The German capital has a history, energy and cultural life like no other European city. Harriet O'Brien joins the film festival jet set
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Why go now?
Berlin is at its most haunting in the monochrome of February – and arguably looks at its best under snow and ice. Wrap up warm, take a trip around town and then come in from the cold to enjoy this happening city's party spirit. You'll find the bars and cafés particularly lively this month, when the Berlin International Film Festival takes place (7-17 February; www.berlinale.de ).
Berlin's Schönefeld airport, 19km south-east, is served from the UK by easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyjet.com ) from Belfast, Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton; Germanwings (0870 252 1250; www.germanwings.com ) from Edinburgh and Stansted; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com ) from East Midlands and Stansted. From Schönefeld, the S-Bahn overland train service (S9) to the city centre departs about every 20 minutes and takes just over 45 minutes to reach Zoologischer station (1) in west Berlin, via Alexanderplatz (2) and Hauptbahnhof (3) stations.
Tegel, 8km north-west of the centre, is served by Air Berlin (0871 5000 737; www.airberlin.com ) from Stansted; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com ) from Heathrow; and Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; www.lufthansa.com ) from Heathrow, London City and, from 30 March, Bristol. From Tegel, buses 128, 109 and X9 leave frequently, connecting with U-Bahn (underground) stations as well as the S-Bahn to the centre. Tickets to the centre from either airport cost a flat €2.10 (£1.60), which includes connecting services anywhere in the city that can be reached within an hour. Or buy a Berlin Welcome Card. This is available at the tourist information counters at both airports (at Schönefeld open Mon-Fri 9am-7pm and weekends 10am-6pm; at Tegel open daily 7am-7pm). The card, covering all public transport and giving discounts to major sights (€16.50/£12.70 for 48 hours; www.berlin-welcomecard.com ), is also available at the tourist offices offices below.
Get your bearings
Eighteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this extraordinary city has successfully recreated itself as a single entity. The Mitte district, formerly in East Berlin, has been re-established as the cultural and political core. Meanwhile, the streets around Kurfürstendamm (Ku'Damm) over in former West Berlin form the principal shopping area. The large green swathe of the Tiergarten, originally the hunting ground of Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector, in the 17th century, sits in the middle. In only a few places is anything left of the great Cold War barrier – principally, there's a 1.3-kilometre stretch along Mühlenstrasse (known as the East Side Gallery, on account of the graffiti) and the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse (4).
The city's main tourist offices are at Hauptbahnhof (3), the main station (Europaplatz entrance), open daily 8am-10pm; Brandenburg Gate (5), open daily 10am-6pm; and Ku'Damm Passage (6) off Kurfürstendamm, open daily 10am-8pm (00 49 30 25 0025 for all phone enquiries; www.visitberlin.de ).
For a real treat, check into Brandenburger Hof (7) at Eislebener Strasse 14 (00 49 30 21 4050; www.brandenburger-hof.com ). This wonderfully restored, early 19th-century mansion offers the last word in luxury, with a Michelin-starred restaurant and 72 beautifully furnished rooms hung with art. Doubles from €270 (£207) including exquisitely presented breakfast.
Original artworks are also on display at Hotel MitArt (8) at Linienstrasse 139-140 (00 49 30 2839 0430; www.mitart.de), which has 30 chic rooms and an organic café. Doubles from €110 (£85) including organic breakfast.
Pension Peters (9) at Kantstrasse 146 (00 49 30 312 2278; www.pension-peters-berlin.de ) offers good value, with doubles from €51 (£39) including breakfast.
Take a view
Head to the Reichstag (10) at Platz der Republik. Built in 1894, this majestic landmark resumed its role as the home of the German parliament in April 1999, with a re-fashioned interior and the addition of a glass dome designed by Sir Norman Foster. A roof terrace by the dome is open to visitors (8am-midnight with last admission 10pm; free), from where you get a stunning panorama of the city. The entrance and lift is on the west side, where you can also pick up a free leaflet (in English or German) giving details of the major buildings in view. To avoid long queues, you'll need to arrive by 9am.
Take a hike
For a walk that takes in some of the most celebrated sights of Berlin, start at the Reichstag (10) and stroll along the edge of the Tiergarten to Brandenburg Gate (5). This symbol of Berlin was built as a triumphal arch in 1791. During the Cold War it lay, emotively, just within the East sector and it was here in November 1989 that thousands gathered to cheer the end of the partition. Walk east through the arches and on to Unter den Linden, (" under the lime trees"), named for the trees planted to line this avenue running from Berlin's palace to the Tiergarten. Since reunification, this great boulevard has once again become the core showpiece of the city. Follow this grand road past the Russian embassy and an Aeroflot office and turn right into the upscale shopping street of Friedrichstrasse. It's well worth stopping to look inside some of the buildings here, the architecture offering a mix of New Berlin and Art Deco, in particular shiny modern Quartier 207 (11) housing Galeries Lafayette; Quartier 206 (12), a black-and-white 1930s gem complete with swirling staircase and mosaic marble floors; and Quartier 205 (13), a glass-and-steel 1993 construction with an 11-metre sculpture made from crushed cars.
Continue down Friedrichstrasse to reach Checkpoint Charlie (14) at the crossroads with Zimmerstrasse. The site of the main street-level crossing point between East and West Berlin is now a void surrounded by a series of information boards giving the history of the Wall in both German and English. A small part of the Wall remains further to the west along Zimmerstrasse and you can see other vestiges from the Cold War era as well as learn more about the Wall at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, a few steps south-east of the former crossing at Friedrichstrasse 43-45 (open daily 9am-10pm, €9.50/£7.30).
Lunch on the run
The food court of Quartier 205 (13) on Friedrichstrasse has a good range of light lunch options from paninito seafood.
Museum Island is the northern part of a stretch of reclaimed marshland in the River Spree. It is home to the city's grandest galleries. The collections were principally made in the 19th century. When restoration work on the Neues Museum is complete next year, this will become Europe's biggest art complex. In the meantime, four museums are open here. To see fine German art in a sumptuous setting of marble and friezes, head for Alte Nationalgalerie (15) (00 49 30 2090 5801; www.smb.spk-berlin.de ), where works by Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin are among the highlights. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday, admission €8 (£6.15).
A day ticket to all the state museums in the Mitte area costs €14 (£10.80).
Ku'Damm and Tauentzienstrasse are Berlin's answer to Oxford Street and Bond Street. Europe's biggest department store, KaDeWe (16), is at Tauentzienstrasse 21-24; the full name is Kaufhaus des Westens, or " Department Store of the West". Its glitzy gourmet food hall on the sixth floor has become near legendary. Meanwhile, you'll enter chocolate heaven at Fassbender & Rausch on Gendarmenmarkt (17), where huge chocolate sculptures sit by long glass counters of pralines and more. For the contemporary art scene, head to the galleries on Auguststrasse and Linienstrasse. Berlin designer clothes boutiques include Claudia Skoda at Alte Schönhauser Strasse 35 (18) and Lisa D at Rosenthaler Strasse 40-41 (19). Many shops close on Saturdays at 4pm. Some remain open to 6pm, but hardly anything opens on Sunday.
The Scheunenviertel area, once the Jewish quarter, now contains some of the city's coolest bars and cafés. Order an applejack sour (€6.50/£5) at funky Ambulance Bar (20) at Oranienburger Strasse 27. Or you might want to call in after dinner; the DJ scene starts at 10pm.
Dining with the locals
Lutter & Wegner, on the Gendarmenmarkt (17) at Charlottenstrasse 56 (00 49 30 20 29 540; www.l-w-berlin.de ), attracts politicians, locals and visitors alike. This grand, wood-panelled restaurant, established in 1811, specialises in German and Austrian fare, including Wiener schnitzel with apple sauce (€18/£14), rabbit with cabbage (€16/£12.30) and a tiered tower of delicious warm and cold starters to share (€15/£11.50 each). Smooth, friendly service and some rather saucy artworks add to the sense of occasion.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche (21) at Breitscheidplatz is western Berlin's most striking landmark. This 1895 church was all but destroyed during the Second World War and its bombed-out bell tower has been conserved as a memorial. Flanking it are a modernist bell tower and church hall, the interior beautifully filled with light filtering in from blue glass walls. The church is open daily 9am-7pm (suggested donation €1/80p) and Sunday services are at 10am and 6pm.
Out to brunch
Head down Kurfürstenstrasse to Café Einstein (22) at number 58 (00 49 30 261 5096; www.cafeeinstein.com ). This is a wonderfully atmospheric Viennese-style coffee house with big mirrors, leather banquettes and smooth waiter service. Breakfast is served all day from 9am-1am. Alpenfrühstück of fresh fruit, yoghurt, balsamic chicken, brie, mozzarella and a selection of bread and pastries costs €10.80 (£8.30).
A walk in the park
Wander the magnificent grounds of Schloss Charlottenburg, which contains a beautifully kept Baroque garden and expansive parkland with lake, ponds and streams (9am-5pm daily except Monday, free). It is also well worth taking a look inside the Schloss, built in 1695 and with a flamboyant east wing added in 1740 (10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission to Old Palace €10/£7.70; admission to New Wing €6/£4.60).
Icing on the cake
Museum Berggruen, opposite Schloss Charlottenburg, at Schlossstrasse 1 (10am-6pm daily except Monday; €6/£4.60; 00 49 30 3269 5815; www.smb.spk-berlin.de ), contains the fabulous art collection of Heinz Berggruen. A German Jew exiled in Paris from 1936, he was befriended by Pablo Picasso and others. On show are wonderful works by Matisse, Giacometti, Paul Klee and, most of all, an astonishing range of Picassos.