Berlin: Show and tell

Visitors to a famous museum stare in awe at ancient wonders - the ideal starting point for a cultural tour

Dwarfed. That's how you feel in Berlin a lot of the time. Dwarfed by the immense buildings which loom up above the lime trees on Unter den Linden or line the wide boulevards of Prenzlauer Berg. Dwarfed by the enormous number of memorials and world-class museums, sometimes three, four, five to a single street, each commemorating a different chapter of the city's history. Dwarfed, most of all, by the sheer weight of that history, which infuses every place name, lurks under every pavement and hangs heavy in the air.

Thomas Struth feels it, too. In the photographer's most famous series, visitors to Berlin's Pergamon Museum are captured unawares, mid-traipse around the tourist trail. Heads flung back, they stare up at towering ancient columns, or cluster like overwhelmed ants around the museum's most famous exhibits - the monumental Pergamon Altar from 2BC or the 56ft Roman Market Gate of Miletus.

Struth set off from his Berlin studio on a grand tour of the world's greatest museums - the Louvre, the Accademia, the Hermitage - in 1989. His focus was not the buildings nor the treasures they held, but rather the visitors to them: he was looking at people, looking at things. From 1996 to 2001, he concentrated his efforts on the Pergamon - to his mind the perfect place to observe humans interacting with history and art. Scattered around the museum's airy rooms among archaeological treasures, the visitors become works of art, gaudily-clothed living statues providing a link between past and present. When he realised that he himself had been spotted - too many visitors coming over to ask him whether he was the Thomas Struth - he stopped and his museum phase came to an end.

A decade on, his Pergamon series still encapsulates the Berlin experience, especially for visiting art-lovers. It's a city for people who like to look at things, and like to be seen looking at things, too. It has an art scene like nowhere else, intimately entwined with the city's history, multi-layered and ever-changing. There are galleries in bombed-out buildings and bunkers, and splashed across surviving sections of the Berlin Wall. Even the bars provide highbrow eye candy: in Victoria Bar sharp studies by Sarah Lucas and Martin Kippenberger line the walls while visitors to the Newton Bar sip cocktails beneath the glare of an 18ft mural of Helmut Newton nudes.

For the weekender keen to get a handle on Berlin and its history, the art scene offers a novel way in. And the Pergamon is as good a place as any to start, sitting as it does right in the middle of Museumsinsel, an extraordinary cluster of five gigantic museums on an island in the Spree. The most spectacular of these is the Neues Museum. Bombed to ruins in the Second World War, it has now been restored by David Chipperfield into a new Neues which preserves traces of the 1850s original building, war damage and years of post-war neglect, alongside some elegant 21st-century interventions: it's the history of the city made concrete.

Layered buildings are everywhere you look in Berlin, in fact. It's a city constantly excavating its history, marking it and then looking to the future. The most famous example is the Reichstag - built in 1894, burnt in 1933, neglected then resurrected in 1999, when Norman Foster topped it off with an extravagant glass dome. A trip to the top is still a must, both to marvel at the massive mirrored funnel which reflects the workings of parliament down below and to enjoy a bird's eye view of the city. Book in for brunch dome-side, in the excellent Feinkost Kafer. It's possibly the only café in the world where you have to show your passport and go through airport-style security before you get your croissant but it's worth it to enjoy a lazy view across the rooftops over baskets of bread, homemade jams and coffee.

For the quintessential Berlin art experience, you'll need to grab a heiße schokolade and head to the East Side Gallery, the largest open-air gallery in the world. No white walls here, just the Wall, featuring 105 paintings by international artists who flocked to make their mark on the defunct barrier in 1990. Winding for 1.3km along the nondescript Muhlenstrasse and now restored to its former glory, it's a vivid ribbon of street art marking the dawn of a new era with cartoons of kissing Communist leaders, hopeful slogans, handprints and John Lennon lyrics.

Historical highlights ticked off, it's time to head underground. Literally, in the case of Sammlung Boros, a 3,000sq m network of galleries housed in a former Second World War bunker a short walk from the shiny shops of Friedrichstrasse. After the war, this vast building became a fruit store (known as 'Banana bunker' by locals), then a techno club before the advertising mogul Christian Boros bought it in 2003 to house his collection of Hirsts et al. Tours are at weekends and by appointment only, which means that there is a three-month waiting list, but a wander around its concrete maze of 80 rooms is one to plan ahead for.

After that, for a snapshot of the contemporary scene, the best bet is to take a walking tour. I spent a happy afternoon dipping in and out of small but perfectly formed galleries - Kow, Sprueth Magers, Peres Projects - around Mitte. My favourite finds were C/O, a buzzing photography gallery in a draughty old post office and Tacheles, whose graffiti-covered façade hides a collective of some 80 artists, not to mention picturesque crumbling staircases and a hole in the roof, which makes its top floor a great 'al fresco' drinking den in summer. Both are on Oranienbergerstrasse; both on the brink of being closed down, to make way for luxury flats.

Berlin is a city in flux. It's not unusual to turn up to a gallery or bar recommended by a brand-new guidebook and discover that it has changed its name, moved, or disappeared to make way for the builders. It's a place where pop-ups are a way of life, not a gimmick, which makes its food and drink scene excitingly restless. The techno superclub Berghain is still a honeypot for hedonistic weekenders but there are more laid-back options to suit every taste, from the quirky cafés of Mitte to the dimly lit speakeasys of Schoneberg. Prenzlauer Berg, once brutally Eastern Bloc, now chi-chi, is ideal Sunday brunch territory, crammed with Soviet-themed cafés offering 'Russian brunches', while Kottbusser Tor hides a hive of tiny techno bars, including Paloma, tucked away behind a supermarket in an apartment block.

No art trawl is complete without a visit to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin's equivalent of Tate Modern, housed in a former railway station. Its new purpose is signalled by Dan Flavin neons on the front wall, while the central ticket hall houses attention-grabbing temporary exhibitions, in the mould of the Turbine Hall. When I visited, Tomas Saraceno had filled it with 20 or so giant balloons, a futuristic utopia made of zorbs. The bravest visitors could climb up ladders and bounce around inside them while the rest of us looked on and took endless pictures. It was the perfect end to a weekend of culture-spotting and people-watching. If he hadn't given up on galleries, I think Thomas Struth might have loved it.

 

Best of Berlin

Red Berlin Tour

Want to acquaint yourself with the key sites and facts about Berlin? Then book yourself on this famous five-hour tour which takes in sites ranging from the former Soviet Embassy to the Palace of Tears and Karl-Marx-Allee.

Newberlintours.com

Mauerpark

Veer off the tourist trail to Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, where every Sunday there's a sprawling flea market, selling great food, vintage furniture and clothes.

Mauerparkmarkt.de

Hackesche Höfe Kino

This independent art-house cinema shows American and British as well as German films and is set on the fourth floor of a beautiful building in the hip Mitte area.

Hoefekino.de

Puro Sky Lounge

Set on the 10th floor of a high-rise in West Berlin, with great views of the city, this is Berlin's chic new arrival. Be prepared to dress up and splash the cash.

Puroberlin.de

The writer stayed in the Adina Apartment Hotel in the Mitte district of Berlin. A two-night city break to Berlin, including flights and accommodation, starts from £115 per person with lastminute.com; 0871 222 5969

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