten. East of it are the districts of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, where most of the action happens and most of the unmissable sights are to be found. To the south and west are the residential and commercial districts which made up the former West Berlin: Charlottenburg, Wilhelmsdorf and Schoneberg.
The main tourist offices are at Hauptbahnhof (3) (Europaplatz entrance, open daily 8am-10pm), Brandenburg Gate (5) (open daily 10am-6pm) and at Ku'damm 21(6) (open daily 10am-8pm, Sundays to 6pm); Ku'damm is the mercifully shortened version of Kurfürstendamm.
Mitte and Ku'damm have the largest concentrations of Berlin's 600 or so hotels. For a cheap, decent and central bed, try the EastSeven hostel (7) at Schwedter Strasse 7 (00 49 30 62 22 40; eastseven.de), conveniently placed for the attractions and temptations of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. (U-Bahn: Senefeldferplatz.) Prices range from €13 for dormitory accommodation to €31 for a single room; breakfast excluded.
In the quieter west of the city, cosy, three-star Hotel Brandies (8) at Kaiserdamm 27(00 49 30 36 41 99 0; hotel-brandies.de ) is close to the Schloss Charlottenburg but within easy reach of the rest of the city on U-Bahn line 2 (Kaiserdamm). Doubles with breakfaststart at €85.
Five-star luxury with Michelin-rated cuisine is on offer at the opulent Regent Hotel (9) at Charlottenstrasse 49 just off Friedrichstrasse, overlooking the Gendarmenmarkt Square (00 49 30 20 33-8; theregentberlin.com ). Doubles start at €199; breakfast is an extra €20 per person for "light", €35 for the full German.
Take a hike
For an impressionistic but powerful sense of the city's dramatic past, set off from Potsdamer Platz (10) along Ebertstrasse, following the course of the former Berlin Wall to the maze of concrete blocks that make up the emotionally challenging Holocaust memorial (11). Continue to the Brandenburg Gate (5) from where a short detour takes you to the Reichstag (12), with its spectacular central dome, designed by Norman Foster; admission to the dazzling top is free but be prepared to queue.
After a brief taste of Unter den Linden's lime trees and baroque facades, turn right into Friedrichstrasse, which leads past Berlin's loveliest square, Gendarmenmarkt (13) – boasting not one but two cathedrals. Complete the walk at Checkpoint Charlie (14): touristy and tacky this may be, with its fake border hut and guards, but the photos and the history recounted on the roadside panels are all too real.
Take a ride
Two double-decker bus routes – 100 and 200 – link many of Berlin's essential sights for the standard €2.20 fare. Both start from a stand at the Zoologischer Garten station (4) but you can hop on or off either as you please. The 100 takes you through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate (5) and then along Unter den Linden to Alexanderplatz (1), while the 200 takes a more southerly route to Potsdamer Platz (10). A surprisingly scenic trip is provided by the S-Bahn between Ostbahnhof and Charlottenburg as it snakes above the city roofs on viaducts and bridges.
Lunch on the run
You're rarely far from a currywurst stall. One of the best wurst experiences is to be had at the Saturday market in Kollwitzplatz (15) at the heart of trendy Prenzlauer Berg. Cost: €2.50; in winter, a glass of Gluhwein is an ideal accompaniment. (U-Bahn: Eberswalder Strasse.)
Ku'damm has long been the city's shopping hub. This two-mile avenue is flanked by global and local retailers, seasoned with restaurants and pavement cafes. In Tauentzienstrasse, the prolongation of Ku'damm, is the department store, KaDeWe (16).
Shortly before 10am daily except Sunday, the original iron gate dating from 1907 is lowered to allow customers in; it shuts at 8pm (9pm Fridays). The food hall alone merits a weekend break.
In Friedrichstrasse there's a competing spread of mainly upmarket shops, while the Friedrichstadtpassagen (17) reinvents the shopping mall: three inter-linked zones (called quartiers) whose individualistic and stunning architecture houses 50 designer stores and restaurants (U-Bahn: Stadtmitte).
The cultural heart of Europe is Museumsinsel (18), the "Museum Island" in the river Spree. Remarkable collections from the ancient world and of 19th-century art, gathered by the Prussian kings, are displayed in equally spectacular neo-classical buildings. The Old National Gallery, Bode Museum, Pergamon Museum (location for the Altar of Zeus) and Old Museum are all excellent, but the star turn is the New Museum, which opened last October after being closed for an astonishing seven decades. Its main attraction is a bust of the beautiful Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. An admission ticket costing €12 gets you in to all the museums. Hours are basically 10am-6pm daily, with later opening on some nights at some museums.
A brief walk from crowded Ku'damm is the leafy oasis of Savignyplatz (19). Enjoy your pre-dinner drink in one of the numerous bars around the square and in the alleyway beside the railway arches; Zwiebelfisch (00 49 30 31 27 363; zwiebelfisch-berlin.de ) is a traditional establishment amongst the flashier bars.
Dining with the locals
Eat authentic Berlin cuisine in the company of authentic Berliners at restaurants such as Lindenwirtin (20) at Lindenallee 28 (00 49 30 27 74 7) where hearty and homely dishes such as Konigsberger Klopse (meatballs) cost around €10-12 (U-Bahn: Theodor-Heuss-Platz). For a modern take on traditional German cuisine, try the more upmarket Altes Zollhaus (21) at Carl-Heinz-Ufer 30, across town in Kreuzberg.
Sunday morning: go to church
Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirch (22), at the eastern end of Ku'damm, is a striking blend of the ruined and the modern. The original 19th-century church was heavily bombed during the Second World War and has been preserved in its blackened state as a reminder of the destructive powers of war. Flanking it are a new church and hexagonal tower, built in eye-catching blue glass bricks. Sunday services at 10am and 6pm.
Take a view
Do it the lazy way, by lift, to the 200metre-high viewing platform of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) (23) for wide-ranging panoramas over the city and surroundings (€10.50). Harder work are the 285 steps of the spiral staircase inside the Victory Column (24) in the centre of the Tiergarten (€2.20). The reward for your effort is a fine view eastwards towards the Brandenburg Gate, while on the northern edge of the park there is a complex of stunning government buildings.
Out to brunch
Sunday brunch is a Berlin institution, with cafés serving buffets of German breakfast classics – cheese, ham, tomato salad, hard-boiled eggs, jam, fruit etc – between 10am and 3pm. A particularly good brunch spot, slightly off the beaten track between Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, is Schwarze Pumpe (25) at Choriner Strasse 76 (U-Bahn: Senenfelderplatz) where, for €4.50, you can fill yourself up with enough hearty fare until dinner.
A walk in the park
The Tiergarten, Europe's largest city park, is a beguiling sprawl of lawns, woodlands and lakes. Once a hunting reserve for Prussian nobility, it is now the place where Berliners enjoy summer picnics, sunbathing and general relaxation. A stroll across it from the Brandenburg Gate to the Zoo, via the Victory Column (24) will take an hour or so, unless you're tempted by a stop at the beer garden, Café am Neuen See (26) at Lichtensteinallee 2, not far from Zoologischer Garten.
Write a postcard
An inspiring location for a "wish-you-were-here" missive is the café in the Small Orangery of Schloss Charlottenburg (27). This grand, baroque palace, which started life as a modest, summer residence for Sophie Charlotte, wife of the Elector Friedrich I, also boasts beautiful gardens (U-Bahn: Richard-Wagner-Platz).
The icing on the cake
Don't visit a city that never sleeps without dipping at least one toe into its legendary night life. In the lively area round Orangieburgerstrasse, in Mitte, White Trash's (28) weird combination of Asian kitsch, American memorabilia and tasty hamburgers has made it a visitors' favourite (Schonhauser Allee 6-7; open from 6pm; U-Bahn: Senfelderplatz). For a harder core experience, on the edge of Kreuzberg, Watergate (29) is a techno hotspot where the lower dance floor, which is at river level, is as close as you'll come to dancing on water.