Berlin is currently one of the most exciting cities in the world. Evidence of its tumultuous history is everywhere. The Sputnik-inspired Fernsehturm (Television Tower) stands directly behind the Gothic St. Mary’s Church, whose stubborn angle in an otherwise rectilinear square is a reminder of the medieval streets cleared to make way for an expanded Alexanderplatz, the communist showplace of East Berlin. Just across the river, bullet holes from World War II pock the neoclassical colonnade of the Alte Nationalgalerie. Improbably, the Stadtschloss — the seat of the Prussian kings demolished in 1950 — is being rebuilt nearby. And in bustling Potsdamer Platz, the soaring Sony Center incorporates the ornate wall of a prewar ballroom into its otherwise contemporary façade. Sections of a much more infamous wall stand a few feet away.
This was my fourth visit to the city since the Berlin Wall fell, but I had no trouble occupying my time almost exclusively with attractions I’d never seen before. The trouble was forcing myself to skip favorite sights. I missed the Pergamon Museum, home to the magnificent blue-tiled Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon (the wing housing the Pergamon Altar is closed for renovations until 2019). Nor did I revisit the iconic bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum, or the Romanticist masterpieces in the Alte Nationalgalerie. I didn’t ascend the spiraling glass dome atop the Reichstag, or take a river cruise through the heart of downtown. Perhaps most distressing, I didn’t have time to contemplate the Brandenburg Gate from a room at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, one of my favorite city hotels in Europe.
Evidence of Hotel de Rome's former life as the headquarters of the wealthy Dresdner Bank is everywhere.
I consoled myself with a stay at my other longtime Berlin favorite, the Hotel de Rome. In an ideal location on Bebelplatz within easy walking distance of the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island, this 146-room property is one of the few major Berlin hotels to occupy an intact prewar building. Remnants of its former life as the headquarters of the wealthy Dresdner Bank are everywhere. The granite pillars of the vault now stand in the swimming pool, above which a gold mosaic wall shimmers, serving as a reminder of the space’s former purpose. One walk-in safe has been transformed into a room for manicures and pedicures, but another remains tantalizingly locked — the hotel has only three of the four keys needed to open it. Original mosaic floors decorate some of the hallways, and the barrel-vaulted one on the first floor still has ornate plaster bas-reliefs. Here, three historic suites feature 16-foot ceilings and original wood paneling. But the Hotel de Rome is a stylish contemporary hotel, as well. In the center of the lobby, a red neon birdcage-shaped chandelier hovers over minimalist flower arrangements in black vases, flanked by dramatic black oversize sofas. Classical urns painted a glossy lipstick-red guard the entrance to the bar, La Banca, where the far wall has the words “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind” spelled out in more neon.
We reserved a Superior Deluxe Room with a view of Bebelplatz, one of Berlin’s loveliest squares, bordered by the former Royal Library and the State Opera House. Alas, though renovations of the latter were supposed to have been completed two years ago, the building remains an eyesore entirely surrounded by scaffolding. Aside from its compromised view, our high-ceilinged room on the second floor was both comfortable and chic, done in white, black and blue with well-matched elements of baroque, art deco and contemporary styles. I loved the bath’s heated floor, Linari Notte Bianca toiletries and Brandenburg Gate-inspired mosaic above the separate soaking tub.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The atmospheric prewar building; the plush and stylish décor; the unfailingly friendly and helpful staff; the perfect central location; the gorgeous pool.
DISLIKE: The construction marring the Bebelplatz views.
GOOD TO KNOW: Rooms facing the green-domed St. Hedwig’s Cathedral are the best alternative to those fronting Bebelplatz.
Hotel de Rome 95 Superior Deluxe, $510; Classic Suite, $900. Behrenstrasse 37, Berlin. Tel. (49) 30-460-6090.
The nearby Regent hotel stands just steps from the Gendarmenmarkt, an elegant square with twin baroque cathedrals and the neoclassical Concert Hall. Several classic Berlin restaurants cluster around the square, including Michelin-starred VAU, the Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt beer hall, Lutter & Wegner (famous for its schnitzel), Austrian Aigner, the resolutely traditional borchardt and the Regent’s own two-star Fischers Fritz. The 195-room Regent occupies a new building, but you would never guess from the interior’s marble floors, wood paneling, gilt-framed oils, crystal chandeliers and grand flower arrangements. Our Executive Suite exhibited the same devotion to traditional luxury, with urn-shaped brass table lamps, an armchair and sofa trimmed with fringe, a bath clad entirely in pink marble, and more crystal light fixtures. Our metal balcony’s side view of the Gendarmenmarkt was memorable, but it didn’t quite make up for the lack of a window in the separate bedroom.
Overall, we had a perfectly pleasant stay at the Regent, but I couldn’t help wishing I were at the Adlon or the Hotel de Rome instead. Staunch traditionalists will surely appreciate the Regent’s décor, but it felt too old-fashioned to me. Berlin is no place to stay in an old-fashioned hotel.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The Gendarmenmarkt view from our balcony; the cozy bar; the amount of space for the money.
DISLIKE: The old-fashioned style; the lack of windows in our Executive Suite bedroom; the old room safe, too small for a laptop.
GOOD TO KNOW: When the hotel is crowded, breakfast is served in more than one venue. However, it’s worth the wait for a table in the Fischers Fritz restaurant.
Regent 88 Deluxe King, $365; Executive Suite, $550; Superior Suite, $790. Charlottenstrasse 49, Berlin. Tel. (49) 30-20-338.
Until now, all of my recommended Berlin hotels have been in the Mitte district, the prewar heart of the city that continues to be an ideal neighborhood for first-time visitors. Recently, however — and somewhat to the surprise of the locals — the area that was West Berlin is becoming stylish again. A perfect symbol of its new chic is the 78-room Das Stue hotel, which opened in 2013 in a building that formerly housed the Royal Danish Embassy.
Tucked away down a quiet lane, the functionalist limestone structure was built from 1938-1940, apparently to the specifications of Third Reich architect Albert Speer. Perhaps because of its peculiar pedigree, the Danes were always rather reluctant occupants, and it was finally sold in 1978.
Arriving around 2:45 p.m. on a rainy afternoon, I was somewhat taken aback when the haughty young woman at the front desk tapped her watch and reminded me that check-in is officially not until 3 p.m. Regrettably, the welcome previewed the only thing I didn’t like about this otherwise comfortable and distinctive hotel: Some staff members suffer from what I call “boutique-hotel syndrome,” and, in consequence, are smugly impressed with themselves and rather standoffish with guests.
Das Stue is a charming property with a lot of character.
Milan-based designer Patricia Urquiola is responsible for the hotel’s gallery-like décors, which display museum-quality contemporary art and photography. Rooms are divided between the original building and a modern annex, those in the former being preferable since they have more period character and, usually, better views. Our Stue Suite came with herringbone parquet floors, high ceilings, large windows and a huge and very comfortable bed. Danish modern furniture spoke of the building’s past, and lighting throughout the suite was impeccable. The large, well-appointed bath provided a soaking tub, a rainfall shower and Diptyque toiletries.
We loved the hotel’s cozy bar with its friendly and hardworking bartender, and enjoyed a superb meal of tuna escabeche and morel mushroom rice with pork ribs and shrimp at Cinco, the excellent restaurant of Michelin-starred Catalan chef Paco Pérez. In addition to a delightful library, the hotel also has a small spa with a lap pool, three treatment rooms and a sauna. Ultimately, Das Stue is a charming property with a lot of character. Service needs some fine-tuning, but this notwithstanding, the hotel has become a favorite new address in Berlin.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The collection of contemporary art and photography; the handsomely designed and very comfortable rooms; the excellent Cinco restaurant.
DISLIKE: The haughty staff; our room’s lack of an espresso maker.
GOOD TO KNOW: A taxi is necessary to visit most sights, but many cab drivers don’t know the hotel’s street, so carry a card when you go out. The fascinating and little-known Bauhaus-Archiv Museum nearby should not be missed.
Das Stue 94 Junior Suite, $450; Stue Suite, $1,050. Drakestrasse 1, Berlin. Tel. (49) 30-311-7220.
As much as I enjoy exploring the neighborhoods that were previously on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, most of the leading restaurants and shops are still on the city’s west side. This doubtless explains why Waldorf Astoria chose to build its 232-room property, which opened in January 2013, in the stylish and animated Charlottenburg district. The area is akin to New York City’s Upper East Side, and I particularly recommend a stroll down Fasanenstrasse, home to art galleries, the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum and the attractive Café Wintergarten im Literaturhaus.
The only thing lacking was a sense of place, since the hotel might as well have been in Chicago as in Berlin.
Our King Corner Suite came with a separate sitting area and wonderful views over the city through floor-to-ceiling windows. The marble bath also benefited from superb views and was equipped with underfloor heating, a rainfall shower and perfect lighting. The hotel has a Guerlain spa; plus Les Solistes, a restaurant overseen by Paris-based three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire. Overall, we were extremely comfortable in this well-designed and well-run international property. The only thing lacking was a sense of place, since, aside from the German-speaking staff, the hotel might as well have been in Chicago as in Berlin.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The large, well-equipped rooms; the beautiful views over Berlin.
DISLIKE: The sometimes unhelpful front-desk staff; the 25 euro charge for in-room Internet access, the pointlessly fussy and expensive Les Solistes by Pierre Gagnaire restaurant.
GOOD TO KNOW: Ottenthal, a very good Austrian restaurant with a fine wine list and excellent schnitzel, is a five-minute walk away.
Waldorf Astoria 89 King Corner Suite, $470; King Tower Suite, $570. Hardenbergstrasse 28, Berlin. Tel. (49) 30-814-0000.
Farther west, about six miles from the Brandenburg Gate, the suburb of Grunewald abuts a forest of the same name. In the early 20th century, Berlin’s wealthiest families built huge houses here. Fortunately, World War II largely spared the neighborhood, leaving its sumptuous villas intact. The Schlosshotel im Grunewald occupies a mansion built by a Berlin lawyer in 1914. Kaiser Wilhelm II was the first guest, and he returned more than 100 times, rumor has it, to visit the lawyer’s beautiful wife. The property opened as a hotel in 1951; new owners took over in the early 1990s, employing Karl Lagerfeld to redesign the interior; and designer Patrick Hellmann purchased the 53-room hotel in January 2014.
On arrival, I was pleased to see that the palatial lounges and dining rooms with their ornate wood paneling, gilt moldings and elaborate plasterwork remain as glorious as ever. And it was pure pleasure to have dinner in the jewel-box of a restaurant, then to sip a brandy in the heroically proportioned main hall, where candlelight flickered off the red silk damask walls and deeply coffered ceiling some 30 feet above.
The Schlosshotel im Grunewald could be a hideaway of the first order.
Regrettably, our stay was plagued by innumerable small service failures. I liked our suite’s baroque-style headboard upholstered in linen, the living room’s large oil depicting a mansion similar to the Schlosshotel, and the bath done in rich wood and red marble. But ugly, heavy black plastic had been stapled to the demilunes above the main windows. A maintenance man came to tear it off, explaining that the previous guests had been disturbed by the morning light. We then discovered that our toiletry set was incomplete and that we lacked slippers.
A staircase with badly worn carpet led downstairs, where problems continued. The breakfast staff were completely overwhelmed on Sunday morning. No one greeted us when we entered; service was excruciatingly slow; and, at one point, our waitress plunked down my mineral water as she talked on a cordless phone. Nor was service better in the main restaurant, Vivaldi. I smiled at a waiter who was adjusting some place settings and was ignored. When informed that we had a reservation, he looked confused and replied, “Oh, well, take a seat wherever you like.”
The Schlosshotel im Grunewald could be a hideaway of the first order, and it is ideally located for visiting major sights such as the Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam and the Wannsee Conference villa. But the poorly trained staff fail to live up to the splendor of the building.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The palatial lounges; the restaurant’s beautifully presented cuisine; the large basement swimming pool; the garden.
DISLIKE: The disorganized and sometimes unprofessional service.
GOOD TO KNOW: Reinhard’s Landhaus, with a warm atmosphere and simple, delicious cooking, is a 10-minute walk from the hotel; the newly Michelin-starred Frühsammers Restaurant is a 20-minute walk away.
Schlosshotel im Grunewald 89 Executive Suite, $415; Luxury Suite, $1,115. Brahmsstrasse 10, Berlin. Tel. (49) 30-895-840.