A tale of zwei cities: what to do in Berlin and Munich
Gary Allen explores two contrasting German cities and finds plenty to love – and taste – in both.
By Gary Allen | Published #69, Autumn 2017
Europe’s capital of cool, Berlin, is a city that screams diversity, combining its rich history with alternative subcultures, artistic flare and contemporary living.
There’s plenty to keep you busy – for shopping, Kurfürstendamm in the city’s west has been described as the Champs-Élysées of Berlin, and here you’ll find plenty of high-end shopping including at the Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe, department store. Or you can head to department stores like Galeries Lafayette or the architecturally cool Quartier 206, both in Friedrichstrasse. And for drinking and dining, there’s a wealth of Michelin stars to be found throughout the city, as well as hidden bars like Tausend, tucked away under the train tracks across the river from Friedrichstrasse Station, or Buck and Breck, a tiny space for just 15 patrons.
Berlin is also home to a thriving arts scene. With more than 400 galleries and over 5000 artists operating in the city, there are plenty of great spaces for art lovers to check out especially in the Mitte district. Try the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, home of the original Berlin Biennale; Contemporary Fine Arts, one of Berlin’s best-known art spaces; and Sammlung Boros, a private collection housed in 3000 square metres of exhibition space that was formerly an air-raid shelter. I’m staying in the Mitte district at the Hotel de Rome, a luxurious Rocco Forte hotel. There is architectural beauty in every direction; churches, museums and the Brandenburg Gate are all within a moment’s walk of the hotel.
The hotel building, constructed between 1887 and 1889, was once the head office of the Dresdner Bank until after World War II. As soon as I walk through the grand, original doors, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary hotel. I’m fixated by the interior design, where traditional architecture is juxtaposed with modern furnishings.
At Hotel de Rome it is evident that efficiency is key and customer service paramount. Staff stand ready with greetings from the moment I arrive and willingly escort me to check in and then to my room. It’s explained to me that the doors to each room are designed to resemble those of a bank vault; a cool nod to the hotel’s history. I use my keycard to tap and open the doors to my ‘vault’ and I’m struck by the brilliantly high ceilings, again catching myself admiring the grandeur of my surroundings.
With contemporary Italian-style interiors by designers Tommaso Ziffer and Olga Polizzi (sister to Sir Rocco Forte, the brand’s chairman), my Junior Suite is impressive. Comfortable chairs, lounges and a king size bed are set among floor lamps, striking artworks adorn the walls, and a large window provides views onto the street below. The sleek, modern bathroom is clad in light grey marble and offers a large shower and bathtub.
The Hotel de Rome’s adoption of a luxe Italian aesthetic is further evident at restaurant La Banca on the ground floor. Live music played in the bar area ensures a lively atmosphere. After a brief conversation about tastes and the level of my appetite (which is high after a huge day exploring Berlin), my waiter, Nico, takes control of both food and wine.
The beef carpaccio is one of the best I’ve ever had, accompanied by special Rocco Forte olive oil which is produced by the family for exclusive use in their hotels. The dinner is fantastic to the end and Nico doesn’t disappoint, providing fabulous wines throughout the meal.
To balance indulgence in food and drink, there is a spa and gym at the hotel. Sir Forte is a fitness fanatic and his hotels all have a pool at least 20 metres in length. After a night out in Berlin, the ideal recipe for recovery is to chill out by the pool, have a steam in the sauna and maybe follow up with a massage. You’ll be fresh and ready to head out for another night in this vibrant city.
Munich, or München, is the capital of Bavaria and the third most populous city in Germany. As with Berlin (and many of Europe’s great cities), it’s home to centuries-old buildings and many museums. In particular, Kunstareal, the museum quarter, houses some of Bavaria’s most prestigious cultural attractions. Modern-day Munich still delivers when it comes to German clichés, from its raucous beer halls to families out together on a Sunday clad in lederhosen, but the historic throwbacks add to the city’s charm (and fun).
Beer is king in Munich and one of the best beer halls to visit is Hofbräuhaus, originally founded in 1589. There’s much to do here even for non-beer drinkers, with halls to explore, live music to enjoy and plates of cold cuts, cheeses, sausages and other Bavarian fare to eat. Fair warning: it will likely be filled with tourists, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing here, with crowds of happy visitors adding to the energy and vibe of the hall.
I’m visiting Munich during winter and the Christmas markets in the city’s central square, Marienplatz, are a sight to behold. Bedecked with twinkling lights, the market stalls are teeming with people browsing for Christmas-themed souvenirs while eating grilled sausages and sweets, and I find the hot and spiced mulled wines are a true treat and great to help stave off December’s chill. Located in Altstadt (old town), the central Marienplatz Square is also home to the New Town Hall, Neues Rathaus, a neo-Gothic building housing the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, chiming and re-enacting 16th-Century tales each day at 11am with its 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures.
There is a wealth of experience in Munich beyond Bavarian culture and history. Munich’s Englischer Garten (English Garden) is larger than Central Park in New York and is home to a Japanese teahouse, Greek-style temple and several beer gardens. In summer you can go surfing in the artificial stream or pedal boating on Kleinhesseloher See (Kleinhesseloher Lake).
For car enthusiasts, BMW Welt is a showroom in a futuristic building of glass and twisted steel next to the BMW Plant and Museum. Check out BMW, Mini and Rolls Royce exhibitions and two-Michelin-star dining at EssZimmer. The BMW Museum offers junior programs full of activities for kids. There are also plenty of shopping haunts like the designer boutiques and department stores along Maximilianstrasse.
Just a stroll from the English Garden, I’m staying at The Charles Hotel, a five-star, 136-room offering in a relatively new building (circa 2007). The rooms are modern and spacious – they’re the largest standard rooms in town at a minimum of 40 square metres, and the décor features shades of taupe, mossy green and cream, and utilises cotton, silk, wood and natural stone. The rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows so they’re light and airy, and each has a large limestone bathroom with walk-in shower and heated floors. The hotel’s 26 suites range from 48 to 146 square metres and are individually designed with a separate sleeping and living area.
The hotel has a spa offering relaxation treatments, a sauna, a steam room and a huge pool – it’s a nice space to chill out in, especially when visiting in the winter months when the temperatures outside can sometimes be unbearable. There’s also a gym which is small but adequate enough for a workout.
The Charles Hotel’s restaurant, Sophia’s, opened last year and is set in a light-filled room with views of the garden across the street. Offering menus themed around a concept of ‘botanical bistronomy’, vegetables and fruits take centre stage, offering a delicious and light alternative to the traditional heavy foods of the region. I dine here one Saturday night and the restaurant is full; a good sign. I start with a Red Roost cocktail showcasing beetroot and bourbon as its main ingredients, which is interesting, to say the least. I dine on a rockfish bouillabaisse and spaghetti with lobster followed by poached pear with pear ice cream. Portions are generous and the meal is just delicious. Breakfast is served here too; buffet style, with fresh juices, pastries and breads on offer. I have the option of egg dishes, pancakes and waffles too. On weekends, breakfast is served until 2pm, inviting a long, lazy and relaxed morning, and ideal for kicking off a day out in charming Munich.
Gary Allen explores two contrasting German cities and finds plenty to love – and taste …
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Weather to go
Germany has a moderate climate with rainfall throughout the year offset by days of sunlight. Mild winters see temperatures around 2 degrees Celsius, while summers can be as warm as 20 degrees Celsius. The abundance of outdoor activities make the summer months between June and September peak season for travellers to Germany.