Our original plan was to stay at the legendary Adlon Hotel right next to the Brandenburg Gate. But an online search several months before the trip landed us an incredible deal at the Regent Hotel off the Gendarmenmarkt. The Regent also turned out to be a perfect location from which to discover old East Berlin. We could get to most places by foot—the Museuminsel with all its museums, the Brandenburg Gate, the famous street Unter den Linden. And what we couldn’t get to on foot, we reached with public transportation.
The street car and underground stations are all over the city and only a block from the hotel. (It’s worth investing in the six Euro day ticket if you plan on going to more than one location.) And we really lucked out because the General Manager, Stefan Athmann, also happened to be one of the best connected people in Berlin. He’s a living, breathing rolodex of all the right galleries, sites and restaurants in town — the ones NOT in the guide books, but the ones that you must experience.
For example, Berlin’s most famous shopping might be at KaDeWe on Kurfurstendamm, but the coolest shopping is the area in the old East around the Hackesche Hofe, a charming art nouveau courtyard complex. Its eight interconnected courtyards are lined with little boutiques showcasing the crafts and fashions of local designers and artists. Not a Benetton, Zara or Gap in sight! And right outside the entrance to the courtyards is the Hackesche Market, filled with good cafes and restaurants… and tons of shopping all around the area. My friends told me the Euro would go further in the old East, and while I have no proof of that, it did feel as if the bargains were better and the restaurants a little bit less expensive.
There were places I didn’t get to on this visit, places I have remembered as special from my childhood: the family picnics to the Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), school trips to Charlottenburg Palace, bike rides through the Gruenewald. But they were all places in the West, and this trip was about the East. Perhaps the most astonishing discovery was how the two sides have melded and integrated over the past 24 years, yet still maintained their distinct characters. But with time, my guess is, those will be less noticeable as well.
Meanwhile, Berlin is a pulsing, exciting city, one perhaps that will forever be engaged in the act of redefining itself. Sitting in the heart of Europe, it’s a great vantage point to observe its post-Cold War evolution, with its waves of immigrants coming in to now leave their mark on the city. One of its former mayors called Berlin “poor, but sexy,” and if sexy includes gritty, exciting, and elegant all in one, I would have to concur. As my parents used to tell us about great experiences and places in the world, “run, don’t walk.” That, ultimately, is my advice about a visit to Berlin.
For another historic look at Berlin, don’t miss, Revisiting the Berlin Wall 20 Years Later.
By Alexandra Gleysteen for PeterGreenberg.com