My Rough Guide: Sally Bowles is long gone - but the beer's still superb

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Bargains of the trip

I like to think of them as the Berlin B's: Beer, Bread, Buttermilk and BMWs, four things of superlative quality you can pick up cheaply in the city. Beer, for example starts at about 12p for a half litre can and must by ancient law be free of artificial additives and preservatives. If you're freezing to death, check out the leather jacket shops around Zoo Station - you'll pay half UK prices, and styles are trendier than anything north of Milan.

Best discovery

Despite 50 years of German reconstruction and political correctness, I quickly noticed the heavy calibre machine gun bullet and mortar shell damage on some of the city's most public buildings: take a look at the Reichstag or the Siegessaule (both in the Tiergarten) and imagine the hell of the Battle of Berlin. I once lived near Tempelhof Airport and spotted the marks where the swastikas were pulled down in 1945.

Biggest mistake

Don't just stick to the centre: the west is mostly dull and, apart from the rebuilt 18th-century magnificence of Unter den Linden, the east is fairly grim. December isn't the best time but I reckon it would be criminal to miss the environs of Berlin such as the Grunewald, the large wooded area to the west of the centre (wonderful when covered with snow) or the Grosser Muggelsee to the east where you can hire skates and enjoy the restorative Berliner Luft - supposedly the cleanest air in northern Germany and in my experience the best hangover cure in the world.

Favourite meal

Being almost a vegetarian I was pleased to find that German cooking takes a back seat to most other European cuisines in Berlin, a result of the country's erstwhile immigration policy. Should you want to sample the indigenous nosh, head for a Gaststatte and try the Eisbein - boiled pig's trotters, a Berlin winter speciality. More delicate tums might prefer Neue Deutsche Kuche, Germany's answer to nouvelle cuisine, and usually delicious. My own favourite: any fish dish at Storch, an Alsace restaurant in the district of Schoneberg, once famous as a brothel.

Biggest letdown

Don't go in search of the Berlin of Isherwood's Sally Bowles, Georg Groz's Weimar decadence or David Bowie's Low era. I reckon that much of Berlin has about as much soul and atmosphere as Herne Bay on a Sunday afternoon, and there's little in the city's streets that's evocative of former times. Don't bother looking for that Wall either: all 200 miles of it were pulverised ASAP (save for a stretches at Neiderkirchner Strasse and at Bernauer Strasse) and used as road building material. I searched hard for my piece of the True Wall, but most bits on offer in the tourist shops are fake.

Best hotel

Isn't a hotel. I started my Berlin days by booking a room through one of the Mitwohnzentralen organisations, agencies which find rooms for any length of time and at any level of luxury. This was a good move, since I met some weird and wonderful people in my particular block of flats. If you do plump for a hotel, and someone else is paying, choose the rebuilt Hotel Adlon, slap bang next to the Brandenburg gate and arguably the most famous hotel in the country.

Favourite (essential) souvenir

I have never known any cold like that of a Berlin winter. If your politics allow it , the ex-Red Army officers' fur hats on sale around the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie wrap snugly around the head neck and ears, are magnificently warm and an imperative purchase if you intend visiting the city between now and March. An ex-Soviet officer told me that troops were not allowed to let down the ear flaps until the temperature dropped below minus 20C. To do so would be an affront to Soviet macho.

fact file

Getting there

British Airways (0345 444111) and Lufthansa (0345 737747) fly direct to Berlin with standard return fares starting from around pounds 220, but check for special mid-week deals. Of the independent flight retailers, try the German Travel Centre (0181 429 2900). Der Travel (0171 290 111) offers three night trips from pounds 329

Getting about

Berlin's huge public transport system is superb, safe and punctual to the second: use it to cover the longish distances between city sights, and ponder why the equivalents in the UK are crap.

Accommodation

Mitwohnzentralen agencies can be found at Kurfurstendamm 227-8 (883 051). The Mitwohnzentralen at Holsteinische Str. 55, (861 8222) has women- only apartments in addition to the usual services. The Hotel Adlon (22610) is at Unter den Linden 77: rooms from DM460.

Jack Holland wrote 'The Rough Guide to Berlin' with John Gawthrop and the forthcoming 'Rough Guide to Bangkok'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

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