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August 10 2019
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Museums, hotels, nightcaps—Richard David Story tackles the very best of Berlin.

Dear Richard,

I’m on my way to Düsseldorf for some very dull business, but I’d much rather be in Berlin for some very un-dull culture. If I route through Berlin, I’ll be able to spend a day there. I’m happy to cram as much into 24 hours as possible, and as I just watched that sexy German TV series Babylon Berlin, I’m eager for culture, sure, but also—can I be frank?—a little decadence. What might you suggest?

Sincerely,
Mr. High/Low

Something wonderful. Recently, I found myself in a similar situation en route to Berlin from a marvelous Bavarian spa outside of Munich. I have an insatiable curiosity for architectural history, and given that 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus, I booked myself an extra day in Berlin. And naturally I did my research and found the perfect city guide.

From left: a room at Hotel Adlon Kempinski; Greta Garbo in the 1932 drama Grand Hotel, which was filmed there.

But first things first, as they say. Let’s get you a room. In cities I don’t know well, I crave order and tradition, especially when it comes to hotels. So I checked myself into the Adlon, the grand old classic and site of Garbo’s “I’ve never been so tired in my life” line in 1932’s Grand Hotel. From the Presidential Suite here in 2002, Michael Jackson dangled his nine-month-old child, Prince Michael II, from the balcony, to the horror of the voracious paparazzi below, and, of course, the rest of the world. I booked Pariser Platz Suite 508, with French doors opening onto a chic little terrace that offered a head-spinning view of the Brandenberg Gate. “That’s the classic, but I also recommend Hotel de Rome, which is right next to the Berlin opera house,” says my friend Manhattan-born opera singer Fredrika Brillembourg, who lives in Berlin. “These days, most of my chic friends like to stay there.” Grand and theatrical or chic and intimate? Your call.

Bauhaus v. Zeitgeist

After you’ve checked in, you’ll have booked the rest of the morning and early afternoon with the young, stylish guide Adriana Kapsreiter, who grew up in a little village in Bavaria, studied art history and philosophy in Vienna and Berlin, and finished her Ph.D. in art history last year. (Her dissertation covered, among other things, Walter Gropius, factory architecture, and the idea of industrial work and arts in the Machine Age. She knows her stuff.) She’s absolutely obsessive but entirely conversational in her knowledge of the founder, Gropius, and his Bauhaus. Since 2017, she’s worked for the prestigious Bauhaus-Archiv, first as a museum guide and, more recently, as a research associate on the correspondence between the young Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, the ex of composer Gustav. “Actual Bauhaus architecture was meant to be a total work of art, combining all aspects of fine art to generate something big and meaningful, almost spiritual. In that sense you can only find ‘true’ Bauhaus architecture in Weimar and Dessau,” she told me. “But Berlin has something that is so very close to the Bauhaus spirit: Zeitgeist.

Martin-Gropius-Bau, one of Europe’s most revered exhibition halls.

To that end, we started at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, a former school and museum of Arts and Crafts built in the 1880s by Martin Gropius, great-uncle of Walter. After three glorious hours, we finished off at the Temporary at the Bauhaus-Archiv, which includes a shop for everything modern and Bauhaus. You’ll want it all, including the immaculately reproduced vintage posters. After that, ask Adlon’s head concierge, Joachim Link—tell him Air Mail sent you—to book a table in Norman Foster’s glass dome atop the Reichstag. Great views, super Wiener schnitzel and cucumber salad, and guaranteed admission—not easy at the last minute—to the building itself. From there, it’s back to the hotel for a nap.

Ich Bin ein Hipster?

In the evening, the fun really begins. For a refreshingly civilized dinner, there’s Grill Royal in Mitte, which is very “in”—and for all the right reasons. The space is elegant, the food is delicious, and it creates a great mise-en-scène of the art and fashion worlds. Or for something different, 893 Ryotei, located behind a graffiti-covered store on the Kantstrasse in Charlottenburg, specializes in Japanese-Peruvian fare.

That’s one way to end your night, but let’s say you are looking for a little something edgy. Meet one of my oldest friends, American journalist Guy Martin, whom I call the Boulevardier. I’d trust this guy with the life of my first born, but only—only!—for navigating Berlin after hours. “There’s a rule in Berlin,” he once told me. “Turning home at five a.m. is a regular practice for the middle classes, but actually nothing for most practicing Berliners.”

The Club der Visionaere, in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.

Start with a bar steak or sandwich at the Soho House, at the corner of Torstrasse and Prenzlauer Allee in Prenzlauer Berg. Two reasons: The rooftop bar, with a great smoking terrace and pool, is splendid this time of year. The second is history. Originally built in the 20s, it was a groundbreaking department store which the Nazis took from the Jewish founders and made into HQ for the Hitler Youth. No kidding. At about 11 p.m., you’ll want to hit Clärchens Ballhaus, down in Mitte. This nutty but great nightclub has been in operation since 1913. It’s a very witty and sharp demimonde joint right now. Moving east no later than one a.m., hit Club der Visionaere, the “Club of the Visionaries,” whose party rages on in a little shack-like boathouse on a canal off the Spree River in Treptow, just along where the Wall ran between Treptow and Kreuzberg. It’s good for a few drinks, but why stop there? Have a nightcap at Loophole, a former brothel located steps from the Neukölln district city hall.

At this point, I am ready to head back to room 508. “No way,” insists the Boulevardier. “There is no better breakfast spread than at the lobby bar of the über-hip Hotel Michelberger, a musicians’ hangout in Friedrichshain.”

“Oh, and by the way,” adds our inexhaustible Boulevardier, “if you need a club after breakfast, there are many.” Next time. After all, you do most likely have an early-morning flight and would like to remember a few of those Bauhaus lessons.

Richard David Story is a veteran travel writer and editor based in New York.

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