Three Perfect Days in Berlin
Say "Berlin" and a host of images come to mind: the "Cabaret" decadence of the prewar period, the devastation of World War II, the grandeur of the Brandenburg Gate and the tragedy and triumphant fall of the Berlin Wall. Depending on your age and musical tastes, Berlin may make you think of Marlene Dietrich in top and tails singing "Falling in Love Again" or David Bowie's video "Heroes."
These images all draw on Berlin's rich and long cultural history. You can hit many of the highlights in three days if you start with the list of sights here. A city of art as well as commerce, it has long been associated with the avant garde: Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus, the artists and performers of the Weimar Republic, and the young Germans who decided to "tear down that wall" and replace it with an art gallery.
A trip to Berlin is a visit to a living city that contradicts itself at every turn: sophisticated and naive; luxury-laden and art-house humble.
Sights to See and Sounds to Hear
There's no better place to start your visit to the many layers of Berlin than at one of its most iconic sites, the Brandenburg Gate. Built from 1788 to 1791, the gate was modeled on the Propylaea in Athens, but it's all that has taken place in the more than two hundred years since then that puts it at the top of any Berlin must-see list. From Cold War speeches to concerts by U2 and Peter Gabriel, it has been the backdrop to many key moments in the city's history. Don't overlook the small "Room of Silence" (to the right of the gate when you are facing the chariot atop it), a meditative space at the heart of the city.
Continue your exploration of Berlin's history at the East Gallery. This is a 1.3 km long area of the former wall that divided East and West Berlin. The 105 paintings by artists from Germany and all over the world were painted in 1990 on the east side of the Wall. You'll see work from artists like Jürgen Grosse (alias INDIANO), Dimitri Vrubel, Siegfrid Santoni, Bodo Sperling, Kasra Alavi, Kani Alavi, Jim Avignon, Thierry Noir, Ingeborg Blumenthal, Ignasi Blanch i Gisbert, and Kim Prisu. Take pictures, because some of the art is eroding and some has been removed — an issue that caused a firestorm in the art world.
In Berlin's world of contradictions, the art of the ancient world is on display at the "new" or Neues Museum on Berlin's famed "Museum Island." The 1843-55 building designed by Friedrich August Stüler was bombed in World War II and in ruins until the 1980s. A thorough restoration started in 2003, helmed by British architect David Chipperfield, who left some chips and cracks unpatched as reminders of the "scars of war."
Inside you'll find three museums within a museum: the collection of Egyptian art from the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, prehistoric objects from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, and classical antiquities from the Antikensammlung. The famed bust sculpture of Nefertiti is here, along with other pieces from the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaton.
Insiders know that the Neues Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Berlin, and the lines to get in are long. Come just before closing time on Thursday when the museum is open until 8 p.m. and head straight for Nefertiti. Like Berlin, she's wears the scars of time well.
Art of the flickering worlds of film and television are on display at Berlin's Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Museum for Film and Television). The permanent exhibit "Film" takes visitors through 1,000 exhibits in 13 halls, from the beginnings of silent movies through the classic era of German Expressionist cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis) to the museum's world-renowned Marlene Dietrich collection. It includes 130 objects, including costumes and personal letters, from the diva who left Berlin before World War II but who was never forgotten here.
Berlin's well-heeled in-crowders also fill the tables at the fabled Restaurant Tim Raue, where Asian cuisine gets two Michelin stars and décor is as minimally chic as the food. Raue is a food legend in Berlin. A tough kid from a hardscrabble area, he saved his money and went to restaurants to taste rather than clubs to party. He and his wife opened Raue in 2010 and then two other restaurants, Sra Bua at the Hotel Adlon and La Soupe Populaire, a “home cooking" restaurant. At Raue, you'll have better luck booking at lunchtime (anything lobster is always awesome), and if you want to get a feel for what you'll find there, stop in at Sra Bua, where the price points are lower.
Art also surrounds you at the Bauhaus Café. You'll be dining outside one of the primary repositories for this quintessentially German art movement: The Bauhaus Archives. The distinctive building has been used in recent sci-fi flicks like V for Vendetta and Aeon Flux. The café is also a local landmark, and the best way to visit is to go for brunch, when you'll get admission, a guided tour, and a meal for one price.
Art (and David Bowie) are both part of the history of the French bistro Paris Bar in the upscale Charlottenburg. When Bowie and his partner-in-crime Iggy Pop lived in Berlin, they were often seen munching on steak frites at the café. There's also a nice collection of art on the walls donated by the painter Martin Kippenberger, who painted the bar itself — an instance of art and life mixing here in the city where the two are inexorably intertwined.
Film lovers will want to find a berth in Berlin in the city's famed Hotel Adlon. The Adlon, a grande dame 19th Century fantasy, was the inspiration for author Viki Baum's novel Grand Hotel, which became the famous Greta Garbo film. The Adlon has retained all of that old world glamour. The hotel, now a Kempinski property, is the very definition of posh. The hushed footfall on plush carpet, the tinkling of glasses in the lobby and the exquisite service standard the Adlon is known for a hefty but worth-it-if-you-can-afford-it price tag. After check in, get a copy of the Adlon's little "Insider Guide" that gives hotel staffers' personal recommendations about the city.
The Ellington Hotel in the former art deco jazz club where Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played is another example of Berlin's layered history. The new hotel is housed in the building that was once the jazz age "Badewanne" club and also the 80s era "Dschungel Disco" and boasts a building facade from the 20s that goes on forever—framed in brass and built by the avant-guard architect Erich Mendelsohn.
Stay here and immerse yourself in Berlin's famously sophisticated brand of sensual pleasure. Gin and tonics on the hotel's terrace in the summer is a must. The hotel also has its own jazz radio station. If you go for drinks at the bar at 6 pm when it airs, you can watch the show from your stool.
Style is what's on display at the newly opened Soho House, the exclusive club where you don't have to be a member to stay.
The hotel opened in 2010 and has counted George Clooney amongst the glitterati staying in its suites and congregating on Friday nights at the pool party at its rooftop bar. There's sink-in-to-your-armpits lounge chairs, dark corners where anything can happen and a cool crowd that makes the hotel perfect for inspired social climbers who want to meet the “in volk" in Berlin.
Interested in booking travel? Learn more about Berlin through our professionally curated travel guides available to Chase Freedom®, Chase Sapphire and Ink® from Chase cardmembers through Ultimate Rewards®.
Not yet a Cardmember? Explore the premium travel rewards of Chase Sapphire Preferred®.
John Newton is the Senior Editor, Branded Content at AFAR Media. He was previously a senior editor at both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel+Leisure and has written travel stories for many other outlets.