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Paris has its romantic charms and Rome its ancient beauty, but there is only one metropolis that has the frenzied beating heart of Europe. It’s a city that has been at the center of the most profound historical moments of the past hundred years and has somehow emerged as a dynamic, cosmopolitan and trend-setting modern marvel. For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Adee Braun takes us to her favorite European city, where the nights are long, the beers are big and the wurst is plentiful. We’re headed to Berlin.
Berlin is a reinvention story incarnate. After being nearly flattened by the Allied Forces in World War II, then split in two and with half the city cut off under Communist rule, Berlin has reemerged as a world capital, and the heart of Europe’s economic engine and creative driver. Yet Berlin’s duality still remains today – it is sobering and kinetic, historic and trendy, and never, ever dull. Walking around this energetic capital, it sometimes feels as if Berlin is a new world city retrofitted into the remains of an old one. Gleaming modern towers mingle with elaborate street art and appropriated ruins. Nearly 25 years after the fall of the Wall in 1989, today’s Berlin is Europe’s hip young scene setter with an international flair and an unpretentious vibe.
WHAT TO DO
Berlin is the European Union’s second most populous city, with hundreds of museums, galleries, historic sites and many unique neighborhoods to explore, Berlin can overwhelm even the most ambitious visitor. But with a relatively concentrated city center (Mitte) and a fantastic public transportation system, Berlin is primed for exploring.
As the last surviving one of Berlin’s 18 city gates, the Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most iconic monuments. Once the grand symbol of Cold War division, today Berliners and visitors alike can freely pass through this triumphal arch on their way to Unter den Linden, the Tiergarten, the Reichstag or the nearby Holocaust Memorial.
The German parliament, the Bundestag, is housed in the historic Reichstag building, which has been retrofitted with a glass dome designed by Norman Foster. Visitors can take in the spectacular views for free, but it’s best to pre-book as spots fill up quickly. Otherwise you can try to get tickets at the visitor service center next to the Berlin Pavilion up to two hours prior to your visit. You can also dine with views at the rooftop restaurant, reservations required.
Stretching out like a stoic Champs Elysees, Unter den Linden is the linden tree-lined grand boulevard that runs through Mitte from Brandenburg Tor to Museum Island. Along the way are many monumental buildings that were somehow spared war-time destruction including several embassies, the Berlin State Opera, the State Library, Humboldt University, the Neue Wache War Memorial and the Crown Prince’s Palace.
Though much of Berlin’s physical history has been decimated over the course of two world wars, deliberately demolished (Hitler’s bunker is now a parking lot) or simply neglected under Communist rule, some key sights remain. Checkpoint Charlie was the crossing point from East Berlin to the American sector and the site of a tense standoff between US and Soviet tanks in 1961. Today it is a major tourist destination where nostalgic visitors can be seen whizzing by on their Trabi Safari (a cult car from the East) GDR-themed tours.
The dismantling of the Wall in 1989 after 28 years was a speedy affair and today surprisingly little of it is left. Of the nearly 100 miles that once surrounded West Berlin, only 240 yards still stand. There are several spots to see the graffitied concrete slabs up close including at The Berlin Wall Memorial, which commemorates those who died crossing the Wall and includes a section of the Wall itself along with a preserved watch tower and other remains of the tightly controlled border. A 1.3-mile stretch of the Wall also remains along Mühlenstrasse, by the Spree River. Today it is the East Side Gallery, the world’s largest open-air gallery, and artists from all over the world have left their mark here, including Dmitri Vrubel who painted his iconic mural of communist leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locking lips.
For a sense of state control efforts away from the Wall, visit the Stasimuseum where the surveillance tactics of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, are exhibited. The Stasi legacy lives on in the tiny holes still found in East Berlin apartments where bugs were planted to spy on suspected traitors. To get an immersive sense of the fate of political prisoners under the Third Reich, visit the Plötzensee Memorial Center, a prison that became notorious as the site of nearly 3,000 executions.
In the wake of reunification, artists flocked to East Berlin for the cheap rents and high energy. Today Berlin’s art scene may not be as gritty as in those heady days, but the city showcases art from every corner of the world, in every size, shape and style imaginable. Conveniently, there is an entire island devoted to art museums, aptly called Museum Island. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to five monumental museums including the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), the Altes Museum (Old Museum) originally built to house the royal art collection, the Neues Museum (New Museum) with an impressive Egyptian collection, the Bode Museum known for its eclectic Byzantine art and the Pergamon Museum. On the west side of the city, the birth of modernism is on view at the Bauhaus Archiv, a compact collection of art and design from the Bauhaus school. Two millennia of German Jewish history is displayed at the Jewish Museum Berlin housed in Daniel Libeskind’s striking Postmodern addition built for the museum in 1999. There are over 170 galleries and museums across Berlin, check out Berlin.de for a complete list.
Reunified Berlin is perhaps best exemplified at Potsdamer Platz, a bustling intersection and transportation hub just south of Brandenburger Tor (the German name for Brandenburg Gate), which was entirely destroyed during WWII and left to languish throughout the Cold War. In 1991, the government sponsored a high-profile contest to redevelop the area and reconnect the city’s two halves. As a result, Italian architect Renzo Piano was charged with reimagining a large part of the new development. Today the square is the site of a large cluster of glass structures, including the Sony Center, several malls, cafes, restaurants, loft apartments and a casino. Visitors can take the fastest elevator in Europe up the Kollhoff Tower to take in the views over the square and across the sprawling city. For a 360-degree view, head up the Berliner Fernsehturm, the iconic TV tower at Alexanderplatz across the river. At 1207 feet high (or 368 meters), it is Germany’s tallest construction. The lines can be long on a clear day, so it’s best to buy tickets early. The restaurant and bar on the observation deck offers dramatic city views in a sleek wrap-around dining room.
For a refreshing break, head to the leafy Tiergarten. Once a hunting ground, today it is Berlin’s largest park and houses many government institutions including the Bundestag. The Berlin Zoological Garden on the southwest corner of the Tiergarten is the oldest zoo in Germany and is home to 19,500 animals on 84 acres. For a more royal recreational experience, go farther west to Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin’s largest palace with surrounding Versailles-inspired gardens.
WHERE TO EAT
Berlin’s dynamism extends to its eateries and nightlife. Between beer gardens, techno clubs, currywurst stalls and Michelin-starred restaurants, there is something to fit every taste and budget.
At VAU, Michelin-starred chef Kolja Kleeberg cooks up French classics with German flavors near Gendarmenmarkt. The seafood-heavy menu features regional ingredients with some surprising international inclusions such as ponzu, cassava and Laotian pepper. For a quick lunch, head to Joseph-Roth-Diele for a hearty sandwich or daily special in an ambient 1920s dining room. Named for the Austrian Jewish writer, the restaurant embraces its literary roots with walls covered in bookshelves and author quotes. You’ll find a more rustic lunch experience at Lokal where, as the name suggests, local ingredients and even materials – the wood for the tables is locally sourced – are center stage. The menu is simple, fresh and changes weekly.
Like any good European city, Berlin has an abundance of cafes. And with the German predilection for pastries, you are never far from a good excuse to stop for coffee and a strudel. German cheesecake (made with quark and none of that cream cheese business) is the main attraction at Oliv Cafe, along with croissants, fruit crumbles, tarts and other pan-European delicacies. Coffee, sandwiches and quiches are also on the menu, making this a good option for a quick caffeine boost, a light breakfast or lunch. For a traditional treat, check out Konditorei und Cafe Buchwald, a family-run bakery specializing in Baumkuchen, a cylindrical layered-cake baked over a fire that is popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Here it is glazed with a layer of apricot jam and covered in icing or chocolate to be enjoyed either in the tea salon or out in the garden overlooking the Spree. Experience nineteenth-century refinement at the Viennese-style Café Einstein in an elegant villa offering Austrian classics and house-roasted coffee. They serve breakfast all day long so you can enjoy an herb omelette with feta cheese and homemade bread anytime you like.
New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Berlin is no slouch either. Berlin’s nightlife gets rolling around 2 am and goes on well into early morning. For an immersive Berlin party experience, techno fans head to Berghain/Panoramabar where local and international DJs play in a cavernous former power plant. For a decidedly mellower night out, try Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest beer garden. During the warm months Prater’s shaded picnic benches are packed with beer-loving Berliners chatting and munching on a selection of classic German beer food like Wiener Schnitzel and meatballs. Club der Visionaere is another relaxed and rustic experience offering drinks, food, music and lounging all on a picturesque spot by the River Spree. Sun yourself on the deck and stay into the night nursing a beer under the illuminated weeping willow. Head up to the pizzeria for a bite and back down for some dancing.
Have more suggestions of what to see and do? Share them in the comments below!
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Berlin has two major airports: Schönefeld Airport (SXF), the smaller of the two, is located in southeast Berlin about 14 miles from the city center and Tegel Airport (TXL) in northwest Berlin about 6 miles from the center. The long-awaited opening of the Brandenburg Airport, meant to replace both Schönefeld and Tegel, has been delayed for several years and still has no projected opening date.
Berlin is the hub for Air Berlin and is also a major airport for Europe. Lufthansa is the flag carrier of Germany, but is based in Frankfurt.
Star Alliance: United Airlines flies direct to Tegel from New York (this is a Lufthansa codeshare, but operated by United). Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, SAS and Swiss all fly to Berlin.
Oneworld: Air Berlin offers direct flights from Chicago, Miami and New York, as well as seasonal service to Los Angeles. British Airways and Finnair also have frequent service.
SkyTeam: Air France and KLM service Berlin as well.
Both Tegel and Schönefeld airports are well connected to public transit by regular buses and express buses. The TLX and X9 JetExpressBuses connect to Tegel from many major S-Bahn stations like Alexanderplatz and Brandenburger Tor, as do the 129 and 109 buses. The S9 and S45 S-Bahn lines stop at Flughafen Schönefeld, a five-minute walk to the main Schönefeld terminal. The Airport Express from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) is another option to get to Schönefeld and takes about half an hour. There are also a number of other express and regular bus options.
Radisson Blu Hotel, Berlin: This 427-room hotel situated on the River Spree in Mitte surprisingly features the world’s largest cylindrical saltwater aquarium – quite a distinction – and guests are greeted by the towering AquaDom upon entering the lobby. The rooms have contemporary finishes and offer either interior views of the AquaDom or of the Berlin skyline, and there is complimentary WiFi access throughout the hotel. At the Splash “well-being” spa guests can enjoy the pool, sauna, steam bath and fitness room. The Atrium Lobby Lounge & Bar sits right under the AquaDom providing a dreamy setting for pastries and cocktails. For dinner, Restaurant HEat offers a full menu of pan-European dishes. Room rates start at 114 EUR ($148) or 44,000 Gold Points per night in July.
There are several other Club Carlson options including Park Plaza Wallstreet Berlin Mitte, Park Plaza Prenzlauer Berg Berlin, Art’otel Berlin Kudamm by Park Plaza, Art’otel Berlin City Center West by Park Plaza, Art’otel Berlin-Mitte by Park Plaza, Park Inn by Radisson Berlin Alexanderplatz and Park Inn by Radisson Berlin City-West.
Hilton Berlin: This large and centrally located 601-room behemoth on Berlin’s historic Gendarmenmarkt Square has a sleek and inviting lobby. Standard guest rooms are on the small side (269 square feet) with contemporary furnishings in neutral tones. All rooms have WiFi access for a fee but it is complimentary in the public areas. Guests can enjoy the compact fitness center and indoor pool. The hotel’s four on-site restaurants include Restaurant Beletage, which serves up Germanesque fare and offers spectacular views of the Gendarmenmarkt. Room rates start at 109 EUR ($141) per night in July. This is a Category 7 property requiring 50,000 Hilton HHonors points (30,000 to 60,000 points seasonally) per night.
Waldorf Astoria Berlin: This hotel has 232 guest rooms and suites and makes up for its bustling but uninspired location by the zoo with first-class amenities and services. Just opened in January, this is the first Waldorf Astoria in Germany. The rooms have luxurious bathrooms with heated floors and a flatscreen TV embedded in the mirror, but there is a charge for WiFi. Designed in an eclectic mix of modern styles, the hotel boasts two notable restaurants: Les Solistes run by Michelin-starred French chef, Pierre Gagnaire, and the Romanisches Café, a recreation of the historic bohemian establishment. Peacock Alley in the hotel lobby offers afternoon tea and the Lang Bar has a deco atmosphere for sipping cocktails. The hotel also houses a spa created by the French cosmetic brand Guerlain offering massage treatments, a pool, whirlpool and fitness room. Room rates start at 195 EUR ($253) per night in July. This hotel is a Category 8 hotel requiring 50,000 Hilton HHonors points (40,000 to 70,000 points seasonally) per night.
Another Hilton option is the Hampton by Hilton Berlin City West located a few blocks from the Waldorf Astoria.
Grand Hyatt Berlin: This 342-room hotel is located in Mitte right near Potsdamer Platz. The interior design is an East-West blend of minimalism with Japanese and Bauhaus elements. The uncluttered rooms are somewhat sparse and only the first 30 minutes of WiFi are complimentary, but rooms include spacious marble bathrooms with spa tubs. The Club Olympus Spa & Fitness Centre sits on the top floor so you can burn off that bratwurst while gazing over Berlin. A 2,500-square-foot terrace wraps around the outside of the hotel offering more city views. The hotel’s dining choices include the Vox Restaurant and Bar with over 240 selections of whisky, the Tizian Lounge featuring regional and international cuisine and the German inspired Mesa Restaurant. Room rates start at 144.50 EUR ($191 ) per night in July. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points per night.
Berlin Marriott Hotel: This 370-room property is conveniently located in between the Tiergarten and Potsdamer Platz. Rooms are simply designed with flatscreen TV’s and streamlined bathrooms; there is a fee for WiFi. Dining options consist of the Midtown Grill, an American-style steakhouse, and the Lobby Lounge, which offers coffee and light meals. The hotel also boasts the Catwalk Bar, a fashion-themed bar where director’s chairs replace barstool and the walls are covered with headshots. The bar hosts live DJ acts and offers drinks and snacks that are definitely not model-friendly (e.g. chicken wings with blue cheese). Room rates start at 111 EUR ($144) per night in July. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 30,000 points per night.
Other Marriott options include the Courtyard Berlin City Center, a standard Marriott a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, and the more luxurious Ritz-Carlton Berlin (also part of American Express’ Fine Hotels & Resorts loyalty program).
InterContinental Berlin: Also near the river and a few blocks from the Tiergarten, this hotel has 558 minimalist and relatively spacious rooms with marble bathrooms and funky spotlighting. Some rooms have views of the nearby Berlin Zoo or Alexanderplatz. WiFi is complimentary in the public areas for the first hour or guests can pay for unlimited in-room usage. The large wood-paneled spa facility includes an inviting pool, whirlpool and solarium area. There is also a fitness center and a sauna, though it costs 15 EUR ($20) to use. The hotel houses two restaurants including the Hugos Gourmet Restaurant, which was awarded a Michelin star. The L.A. Cafe features regional specialties and is open for all meals. The Marlene bar, named for the Berliner starlet, serves up cocktails and the Cigar and Rum Lounge offers a seat by the fireplace for a contemplative drink. Room rates start at 117 EUR ($152) or 35,000 Priority Club Reward Points per night in July.
Hotel Indigo Berlin Centre – Alexanderplatz: From the outside, this 153-room hotel is just another charmless and indistinct building in Mitte, but once through the lobby doors guests will discover a modern and funky urban escape. The colorful rooms are small but have some unexpected quirks like poured concrete headboards and free landline phone calls to the US, China and a handful of European countries, along with complimentary WiFi and rain showers in the bathrooms. There is a fitness center but no pool. The hotel’s Entrecôte Restaurant serves seasonal and regional dishes in a metallic dining room and the bar lounge offers cocktails and other refreshments. Room rates start at 85 EUR ($110) or 20,000 Priority Club Reward Points per night in July.
There is one other Indigo Hotel in Berlin near the zoo, the Hotel Indigo Berlin – Ku’damm. There are many other Priority Club options including six Holiday Inns at Alexanderplatz, Mitte, City Centre East-Prenzlauer Allee, City East-Landsberger Allee, City West and one at the Schönefeld Airport. There are also two Holiday Inn Expresses at City Centre and City Centre-West, as well as the Crowne Plaza Berlin City Centre.
The Westin Grand Berlin: Also in Mitte, this 400-room, recently renovated East German hotel is centrally located on Friedrichstraße down the block from Unter den Linden. With its soaring interior courtyard and grand staircase, the lobby betrays little of the hotel’s bleak original design. Guest rooms are more understated with contemporary furnishings and muted tones. Some rooms face the hotel’s garden, which is a nice escape from the bustling neighborhood. The Emotions Spa offers beauty and spa services, and features a gym, pool, whirlpool and sauna. Forgot your running shoes? New Balance will get you geared up free of charge so you can go running in nearby Tiergarten. Breakfast is served at Restaurant Coelln and dinner and lunch at the Relish Restaurant & Bar featuring French and Asian cuisine with seasonal ingredients. Coffee and drinks are served to the tune of live piano music at the lobby bar. Room rates start at 129 EUR ($167) or 10,000 Starpoints per night in July.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome Berlin: Located on Bebelplatz off Unter den Linden, this 146-room hotel is a renovated grand neo-classical building that was once the head office of Dresdner Bank. Standard rooms are modern with classic finishes decorated in one of three colors (red, blue or beige). Some rooms have exceptionally high ceilings and others have balconies with views of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and other nearby sights. WiFi is complimentary with online booking. The interior of the hotel is an eclectic mix of early and mid-century styles with only a few hints of its past, such as the former jewel vault that is now the spa with a gym, Finnish sauna, steam bath and a terrace open for sunbathing. The hotel’s Parioli restaurant is open for all meals and serves Italian and pan-European cuisine in a stoic, bank-inspired dining room. From June 1-September 26 when you book through Amex Platinum, you get even more perks including a fourth night free, a space-available room upgrade, complimentary breakfast, late-checkout and a 85 EUR food credit. Room rates start at 243 EUR ($322) in July.
Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin: Before it was destroyed in the war, the Hotel Adlon Kempinski was the city’s premier luxury hotel and today the 382 Art Deco-style rooms with marble bathrooms and complimentary WiFi reflect the hotel’s elegant past. Rebuilt in 1997, the hotel is once again a destination on Pariser Platz located a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate. Amenities at the hotel (which is also part of Visa Signature Hotels) include a spa and gym facilities, hair salon, pool and Jacuzzi. The hotel also boasts the two-Michelin-star-winning Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer restaurant featuring European cuisine. Guests can choose from three additional dining options and five different bars and lounges including the restaurant-turned after hours club, FELIX. Room rates start at 216 EUR ($419) per night in July.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
The Regent Berlin: This is another elegant hotel (also an Amex Fine Hotel & Resort) off of Unter den Linden with 156 guest rooms and 39 suites. The Regent offers classic luxury from the moment you step into the chandeliered lobby to the moment you step out of your marbled shower. Rooms are spacious and decorated with traditional motifs and Biedermeier furniture, and amenities that include a flatscreen TV and soaking tub. The hotel has a spa, fitness center and sauna, and even has its own smartphone app. The two Michelin-starred Fischers Fritz Restaurant offers European dishes in a wood-paneled dining room and the Regent Bar serves cocktails in cushioned arm chairs or out in the shady courtyard. Room rates start at 206 EUR ($275) in July.