It's a bit like internet dating. Step one: logistics. Which date are you available? Daytime or night-time? Half an hour, or half a day? Next: characteristics – “Easy going, artistic, explorer” or “bold, Bavarian, hipster”?
Except this isn't an internet dating site. Plus One Berlin is a new city-break company run by British-born Clare Freeman. The idea germinated when she worked as a PR for a hotel marketing company, travelling frequently on business trips that left her with little time to get under a city's skin. "I often wished I could get a local's perspective, to discover their favourite places, instead of only visiting the main tourist sites." And that's exactly what Plus One Berlin promises to deliver, by hooking you up with one of Clare's network of "locals" for a coffee, a walking tour, even an all-nighter in Berlin's legendary clubbing scene.
My base is the small but sleek Plus One Apartment, neatly fitted out with salvaged-timber cupboards and bed, and hotel-style amenities in the hipster district of Kreuzkölln, a "kiez" or sub-neighbourhood that has found new identity at the juncture of Kreuzberg and Neukölln.
A couple of days before my arrival, I log on to the Plus One website to browse the "locals". Bingo – Marija, a 30-year-old Serbian astrophysicist, with a bubbly personality and the inside track on the Kreuzberg/Neukölln neighbourhoods, is free for the day.
We meet at Yorckstrasse U-bahn station and set off on our exploration of what was one of the poorest parts of West Berlin, but is now a thriving cultural centre in the unified capital. First up, an overview, so we walk east along Yorckstrasse and take a right at Katzbachstrasse to reach Viktoriapark, which sits on a plateau overlooking the city centre. We wind up tree-shaded trails to reach the 1821 national monument to the Liberation Wars against France, at the park's highest point. The 20m cast-iron cross looks down over the district which it inspired – Kreuzberg roughly translates as "cross on the hill".
From here, we drift back down to Kreuzbergstrasse, then take a right on to Bergmanstrasse, Kreuzberg's main avenue, lined with trees, bicycle shops and cafés. A right turn up Nostitzstrasse brings us to Chamissoplatz, where locals are browsing the organic food stalls of a Saturday morning food market around the leafy square. Continuing round it, we turn left on to Willibald Alexis Strasse, where Marija points out four elegant apartment blocks with pretty wrought-iron balconies that are bursting with flowers and plants. Back at street level, neatly tended rose bushes flourish on the pavements next to a dingy "eckkneipe", corner pub. "I love how these things co-exist in Berlin," she says.
Back on Bergmanstrasse, we duck into the Marheineke Market Hall ( meine-markthalle.de), which specialises in fresh, regional and organic produce. I sample salamis cured with figs and fennel and buy a fresh orange and mango juice (€2.30/£1.85) before exiting onto Zossenerstrasse. Here, cafés such as meine-markthalle.de (00 49 30 61 62 53 60; cuccuma.de) highlight how much this part of Berlin has changed since the fall of the Wall.
Similarly, as we turn right down Fürbringerstrasse we come across a tranquil park; a pair of old roll-top baths would be considered fly-tipping in most other cities – here, they're repurposed as flower beds.
So far, so genteel, but as we cross Urbanstrasse and head up Tempelherrenstrasse towards the canal, the tempo picks up. All of a sudden we're surrounded by joggers and cyclists, with swans and dinghies on the water and a throng of hungover coffee-drinkers soaking up the caffeine and sunshine outside A Horn Café (00 49 30 600 59 888), which serves brunch until the evening. Further down at Admiralbrücke, locals are conspicuous by their absence. "Everyone used to hang out here and drink," Marija tells me. It's a thickset bridge, no longer than around 30m by 10, but up to 200 people would congregate here with their beer bottles, late into the night. "Until the neighbours complained. Now people don't come here so much," says Marija.
From here, we turn right on to Grimmstrasse, then left on to Dieffenbachstrasse, a leafy avenue populated with art galleries, homeware boutiques and idiosyncratic eateries such as Ron Telesky Canadian Pizza ( ron-telesky.de). Things get more specialised still around the corner on Graefestrasse at Kado ( kado.de), an old-fashioned shop selling liquorice in various guises, from classic sweets to potent liqueurs.
We're nearly back at the apartment, and as I walk back via Sanderstrasse and Friedelstrasse, I pass a clutch of bohemian vintage shops-cum-cafés, such as the vegan Sing Blackbird (00 49 30 5484505; singblackbird.com). The kiez feels cultured, but curiously quiet. "Wait until this evening," Marija advises. And she's right; as I hit the streets of Kreuzkölln at night, what looked like apartments and empty shops during the day are now beckoning me in – little unnamed bars identified only by the gentle hubbub of drinkers outside and flickering candlelight inside. A man walks past barefoot, singing and playing the banjo. With no itinerary, I'm happy to continue my walk unguided and I feel – almost – like a local.
Bully's Bakery, at Friedelstrasse 7 (00 49 30 253 25500; bullysbakery.com), is a couple of minutes' walk from the Plus One Apartment and serves excellent coffee (the flat white is particularly good) and pastries. Pull up a deckchair outside and watch the district come to life.
Little Otik, Graefestrasse 71 (00 49 30 5036 2301; littleotik.de; Weds-Sat dinner only), is also a stroll away and serves a fresh, produce-driven menu; try lamb shank, with giant couscous, parsley pesto and courgette caponata for €21 (£16.90).
Sophie Lam travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), which flies to Berlin Schönefeld from Gatwick, Bristol, Glasgow, Luton, Liverpool and Manchester. Single fares start at £29.49. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) also flies from Stansted and East Midlands.
Staying there and visiting there
Sophie was a guest of Plus One Berlin, Reuterstrasse 28, Kreuzkölln (00 49 173 2641372; plusoneberlin.com). Rates start at €120 (£96.50) per night for up to three people and one “local experience”.
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