WHY BERLIN?

WHY BERLIN?

Midnight on Alexanderplatz: 15 years ago East Berlin's principal square was deserted at this hour, save for the grotesque bronze caricatures of communism's founding fathers. The statues remain, but almost unnoticed amid a swirl of humanity that celebrates freedom. There's plenty to rejoice: after a dreadful 20th century (home town to the Nazi empire, flattened in 1945, then ripped apart by the cruellest barrier the world has ever known), Berlin has been reborn as the coolest city in the world. Europe's youngest capital defines vitality. Sir Norman Fosters's retro-fitted Reichstag is the beacon at the heart of the city, and even at midnight the glass dome is full of sightseers. But, the centre of creative energy has shifted to Mitte and Prenzlauerberg in the old East Berlin. For 40 years, a Cold War vacuum sealed in the decrepit magnificence. When the Wall came down, and made the checkpoint guards look complete Charlies, the people's rage turned to resurrection. The past was another country. They do things differently now.

EAT

Breakfast on coffee and Apfelstrudel at Einstein Kaffee in Friedrichstrasse, near the Checkpoint Charlie museum. Lunch, al fresco if autumn permits, on soup, shrimp and salad at Opernpalais at Unter den Linden. Dine on an impeccably fresh Indo-chinese feast at Monsieur Vuong at Alte Schönhauser Strasse, but be prepared to rub chopsticks with most of the German media.

DRINK

The Park Inn Hotel at Alexanderplatz, has a 1,000 rooms, but it also has the Bar 37 - the number signifying the floor from which you get a startling view as the sun sinks over the Brandenburg Gate. The oldest pub in Berlin is also one of the coolest. Five centuries after its foundation, Zur Letzten Instanz at Waisenstrasse is more of a restaurant than a pub, but get there early and they'll show you around and point out where Charlie Chaplin and Maxim Gorky sat (not on the same night). At the Broker's Bier Börse (part of the Berliner Republik) at Schiffbauerdamm, East meets West, supply meets demand, and the customer meets market forces. The more beer people order, the higher the cost ... the less they buy, the lower the price.

SLEEP

A hotel or a gallery? mitArt Pension, on the second floor at Friedrichstrasse, blurs the boundaries between creativity and catnapping. Rooms from EUR88 (£69) for a double, depending on the depth of art in your room. One reason to stray out of East Berlin into the now dowdy West is to stay at the Propeller Island City Lodge on Albrecht Achilles Strasse where you sleep in a concept, not a room: a padded cell, perhaps, or a 'flying bed' on a sloping slate floor. Prices as low as EUR60 (£42). On a Saturday night, you may fight for a bed - unless you aim for the Generator, the city's biggest hostel with over 800 bunks, at a bargain EUR15 (£11), including breakfast. It's a few tram stops out of town on Storkower Strasse.

SEE

Start at the Reichstag, whose dome is for the people; it opens from 8am to midnight (last admission at 10pm), and is to re-open next Monday (Oct 18) after a deep clean. Hamburger Bahnhof might sound like a dodgy fast food outlet at Zoo station, in fact it is the finest art space in the city - an 1847 railway terminus brought back to life with the help of artist Andy Warhol. The war is mentioned freely now, especially at the Topography of Terror, a chilling account of the rise and fall of Nazism. It stands on the site of the Gestapo HQ in Niederkirchnerstrasse.

BUY

The Reichsmark was a piece of paper with which the East German regime humiliated the people; on the wrong side of the Wall a jar of pickled gherkins was evidence of a good day at the shops. The retail reaction: Quartier 206, a jagged temple to fashion and capitalism on Friedrichstrasse. To stretch your euros head, instead, to the Art and Nostalgia Market, 11am-5pm on weekends at Museuminsel, for the coolest relics of the former East German Republic.

PLAY

A decade ago, a night out in East Berlin had all the appeal of an office party at Stasi HQ. Fortunately, those days have gone. Now that there's an overdose of choice, the glory days of life behind the Iron Curtain can be relived at Bar Gagarin at Knaackstrasse, which celebrates the first man in space: the cosmonaut of cool.

Travel facts

Einstein Kaffee

Kurfurstenstrasse 58 (00 49 30 261 50 96; www.cafeeinstein.com)

Opernpalais

Unter den Linden 5 (00 49 30 20 26 83; www.opernpalais.de)

Monsieur Vuong

Alte Schönhauser Strasse 46 (00 49 30 30 87 26 43; www.monsieurvuong.de; no reservations)

The Park Inn Hotel

Alexanderplatz 8 (00 49 30 23 890; www.rezidorparkinn.com)

Zur Letzten Instanz

Waisenstrasse 14-16 (00 49 30 24 25 528; www.zurletzteninstanz.de)

Broker's Bier Börse

(part of the Berliner Republik) at Schiff-bauerdamm 8 (0049 30 308 72 293; www.die-berliner-republik.de)

mitArt Pension, on the second floor at Friedrichstrasse 127

(00 49 30 28 39 04 30; www.mitart.de)

Propellor Island City Lodge Albrecht Achilles Strasse 58 (00 49 30 891 9016; www.propeller-island.de)

Generator

Storkower Strasse 160 (00 49 30 417 2400; www.generatorhostels.com), EUR15

Hamburger Bahnhof might Invalidenstrasse 50-51

(00 49 30 39 78 34 11 www.hamburgerbahnhof.de)

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