48 Hours In: Berlin

Summer sees the German capital at its cultural best, says Chris Leadbeater.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

The German capital is a perfect summer city, alive with culture. The Berlin Biennale, a feast of modern art, runs to 1 July (berlin biennale.de). Soon afterwards, the Classic Open Air Festival (classicopenair.de; tickets from €39.50), with music from opera to pop, is held 5-9 July in the vast Gendarmenmarkt (1) square.

Touch down

Berlin's shiny new airport, Brandenburg, was due to open this month but has been delayed until next March. The two airports it was designed to replace will continue to handle flights until then.

Tegel lies five miles north-west of the centre. I travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com berlin), which flies to Tegel from Heathrow and offers a two-night stay in July at Andel's Hotel (2) from £269, with flights and breakfast.

Tegel is also served by Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester.

The Jet Express Bus TXL runs from the airport to the central Alexanderplatz (3) in 30 to 40 minutes, for €2.30. Taxis take 20 minutes, for €25.

Schönefeld airport is 11 miles east of the city and handles a wider range of flights: easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Luton, Liverpool and Manchester; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and East Midlands.

The airport has a dedicated station. Airport Express trains to Alexanderplatz (3) take 25 minutes. S-Bahn trains S9 and S45 do the same. The one-way fare is €3. Taxis cost about €45.

Get your bearings

All public transport from the airports – and within the city – is part of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe system (bvg.de). Single tickets in central zones (A and B) are €2.30, valid for two hours. A one-day ticket (A, B) is €6.30.

Though no longer divided by its infamous Cold War wall, Berlin still has marked eastern and western halves. The former, in districts such as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, has most of the landmarks, museums and nightlife. The latter still has fine shops and sights. Two loosely parallel lines of water, the Spree river and Landwehr Canal, frame the centre. Visit Berlin (00 49 30 2500 2333; visitberlin.com) has an office on Pariser Platz (4) (9.30am-7pm). Its two-day WelcomeCard (€17.90) covers transport and museum discounts.

Check in

A funky dark-decor hotel in Mitte at Torstrasse 136, Mani (5) does doubles from €77, room only (00 49 30 530 280 80; hotel-mani.com). To the east, in Friedrichshain, at Landsberger Allee 106, Andel's Hotel (2), (00 49 30 453 0530; vi-hotels.com/andels-berlin) has doubles for €103, room only – and a 14th-floor bar.

A five-star dame in an enviable location at Unter den Linden 77, the Hotel Adlon (6) has doubles from €207, room only (00 49 30 22 610; kempinski.com).

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the junction of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden (7). The latter is Berlin's main avenue, and has regained its pomp since reunification in 1989. Stroll west, to Pariser Platz (4), to Brandenburg Gate, a postcard moment. This 18th-century triumphal arch became a totem of Cold War schism as the Wall ran right in front of it. From here, trace the old line of the Wall south on Ebertstrasse, pausing at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (8), where 2,711 concrete blocks remember the Holocaust. Below (entrance at Cora-Berliner Strasse 1), an exhibition gives sombre context (00 49 30 263 9430; stiftung-denkmal.de; 10am-8pm Tuesday-Sunday; free).

Continue south on Ebertstrasse into Potsdamer Platz, down Stresemannstrasse. Take the second left, halting at Nieder-kirchnerstrasse 8, for the Topography of Terror (9), a museum amid the ashes of the former SS and Gestapo HQ (00 49 30 2545 0950; topographie.de; 10am-8pm; free).

Return to the Brandenburg Gate. Opposite lies the Tiergarten (10), Germany's second-biggest city park. It offers 520 acres of leafy calm. The Victory Column (Siegessäule) (11) is a monument to 19th-century Prussian military might. Barack Obama spoke here in 2008.

Lunch on the run

On the top edge of the Tiergarten at Scheidemanstrasse 1, the Berlin Pavillon (12) (00 49 30 3980 0880; berlin-pavillon.de) is of note, partly for its lunches (a hearty beef sandwich is €10) and for its view of the Reichstag, Germany's stately glass-domed parliament.

Window shopping

To the south of the Tiergarten at Tauentzienstrasse 21-24, the KaDeWe (13) department store has long been a fixture of west Berlin (00 49 30 21210; kadewe.de). Nowadays it has rivals in the east of the city, especially on store-lined Friedrich-strasse, where Galeries Lafayette (14), at Nos 76 to 78, offers gilded competition (0049 30 209480; galerieslafayette.de). For more idiosyncratic retail options, hop over to the north of Mitte, where Mulackstrasse, in particular, provides designer swagger.

Starstyling Berlin (15), at No 4 (00 49 30 9700 5182; starstyling.net) does bright modern garb, and shares its address with Rug Star (00 49 30 6666 8315; rug-star.com), which takes a chic approach to carpets. Lala Berlin (16), at No 7 (0049 30 2576 2924; lalaberlin.com) delivers cutting-edge couture.

An aperitif

Elsewhere in Mitte, Clärchens Ballhaus (17), at Auguststrasse 24 (00 49 30 282 9295; ballhaus.de), is a 1913 dance hall – where the Roaring Twenties still echo around its elegant, if semi-dilapidated rooms. The outdoor beer garden pours out giant German lagers for €7.

Dining with the locals

Gastro choices abound in Mitte. The restaurant at Mani (5) continues the hotel's offbeat theme, mixing French and Israeli fare into the likes of its Jerusalem artichoke soufflé (€16.50).

Katz Orange (18), at Bergstrasse 22 (00 49 30 9832 08430; katzorange.com), occupies a converted brewery – and offers slow-cooked ox cheeks for €20.

Rutz (19), at Chausseestrasse 8 (00 49 30 2462 8760; rutz-weinbar.de), revels in a wine list that runs to 800 varieties as it serves an American prime beef steak for €22.50.

Or flit over to ever-trendy Kreuzberg, where Volt (20), at Paul-Lincke-Ufer 21 (00 49 30 6107 4033; restaurant-volt.de), does risotto with scallops (€16) in a former electricity substation.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Perched on Lustgarten park, the Berliner Dom (21) (00 49 30 2026 9136; berlinerdom.de) is a resurrection tale. It was bombed in 1944, then rebuilt to its 1905 design, and fully reopened in 1993. It is open for visits for €7 – although there is, of course, no charge for its main Sunday mass, at 10am.

It is not, however, Berlin's most striking church. That's west Berlin's Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (22) (00 49 30 218 5023; gedaechtniskirche-berlin.de; 9am-7pm; Sunday mass 10am), on Breitscheidplatz. Shattered by Allied fire in 1943, its shell has been left as an anti-war statement, a 1960s chapel sprouting from the ruins.

Cultural morning

Adjacent to the Dom, Museumsinsel (Museum Island) is Berlin's prime cultural pocket. Five key institutions all come under the Berlin State Museums banner (00 49 30 2664 24242; smb.museum), and deserve lengthy exploration. The Pergamonmuseum (23) (Am Kupfergraben; daily 10am-6pm; €13) hosts antiquities excavated in Turkey, Greece and Iraq in the 19th century. The Alte Nationalgalerie (24) (Bodestrasse 1-3; daily 10am-6pm, closed Monday, Thursday 10am-10pm; €8) houses works by such German greats as Carl Blechen and Caspar David Friedrich, as well as pieces by Monet and Manet. And the Bode Museum (25) (Am Kupfergraben 1; daily 10am-6pm except Thursday (10am-10pm); €8) is a treasure trove of Byzantine art. A three-day Museum Pass (€19) gives entry to the whole "island".

Out to brunch

Monsieur Vuong (26) is a modern Vietnamese restaurant that's popular with the locals at Alte Schönhauser Strasse 46, in Mitte (00 49 30 9929 6924; monsieurvuong.de). It does a chicken-heavy glass noodle salad Mekong for €7.20.

Take a ride

Berlin is big and difficult to absorb, but you can see a lot on two wheels. Fat Tire Bike Tours (27) – based at Panoramastrasse 1a, (00 49 30 2404 7991; fattirebiketours.com/berlin) – runs a variety of themed jaunts for €24 each. The "Raw Tour: Berlin Exposed" lasts five hours and nine miles, and dissects vibrant districts, such as Kreuzberg, that have bloomed in the past 20 years.

Icing on the cake

Go back in time at the East Side Gallery (28), the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall that stood from 1961 to 1989 (eastsidegallery.com). Stretching for a mile along Mühlen-strasse, this de-fanged symbol of oppression is preserved as an artwork, with 106 striking murals.

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