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Destination guide: Berlin

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2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and there's never been a better time to visit the German capital. However, with 12 administrative districts subdivided into 23 neighbourhoods, it's worth doing some pre-trip research.

The famous Brandenburg Gate in all its glory, above

One of the most famous areas is Mitte, which is Berlin's old city centre, and the most visited district. Although there's no downtown as such, if there was one, the district of Charlottenburg, with its luxury hotels and shopping malls, ticks all the boxes. Kreuzberg is home to Berlin's alternative scene, and where you'll find some of Europe's best graffiti, while Prenzlauer Berg is Kreuzberg ten years ago. It's now one of the city's chicest neighbourhoods and home to some beautiful architecture and the city's popular Kulturbrauerei culture centre.

BERLIN FACTS AND FIGURES

  • Berlin has a population of 3.5 million and covers 892 square kilometres
  • The most densely populated area is Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, with 12,400 people to one square kilometre
  • It's the second largest city in the European Union in terms of its population and the fifth largest in terms of area
  • Berlin has 175 museums, 50 theatres, 300 cinemas, 4650 restaurants, 900 bars and 190 nightclubs

A quick tip? If you ever become lost and you're not sure whether you're in East or West Berlin, find a traffic light. In East Berlin, and East Berlin alone, the traditional little green man has been replaced by Ampelmann (translation: traffic light man). This fedora-wearing figure (left) has appeared on East Berlin traffic lights since 1961 (the year the wall went up), when traffic psychologist Karl Peglau was asked to design a new traffic symbol. The wall came down, but the symbol stayed, and has been adopted by the city as its mascot.

WHERE TO STAY

The fact that Berlin doesn't have a defined city centre means that there's no excuse not to explore the lesser-known neighbourhoods, and staying in one of them is the perfect way to get under the city's skin.

Hotel Otto, above, is a boutique hotel in leafy Charlottenburg and it's colourful, quirky and cool without being pretentiously so. The bedrooms are huge, with separate living areas kitted out with brightly-coloured sofas and bowls of fresh fruit. Unusual touches include the "surprise" button in the lift - press it and you'll hear a cockerel crow. Breakfast is served on the 7th floor, where the large roof terrace offers spectacular views over the city.

Hotel Weinmesiter, above, is another super-cool design hotel in an ideal location

FOOD AND DRINK

Berlin isn't just about currywurst and lager, although there's plenty of both. Some of the best drinking holes can be found in the neighbourhoods like Prenzlauer Berg where you can mix with the locals or discover the city's quirkier bars. Dr Pong on Eberswalder Strasse, is one example. The action revolves around the bar's ping pong tables and the bar serves a decent range of beers alongside spirits and wines, all at rock-bottom prices.

A larger, more centrally-located bar is the Die Berliner Republik in Schiffbauerdamm, where the price of beer (there are 18 to choose from) fluctuates throughout the night according to popularity. Like many places, food is served until late - in this case, 6am. If you've got cash to splash head to the Sky Bar (pictured left) at the top of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) in Alexanderplatz. The drinks are more expensive here but the 360-degree views over Berlin are fantastic.

THNGS TO SEE AND DO

Checkpoint Charlie and the spectacular Brandenburg Gate are surrounded by museums which provide fascinating insights into these historical monuments. A must-see is the Berlin Wall Memorial museum on Bernauer Straße. Equally fascinating but heart-wrenching is the Topography of Terror Documentation Centre. During the Third Reich the headquarters of the Secret State Police were located here. The main exhibition focuses on the atrocities committed during the period, and the audio and film recordings bring home the horrific reality of this era.

Bernauer Straße is just a short walk away, and where you'll find a line of metal poles (below) which represent the wall - they're the same height and map its exact position. Audio points and photographic displays provide an insight into divided Berlin - be sure to read the accounts from those who lived on Bernauer Straße before the wall was erected. While the main entrances to these houses (since demolished) opened up onto East Berlin, the back entrances opened onto the West. For this reason, the windows and doors were quickly blocked up, but not before many had taken last minute-opportunities to leap out of windows or sneak out of back doors into West Berlin.

Prenzlauer Berg, in what was once East Berlin, is a neighbourhood which survived the war relatively unscathed. The wide, tree-lined avenues are packed with markets and cafes and it's a great place to see how the locals live. For a step - or a waltz - back in time, head to the Clärchens Ballhaus on Auguststraße. This ballroom-turned-bar was built in 1913 and attracts a fascinating mix of elderly couples and younger hipsters who chill out at the tables lining the packed dance floor.

White Trash on Schönhauser Alle is an all-in-one burger joint, live music venue and cinema. The food - especially the steak - is famous throughout Berlin and tables should be booked well in advance.

Many of the bars here are ridiculously hard to find; identified by tiny ticker tape-style labels stuck to the wall or hidden away behind industrial doors which give no hint of what lies beyond. For this reason, tours designed to give insights into specific neighbourhoods are particularly valuable in Berlin. One of the best outfits is Berlinagenten which specialises in tours of Berlin's neighbourhoods, with guides who know all the hidden hotspots.

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

Berlin has two international airports: Berlin Tegel is the largest and closest to the city centre - it's just five miles kilometres away - and Berlin Schönefeld is located to the east, 18 kilometres away. However both are equally well-connected to the city centre by train and bus services and getting from Schönefeld to the city centre takes under 30 minutes. Return flights to Berlin (Tegel) with British Airways from Heathrow start from £90.

Hotel Otto is located on Knesebeckstr 10 in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. Rooms cost from £67 per night. Visit hotelotto.com for more information.

BERLIN: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

-The Berlin WelcomeCard is an essential purchase for anyone heading to the city and will provide free travel on public transport and discounts of up to 50 per cent on over 200 tourist attractions

-In summer the temperature often exceeds 30 degrees, but generally ranges from between 15 degrees and 25 degrees. In winter, the temperature hovers around the freezing mark, with long periods of frost and snow

-The official currency is the Euro

-Shops in Berlin open from 10 am to 8 pm. All shops - apart from those at train stations and airports - are closed on Sundays

-Tips are generally included in the price but good service in restaurants can be recognised with a tip of between 10 and 15 per cent

Anywhere we missed? Let us know below or on Twitter

Words: Tamara Hinson. Images: Tamara Hinson, Visit Berlin, Paul Murphy, Hotel Otto, Rex Features

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