Introduction. In many ways, modern Berlin resembles New York City in the 1970’s―artistic, brilliantly subversive, edgy. The capital of this unified country retains a uniquely German identity while also being a global center of architecture, contemporary arts, culture, media, nightlife, orchestras, politics, research institutes, science and world-class universities.
“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Contents for Berlin : Introduction | Brandenburg Airport | Transportation to Downtown | The Dali Exhibition at Potsdamer Platz | Grosz Coffeehouse | Hotel Concorde | Hotel Q | Kronprinzenbrücke | Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art | The Leonardo Royal Hotel, Vitruv & Leo90 | Ming Quang Restaurant | Mogg & Melzer Deli | Neue Nationalgalerie | The Tram System | The TV Tower | Prater Beer Garten, i.e., Beer and Lager as Olympic Sports
Contents for Cologne / Köln : Introduction | Alter Wartesaal | Das klein Steakhaus | Public Transportation
Brandenburg Airport. If you’re traveling to Berlin from the East coast, round-trip (RT) fares can be expensive, especially during Autumn prior to and during Oktoberfest. Fares are more moderate in winter but you need to ask yourself if you really want to travel to a climate colder than the one you’re leaving. Instead, look at roundtrip (RT) fares to Copenhagen, for example, via SAS Airlines. In most cases, the fares will be noticeably lower. Then look at separate RT fares from Copenhagen to Berlin. Air Berlin has frequent flights between the two cities and the fare can be as little as US$ 80.00 / person. Purchase your ticket to visit Copenhagen for a few days, then buy a second RT ticket to travel from there to Berlin. Stay for a few days and return to Copenhagen for a few more before your trip home. In most cases, the combined fares will be significantly lower than a single RT ticket from the States directly to Berlin. The added bonus is you can spend time in one of Europe’s most charming cities, Copenhagen, although the savings can also be realized by traveling to other northern European destinations serviced by SAS. Other great fares and specials are frequently offered by Icelandair so you may want to check there, too.
Transportation to Downtown. If you’re staying near Alexanderplatz, the large public square and transportation hub in the Mitte district, you can’t beat JetExpressBus TXL, or “TXL.” The service connects Tegel Airport to the city’s metro, tram and bus systems, along with the Deutsche Bahn trains. The TXL includes stops at both S- and U-Bahn urban rail stations as follows :
– The TXL departs Tegel Airport and stops at the Beusselstraße urban rail (S-Bahn) station;
– then Federal Chancellery, i.e. “Hauptbahnhof,” via the Turmstraße U station;
– it continues to Alexanderplatz via the Unter den Linden urban rail (S-Bahn) station; and finally
– the Französische Straße metro (U-Bahn) station and the Werderscher Markt.
The Dali Exhibition at Potsdamer Platz. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Salvador Dali’s death, a permanent museum exhibition opened at Potsdamer Platz to honor the controversial artist. Dali’s work is admittedly not for everyone but the exhibit itself really should not be missed.
Drawings, sculptures, and more have been culled from private collections around the world and displayed in an avant-garde showcase that would make the artist proud.
Stop by Grosz Kaffee Haus at Kurfurstendamm 193/194 near the Adenauerplatz, Savignyplatz, and Uhlandstraße transit stations. An architectural splendor and throwback to an earlier era, Grosz has an extensive menu, featuring hot and delicious pastries in the morning; snacks mid-morning; specialty cuisines from around the world; and tea service in the afternoon.
The outside harks to architecturally classic, romantic lines, but the inside of the Hotel Concorde Berlin, located at Augsburger Straße 41, is sleek and modern, with impeccable lines and attention to details. Despite the geometrical patterns and rigid lines throughout the property, which could in lesser hands appear cold and harsh, the Concorde is warm with personal touches, top-of-the line service and spaciousness.
One of Berlin’s greatest assets is its collection of hotels which range from inexpensive neighborhood B & Bs to 4-star properties, most of which are located near the city’s myriad landmarks and within walking distance of great dining options and bars. You can choose simple, basic accommodations or more luxurious and expensive properties. If you’re a design aficionado, however, you cannot go wrong with Hotel Q, a fantastic property at Knesebeckstraße 67 near the U Uhlandstr metro station (the building is between the city’s Opera House and Tiergarten, west of the city center.) The hotel’s cool factor cannot be overstated with a design aesthetic that can best be described as contemporary versions of the mod trend which saw its heyday decades ago. The minimalist but impeccably designed guest rooms can be obtained for as little as US$ 130.00 / day for 2 people and the surrounding neighborhood is filled with great restaurants, cafes and Christmas stores. The staff is friendly and extremely helpful, too.
Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect famous for the sensuous, organic curves he brings to his works, has given Berlin an understated gift, Kronprinzenbrücke, or Kronprinzen Bridge, linking the Mitte and Tiergarten districts.
Similar to his larger designs―the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin, the Turning Torso in Malmo, or the gull-winged transportation hub in New York City’s reimagined World Trade Center, for example―the Kronprinzen’s minimalist beauty is what makes it so striking.
Although it does not have a permanent collection, the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, located in the city’s Mitte district, features some of the world’s most forward-thinking and progressive contemporary art, presented in a variety of media on a flexible basis. This important fact liberates the museum and helps it make constant use of its five-storied building and outdoor spaces.
The Leonardo Royal Hotel Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 4-star property, is centrally located and near Berlin’s iconic TV Tower. The exterior conveys a long and rich history but the interior is modern, sophisticated, and the hotel offers a number of services and amenities that are difficult to match at other similarly priced places. Reserve directly with the Leonardo via their website as there are discounts and special packages not available elsewhere. During my last trip, for example, the property included complimentary breakfast daily. Admittedly, most hotel breakfasts are horrific (some make the Bates motel resemble the Ritz Carlton.) The Leonardo, however, features fresh pastries, fruit, meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereals, and eggs prepared a number of ways. The espresso beverages were as equally good, and the staff were more than gracious in allowing us to take our coffees in “to-go” cups.
The Leonardo’s main restaurant, Vitruv, serves Mediterranean and Asian fusion cuisine that is neither fussy or pretentious and her lounge, Leo90, serves great mixed drinks with just the right amount of trance music in the background and at the perfect volume level. You can have conversations with friends without having to scream to be heard. The bartenders are skilled and the bar itself has an impressive stock of brandys. As you would expect from a hotel of this caliber, there is 24-room service, gym and spa, and a business center. The front desk staff members are good-natured and fluent in a number of languages. I was also more than pleased with the fact the hotel did not present us with myriad hidden fees when we checked out, too. All prices quoted at the time of reservations appeared on the bill exactly and not a dollar more. To reach the hotel via the previously mentioned TXL bus :
― Take the TXL from Tegel. Ticket kiosks are located outside at the bus departure bay;
― disembark at the Alexanderplatz terminal stop;
― change to the metro tram M4 in the direction of Hohenschönhausen or Falkenberg;
― continue to the station Am Friedrichshain; and
― the Leonardo is a short walk from there.
Throughout the bigger urban centers of Germany, you will be amazed by the number of Thai restaurants, most of which are inexpensive yet serve delicious and authentic cuisine. One of my favorites in Berlin is Ming Quang. Service was prompt and the portions were generous. We requested our meal on the spicy side and the restaurant did not disappoint. The curry soup in particular was excellent as was the beef satay.
For those of you who dream of classic New York Jewish bagels and lox, your prayers have been answered with the opening of Mogg & Melzer Deli, an oasis of Jewish comfort food at 11-13 Augustrasse in the Mitte district. Owners Paul Mogg and Oskar Melzer have created a small, New York-style restaurant featuring just 30 seats but packing a menu full of classic staples such as matzoh ball soup, pastrami and sauerkraut. Their brisket is smoked on site, too.
Mies van de Rohe’s minimalist masterpiece, the Neue Nationalgalerie, is located on Berlin’s famous museum island and part of the Kulturforum, a collection of buildings devoted to art and culture, all of which are within minutes of Potsdamer Platz. What is most unusual about the building is the first floor. Visible to the public outside, the space is consistently and intentionally empty. The exhibition level, devoted to art in the 20th century, is actually located on the floors below, giving the museum an almost haunting look of being perpetually vacant from the street.
Just outside the previously mentioned Leonardo Hotel’s entrance is a stop on the city’s tram system which allows you to reach many of Berlin’s famous sites and neighborhoods easily. Just a few stops from the hotel, for example, is the city’s TV Tower, pictured with dissipating morning fog, and offering 360 degree views of the city. From its observation deck at top, you can easily see the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Main Railway station, the Olympic Stadium, the Museum Island (Museumsinsel), and Potsdamer Platz.
It should come as no surprise German local transportation systems are punctual, clean and efficient. Getting around Berlin is a breeze and navigating the stops and transfer stations is simple. It’s also affordable, especially if you purchase a 7-Day Pass, which can be obtained from ticket counters, kiosks in the underground, and ground transportation at Tegel and Brandenburg airports.
Beer drinking in the country is taken very seriously. Although Prater Restaurant at 10435 Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg features traditional German cuisine, its their beer garden which must be experienced. Open from April to September, the majority of seats are outside under a canopy of trees decorated with lights (the restaurant itself is open year-round). Patrons come here for hours to drink (responsibly) from a limited but nonetheless impressive list of drafts, wheat beers and lagers which the staff will allow you to sample. The atmosphere is festive and its easy to make friends with those gathered around you at the communal tables. Plan on staying well into the evening. It’s common for nearby patrons to buy a round for visitors but its understood you will return the favor. Also, drunken frat boy behavior, like what you might find at a sports bar here in the States, will be frowned upon and unwelcome here. Please note, credit cards are not accepted so ensure you have enough cash when you arrive.
Introduction to Cologne / Köln. In the States, New York City is entirely different from Miami, Miami from Seattle, and so on. Such noticeable differences are true of Germany’s cities, too. Whereas Frankfurt is the business hub of the country―sleek and Teutonically efficient―Berlin is amazingly decadent. With a thriving and diverse art scene, Cologne has a different personality altogether.
Contents : Introduction | Alter Wartesaal | Das klein Steakhaus | Public Transportation
“Life without music would be a mistake” – Luxor, one of Cologne’s most well-known clubs, located at Luxemburger Strasse 19.
Talk to anyone who has ventured there and a common sentiment will emerge : the way to see the city for the first time is at night. Nothing quite captures the sheer brilliance of Cologne’s skyline after the sun has set. If you’ve watched “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” you’re familiar with the scene where the mother ship emerges from behind Devil’s Mountain, illuminated with multiple towers twinkling with lights―that’s Cologne.
Located near the city’s famous cathedral and Köln Hbf station is Alter Wartesaal, a former train station which has been transformed into a restaurant, bar, and outdoor patio. In warmer months, the views of the city from the patio are nothing less than stunning. The place features a great mix of food, drinks, conversation and with its elegant yet contemporary vibe, should not be missed.
For those who like to explore a new city on foot, Das klein Steakhaus is well worth the trip. Located in the city center at Hohe Strasse 73-75, the restaurant is a little hard to find but the effort undoubtedly pays off. The interior is modern and intimate but friendly enough where families with young children will feel welcome. The menu is deceptively simple but features excellent appetizers and meat dishes, particularly steak and lamb. The former, grilled with mushrooms, is the restaurant’s hallmark dish; the latter, for those who love lamb, is fantastic and served with potatoes. In addition to their standard menu, Das klein also features seasonal, monthly specials.
Public Transportation. The city has an extensive transportation system, comprised of the Kölner Verkehrs-Betriebe (or KVB), linking trains, close to 400 above ground trams and over 300 local buses, all of which are interconnected. The easiest way to take advantage of the system is via the Köln WelcomeCard which offers three different options on seeing everything the city has to offer :
― The Köln WelcomeCard offers 24 hours of unlimited travel for a flat fee of 9,00€, or approx. US / CAN$ 12.00
― The Köln WelcomeCard Plus also offers unlimited travel and transport to locations around the outskirts of the city. The price is slightly higher than US / CAN$ 17.00
― The Köln WelcomeCard VRS offers the benefits of the above-mentioned plus transportation via the train system to other locations throughout the Rhine. The price is slightly more than US / CAN$ 32.00 and well worth it, especially if you don’t want the hassle of renting a car to explore the areas surrounding Cologne.