The winner of Berlin's battle of the books is ...

Lucy Gillmore took four famous names away for the weekend, to see which was the most useful
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The Independent Travel

There are a number of pre- or mis-conceptions about guide books. TO city guides are thought stylish, lively and opinionated. They highlight the newest restaurants, most fashionable bars and latest designer hotels. Of the mainstream guides, they're clearly the most cool. DK's Eyewitness guides have picture-laden, culture-heavy glossy pages. Chosen by middle-aged culture vultures who don't care that the hotel listings are measly because they bring their sleeping bags and camp outside the main sights to avoid the queues. LP is the backpacker's (yawn) bible with lots of info on hostels and places to get trashed near the station. The RG is the thinking traveller's LP.

But a quick flick reveals these might be challenged. The LP seems to have a fresh, clear layout and comprehensive listings - almost as classy as the TO - whereas the RG's stodgy fare is impenetrable. Dorling Kindersley is pretty as a picture, but, as predicted, listings are slim. And it's bloody heavy. All introduce the city succinctly with an overview of each area. The main districts are Mitte (where many of the main sights are), Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain (edgy, bohemian, in former East Berlin) Kreuzberg (once edgier now becoming gentrified), Tiergarten (dominated by the huge park of the same name), Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf (classy, conservative in what was West Berlin).

The Hotels

I had chosen the Brandenburger Hof in Wilmersdorf, an elegant 19th-century townhouse that blends contemporary and traditional with Bauhaus-style furniture, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a calm Zen-inspired courtyard garden.

I'm surprised to find it in the LP, which has as accommodation section helpfully divided by area with a useful intro. By each name is the word hotel. Cheap Sleeps comes later. The Brandenburger Hof is "an amazing feat of architectural alchemy" - true - and, apparently, gay-friendly. (Are the ones not "gay-friendly" - about half - run by homophobes?)

RG's accommodation section is slimmer but still accurate - "an architectural and design tour de force, a bright 19th-century mansion reworked with Bauhaus influences. The staff ooze suave attentiveness and there's a Michelin-starred restaurant and beautiful Japanese garden." The description is short but succinct.

DK is general and uninformative but it does state that it is "one of the most desirable hotels in Berlin". TO, unlike the others, puts the accommodation section at the front of the guide. Of the Brandenburger Hof it says: "From the moment you set foot inside the foyer you know you are going to like this place." Oh yes. However, of the Adlon by the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's most famous hotel, which was rebuilt after the Second World War by Kempinski, TO says that the staff are frosty to gawping tourists. (This is where Michael Jackson dangled a baby from the balcony). Wandering in, guidebook in hand, to loiter nonchalantly and use the loo I get a warm smile and then a cheery "auf Wiedersehen".

The Sights

This is where DK comes into its own - good layout, plenty of pics and graphic maps and just enough description to stop you nodding off. Starting with a page on Berlin at-a-glance and the top 10 attractions, the best museums, the best historic architecture and the best modern architecture are then grouped together before the city is divided into areas and the sights described in more detail.

Both TO and LP have itineraries for one-day trips (the sights not to miss), TO also does two-day, three-day and four-day. LP has three-day but not two. The RG has a glossy picture-led Top 25 sights but some seem slightly random - two department stores but no Checkpoint Charlie.

The Restaurants

Or how to avoid sauerkraut. Left with DK I'd have floundered. TO has a good selection divided by area and by cuisine. LP introduces each district as a foodie destination and lists the top five eats in each. RG is badly laid out and doesn't inspire confidence.

I chose Borchardt in Mitte for Friday night and Le Cochin Bourgeois in Kreuzberg for Saturday. DK's description of Borchardt's marble columns, mosaics and patterned floor and clientele "favoured by German politicians" doesn't convey the buzz or the mix. The RG doesn't sell it well either: "A recreation of an elegant pre-war French restaurant ... with high ceilings and tile floors." TO describes it as "a highly fashionable Maxim's-inspired bistro". However, it's LP that best sums it up as "a slice of Beverly Hills in Berlin" and a "power crowd of politicians, actors and other newsmakers".

Le Cochin Bourgeois doesn't make it into DK or RG. It's a charming little cash-only French restaurant down a cobbled street in Kreuzberg. A young woman carrying a stack of books goes from table to table selling her tomes adding to the bohemian air. LP describes the area as "a multicultural cauldron endowed with an intriguing mosaic of flavours and flairs", and says that the Bourgeois Pig has "captured the hearts and stomachs of leagues of faithful diners". TO calls it a "calm and welcoming oasis ... people come from all over Berlin ..."

The bars/nightlife

DK folk are soaking their feet and picking their blisters. Which is just as well as the section on bars would inspire a quiet evening in. The RG's section is confusing, mixing day-time cafés with late-night drinking holes. TO, however, guides me to Wurgeengel in Kreuzberg. "Red walls and velvet upholstery convey an atmosphere aching for sin". LP agrees: "Its dramatic blood-red velvet decor and unique tile ceiling are more reminiscent of a belle époque brothel than a church ... the cocktails are heavenly (sorry) and the place is crammed." These two are neck and neck.

Sunday brunch

Breakfast is big in Berlin with many cafes at the weekend serving brunch until late afternoon. TO and LP have a box of the best places to go. Café am Neuen See in the Tiergarten is described by all the guides as a pleasant leafy spot with outside tables where you can rent a boat. None, however, talk of the enormous breakfast platters - you can have a New Yorker breakfast, Italian, Rustic, American etc - or the relaxed young crowd.

Shopping

Top five bookshops, top five unique Berlin stores, top five shopping strips and a big chunk on flea markets. LP, in fact all the guides, loves a box. LP has a surprisingly extensive section on shopping, including the best boutiques. KaDeWe, as much a tourist attraction as department store, is described as "Europe's second-largest consumer temple after Harrods of London" with a "legendary" gourmet food hall on the sixth floor.

They get the opening times right, too. If I'd relied on TO, which says that the store closes on Saturday afternoon, I'd have missed the live fish swimming around the tank at the fish counter, sipping a glass of champagne at the Moet bar and choosing some brightly coloured pasta and Portuguese wine. KaDeWe "has everything the consumer's heart desires" according to the RG, but TO is right in its assessment that apart from the food hall "the presentation is bad and much of the merchandise merely average".

The Verdict

Shocks all round. TO's supremacy is challenged by LP. TO still wins on the hotel front but LP is nipping at its heels in the style stakes. I'm relieved to find I'm still too young for DK - but it's not the turgid tome I expected. RG is too heavy, in every respect, for a city break.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com). Returns from Stansted start at £100.

Where to stay

Brandenburger Hof (00 49 30 214 050; www.brandenburger-hof.com) offers doubles from €245 (£175) , with breakfast.

Adlon Hotel Kempinski Berlin (00 49 30 2261-0; www.hotel-adlon.de) offers rooms from €370 (£264) per night, based on two sharing.

What to do

Borchardt, Franzosische Strasse 47, Mitte (00 49 30 2038 7110).

Le Cochin Bourgeois Fichtestrasse 24, Kreuzberg (00 49 30 693 0101).

Café am Neuen See Lichtensteinallee 2, Tiergarten (00 49 30 254 4930).

Wurgeengel, Wiener Strasse 14, Kreuzberg (00 49 30 615 5560).

KaDeWe, Tauentzienstr 21,

Schöneberg (00 49 30 21210).

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