Everyone wants to capture the spirit of ‘Cabaret’ in Berlin. The so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’ only lasted for a few short years in the German capital, but their legacy lives on almost a century later. Clubbers flock to Berlin to seek out exhilaration and frenzy at some of the most edgy venues in Europe and there are plenty of lively late-night bars dotted around the city centre, although not as louche and raw as in the aftermath of the First World War.
Since reunification in 1990, there has been an upsurge in the number of revue and variety shows in Berlin, a form of entertainment that first blossomed towards the end of the 19th Century and which reached heady heights in the 1920s and early 1930s. Many of these shows have broad international appeal and don’t require any knowledge of German. The Wintergarten Varieté Theater on Potsdamer Strasse mixes acrobats, magicians, comedy, live music and dance and the result is a high-energy cocktail of top variety entertainment. There is also definitely more than a whiff of the glitz and glamour of the past.
The current Wintergarten extravaganza is called “Staunen” (“Amazement”) and it is a truly awesome show. We went along last Saturday night and loved it. From the moment we entered the theatre, we let the vaudeville atmosphere take over and suspended disbelief. Greeted in the foyer by a colourful drag artist, we were invited to have our photograph taken, then shown to our seat at one of the scores of tables that fill the plush red velvet and dark wood auditorium.
In the tradition of variety theatre, you can eat and drink while you watch the show and there was a bell on the table to summon waiting staff before and during the performance. Some people had ordered a package which included dinner before the show and were already in party mood. When the house lights faded, a glittering canopy of stars appeared above us and a live band struck up. The compère appeared from the side of the stage wearing top hat and tails, recalling Joel Gray’s iconic role in ‘Cabaret’. He was accompanied by a modern-day Marlene Dietrich and together they guided us through proceedings with consummate ease and great songs which slid seamlessly from German, to French and to English.
The individual variety acts included superlative acrobats, equilibrists, a strong man, a tightrope cyclist, an incredible duo of magicians and the usual clowns. There were literally breath-taking moments and the intimate nature of the theatre had everyone sitting on the edge their seats, enthralled. The glamour of the show was even echoed in the cloakroom facilities which were as incredible as the stage-sets.
The Wintergarten is a theatre with long tradition. Framed photographs of artists who have appeared there over the years are on every wall and down the sides of aisles are display cases with costumes and props.
Its history goes back to 1887, when a variety theatre was opened in a conservatory (in German: Wintergarten) at the Hotel Central in Friedrichstraße. On one evening in 1895, rather than acrobats and exotic dancers on stage, the theatre hosted a world première: the Skladanowsky brothers presented the sensational new art of cinematography and showed the first-ever commercial screening of a film. In the 1920s the Wintergarten was synonymous with the Roaring Twenties, presenting a series of stunning revue and variety shows.
During the Second World War, it was severely damaged and in 1944 the theatre had to close. But the name and spirit of the Wintergarten lived on, and in 1992 a new Wintergarten theatre opened in Potsdamer Straße on a site that had previously been home to the ‘Club Quartier Latin’, a venue associated with Berlin punk band concerts in the 1970s and 80s. The Wintergarten website has all the details of its forthcoming programme, which include vaudeville dinners and burlesque shows. ‘Staunen’ runs until 24th February.
Meeting up with friends and hanging out in a genial café is what Berlin is all about. Here are four suggestions for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and supper – all of them unique in their own way. Using the swift service of the Berlin S-Bahn, I covered all four places in one day; it was the perfect antidote for a rainy winter Monday.
First stop was breakfast at Die Stulle, a well-established café just off Savigny Platz in Charlottenburg. Its name is the Berlin word for a simple sandwich and this place has a natural, friendly ambience, with eclectic wooden furniture and sofas. The brunch menu is inventive and includes lots of healthy options. Most dishes are served with eggs – cooked to perfection any way you choose. I opted for an omelette with pumpkin and tried hard to resist the amazing selection of breads. The coffee was spot on and the waitress couldn’t have been more helpful. Be sure to make a booking if you go for breakfast or lunch at the weekend.
From Die Stulle, I whizzed off to Mitte by S-Bahn from Savigny Platz to Hackescher Markt. It’s about a ten-minute walk to Joachimstrasse, where the impeccably minimalist Chipperfield Kantine is hidden from the street in the courtyard of the Berlin office building of famous British architect, David Chipperfield. This canteen – a complete misnomer since the food is anything but institutional – provides a small daily menu with three interesting main dishes. You can’t book in advance so it’s best to arrive quite early as Chipperfield employees and other local office workers love this place. It’s a real insider tip. No alcohol served here, but the atmosphere was buzzing.
After for a spot of shopping at the Kaufhof department store on nearby Alexanderplatz, I took the S-Bahn back to Charlottenburg. The next assignment was for coffee and cake at Frau Behrens Torten on Adenauerplatz – a far cry from my ultra-modern lunch venue. This café is strictly for traditionalists, complete with chandeliers, marble tables, velvet-covered chairs and nostalgic pictures. The pianist at the grand piano was playing a selection of music from the 1920s and 1930s and with candles lit on all the tables, we were transported back in time.
My final appointment was at Seaside on beautiful Gendarmenmarkt, just off Unter den Linden in the heart of Berlin. The nearest S-Bahn station is Friedrichstraβe. This fashionable restaurant, with its maritime design and dark blue walls can rightly claim to have “Nordic charm and Californian cool”, despite being so far from the coast. For a lover of fish and seafood, it was a great end to a gourmet day. Guests can select their own fresh fish from the counter and decide how they would like it served or choose from the à la carte menu. There are interesting side dishes and sauces, and the chips and desserts are irresistible. If you are also tempted by the extensive wine list, an evening at the Seaside becomes a genuinely exclusive experience.
Berlin Zoo is the oldest zoo in Germany, with a unique history. It is also the most species-rich in the world and the most-visited zoo in Europe. The 86-acre site next to the Tiergarten park has an abundance of trees and greenery; the animal houses are architectural gems and the enclosures are generous and well-kept. Famous inmates like Knut, the polar bear and Bao Bao the giant panda have contributed to the zoo’s international profile. In the 1980s, my children loved going to the Berlin Zoo and even had the opportunity to meet two baby tigers.
Cuddly baby tigers
The Antelope House
The Berlin Zoologischer Garten, to give it its full name, owes its existence to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who was a passionate animal-lover. Together with his first wife, Louise, he established an impressive menagerie on the romantic Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) on the Havel river and opened it to the public. After he died in 1840, his son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was happy to gift this private zoo to the people of Berlin and in 1844, after three years of construction, the Berlin Zoo opened on its current site. Two great Berliners, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné were key players in the realisation of this project.
Zoo entrance in 1960
In 1869, Dr Heinrich Bodinus, director of the Cologne Zoological Garden, took on the management of the Berlin Zoo and until his death in 1884, he added many more species and built new exotic animal houses. Ludwig Heck, also from the Cologne Zoo, took over from 1881 when he was only 28 years old and was Director of the Berlin Zoo until 1931. These were golden years which saw the construction of the beautiful Elephant Gate entrance on Budapester Strasse and many more animal houses, including the stunning aquarium in 1913. In 1932 Heck passed the baton to his son, Dr Lutz Heck, and the zoo park was modernised again, with outdoor enclosures using natural stone. However, Heck Junior was a Nazi sympathiser who used forced labour as workers.
A memorial bust to Dr Lutz Heck and explanation of his political leanings
The fabulous Aquarium
By 1939, the Berlin Zoo boasted over 4,000 animals, belonging to 1,400 species. Only 91 animals survived the war, including the popular hippo, Knautschke, the elephant bull Siam and the chimpanzee, Suse. The bombing in 1943 and 1944 more or less destroyed the entire zoo and there are many apocryphal stories about what happened to the thousands of animals during the bombing. Elephants and Tigers were said be roaming the streets, with snakes and crocodiles hiding in dark corners. In fact, most of the animals died, but it is true that some of their meat was used to feed the starving Berliners. If you follow thislink, you can read more about the zoo’s wartime story.
Elephant gate after bombing
Elephant Gate today
As the first female zoo director in Germany, Dr Katharina Heinroth took on the task of the rebuilding the destroyed zoo from the rubble and was able to build something better out of its tragedy. There was much reconstruction, but innovation was also born out of devastation. The zoo that emerged from the chaos was more progressive and mirrored the real habitats of the animals.
Berlin Zoo’s full name is the Berlin Zoologischer Garten – the same as the station opposite its ‘Lion’ entrance gates (Löwentor). During the city’s division from 1949 until 1989, the Zoo was stranded in West Berlin and its eponymous station served as the main transportation hub of West Berlin. At this point several U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines of city public transport intersected. The station also served as a starting point of long distance trains, and the city’s biggest bus terminal is still there. Its pop-culture prominence started in the 1970s when the area around the station became a sordid gathering place for teenage drug addicts and prostitutes. These days it is well-known for its Currywurst stand.
Curry 36 at Bahnhof Zoo
In 1955, the GDR opened its ‘own zoo’, the ‘Tierpark’ (Animal Park), in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin, which at 400 acres is the largest landscaped zoo in Europe. This means that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a choice of two excellent zoos in the German capital. But there is something extra special about the Zoologischer Garten in the city centre. My recent visit was in glorious autumn weather. The zoo park couldn’t have looked better. There were no pacing animals in small spaces and Giant Pandas, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng looked very content exploring the undergrowth. The environment is as natural as possible with plenty of vegetation, rock, stone and water in evidence. We mainly stayed outside in the sunshine and a favourite enclosure was an aviary for sea birds where visitors can sit in a typical North German beach chair by the lapping water. The café facilities were excellent too, although they were not being tested to full capacity early on a Sunday morning.
Panda at play
Sitting at the seaside
‘Forest Hut’ café
Berlin Zoo’s website has all the details of opening times, ticket prices. feeding times and special events. There are opportunities to see into the zoo from outside as well. The path from Zoo Station into the Tiergarten runs alongside the camel and bison enclosure and the Bikini Berlin shopping centre has a terrace with great views of the monkey enclosures. To get a panoramic view of the whole site, take the lift to the Monkey Bar on the tenth floor of the Bikini Berlin Hotel or book a penthouse room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with its ‘Zoofenster’ (zoo window) tower.
The story of Jewish Berlin will be forever tragically linked to the Holocaust. Nothing can change this statement, but today’s Berliners are still making efforts to ensure that the fate of their persecuted predecessors will never be forgotten. Recently, I discovered another neighbourhood initiative to keep alive the memory of their Jewish community in Berlin before the war: Café Haberland above the U-Bahn Station Bayerischer Platz in the borough of Schöneberg.
Café Haberland above the U-Bahn station
This café-museum opened in 2014 and is named after father and son, Salomon and Georg Haberland, founders of the local district called ‘Das Bayerische Viertel’ (The Bavarian Quarter), where many of the streets are named after towns in Bayern (Bavaria). A central point for Jewish intellectual life in pre-Nazi Berlin, it is also referred to as ‘Jewish Switzerland’ because of the many influential Jews who came to live there, including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin.
Einstein at home in Berlin
The well-known Berlin coffee-house chain ‘Café Einstein’ now runs the gastronomic side of Café Haberland and local volunteers man the museum side of things. I enjoyed a good breakfast there, then read through some of the documentation about the history of the Bayerisches Viertel and what happened to its Jewish inhabitants during the Nazi period. I watched film material and listened to interviews at the video and audio stations. The literature and reports are available in English as well as German and make an emotional impact with their very personal stories. The stated aim of the exhibition, to build a bridge between the past and the present, succeeds perfectly.
Volunteers with the Mayor of Schöneberg
Inside the café-museum
You can also get a feel for the neighbourhood by looking around the wall displays in the entrance hall of the Bayerischer Platz U-Bahn station. They feature large photographs and information boards tracing the origins of the Bayerisches Viertel and give brief details of some of the illustrious Germans who lived there. Carl Zuckmayer, author of ‘Der Hauptmann von Köpenick’ is pictured below.
Pictures at the underground exhibition
Outside the station, the main square of Bayerischer Platz was originally landscaped in 1908, comprising a green area, benches, a fountain and promenades. It soon became the central meeting place for the area, surrounded by prestigious shops, cafés, medical practices and banks. It is still a pleasant open space, reflecting the calm atmosphere of this residential district where the buildings are set back from the street with pretty gardens and wide pavements.
Bayersicher Platz – then and now
Having remained a village since the 13th century, Schöneberg boomed at the end of the 19th century when Berlin’s population exploded and villagers sold off their agricultural land to developers. The most prominent developer was Georg Haberland, son of textile manufacturer Salomon Haberland. The Bayerisches Viertel, which he built between 1900 and 1914, was an area of quiet residential streets, lined with grand buildings containing large apartments decorated with stucco work and marble. One is called Haberlandstraße, where Albert Einstein lived at number 5 from 1917 until 1932. The Nazis, who hated wealthy Jews like Haberland, changed the street’s name in 1938, although it was eventually restored in 1996.
Information board outside the site of Einstein’s home
Before the war, Schöneberg attracted the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as lawyers, doctors, businessmen and intellectuals, many of them Jewish. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, there were over 16,000 Jews in the Bayerisches Viertel. The Nazis soon began their persecution of the Jews and their rights were cruelly eroded. At the end of February 1943, the roundups, arrests and deportations started and by June that year, the whole borough of Schöneberg was declared “free of Jews’. In the allied bombing that followed, 75% of the buildings in the Bayerisches Viertel were destroyed.
Haberland Strasse in 1925
The ‘Orte des Erinnerns’ (Places of Remembrance), a memorial concept in the Bayersiches Viertel, makes a powerful statement. It’s a network of eighty signs hanging from street lamps inscribed with the laws introduced by the Nazis to discriminate against the Jewish population; some strategically located to link them to present-day reality. For example, a sign in front of a playground states, “Aryan and non-Aryan children are forbidden to play together”. The eighty scattered signs are gathered together on three large billboards at Rathaus Schöneberg Town Hall, Bayerischer Platz and in front of the Münchener Straβe Gymnasium (Grammar School). Each billboard shows pre- and post-war maps of the area, one from1933 and the other from 1993. For an English translation of the signs follow this link. They defy belief. The sign below, depicting a loaf of bread on one side, states that “Jews are only allowed to buy food between 4pm and 5pm”.
After walking around the Bayerisches Viertel, you might want to return to Café Haberland for a restorative cup of tea or coffee. Finding and reading the signs is a sobering experience. In warmer weather you can sit outside on the balcony and once a month there are ‘Jazz on the Roof’ evenings. It’s a great meeting place with an eclectic modern feel combined with echoes of a past era. Follow this link to the Café’s website to find full details of opening times and events.
It’s been a long hot summer in Berlin and cafés with shaded terraces and gardens are in high demand. A great location for fine al fresco food and drink is the Königliche Gartenakademie (Royal Garden Academy) in Dahlem, just a five-minute walk from the Berlin Botanischer Garten. The café there is a unique place where you can either sit outside on the lawn in the shade of a giant 100-year old Weymouth Pine or retreat into the light, bright greenhouses surrounded by stunning greenery and flowers.
Lunch on the lawn
As its name suggests, the Gartenakademie is a school for horticulture and the present building dates back to 1903. It was originally founded in Potsdam in 1823 by Peter Joseph Lenné, Germany’s most influential 19th Century landscape gardener, who established English landscape garden design in Germany. Since 2008 the Gartenakademie and its grounds have been run as a successful business by Gabriella Pape, a horticulturalist, garden designer, journalist and author of several gardening books, who trained at Kew Gardens.
Aerial view of the Gartenakademie
Gabriella Pape in the garden centre
The Academy itself offers a wide range of lectures, courses and workshops for keen amateurs, as well as professional gardeners from all over the world. The surrounding grounds feature show flower-beds and borders and two gardens – the Bee Garden and the Japanese Garden. The large herbaceous border is my particular favourite and reflects the English gardening tradition of the Berlin Gartenakademie.
There is an extensive plant sales area, both outside and in historic greenhouses, and customers can also buy garden furniture, accessories and books or avail themselves of the garden design service. The whole site is beautifully maintained and wonderfully colourful in summer. You can simply wander through the grounds and the greenhouses and enjoy the experience of being in a rarefied gardening world. Everything is beautifully kept and aesthetically pleasing. As a Londoner, it reminds me of a blend between Petersham Nurseries in Richmond and the Chelsea Physic Garden.
Among the roses
Plants under cover
For Berliners and other visitors who are not intent on buying plants or bulbs to stock their garden, the main attraction of the Gartenakademie is its wonderful café culture. There are tables and chairs dotted around on the lawns and inside the greenhouses, and the whole ambience has an artlessly Impressionist feel to it.
Light, bright interiors
Coffee and cakes
Bon viveurs head to the Gartenakademie for their delicious breakfasts, light lunches and home-made cakes. Apart from good coffee and teas, there are locally-produced beers and lemonade and fine wines. I recently visited the Gartenakademie for Sunday Brunch (advisable to book ahead) which is a set price of 22 euros. The buffet spread was as colourful as a summer flower garden, with plenty of seasonal dishes and the house cocktail, Gambrinus Spritz, slipped down a treat.
For further information, including an interesting video presentation by Gabriella Pape herself, follow this link to the Gartenakademie website. The opening hours are Tuesday to Saturday (closed on Mondays) from 10am until 6.30pm and Sundays from 10am until 4pm. From October to March the Gartenakademie closes at 5.30pm on weekdays. The nearest underground station is Dahlem-Dorf.
The long, grand boulevard of the Kurfürstendamm, referred to by Berliners as the Ku’damm, dates back to 1542 and takes its name from the Kurfürsten (Prince Electors) of Brandenburg when it was a bridle-path to their Grunewald hunting lodge. Since the days of the Kaiser this avenue has been lined with shops, hotels, theatres, restaurants and street cafés. Tall, black wrought-iron street lamps bow elegantly above bold pavement display cases introduced by the Nazis and the buildings are set well back from the road to allow plenty of room for promenading. The street corners have quaint kiosks and the old-style ‘Litfaβsäule’, columns plastered with advertisements of all the current shows and concerts. In summer the four rows of magnificent plane trees hide the parked traffic in the central reservation and in winter their branches sparkle with white lights.
Pavement display cases
After the Prussians defeated the French in 1871, Bismarck wanted the Ku’damm to become Berlin’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was widened to about 53 metres and construction started on some of the city’s most prestigious addresses. These buildings had ornate façades with columns, gables, towers, huge bay windows and grand entrances with equally impressive interiors. Over half these magnificent structures were destroyed during the bombing in the Second World War, but many have been lavishly restored.
Commerzbank at 59, Ku’damm
A good way to admire the Ku’damm architecture is to take a ride on the top deck of one of the buses that run up and down the boulevard. Haus Cumberland at 193-194, Ku’damm is among the finest buildings along the route. This listed building was originally constructed in 1911-12 and named after Ernst August of Hanover, Third Duke of Cumberland, who was stripped of his English title when he sided with the Germans in the First World War. Haus Cumberland has a colourful history. It covers 10,000 square metres and was conceived as a ‘Boarding Palast’ or apartment hotel, with three elaborate courtyards forming the heart of the complex. Unfortunately, the owner was declared bankrupt before the final opening. After this venture failed, the building was briefly used by the Imperial Arms and Ammunition Procurement Office and then converted into a grand hotel.
The original ‘Boarding Palace’ in 1912
One of the courtyards and the reading and writing room
In the years that followed the First World War, Haus Cumberland contained the main post office building and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as theatres and cinemas. In the Nazi era it housed government finance offices that played a part in the expropriation and plundering of Jewish property. From 1966 to 2003, the Berlin Regional Tax Office was the new landlord and from 2003 it stood empty, apart from the shops on the ground floor, and the interior was sometimes rented out as a backdrop for Hollywood films.
Haus Cumberland in 1968
After new plans for a luxury hotel failed, the property was sold to a business consortium in 2010.The building was meticulously renovated for heritage status and the Ku’damm façade was returned to its original state. There are now 185 apartments at the rear of the complex and a number of shops at the front.
New apartments and courtyards
Behind the grand entrance to Haus Cumberland is the much-vaunted café-restaurant ‘Grosz’, named after Berlin artist George Grosz (1893-1959), best known for his socially critical paintings from the 1920s, who lived in nearby Savigny Platz during the Golden Twenties.
Entrance to ‘Grosz’
Berlin street scene by Georg Grosz
‘Grosz’ opened its doors to the public in 2012 – a century after Haus Cumberland was originally completed. At the time, the Berlin press proclaimed it as a great example of how the Ku’damm and West Berlin are on the road to being cool and hip again, although the truth of this statement is debatable. But ‘Grosz’ is definitely worth a visit, both for its atmosphere and for its food and drink. Run by the owner of ‘Borchardt’, the famous celebrity dining establishment in Berlin-Mitte, ‘Grosz’ exudes the same sophistication. The interior décor looks genuinely historic and expensive and the waiting staff are crisply-dressed in white and black.
As ‘Grosz’ is a coffee house, bar and restaurant all in one location, you don’t have to order food with your drink. But if you are calling in for coffee it’s hard to resist the display of exquisite cakes by the entrance. Beyond it is a bar area serving fine cocktails which opens into the actual restaurant rooms with the highest ceilings imaginable, ornate pillars and walls covered with antique mirrors and paintings.
Sweet treats ……
….. and the bar
The ambience of ‘Grosz’ is best described as a mixture between a Vienna café of the Art Nouveau era and a French Brasserie. I went there for dinner soon after it opened and had a memorable meal. The menu focuses around classics like oysters served on a silver pedestal, various steak cuts and seasonal dishes with a French twist. At lunchtime there is always a plat du jour. Five years ago, the food and the service were both excellent, but the place was rather empty and I felt that things had yet to get into their stride. Recently, I have returned to ‘Grosz’ both for an evening drink and for a Berlin-style Sunday breakfast. It seems to have a more laid-back feel to it now, without losing its elegance and wow factor and almost succeeds in capturing the elusive Berlin feeling of bygone days.
A ‘Grosz’ breakfast
A cool dog at the next table
‘Grosz’ is only a few bus stops from Zoo Station or a 20-minute can stroll up the Ku’damm. All the location details and menus can be found on the Grosz website at http://grosz-berlin.de/?lang=en For an interesting read about the Ku’damm’s history and buildings, I can highly recommend ‘A Walk Along The Ku’damm: Playground and Battlefield of Weimar Berlin’ by Brendan Nash.