Bold, energetic, uncompromising: Berlin is one of Europe's most captivating capitals. It is uncontrived, a refreshing destination that delivers an authentic, and often raw urban experience. As many cities embrace generic architecture, ubiquitous international retail and restaurant brands and mass tourism, Berlin has retained its gritty creativity. It is as if local residents actively reject the national stereotype of German conformity and efficiency, and instead have embraced an alternative way of living, creating a vibrant and complex city.
Day 1 - Afternoon of diversity
Immediately immerse yourself in cross-cultural Berlin by heading to Kreuzberg. Take the U-Bahn to Kottsbusser Tor (or Kotti) as locals call it, and you arrive in the centre of the Kreuzberg area. This was former West Berlin, and adjacent to Friedrichshain, on the other side of the River Spree that runs through the city.
With alternative culture, that goes back to the era of David Bowie's time in the city and before, Kreuzberg is home to clubs like SO36 as well as an established gay scene.
This lively neighbourhood makes for a colourful start to your break. For places to eat, try Bergmannstraße, a street that encapsulates the Berlin lifestyle. Cool bars and restaurants spill out onto pavement terraces. You can't go wrong finding a place restaurant around here, from Vietnamese, Iraqi, Kurdish to plenty of Turkish.
Make sure you also reach Eisenbahnstraße and the Markthalle Neun covered marketplace, offering a traditional market three times a week, Street Food Thursday, and seasonal food festivals.
If you stay in the area after dinner, then you won't be far from some of the city's best clubs. In the small hours, before heading back to your hotel, you can tuck into some of the best Turkish street food, from köfte, bullete, gözleme, or more than likely, a Berlin döner kebab.
Day 2 - Sightseeing and classic culture
It wouldn't be a city-break without some good old-fashioned sight-seeing. Berlin, being in reality two merged cities, can feel overwhelming when it comes to exploring.
City-West, Mitte or Alexanderplatz
So how you create your own tour very much depends on where you decide to stay; whether at an upscale hotel in the elegant Mitte district, like the Hotel Adlon Kempinski or the Ritz Carlton. This is the centre of the reunified Berlin. Or maybe you're in the City-West hub near the iconic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (a bell tower that was badly damaged in a WW2 bombing raid Berlin); or a hip hotel like the MichelBerger in the former east.
If you're in the east, then the centre is Alexanderplatz, where you can take in the brutal GDR architecture, and enjoy 360-degree city views from the observation deck of Berlin's landmark TV tower. Not far one also finds the Hackesch Markt, an artsy hub of galleries and vintage graffiti.
For my home-from-home in the city I chose the tranquillity of a private apartment in SANA Hotel Berlin, near to the former centre of West Berlin. Close by is hip Bikini Berlin mall with its cool top floor Monkey Bar, ideal for a later afternoon cold beer.
From City-West I meandered through the green heart of Berlin, the Tiergarten park. It's an hour or so to get to Potsdamer Platz, the new nexus of the capital. I was last there in 1993, a few years after the wall fell. With reunification came the energy of new construction. At that time Potsdamer Platz was a forest of construction cranes promising a new future and new urban centre. Returning almost 30 years later the developers and businesses have created a commercial hub where you can shop in the cool Sony Centre or have cocktails in the chic Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Of course, Berlin's recent history envelops you, and there are some requisite sights that help tell the city's moving story. The Topography of Terror is an interpretation centre of Nazi Germany during the Third Reich. There is also a stretch of Berlin wall to be seen.
Yet for me, the most powerful memorial in the centre, is the nearby Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Nearly 3,000 blocks of grey concrete stand as columns, like headstones across an undulating plot. All the blocks look almost the same from above but as you walk in and the land drops away, you start to get lost in a dark labyrinth. The site opened in 2005, 60 years after WW2. This powerful, abstract piece of architecture (by Peter Eisenman) opened in 2005, 60 years after WW2. Adjacent to the memorial is another honouring the homosexual victims of the Nazis.
Continuing a little further north after a few minutes' walk you will reach the Brandenburg Gate. Probably no other sight is more representative of Berlin. For a treat, try an elegant bistro lunch at Restaurant Quarré right on the plaza overlooking the Gate.
I admit that an afternoon isn't enough to give Berlin's Museum Island justice, but choose one or two galleries and prepare for hours of immersive culture. Although the Pergamon is probably the most famous of the five institutions on the island, it is closed for a few years for major remodelling. Instead I bought tickets for the Pergamon Panorama, in a new building where visitors can see masterpieces from the ancient Pergamon alter and metropolis and view and multi-storey 360-degree panorama created by Yadegar Asisi. Other museums in walking distance include Altes Museum, Neues Museum, and Bode Museum. Yet, if you don't fancy all those classical Greek, Byzantine and Egyptian treasures, then visit the Alte Nationalgalerie for Impressionist and early Modernist artworks.
If you're able to plan ahead, then also pay a visit to the Reichstag Dome. In June 1991, after the fall of the wall and the subsequent reunification of Germany, the Bundestag parliament narrowly voted in favour to relocate from Bonn to Berlin, restoring the city as the country's capital. The Reichstag was remodelled by architectural firm Foster + Partners to restore damage from the war and add a new dome, a contemporary interpretation of the original cupola. The vast glass space features a light sculpture, a cascade of mirrors, in the centre.
Afterwards, begin your evening in style with a visit to Fragrances cocktail bar, an extraordinary and unique concept that brings together the aromas of the perfume world with the art of cocktail mixology.
Day 3 - Alternative Berlin, and the Wall
Berlin isn't easy to define. It is both elegant and sophisticated in parts and then raw and non-conformist in others. Among these extremes are a few places that although a little contrived and touristy are a requisite to visit. One is of course the East Side Gallery, an open air showcase of murals on a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. Most have been restored or repainted including Birgit Kinder's mural of a Trabant coming through the wall, Test the Rest; and of course Dmitri Vrubel's My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love that shows Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in their famous Fraternal Kiss.
Nearby is Heissa Holzmarkt, a little corner of calm by the river that so perfectly conveys Berlin's alternative spirit. Once a makeshift community, created in 'Womble-style' from recycled materials, it has now emerged into an exciting example of people-driven urban renewal. In addition to the regular market and the indie shops, there are places to get a coffee or healthy bite to eat.
As I was there, I caught sight of a Trabi Safari passing by; one of the city's self-drive tours where you rent a vintage Trabant and join a group exploring. If that's not your style then try one of the Berlin Music Tours. It's fair to say that the city's Hansa Recording Studios are legendary, having hosted artists David Bowie and Iggy Pop; and more recently U2. So, take the opportunity of a studio tour as well as walking and bus tours that bring to life the musical heritage of the German capital.
Then end your day with a sundowner by the river, or as the locals do, visit Tempelhofer Feld, the urban park and former airfield where you can take in the skyline with a cold craft German beer in your hand.