Berlin had never really turned my head. Until now. The city is erupting as a cyclonic centre of culture, cuisine and coolness. Not to mention the fact that it holds Europe's purse strings. Could it be that the vibe, that edgy energy you hear about pulsing through the city, is for real?
With a scant four days to spend in the cosmopolis whose motto "poor but sexy" intrigued me (a motto that seems so out of touch in today's economy), I enlisted three locals, all friends of a friend, to give me an insider's look at the city they love. With the help of a leggy nightclub DJ (and her legions of fans), a bass player turned successful marketing innovator, and a former costume designer who now dispenses leadership advice to German companies of considerable heft, I experienced the country's capital at its best.
The sexy nightclub DJ
The afternoon I met Zoe Rasch, a famous nightclub DJ with legs to rival Claudia Schiffer's, every facet of Berlin sparkled as we made a beeline to tony Hotel de Rome (www.hotelderome.com). "Last time I was here, I virtually bumped into Karl Lagerfeld," Rasch said with a laugh as we headed to the coveted hangout on the rooftop. I imagine we were being vetted as an employee pulled out a magic key for the terrace, but it's worth the once-over to feel as though you can reach out and touch the Old Palace on one side and the city cathedral's enormous copper dome on the other.
We sipped riesling and soaked up the surroundings, but no sooner had I pulled out my camera than a waitress swooped down like a skilled pigeon to inform me that such pursuits were very much verboten. Apparently, Tom Cruise had been there the week before. No wonder they were nervous.
With a lay of the land etched in my brain, we strolled through the three-century-old Gendarmenmarkt Square, where I gawked at the imposing buildings festooned like wedding cakes. But Rasch was determined to show me what's new, and Berlin concept stores are known the world over as cutting-edge.
With great restraint, I browsed the Corner (thecornerberlin.de), with its chichi collection of high-end gear ranging from Alexander McQueen (think the Duchess of Cambridge's red dress and tartan scarf at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations) to colourful Missonis and stylish Yves Saint Laurents. When I couldn't stand it any longer and picked up a hot-pink pair of suede Christian Louboutin platforms with six-inch heels, a nattily attired man landed at my side. "Ve just can't keep zose in stock. Vould you like to try zem on?" The €720 price tag ensured that the shoes stayed off my feet and my Visa card in my purse.
We hit two other concept emporiums: Oukan71 (www.oukan71.com), where Japanese flavour infuses both food and fashion, and Andreas Murkudis's (www.andreasmurkudis.com) whitewashed 11,000-square-foot space rife with such goodies as Mykita sunglasses and Céline bags. I remain grateful that changing rooms were not included in Rasch's itinerary.
As the day began to edge into night, we hopped into a cab and made our way to Der Goldene Hahn (www.goldenerhahn.de), a Tom Hanks favourite, according to my guide. Low-key with friendly waiters and a cozy atmosphere, it's worth a visit for the octopus carpaccio alone. We shared a bottle of verdicchio but paid only for the number of glasses consumed – a civilized constant in Berlin. When the bill arrived, I was pleased that a hearty dinner for two was €60 with tip. Maybe I could have afforded those Louboutins after all …
As one would expect of a celebrated DJ in a city that defines clubbing, we were soon off to see Rasch's haunts. It felt like touring with Angelina Jolie as fans descended upon us as we slinked through the inner passageways of Cookies Cream (www.cookiescream.com) and Kater Holzig (www.katerholzig.de), with its graffiti, murals, bars and even a beach. I don't remember what time my head hit the pillow.
The marketing transformer
The next day, I had to rise early enough to meet Daniel Simon, the founder of an international strategy and brand management company whose previous life was as a bass player in a rock band. Simon has journeyed the world, but he loves Berlin best – especially Prenzlauer Berg, where he lives in an airy apartment with his wife and three daughters.
As Berlin is the most bike-friendly city I have visited, I had no fear when Simon wheeled out a couple of sleek urban steeds. We pedalled off along avenues lined with plane trees, past clothing shops, wine stores, ice-cream parlours and furniture boutiques. Everywhere, everyone was outside.
We cranked our way up to one of the high points where the city's oldest water towers known as Thin Hermann and Fat Hermann overlooked a mass of bikini-clad sunbathers. I thought of the city's old motto: Poor? I have no idea. But definitely sexy.
Dinner outdoors at Simon's fave, Gugelhof (www.gugelhof.de), involved one food group: huge, thick white asparagus: (I count it as a food group!), served with melted butter, Hollandaise and succulent roasted potatoes, paired with a freezer-cold draft. Once again, it was the end of a delicious day, perfectly capped by a couple of crusty crème caramels.
The culture maven
The next morning, I was off with Iris von Tiedemann, a former costume designer, current culture maven and leadership coach employed by some big German companies. Since the legendary 3,300-year-old bust of Nefertiti was at the top of my wish list (having once lived in Luxor, Egypt), a time was booked in advance to enter the Neues Museum (www.neues-museum.de). At 10 a.m. on a sunny Sunday, we began our voyage through the gallery labyrinth. I felt as though I had tumbled down the rabbit hole with Alice.
"You have to stay focused," von Tiedemann said. "We can't stop at everything or we'll be here all day." In short, a savvy approach to Berlin.
At the end of a corridor, in a circular room befitting a queen, Nefertiti was encased in glass. The paint on the limestone seemed fresh. She was painfully beautiful. Exquisitely proportioned, lifelike. I could have circled over and over, but this was only the beginning of our day and I wasn't allowed to tarry.
Our next stop was Tiergarten, Berlin's largest park, designed in the 1830s. We bought two glasses of white from Café am Neuen See (www.cafe-am-neuen-see.de), took in the weekend world around us and moved on to lunch at Einstein (www.cafeeinstein.com), a place von Tiedemann and the local literati have frequented for years. Housed in a 1920s villa with the feel of a Viennese café, it has a back garden that, if you're there when it's warm, is an inner-city Eden.
After a wander through von Tiedemann's former neighbourhood of Charlottenberg ("an enchanted place to live"), dinner on the patio of Sale e Tabacchi (www.sale-e-tabacchi.de) signalled the end of my days in Berlin. Fist-size ravioli, broiled tuna, green salad and a couple of glasses of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo were eminently reasonable – as were prices everywhere. In fact, in addition to not anticipating the love affair I had with Berlin and Berliners, I was just as surprised to find a few euros left in my pocket.
No longer the slighted cousin of other grand European capitals, Berlin, my new-found friends showed me, is leading the continental pack, raising the bar on everything from food to fashion. It's tough to be both hip and fiscally prudent, but, for the moment, this metropolitan haven has it all.
Special to The Globe and Mail