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36 Hours in Berlin: Capturing the Spirit of a City in Flux

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“Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin.” This famous quote from former French culture minister Jack Lang is as true now as when he uttered the words back in 2001.

Berlin is unique among cities, because its story is so unlike most urban histories: A hub of glamour and hedonism during the roaring twenties, razed during World War II, and divided—politically and physically—in its aftermath.

Since the fall of the wall and the unification in 1989, change has been among the city’s only constants. Today, Berlin remains an evolving city blending restlessness and cultural shifts. Old ideas, spaces and concepts are revived and reinvented. The recent past, in all its complexity, is still a tangible part of contemporary life. The result is not only on the surface; it’s a feeling of flux, dynamism, and possibilities.

There are many places to soak up this singular spirit, from cafés and art galleries to restaurants and brewhouses. Exploring them offers the chance to get a deeper understanding of the essence of Berlin, regardless of how much time you have.

Berlin restaurant Lok6’s inventive menus are hidden away in a former train shed

A truly international city, the German capital attracts residents from every corner of the globe, with promises of a high quality of life and increasing opportunities from a vibrant startup scene. Despite this diversity, Berliners are united by their love of good coffee—a fact reflected in the speciality coffee scene, which has exploded in the last five years or so. Distrikt Coffee not only serves a superior brew, but is rare in that it also offers similarly high standards of breakfast and brunch. Locals flock here, especially at weekends, so it’s a great place to begin your immersion in Berlin.

After the end of the Cold War, old infrastructure lay abandoned across Berlin. Many of those spaces are now the object of some form of redevelopment, including Lok6, a restaurant located in a former train shed next to the renovated Gleisdreieck Park—itself once a desolate area near the East-West border. With its historical location, industrial interior and focus on quality, the neighbourhood eatery epitomises in many ways a microcosm of the modern city.

Contemporary art gallery Blain Southern in Berlin’s Potsdamer Strasse

Berlin’s contemporary art landscape is another defining characteristic. The newly unified city attracted artists with affordable rents, an abundance of space that could be used for studios, and an open-minded ‘anything goes’ approach. An influx of creative pioneers built the foundations for a thriving community that continues to draw in artists from across the world. Blain Southern showcases internationally renowned artists, and is one of an increasing number of galleries setting up shop on Potsdamer Strasse, where a vibrant new gallery district is emerging.

Across town in the hip district of Neukölln, the Kindl Centre for Contemporary Art is yet another example of the repurposing of former industrial buildings. This old red-brick brewery has been transformed into a sprawling gallery, opened fully in 2016. It’s worth visiting for its dramatic architecture as well the arresting contemporary art exhibitions within. You can even drink coffee among the old brewing vats.

Neukölln’s Ryoko is one of the most refined new salons in Berlin

Immediately after WWII, West Berlin employed vast numbers of migrant workers to help rebuild the city. Many came from Turkey, and stayed to build new lives as well. Today, Berlin is home to the largest population of Turkish people outside of Turkey, and this multicultural influence can be across the city felt in numerous ways, from food to fashion to wellness. The opulent Sultan Hamam, for example, is the perfect place to experience a traditional Turkish bath. For a different yet equally international treatment, Ryoko offers massages, facials and meditation sessions that have become sought-after across Berlin.

Berlin concept store Fundamental specialises in high-end furniture inspired by geometry & the mathematics of nature – image courtesy of Fundamental

Although Berlin is still building up its reputation as a shopping destination, its artistic spirit has overflowed into fashion design and creative craftsmanship. Unique offerings are now available in some stores providing niche platforms for design talent. The designer-run studio-slash-shop AA-Collected seeks to connect consumers with designers, and you can even chat with them about supply chains and production processes. Fundamental sells luxurious geometric furniture inspired by the mathematics of nature. And Of/Berlin offers alternatives to the usual Berlin souvenirs and visitor experiences, all by local creators.

No aspect of Berlin’s culture better represents the city’s ascent than the varied spectrum of its food scene. Until relatively recently, residents had to look outside the city for true innovation. Then, almost overnight, things changed. World-class restaurants, once the exception, have become the rule, with both international and regional cuisine available to newly elevated standards.

The aesthetics of Berlin’s Ernst 12-seater restaurant reflect the Chef’s refined menu – images courtesy of Gonzalez-Haase

One of the most exciting such openings is Ernst. Created by an up-and-coming Chef Dylan Watson-Brawn, who trained at Tokyo’s Ryugin, René Redzepi’s Noma and Daniel Humm’s Elevan Madison, Ernst offers a mere 12 seats. Devoted to exceptional ingredients simply prepared for the single purpose of the one evening set menu , Ernst has been fêted as a candidate for consideration as Berlin’s first true destination restaurant. Here, walk-ins and traditional reservations are replaced with the simplicity of a ticket system.

In a similar vein, Lode & Stijn is another must for gourmets. Set in a residential corner of Kreuzberg, the restaurant is small and unassuming, but has achieved acclaim for its focus on simple food drawing from a range of influences.

German cuisine has a reputation as heavy, but the stereotypes tend to detract from its interesting combinations of textures and flavours. The recently opened, PeterPaul, offers an ingenious solution, borrowing from the tapas concept to present the spectrum of national dishes in small, manageable portions.

When it comes to nightlife, Berlin can truly shine. Ever since the 1990s, when the authorities offered tax breaks to entertainment venues to boost the economy, bars and clubs have been central to local culture. Even a simple after-dinner drink will lets you get to know this side of the city. Local craft beer brewer, Brlo (the ancient Slavic word for Berlin) has recently opened a brewhouse and bar made from old shipping containers. For a taste of tradition, the Green Door holds almost mythical status. With a retro-kitsch atmosphere, long list of cocktails and hard-to-find location, there’s no better setting to contemplate the city of Berlin and its compelling contrasts.

The Concierge team at InterContinental Berlin can help with additional suggestions and arranging your journey.

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