I'm on a walking tour of Berlin and my breathless guide, an Australian politics student called Andrew, is doing his best to bring history alive. "So Goering phoned up Hitler and told him that the Reichstag was on fire. And the Führer rushed down here with Goebbels in his black Mercedes and immediately made a speech which outlawed the opposition and declared Germany a totalitarian state."
A group of us stand staring at the splendid-looking parliament building, remodelled by Sir Norman Foster and reinstated as the meeting place of the national assembly. All around us shiny new government buildings are being completed. Tourists smile and laugh in the sunshine in front of the Brandenburg Gate. "It's strange," I think, as I look around, "that my grandfather spent five years building bombers whose purpose was to wipe this city off the face of the earth."
Those planes nearly succeeded. Berlin was flattened by bombing during the Second World War and then suffered the ignominy of being divided up between the allies and finally split physically in 1961, when a concrete wall was built around West Berlin, marooning it as an island of capitalism at the heart of the Communist German Democratic Republic. Now the wall has been gone for more than 10 years and the job of turning this extraordinary city into a modern capital has erased many of the scars. In some ways it is an unlikely to place to visit - it is not, as Henry James said of Venice, "a city of exhibition" and has none of the showiness of Paris or Rome. It is difficult and unfamiliar. But it is also a city which rewards your efforts with some very grown-up pleasures.
So, where to start? Berlin's enormous scale (it is nine times the size of Paris, with a population of 3.4 million) and complex past can make getting to grips with it a daunting task. There are 170 museums, three opera houses, 135 theatres - as well as dozens of excellent restaurants. I decided to plan my weekend to include a city walk, a specific list of artworks to see, a night at the opera and - as a reward for this gruelling schedule - several restaurants and cafés.
I took a Saturday-morning walk, organised by Insider Tour, which promised an introduction to the former East and central part of the city (known as Mitte). Despite his tendency for melodrama, Andrew turns out to be a pretty good guide. "At the beginning of the 20th century," he starts, "the gods asked Berliners: 'Do you want grandeur or do you want history?' And they replied: 'Give us history.'" It's fanciful stuff, but it's not a bad way of explaining why we find ourselves staring at so many places where "x marks the spot" rather than seeing the grand buildings or monuments you might expect.
It does not take long, of course, before we come across our first site associated with the Nazis. Berlin was the centre of Hitler's operations (he had grand plans to rebuild it and call it Germania) and one of our first stops is at the New Synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse. The restored building, with its handsome, shiny gold dome, is famous as one of the few synagogues which survived the events of Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, when Nazi mobs attacked and burnt centres of Jewish trade and worship across Germany.
It seems inevitable that our guide concentrates on this short but infamous period of Berlin's history. After our call at the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate (now restored as a ceremonial gateway after 40 years in no-man's land) we find ourselves staring at a huge, empty site just south of Pariser Platz. Here, after years of debate, the German government has finally consented to the building of a Holocaust memorial dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. The memorial, designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, will take the form of an urban field lined with 270 concrete pillars and will join the world famous Jewish Museum - designed by Daniel Libeskind to resemble a shattered star of David - as a permanent reminder of the crimes against humanity masterminded here.
In some instances, Berliners have decided it is better not to mark the spot. Just around the corner from the memorial project a children's sandpit has been built on the site of the Führerbunker. Andrew does his best to evoke the scene, as Eva Braun and Hitler commit suicide and Soviet troops close in. The bodies are later burnt on this ground. Thankfully all this is now hard to imagine with a modern housing development looming over you. Just before we break for lunch we visit one of the few stretches of the Berlin Wall still standing. It runs along Niederkirchnerstrasse, right next to the site of the now demolished Gestapo headquarters, where an outside exhibition called The Topography of Terror is displayed in an excavated basement.
It would be a shame if we heard about nothing but Nazis on our tour. Berlin is, after all, also the city of Schiller and Brecht, Kirchner and Grosz, Mies van der Rohe and Frederick the Great. So it is a relief when we find ourselves in the Gendarmenmarkt, a square which contains two magnificent churches and the Konzerthaus, a design of 1821 by Berlin's most celebrated neo-classicist architect Karl Frederick Schinkel. The grand, porticoed building stands on the site of the old National Theatre where Mozart's The Magic Flute opened, with sets designed by Schinkel, in 1816. The impressive Baroque French church next door was built for Huguenot refugees in 1701, a reminder that Berlin was once famed for its tolerance of cultural and religious difference.
Just round the corner in Bebelplatz is the extraordinary St Hedwigskathedrale, a vast domed church partly designed by Frederick the Great after the Pantheon in Rome and completed in 1773. The square also contains the city's most evocative memorial - a simple glazed panel in the paving, through which you gaze into a stark chamber lined with empty shelves. It marks the site of the Nazis' first book burning on 10 May 1933 when they destroyed "subversive" texts by Marx, Freud and others.
Our walk ends on the steps of one of Berlin's most important works of architecture. The Altes Museum, designed by Schinkel and completed in 1830, was the first of a series of cultural buildings on what is known as the museum island. The building now contains a good collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. The National Gallery, the Pergamon Museum, the ruin of the Neues Museum and the Bode Museum all stand alongside. The buildings - which are in the former East Berlin - were damaged in the war and their collections dispersed. A massive restoration project is now under way on what has become a World Heritage Site and many works of art have been moved back to their original homes here. The project will not be completed until 2010, but in the meantime it is worth a visit to the Pergamon Museum to see the eponymous 2,000-year-old altar piece.
If you are curious about the city's history as the capital of the German Democratic Republic, don't miss the extraordinary sight, opposite the Altes Museum, of the now abandoned Palace of the Republic. This ugly, brown-tinted glass building, the home of the former GDR government, was completed in 1976 on the site of the city's ancient castle (demolished by the Communists in 1950). A mind-boggling and controversial plan has recently been approved to demolish the palace and build a replica of the schloss, to open in 2025.
Because of the division of the city, many of Berlin's most famous art works remain housed in the cultural institutions in the former West. So after the walk I decided to head over to the Egyptian Museum, currently part of a group housed around the former palace of Charlottenburg. (The contents will eventually return to the Neues Museum.) This is an easy trip by public transport - Berlin's overground S-bahn and underground U-bahn are efficient and easy to use - and it is worth a visit to see the astonishingly fresh-looking carved and painted head of Queen Nefetiti. The sculpture, which was found on a German archaeological dig in Amarna in 1912, is more than 3,000 years old.
You could spend weeks exploring all the museums and galleries but I restricted myself to two more: the Gemäldegalerie, which contains a remarkable collection of European art from the Renaissance to the 18th century (highlights include several Raphaels, but I went to pay homage to Caravaggio's sexiest painting, The Victorious Cupid of 1602) and the New National Gallery. This building - designed by Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1968 - is an audacious example of the architectural patronage that continued in West Berlin despite its status as a provincial city. The New National Gallery's small collection, which includes some good Picassos and paintings by George Grosz and Max Beckmann, is well worth a look.
What with all the museum-going and a trip to the opera (I can recommend the modestly priced and modern productions at the Komische Oper where I saw Fidelio), I was relieved to turn to some of Berlin's culinary and leisurely pursuits. For breakfast I would recommend two options. The first is to head straight for Einstein, a gorgeous, Viennese-style coffee house on Kurfürstenstrasse, where you can enjoy eggs and ham in the Baroque interior or outside in the pretty garden. A more bohemian choice is to walk around the Prenzlauer Berg district - a well-preserved former East Berlin quarter which is something akin to New York's East Village or London's Hoxton - where there are plenty of hip street cafés.
For lunch, the food hall at the KaDeWe department store on Tauentzienstrasse is unmissable. The building is in the commercial heart of the former West Berlin. Stretched across a whole floor are bars specialising in wurst, seafood and many other mouth-watering delicacies.
At supper time, I tried two very different places. Borchardt, on Französischestrasse in Mitte, is big and smart and the waiters wear suits and long white aprons. But the service is friendly and there is a charming courtyard. It's the perfect place to try a Wiener schnitzel which cost €19.50 (£14.40) and observe classy Berliners out on the town. Storch, on the other hand, is a local, friendly place in Schöneberg, with long tables which you share. The speciality is Alsatian cooking and wines. The thin, flambéed tarts - cheese to start and apple and calvados for pudding - are unforgettable.
To walk some of it off, take a stroll in the Tiergarten - the former royal hunting ground and now Berlin's most famous public park - and you are sure to hear the unmistakable song of the nightingale. If it's hot, however, the outdoor public swimming pools in Kreuzberg - two 50m long slashes of blue water in a shady park - are a refreshing way to relax in a city which can otherwise overwhelm you with the weight of its past.
Air Berlin flies daily from London Stansted to Berlin Tegel. Prices start at £19 one way and are bookable via www.airberlin.com or by calling 08707 388 880
Where to stay
If you're on a tight budget try Generator Berlin. This recently opened 238-bed hostel is housed in a giant former Eastern Bloc building on Storkowerstrasse. Rooms are for two to 12 people. Prices range from €12 (£8.60) for bed and breakfast. To book, call (49) 30 417 2400 or visit www.generatorhostels.com
Visitors can buy a 72-hour Welcome Card for €19 (from stations, tourist offices and many hotels). This allows you to use all forms of transport.
Borchardt, Franzosische Strasse 47, (49) 30 20 39 71 17. Storch, Wartburgstrasse 54, (49) 30 784 20 59. Dinner only. KaDeWe food court, 6th floor, Tauentzienstrasse 21, (49) 30 212 10, has the widest choice of Wurst in the world.
Insider Tour runs a number of different themed walks.See www.insidertour.com or call (49) 30 6923149. For information on museums, galleries and more, see www.berlin-tourist-information.deReuse content