Three-Day Weekend: Berlin
High style and hip design doesn't have to be expensive. You can experience art, restaurants, and nightlife in the trendy Mitte and Kreuzberg districts—for less than you’d think.
I was still in a pleasant, gauzy, art-induced haze after laying eyes on the Nefertiti Bust in Berlin’s Neues Museum when the November rain pelting Museum Island stopped for a few blissful minutes. I seized the chance to lower my umbrella and linger in the middle of Friedrichsbrücke footbridge, on the Spree river. Above, the sky was damp, hazy, and green-gray; reflections from yellow streetlights glowed warm in the rippling water. I ran my fingers along antique German script etched in the bridge’s concrete, the lettering like medieval calligraphy. The 18th-century Berlin Cathedral presided over it all, its tarnished sea-green dome stately and gothic. This view, I remember thinking, this dramatic vignette, is like a woodcut from an Edgar Allan Poe novel.
As I turned to continue down the cobblestoned path, a murder of crows began to swirl and scream overhead.
It couldn’t have been more appropriate. It couldn’t have been more bizarre. And it couldn’t have been more magical. This was the Berlin I’d hoped to experience: the fiercely authentic, austere, urbane city that I’d read about in newspapers’ style sections and seen on TV in 1989, when the Wall fell.
Witnessing the crows was one of many far-out moments I had in the city’s bubbling cauldron of rich history, modern art, addictive street food, avant-garde design, and friendly people. I did it all on a budget in one long weekend, with the trendy Mitte district as a home base. And I didn’t want to leave.
Stay in hip, surprisingly affordable Mitte.
After my redeye on Airberlin, direct from New York City’s JFK airport to Tegel in Berlin, it was morning when I arrived in the trendy Mitte district—known for its café scene, galleries, and cool shops—and checked into the design-forward, you-won’t-believe-these-low-rates Circus Hotel (from about $95 per night, circus-berlin.de). The hotel isn’t whisper-quiet or plush, but its decor is youthful and energetic—silhouettes of birds on a bright-green background were painted on my room’s walls—and the Rosenthaler-Platz U-bahn subway stop is steps from the front door. I stowed my suitcase and waited for my room to open at the adjoining restaurant, Fabisch. Alongside heaping spreads of German wurst, cheeses, eggs, and breads, its 9-euro breakfast buffet offered nine kinds of hearty cereals, like “choco muesli” and rye “roggen flocken,” lined up neatly, waiting to be spooned into bowls.
Lodging rates across the street, at the similarly named Circus Hostel, dip even lower (from about $21 per night for a shared dorm room, from about $62 per night for a private room, circus-berlin.de). Generator Berlin Mitte hostel, with its hip, warm, wood-heavy décor is close by too (from about $21 for a shared room, from about $58 for a private room, generatorhostels.com).
Shop local, drink cheap, take a throwback selfie.
When I ventured out that first morning, the streets were abandoned until about noon, when Berliners began to stream past wearing understated parkas, dark skinny jeans, and delicate nose rings—and exuding an effortless cool. The city is a night owl.
“Where should I go out tonight?” I had asked the hotel’s front-desk clerk. His buddy next to him, exuberant with a half-shaved head and ponytail, grabbed a red Post-It note and scrawled the best places to go clubbing: “Berghain, Tresor, Kater Blau, Watergate.” “Go early,” he urged me. “Go before 2 a.m., because from 2 to 6 a.m. it gets really crazy. Also, people might be having intercourse next to you, but it’s normal.”
After living in a sanitized New York City for years, sanctioned public intercourse seemed like a breath of fresh air. I was disappointed when, after my redeye, I couldn’t stay awake past midnight. But before the clock struck 12, I found the perfect bar. A smoky, red-lit dive with psychedelic toile wallpaper, Muschi Obermaier has vintage memorabilia shellacked to the walls: print advertisements from the 1960s, band posters, photos of nude models, and film stills (muschiobermaier.de). A giant bottle of Augustiner Lagerbier Hell cost less than $4; a small glass of Berliner Luft peppermint schnapps was under $3. Reclining on overstuffed leather couches or standing three deep at the bar, the men resembled Sting or Jack Antonoff; the women were petite, brunette versions of Brigitte Bardot, touseled bangs included. I lingered as long as I could.