48 Hours in Berlin: Sleep Not Included
"Divine decadence darling!" exclaims Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," the film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s book "The Berlin Stories," that recounts the city’s libertine debauchery between the world wars. Before the depression, the super-inflation, and constant street battles between Communists and Nationalists that led to the rise of Hitler and the country’s eventual bifurcation, Berlin reigned supreme as the world’s most wicked major city.
The postwar division among the Allied powers cast a particularly dark cloud over Berlin, which was brutally cut in half - the Berlin Wall appeared seemingly overnight in 1961. When it was finally torn down in 1989, a new Germany was born. And nowhere was the spirit of a fresh beginning and of endless possibilities more present than in the restored capital of a united Germany.
Today, the spirit of Sally Bowles is alive and kicking. Whether you’re stumbling upon a hidden lounge behind an unmarked door on a loading dock or gaping at acres of custom-designed fetish wear available in shop after shop, Berlin is guaranteed to bring out the naughty in you. This historic metropolis of 3.5 million also supplies plenty that you can relate to the family back home.
But it’s the dark past colliding with unbridled freedom of expression that has resulted in Berlin’s post-unification creative burst. Art galleries, pop-up shops, independent bookstores and coffeehouses seem to be everywhere - because they are. Museums and memorials offering vivid reminders of the atrocities of the war, as well as stories of survival, offer opportunities for reflection.
The reinvention of a city where, until barely more than two decades ago, citizens could be shot simply for crossing a street from one sector to another, has resulted in a youthful metropolis that is throbbing and vital, and a nightlife scene that makes New York or Los Angeles look like religious boarding schools.
My challenge: I was going to "do" Berlin in 48 hours. That’s right. Two days to take in a city that has seen thousands of years of history; been the center of empires; fostered some of the world’s greatest artists, scientists, philosophers and politicians; and boasts spectacular monumental architecture. But even spending a mere 48 hours in the capital will give you a taste of its art and history, and of Sally’s "divine decadence."
7:30 p.m. (U.S. East Coast Time) to 7:30 a.m. (Berlin Time)
Unless you’re willing to pay €15 to reserve an economy seat, flying airberlin can be a gamble, which in my case does not pay off. Sandwiched between two passengers for the seven-hour flight, I arrive at Berlin Tegel Airport without sleeping a wink. And the rather drab airport does not lift my spirits.
Fortunately, traveling to and from Berlin will become a bit more glamorous in late 2013, when Berlin Brandenburg Airport is scheduled to open. Estimated costs for the new hub for airberlin and focus airport for Lufthansa have already exceeded €4 billion.
The Westin Grand, Berlin
A quick taxi ride from the airport takes me to the Westin Grand, a 400-room property completely renovated in 2008. In the heart of the Mitte district, it offers easy access to shopping and public transportation. The hotel has partnered with New Balance and will lend running shoes for a nominal €5. Not likely for me, but I may take advantage of the emotion Spa, which includes whirlpool, sauna and indoor pool.
Mein Haus am See (Brunnenstrabe 197)
Forget Starbucks. You’re in Mittel Europe now. A quick stop at this trendy coffee shop is the perfect spot for a pick-me-up - and possibly a pick-up among the flirty and chatty locals. The café’s spirited atmosphere lingers throughout the day and into the night, when it morphs into a hip lounge.
What was the most famous crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War has become an overcrowded tourist destination with souvenir shops and actors dressed in military costume. But you can still sense the drama that unfolded there, such as the 1962 shooting of Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old East Berlin would-be refugee who bled to death in front of hundreds of witnesses. The stele erected in his memory is a chilling reminder of the value of freedom.
Lunch at Fritz 101
It’s time for some hearty German fare, but don’t be fooled: Fritz 101 takes classic dishes to new heights. You can get wild with interesting preparations such as goose leg with cabbage and potato dumplings or homemade venison sausage with chestnut purée. Not one to discriminate, I opt for the Plate of Sausages, which includes samplings of Regensburger, Nuremberger and the "Bavarian Flitzer."
Can’t make up your mind? Pack your Lipitor and sample some of the menu’s smaller dishes exemplifying Germany’s diverse culinary traditions. "Obazda" (a Bavarian cheese and butter spread) and "Fränkischer" sausage salad with alpine cheese may appear delicate on the plate but will stick with you the rest of the day.
Covering more than two centuries of social change, the Schwules Museum is a fascinating exploration of gay culture and survival in the city that gave rise to the first burst of the 20th-century gay rights movement before the Nazis’ brutal suppression. The permanent collection includes original paper works, personal biographies, costumes, artwork and photography. The museum’s move to new digs at the end of March will triple its exhibition space and allow the collection to include more lesbian and transgender content.
Fassbender & Rausch Chocolatiers
Since my only pick-up thus far is a Schwules Museum guide to 200 years of gay history (live models not included), I decide to satisfy my sweet tooth at one of the city’s most prestigious chocolate shops. Two historical German houses of Chocolate, Fassbender (founded in 1863) and Rausch (founded in 1890) joined forces in 1999 to establish Fassbender & Rausch Chocolatiers at the Gendamenmarkt. Family-run for four generations, the company now produces more than 300 varieties of confectionary delights. A visit to the "Pralinentheke" also reveals a rotating display of chocolate models, ranging from the Brandenburg Gate to the Titanic. The ejaculating chocolate volcano is a pleasant runner-up to the real thing, but my time in Berlin isn’t over yet.
Forget the velvet rope and red carpet - this isn’t Los Angeles, and nobody is watching. Berliners pride themselves on accessibility (if you can find where you’re going) and their earthy bohemian attitude. I walk through the bowels of the Westin Grand’s loading dock and garbage dumpsters to get to the unmarked door of Cookies Cream, a high-end vegetarian restaurant and nightclub. The three-course menu sets me back €36, but I can now say that I ate stewed black carrots and buckwheat risotto among Berlin’s fashionistas. The signature dessert, Cookies Cream, is an odd combination of pistachio-mascarpone ice cream, olives and crunchy raspberries. Somehow it all works in an elevated, unapologetic kind of way. The lounge kicks into gear after midnight and is the ideal place to kick back for a swanky cocktail before stumbling back to my room for the evening.
Jewish Museum Berlin
This is less a museum than an immersive retrospective. Here, architect Daniel Libeskind sets the stage for a jagged, often unsettling portrayal of German Jewish culture and history. The zinc facade and fragmented hallways create a foundation for the Holocaust Tower and Axis of Exile, which showcases documents, photos and personal items of those doomed by Hitler’s genocide. The permanent exhibition also illuminates the history of Jewish women and family life, and the revitalization of Jewish communities from 1945 to today.
Specializing in Russian and Jewish cuisine, Restaurant Pasternak is the perfect choice for lunch after my morning at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Named after Nobel Prize-winner Boris Pasternak, the café pays homage to the opulent cuisine of 19th-century Russia while maintaining a casual dining atmosphere. Be sure to sample the house-brewed beer along with blinis, borscht and vereniki (dumplings).
West Berlin Walking Tour
Hello, Schöneberg! Birthplace of Marlene Dietrich and hangout of Christopher Isherwood, this neighborhood has been a hotbed of gay activity since the 1920s. Today, it bustles with bookstores - and lots of boys. Along the main drag of Montzstraße, shops and cafés run the gamut, from Butcherei Lindinger, where you can order custom-made fetish apparel, to art, fashion and design galleries like Berlin Avantgarde. The new Stolz & Vorurteil café and bistro is the perfect stop for an espresso and to take in the eye candy. For a XXX keepsake, be sure to stop by Bruno’s, one of the largest gay bookstores in Europe. For a more curated selection, pay a visit to Prinz Eisenherz, Germany’s oldest gay bookstore, whose collection contains 10,000 titles.
"Loft" at The Chamäeleon Theater
What happens when you put a handful of 20-something, scantily clad acrobatic performers together and ask them to do some tricks? You end up with Loft, presented by the Montreal-based troupe the 7 Fingers. Expect to see everything from aerial performance to juggling and modern(ish) dance. Though the performers are completely captivating on a physical level, their emotional commitment varies and sometimes feels vacant. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of sexy swinging, spinning and people-tossing to warrant an evening of ogling at this Art Nouveau-style complex dating back to 1906.
One part Liberace, part Lou Rawls, this former Indian restaurant has been reincarnated as a swanky lounge, pop-up performance space and all-around scene-to-be-seen, where a cross-section of Berliners flock to the gold upholstered banquettes and 60 feet of bar space. Co-founders Rolf Heidrich and Oliver Schneider researched classic bar history from cities like Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai, but what they have created is pure Berlin: unexpected, free-spirited and glamorous.
Chantal’s House of Shame
My newfound friend Henrik calls it "trash drag." I call it the most kick-ass time I’ve had since my arrival. Cheap well liquor, a frequently used amateur stripper pole and a partitioned back room that houses swarms of queers buzzing around an unnamed drag queen converge in a dirty, multilevel warehouse space where the fog machine and Bel-Ami chain smokers have me gasping for breath at every bump and grind. Stick a fork in me; I’m done.
If I partied like an authentic Berliner, I’d be eating currywurst at Kudamm 195 or Curry 36. Instead, I’m in a taxi en route to the airport, praying that I arrive in enough time to snag a window seat for my return flight. I pass posses of revelers, still flying high from another night on the town. Berlin really is a city that never sleeps (sorry, New York). I hope my next visit will include an obligatory all-nighter. But for now I have the sweet dreams of 48 hours in a world capital where walls have given way to a new generation striving to make its mark in history.
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