It took me two years to fall in love with Berlin: one to make peace with it, two to never want to leave again. I moved here right after graduating from high school. It was October and the gloomy industrial apartment blocks bathed in the last warming sun rays of the year. The avenues crossing the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, were covered in orange leaves, and the golden statue on top of the Victory Column turned black in front of the setting sun.
When I moved here, all I knew about Berlin was that it was home to the notorious Berghain nightclub and anyone who considered themselves more extravagant and free-minded than the average. I had imagined Berlin to be a tough, even spooky place with a cityscape shaped by the uniform Communist era, reminiscent of dark rather than glorious times. What took me one year to understand (one tough year in which I again and again dragged myself to ruins turned techno clubs because I felt like I had to) was that Berlin, in fact, is not gloomy. It’s a very romantic city.
If I had to paint Berlin in one color, it would be orange, like an old telephone or kitchen wallpaper from the seventies. The subway trains have windows patterned with tiny opaque Brandenburg Gates and pleather seats with camouflage prints resembling a Jackson Pollock painting. Mid-century buildings, like the oyster-shaped Haus der Kulturen der Welt (a center for international contemporary art) and the radio tower shining over the city like an iridescent disco ball, add to its vintage charm. Many abandoned structures have been repurposed without erasing their original vibe: a former war shelter became an impressive contemporary art collection (the Boros Bunker), a kebab deli was taken over by a visionary chef and turned into the French gourmet restaurant Bandol sur Mer and an empty public swimming pool was temporarily used as a nightclub.
A lot in Berlin seems improvised and unfinished. I once sent a friend who was visiting from Dubai to the Potsdamer Straße, one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods colonized by art galleries, experimental restaurants and sex shops. She later told me that it was not what she had expected to see, expressing surprise at how ugly some parts of the district were. But the fact that there’s still so much undiscovered territory in this city is also what makes it so beautiful. With its slightly crumbling glamour, Berlin sometimes reminds me of an elderly lady. Her outer appearance is of a wrinkled elegance, and she definitely has her quirks. But her mind is bold and young, and she’s always ready to play.
So…wanna come visit? Here’s a Berlin travel guide to all the places I wouldn’t want to miss if I were you.
1. Sommerbad Kreuzberg
Berlin is a city of late risers (rents are low, people are relaxed). But the public swimming pool Sommerbad Kreuzberg opens at 7 a.m., and I recommend you to show up no later than that. With the sun rising over the treetops surrounding the three giant pools, your morning workout will feel like an actual treat here.
Address: Prinzenstraße 113-119 (Kreuzberg), berlinerbaeder.de
2. Pension Funk
If you didn’t get into Berghain (I’ve never been, so I can’t share any tricks with you), comfort yourself by staying in this beautiful bed and breakfast in Charlottenburg. Red velvet sofas, floral wallpaper, an untuned piano in the hall and antique furniture in the rooms take you back to the roaring twenties, so don’t forget to bring your flapper outfit. (Or something similar. Or just something nice!). The place is classy, but in the fun kind of way.
Address: Fasanenstraße 69 (Charlottenburg), hotel-pensionfunk.de
3. Konditorei Damaskus
Populists around the world have called Angela Merkel an irresponsible idiot for admitting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country. I would like to invite all of them, including Donald Trump, to visit the Konditorei Damaskus, a traditional Syrian bakery run by Tamem Al Sakka, who had to flee from Homs with his family. If his heavenly baklava and kanafeh aren’t a win for this country, I don’t know what is.
Address: Sonnenallee 93 (Neukölln), facebook.com
4. Museum Island
Museum Island is basically an island full of art (as you may have guessed), and museums like the Pergamon Museum or the Old National Gallery are definitely worth a visit if you’re into Byzantine art and/or your grandmother who sponsored your trip expects you to do some culture activities. If I were you, I would skip the art and wander the shady colonnades instead, then find myself a lover to watch the sunset from one of the bridges and empty a bottle of wine on the Old Museum’s staircases. “Rome was great!,” you’ll tell your grandmother after.
5. Townes Vintage
Shoko, the charming Japanese owner of this very well-curated, high-end vintage boutique, has a secret closet at the back of her store. Tell her that you love Prada or are in desperate need of a gold-sequined maxi skirt, and she will probably find you the piece of your dreams in her treasure chest. Comme des Garçons is her specialty.
Address: Linienstraße 56 (Mitte), facebook.com
6. Café Ora
Stay away from this place if you’re a member of camp gluten-free, because in that case, your visit will be a trip to hell. They bake their own bread! Roll their own cinnamon rolls! Make their own brioche AND cook their own jam! The bakery/cafe/bar is located in one of Berlin’s oldest pharmacies and would make for the ideal scenery for Wes Anderson’s next film.
Address: Oranienplatz 14 (Kreuzberg), facebook.com
7. Blain Southern Gallery
I don’t often need a break from Berlin because it’s such a chill city. But if life gets exhausting here, there’s no better place to relax than in one of the city’s many oasis-like contemporary art galleries. My favorite piece currently on view is Jonas Burgert’s 22-meter-long painting at the Blain Southern Gallery. It pretty much sums up the mess I’m dreaming about at night.
Address: Potsdamer Straße 77-87 (Tiergarten), blainsouthern.com
8. Fiona Bennett
Hats are difficult: they often feel like a disguise. But Fiona Bennett, the German-British milliner who was among the first to open her store and studio on the aforementioned Potsdamer Straße, will make you reconsider the headpiece. Her creations are flamboyant without ever looking too quirky. I’m a huge fan of her colorful straw hats, which are handwoven in Ghana and would be the cherry on top of any of my boring summer outfits.
Address: Potsdamer Straße 81-83 (Tiergarten), fionabennett.de
9. Osteria Ribaltone
The interior designer who decorated this Italian restaurant must have had the time of his life. With the bicycles hanging from the ceiling, motorbike sitting next to the antipasti buffet and cartoons, Italian maps and party photos cladding the walls, the place resembles an eccentric race driver-slash-cat lady’s living room. If you can’t focus on your tagliatelle in such an environment, I’d recommend booking a table on their terrace facing the beautiful Viktoria-Luise-Platz.
Address: Motzstraße 54 (Schöneberg), ribaltone.de
10. Kino International
Going to the movies is probably the last occasion I’d dress up for, but Berlin’s theaters are different: many were built in the ‘20s or early ‘60s and will take you back to a time when going to the movies still was a colorful affair. With its chandeliers and disco balls, navy velvet seats and silvery, glittering curtain (that every Saint Laurent boot would be envious of), the Kino International (built in 1963) would actually be my number one wedding location. Seriously.
Address: Karl-Marx-Allee 33 (Mitte), yorck.de