Evie Dow, The Daily Telegraph, February 27, 2012
Berlin is the coolest place to move to these days if you’re young, creative and broke – as glamorous as London but infinitely cheaper. Young people started going in the early 1990s after the fall of the Wall, taking over flats abandoned by East Berliners as jobs disappeared with the collapse of communism. More recently, it is fledgling designers, young creatives with no hope of affording the stratospheric rents at home in London, Paris, Stockholm or New York, who have been drawn to Berlin, to revel in some of the lowest shop and flat rents in Europe.
As a result, the city is packed with pop-up cafes and clubs, gallery spaces in old factories, and more small fashion and design stores than you might find in Hoxton, the Marais, Söderholm and Williamsburg put together. And that makes Berlin an unexpectedly good place to shop.
Classic German design is known worldwide and famous brands abound, from Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander and Wolfgang Joop to Esprit, Escada, Hugo Boss, Adidas and Puma, in department stores such as the great KaDeWe, the largest in Europe, close to the Kurfürstendamm, and, on Friedrichstrasse, Quartier 206 and the spectacular glass extravagance that is Jean Nouvel’s new Galeries Lafayette. The luggage-maker Rimowa, too, is a quintessential German brand – functional, minimalist and reassuringly familiar.
But it’s the unfamiliar, the unexpected, that is the real prize in Berlin – the chance discovery made between visiting the superb Neues Museum, restored by David Chipperfield, or the German Historical Museum, with its gallery devoted to the Weimar years, and lunching at the top of the Reichstag, or touring the bunkers where Berliners sheltered during the Second World War.
Such discoveries might include a one-off jacket from Flagshipstore, an outlet for 30 young independent designers on Oderbergerstrasse, off Schönhauser Allee in gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg; a slinky skirt from Michalsky, Lala Berlin, Firma or Kaviar Gauche at F95, a concept store in a former postal depot on Luckenwalder Strasse in gritty Kreuzberg; or handmade lingerie from Fishbelly on Friedelstrasse in the latest design hotspot, grungy Kreuzkölln.
For indestructible lightweight sunglasses, handmade in Berlin, visit Mykita on Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse in Mitte. Neukölln, the city’s art hub, is the place to buy bargain prints from a gallery above a derelict shop. Sterling Gold on Oranienburger Strasse, also in Mitte, will provide you with a 1930s handbag – perhaps to wear later at shabby, lightly sinister Clärchens Ballhaus, the last surviving old dance hall in the city, built in 1913 and now extremely fashionable.
Completely flat, Berlin is made for meandering. Many of the most interesting stores are down alleys and in courtyards, however, so you have to keep your eyes open as you go. The best place to start is cobbled Mitte, in the heart of the former East Berlin, with its little design shops, concept stores such as The Corner and Andreas Murkudis, and the locally famous Hackesche Höfe – an interlocking series of art-nouveau residential blocks built around eight courtyards, now home to fashionable little cafes and shops such as Jost (for pared-down leather goods), Edsor Kronen (the silk-tie specialists whose first heyday was in the 1920s) and the Berlin Fashion Network store. Distinguished by its beautiful tiled frontage, this is the place to find labels such as German Garment and Saena, from Saena Chun, the former designer for Celine and Chloé.
West Berlin has its draws, too. KaDeWe stocks Stefanie Hering ’s fine bisque porcelain crockery. Bauhaus lovers can profitably head to Kantstrasse and browse at Zeitlos Berlin , which specialises in vintage design classics. After the essential trip to the Story of Berlin museum, a nearby wood-panelled cafe, Berliner Kaffeerösterei at Uhlandstrasse 173, makes a snug retreat on a nippy day.
“Ach, design, design, design. Berlin is swarming with designers!” says Henrik Tidefjärd , a “lifestyle guide” who meets me for coffee to talk about the best places to go after dark. His suggestions include Cantina at Bar Tausend, Grill Royal, Facil, Volt , Uma, Tim Raue and Rutz. Of the night-spots, seductive Salon K has the best burlesque show in the city twice a month, he says – “like something from the 1920s”. Next day, recover with coffee and cake at the original Cafe Einstein on Kurfürstenstrasse, my favourite.
HOW TO DO IT
Henrik Tidefjärd (00 49 3043 72070; berlinagenten.com ), my excellent “personal lifestyle guide”, charges about £330 for four hours for up to six people. He is especially knowledgeable about nightlife and sites relating to the Second World War, the Cold War and the Weimar Republic of the 1920s.
Rooms at the front of the Westin Grand (00 49 302 0270; westingrandberlin.com ) have views of the Brandenburg Gate and the glass roof of the Reichstag. In what used to be the no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin, glitzily rebuilt Potsdamer Platz is home to a string of five-stars. The 3,000 sq ft apartment on top of the Ritz-Carlton (00 49 3033 7777; ritzcarlton.com ) is probably the most glamorous spot – celebrities stay here during the Berlin Film Festival (in February). The new Grand Hyatt (00 49 3025 531234; berlin.grand.hyatt.com ) has a popular restaurant and bar and, like the Westin, is close to an underground station.
British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/berlin ) offers two nights at the Westin Grand in March from £279 and at the Grand Hyatt from £289, room-only, including flights from Heathrow.
BA, Ryanair and EasyJet fly to Berlin, from £80 return. After June, when Tegel closes, they will fly to the new Berlin Brandenburg airport (detail, above) in the south-east of the city – the first new international airport in Europe for decades.
The tourist office (00 49 3025 0025; visitberlin.de/en ) has details about the Welcome Berlin card, with which visitors can travel on the city’s excellent public transport system and get discounts of 25-50 per cent on entry to museums and attractions. It costs €17.90 (£14.85) for 48 hours, €23.90 for 72 hours or €30.90 for five days. The Museum Pass allows free entry to 55 museums for 72 hours and costs €19.
Berlin Story (00 49 3020 453842; berlinstory.de ) at Unter den Linden 40 stocks about 10,000 titles on Berlin, many in English. These range from general city guides to Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood’s semi-disguised autobiography about his life in the city in the 1930s, which prompted the film Cabaret.