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.
To explore the German capital, it is not enough to walk the length and breadth of its streets. If you want to catch the Berlin Feeling and understand what makes this city really tick, you must enter a world that lies hidden behind the façades – the parallel universes of the Berlin courtyards. There is no other city in the world where this style of building construction is so seminal to its architectural style. Berlin’s ‘Höfe’ (singular: ‘Hof) contain apartments, offices, workshops, shops, galleries, cafés and gardens. They may be chic or shabby, interlinking or individual, but one thing is sure, this multiverse of courtyards pumps energy into Berlin street-life in a unique and fascinating way.
Berlin courtyards – My very own Berlin courtyard
The history of the Höfe goes back to the second half of the 19th Century when Berlin’s population began to boom. In the 1870s, there were over one million people living in Berlin; whereas in the 1820s, it stood at about 220,000. This massive population increase had dramatic effects on the social and economic aspects of city life. The city centre residential districts had to be utilized as much as possible and this resulted in the construction of tenement blocks called ‘Mietskasernen’ (literally ‘rented barracks’). These blocks were often built behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as homes for the bourgeoisie and housed domestic employees, workmen, and poorer families.
Kreuzberg Hinterhof today
The ‘Hinterhof’ (‘backyard’) separated the various social strata and there were sometimes three or four such courtyards in a row, with the buildings at the very back having little sunlight and a darker atmosphere. Yet these courtyards were also the focus of daily life – even the bathrooms could be located there. Most of these historic tenement buildings have now been renovated and are highly-coveted residential properties. And with their varying garden styles and sizes, the back courtyards are a large part of their charm.
Berlin courtyards – 21st Century chic courtyard
There are several well-known refurbished and renovated courtyards in the central borough of Mitte in the ‘Scheunenviertel’, a poor working-class area just outside the old city walls. Although they are firmly on the tourist route, I always take visitors to the Hackesche Höfe. The eight intercommunicating courtyards have been wonderfully restored and now contain upmarket apartments, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The main entrance at 40, Rosenthaler Straβe opens into to Hof I, festooned with art nouveau tiling and containing restaurants, a cinema and the Chamäleon cabaret theatre. Hof VII leads to the romantic Rosenhöfe with its sunken rose garden and elegant balustrades.
Berlin courtyards – Hackescher Hof I
An absolute must is a walk through the Hinterhof of Haus Schwarzenberg, at 39, Rosenthaler Straβe where the buildings have not been gentrified. This backyard is now famed for its street art, but it also contains three excellent small museums about Jewish life in Nazi Berlin and an art-house cinema that shows films outside in summer.
Berlin courtyards – Central CInema in Haus Schwarzenberg
Around the corner in pretty Sophienstraβe, there are more courtyards to explore. At number 21, the Sophie-Gips-Höfe boast both the Hoffmann Art Collection and Café Barcomi in the shaded Hinterhof. The high walls of the first courtyard are inscribed with an interesting list of German adjectives expressing opposites. It is also worth looking into Paulinenhof, just along the street at number 28/29, an earlier example of the courtyard style, built in 1842.
Berlin courtyards – Sophie-Gips-Höfe
On the opposite side of Rosenthaler Straβe is Münzstraβe, a gently curving street lined with shoe boutiques and coffee shops. Until recently, the courtyards at number 21 still gave a wonderful impression of pre-war Berlin. Now they too have been spruced up and are clearly one of the on-trend places to hang out in Mitte.
Berlin courtyards – Breakfast in Münzstraβe
Nearby Auguststraβe is a street oozing with history, well-known for its galleries and restaurants. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art at number 69 has a pretty courtyard with a café and the legendary Clärchens Ballhaus, set back from the street at number 24, looks on to what was originally a Hinterhof – although in this case the Vorderhaus was destroyed in the bombing and no longer exists. Further along Auguststraβe, just before Tucholskystraβe, there is a sign into the Heckmannhöfe, a courtyard complex which links Auguststraβe with Oranienburger Straβe. This idyllic urban retreat dotted with shops and restaurants surrounding a small playpark, comes as a complete surprise and gives a photogenic view of the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge.
Berlin courtyards – Lunch in the Heckmannhöfe
For a final courtyard visit in the Scheunenviertel of Mitte, I recommend the Missing House Memorial at 16, Groβe Hamburger Straβe, created in 1990 by French artist, Christian Boltansnki. Here, a tenement building on a Hinterhof was destroyed by bombing in 1945. There is now just an empty space with large plaques bearing the names of the people who lived placed at the relevant level the plain walls of the surviving buildings on either side. The café next door to the memorial is called ‘You’re so welcome’ and lives up to its name. Its terrace opposite the Jewish School and the Jewish Memorial outside the Jewish Cemetery is a perfect place to reflect on the pre-war life of the courtyards in this part of Berlin.
Berlin courtyards – The Missing House
I never miss an opportunity to walk through entrances and open gates to see if there is more discover behind the buildings that line the pavements; the Hinterhöfe are the Narnia of the Berlin. For further reading, follow this link to an interesting article on the Deutsche Welle website.
Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus. Berlin may be famed for its dark history and decadence, but it also has a reputation as a city bursting with culture. Music, literature and the arts have always flourished in Berlin and never more so than in its current 21st Century, post-unification era. What other cities in the world can boast a huge ‘Cultural Department Store’, open Monday to Friday from 9am until midnight, on Saturday until 11.30pm and on some Sundays, too?
The iconic Dussmann building
‘Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus’ is a unique store, offering an amazing selection of books, CDs, DVDs, sheet music and stationery. In fact, every product that a culture vulture could dream of. There are also regular cultural events such as readings, book signings and musical performances, and a brilliant café in the basement. The owner, Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann describes her store as “the beating heart as the city” and compares Dussmann to a church; a place where people come together, reflect, and communicate with one another. How much better to browse at Dussmann, with the help of expert advice, than alone at home on the internet.
Dussmann originally opened in 1997 and immediately raised the bar for international book and music stores. For the past twenty years, whenever I have been anywhere near Friedrichstrasse, the main shopping artery of Berlin’s ‘City East’, the draw of this Aladdin’s cave has proved irresistible. Since February 2017, all five floors of the store have been reorganised and refurbished. Dussmann remained open during the building works and despite the upheaval, the loyal customers kept coming in. Now, everything seems more spacious than ever, as dividing walls have been removed, storerooms knocked through into the shopping area and more seating areas provided.
The towering atrium
On the third floor are text books and a Berlin Wall Memorial display with touch screens, complete with a piece of Wall signed by Ronald Regan. On the floor below are popular non-fiction books and children’s books. The first floor has novels, audio books and a huge selection of international DVDs. On the ground floor is the most comprehensive selection of books about Berlin in the capital, hundreds of Rock, Jazz and Pop CDs and a tempting range of ‘papeterie’. If you walk through to the back of the ground floor, there is even a separate two-floor English bookshop where ‘Shakespeare meets Auster’. And the basement has a wonderful classical music department with sheet music as well as CDs and space not only to listen to music, but to try it out yourself on an electronic piano.
DVDs of films set in Berlin
Classical listening space
Dussmann is a great place to meet up. It’s situated in the cultural heart of Berlin and is not only a unique shopping experience, but also boasts ‘Café-Restaurant Ursprung’ (Source) open from 9am until 9pm, six days a week, where you are encouraged to ‘eat-drink-dream’. Hype aside, this basement refuge has a relaxing vibe and an imaginative menu. You walk through the ‘nave’ of the store to be greeted by a sphinx at the top of the staircase and a vast back wall featuring a 270-square metre vertical garden of over 6,000 tropical plants. This spectacular ‘Mur Végétal’, designed by French botanist and garden architect, Patrick Blanc, has quite a wow factor – rather like the whole Dussmann experience.
An impressive café entrance
Inside Café Ursprung
Last December I wrote about two fairy-tale Christmas markets on the outer edges of West Berlin. For this year, here are four city centre markets with great atmosphere and historic charm. The setting is a key factor and even without the merest sprinkling of snow, these markets have backdrops that make them special. They are most magical after dusk, when the stalls and trees are strung with lights. Look out for the traditional ‘Herrenhuter Sterne’ (Moravian stars) which originated in 1830; they hang outside stalls and shops all over Germany and have a unique glow.
Traditional Herrenhuter Stern
The market in the grand courtyard of Schloβ Charlottenburg has a tempting variety of food stalls on offer, many of them in festive-shaped constructions. Try the venison goulasch, the suckling pig or the fried green cabbage, as well as any kind of sausage imaginable. Mulled wine comes in different flavours with extra shots and the mug only costs an extra two euros as a souvenir.
Magical skyline at Charlottenburg
Every kind of ‘Wurst’
The Charlottenburg market has plenty of Christmas decoration and craft stalls too. Here the traditional wooden ‘Weihnachtspyramide’ and carved figures are better value than in the shops, but make sure they originate from the ‘Erzgebirge’ (Ore mountains) if you want the genuine article. The huge wooden nativity scene and the musicians playing Christmas carols add to the nostalgic feel, but there’s an element of the modern fairground in the mix.
Carols and the ‘candy train’
Another popular market laid out in front of beautiful historic buildings is the ‘Weihnachtszauber’ market on Gendarmenmarkt, where the Konzerthaus, flanked by the impressive twin French and German churches, provides a dream setting. There’s a charge of one euro to enter this market, although it doesn’t seem to keep the numbers down. Last Friday evening it was extremely full and we had to fight our way through the crowds. In the middle of the market is a stage for the live entertainment and many of the stalls are crammed into large tents. It’s all very jolly, especially in the food tents with their Bierfest atmosphere and cheerful service. The Gendarmenmarkt market runs until New Year’s Eve.
In front of the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt
If you are looking for something more low-key and smaller-scale, take a stroll along Sophienstrasse, just a couple of minutes from the Hackescher Markt. This an ‘Ökomarkt’, where all the goods have ecological or organic pedigree and are generally hand-crafted. Sophienstrasse is lined with beautifully-restored buildings, including the oldest baroque church in Berlin, Sophienkirche. The shops have traditional medieval metal signs hanging outside and the old-fashioned street lamps and metal railings of the church cemetery contribute to a Dickensian atmosphere. This market is only open on Advent weekends until 7pm. No Easyjet revellers here.
The Advent scene on Sophienstrasse
You can also escape the tourists at the ‘Lucia market’ in Prenzlauer Berg, named after the Nordic goddess of light. Set up in the ‘Kulturbrauerei’, a former brewery complex from the 19th century, the market stalls feature traditional Scandinavian handicrafts, food and drink. The historic brick buildings form a spectacular backdrop and there is a family feel to this market, with its carousels and children’s art gallery. The Glühwein flows for the adults, including several unusual Scandinavian varieties. Next to one of the drink stalls is an added attraction; a wood-fired stove where market-goers can sit on benches warmed by electric radiators and slip their arms into a thick sheepskin coat.
Something for all the family at the Lucia Markt
Saturday is a great time to do a Berlin market. The largest ‘Wochenmarkt’ (‘weekly market’) is the Winterfeldtmarkt in Schöneberg, the district where Christopher Isherwood of ‘Cabaret’ fame used to live and still the soul of the Berlin gay and lesbian scene. It’s an area of the city with lots of great cafés and interesting shops – and plenty of edge and style. This market takes place twice weekly, on Wednesdays (8am to 2pm) and Saturdays (8am to 4pm), on Winterfeldtplatz – a large square, only a short walk from Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn Station (Lines 1 and 2). It’s a very colourful affair, with scores of stalls to wander around.
Locals come to buy fresh supplies and stop to talk to favourite stallholders and friends. Visitors to Berlin just love the buzzing market experience; the sights and smells are an assault on the senses. You can stop for a portion of exotic street food or settle for a traditional German sausage. If you only want a taste, most of the produce stalls offer samples before you buy.
The craft stalls are wonderful. None of the goods seem banal or commercialised; even the soaps shaped like the Brandenburg Gate are scented with real lemon grass. We tasted the honey made from the pollen of nearby linden and chestnut trees and bought a couple of jars of Rolf’s golden nectar. The cardboard models of retro German cars were also a great hit as gifts for vintage friends.
Hand-made jewellery and clothes made of natural materials such as wool, felt, fur and cotton, are another temptation. The stallholders are passionate about their products and are happy to explain more about them – in English, if necessary. German markets specialise in leather goods, pottery and traditional kitchen utensils made of wood and metal. They all have ecological pedigree and hippy Berliners of all ages would much rather buy the real thing than a mass-produced item. You can sometimes haggle about the price, but a Wochenmarkt is not the same as a ‘Flohmarkt’ where bric a brac and antiques never really have a fixed price.
Winterfeldtplatz is surrounded by streets packed with cafés and bars. Berlin Unwrapped has several recommendations listed under Schöneberg in the ‘Café Society’ chapter and you can explore the streets of this neighbourhood in greater detail in ‘Small Worlds’. But here’s a new discovery for a perfect lunch stop. Leave the market at the top end of the square, by the church, then turn right, walk about 100 metres and ‘Mutter’ is at 4, Hohenstaufenstraβe. Although the word ‘Mutter’ usually translates as ‘mother’, here it refers to a ‘nut’ – as in ‘nut and bolt’ – as is obvious from the large logo over the front door.
Mutter’s website explains the Indo-European derivation of the restaurant’s name, but leaves us to guess why they chose it. A clue may be in its warm embrace and the heavenly Thai dishes at reasonable prices. The restaurant lighting is from dimmed chandeliers above wooden tables and an illuminated bar with considerable style. There is another bar area for drinks only and in summer, tables spill out onto the street. Mutter is open seven days a week, from 11am until late. ‘Blue Hour’ is from 8pm until 10pm and ‘all night long’ on Sundays, when cocktails cost just €6.50.
There’s nothing like a pretty square in a busy city – a place to sit and chill, take a break from the rush and linger over a meal or drink. Savignyplatz in Charlottenburg offers all this and more, yet remains far from the madding crowd, despite its central location. Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain may be ‘on trend’, but the nightlife around Savignyplatz is just as buzzing, with less hype and more substance. And by day, it’s perfect for lunch at a pavement café and a starting point for a stroll around local shops off the Ku’damm. It’s easy to get to as well – only one stop from Zoo Station on the S-Bahn.
Arriving at Savignyplatz by S Bahn
Like many other places in Berlin, Savignyplatz has French origins in its design and its name. The square was originally laid out in 1862 as part of the Hobrecht Plan for urban Berlin, based on the boulevards and squares of Hausmann’s renovation of Paris under Napoleon III. In 1887, it was named after Karl Friedrich von Savigny, a well-connected lawyer who played an important role in Berlin political and academic life in the mid-19th Century. In French, the pronunciation of the word ‘Savigny’ puts the stress on the last syllable, but Berliners resolutely call it ‘Sav-ee-gny’.
Savignyplatz in 1902
Savignyplatz is dissected by the broad avenue of Kantstraβe which runs east-west, and a total of seven streets fan out from the two halves of the square. In 1892, it became a public park and four years later, Savignyplatz S-Bahn station was opened, with the overhead railway running atmospherically along the south side of the square. Herbaceous borders and shaded arbours were added in 1926 and two identical bronze sculptures of a ‘Knabe mit Ziege’ (‘Boy with goat’) were placed on the northern part of the square in 1931. When they were replaced after the war in 1955, only one was an original – the other is a copy.
Views of the square today
For much of the post-war period Savignyplatz remained rather neglected, although the surrounding area of Charlottenburg was one of the hubs of West Berlin’s nightlife. This area was also the centre of the student demonstrations in the 1960s. It still attracts students, as well as the ‘Alte 68er’ – a term Germans give to what we call loosely describe as ‘ageing left-wing intellectuals’. In 1987, it was given a facelift for the celebrations of the 750th Anniversary of Berlin. The original kiosk designed by Grenander, the architect responsible for many of Berlin’s U-Bahn stations, was rebuilt and is now a popular currywurst stand. The brick cabin dating back to 1926 wasn’t reconstructed until 2007 and features an eye-catching contemporary art installation illuminated at night.
The modernised kiosk and cabin
Savignyplatz has always had an alternative vibe. In the 1920s it attracted scores of artists, writers and celebrities. The Expressionist painter, Georg Grosz, lived at 5 Savignyplatz, before he emigrated to the States in the 1930s and the poet Mascha Kaléko was just around the corner in Bleibtreustraβe. When she also left in 1938, she published these haunting lines in the ‘Aufbau’ journal of German emigrés in America. They translate literally as: “I travelled around the world a lot before those ‘thousand years‘. Foreign lands were beautiful, only a substitute. The name of my homesickness was Savignyplatz.”:
“Ich bin vor jenen ‘tausend Jahren’, viel in der Welt herumgefahren. Schön war die Fremde, doch Ersatz. Mein Heimweh hieβ Savignyplatz.“
There is indeed something nostalgic about Savignyplatz, which finds its echo in many of the surrounding restaurants and bars housed in grand Wilhemine-style buildings. My favourite is the café that never sleeps – Schwarzes Café (‘Black Café’) at 148 Kantstraβe, two minutes from the square. It’s open round the clock and epitomises laid-back, dimly-lit Berlin café society. David Bowie and Iggy Pop hung out there in the late 1970s when it first opened. The more upmarket Paris Bar, a little further along Kantstraβe, has a glitzy cult following and a degree of egotism. Glossy photos on the walls bear witness to all the actors and film stars who have dined there. This was once the West Berlin restaurant to be seen in. By contrast, the wonderful Florian, tucked away at 52 Grolmanstraβe, is where the illustrious go to escape attention. Unsurprisingly, both the food and the service are both outstanding. Everything is organic and the menu has a South German accent. It’s open every day from 6pm and the kitchen serves food until midnight. Booking is essential.
Looking into the Schwarzes Café and Florian
For a traditional German meal in a cosy pub atmosphere complete with wooden panelling and curios, a visit to the Die Dicke Wirtin (‘The Fat Landlady’) on the north side of Savignyplatz is a must. This Berlin institution has been going strong for over 80 years and has the ‘quaint’ factor, and tends to attract group bookings by tour bus companies, so a table reservation is recommended here too.
The quaint interior of the Dicke Wirtin
For a retro feel though, I prefer the Zwiebelfisch (‘Onion Fish’) a café bar at 7-8 Savignyplatz, open from midday until six in the morning and still frequented by aspiring bohemians. Time stopped here in the 1960s and it’s still a perfect place for putting the world to rights in the early hours, surrounded by old posters and photos from West Berlin days. The Spectator magazine seems to agree with me. It describes the Zwiebelfisch as simply the best bar in the world.
Chilling in the Zwiebelfisch
While on the subject of bars, the cool Hefner Bar on the corner of Savignyplatz and Kantstraβe, serves first-class cocktails to start or end the evening. It has that slick lounge bar quality that comes at a price. By contrast, the Gainsbourg le Club Americain, which has now moved to the south side of the square in the Jeanne-Mammen-Bogen, is an old Savignyplatz haunt with all the smoky Parisian hip and great cocktails its name promises, but in a Berlin setting under the S-Bahn arches. There’s live music from Thursdays to Saturdays.
Inside Hefner and outside Gainsbourg
But the most well-known music venues in this area are the A-Trane and Quasi Modo. A-Trane has a good restaurant as well as being a great jazz club. Quasi Modo, nearer Zoo Station, is a basement club under the Delphi-Filmpalast cinema and next to the Theater des Westens. It opened back in 1975 in what used to be a student pub and has a wide programme of live music as well as some cabaret and comedy. Both A-Trane and Quasi Modo have websites giving details of their music events in English.
The A-Trane entrance
Facing Savignyplatz itself there are about 10 restaurants to choose from. They all spill out on to the pavement and even in colder weather, people sit outside to enjoy the prospect of the square, huddled under the blankets provided. It’s always fun to walk around the square studying the different menus. I love Brel for its total Frenchness and the AndaLucia tapas café for its Spanish warmth. There are several perfectly good Italian restaurants to choose from, but nothing to beat the pizza at the 12 Apostel in the passage leading to the S-Bahn station. If you like Vietnamese food, I can recommend both Mr Hai and Friends and Pho Nguyen.
Pavement café society
Finally, you can browse for hours in the shops on and around Savignyplatz. Bücherbogen has beautiful art books and Marga Schoeller in Knesebeckstraβe stocks a large range of books in English. Kantstraβe is well known for its design shops and galleries and there are boutiques up and down Bleibtreustraβe and Knesebeckstraβe. Berlin Unwrapped has all the details in the Charlottenburg section of ‘Buy, buy Berlin’. But here are two additions; at 88 Knesebeckstraβe is Berliner ZInnfiguren, a collector’s dream shop selling antique tin soldiers and cake enthusiasts should head for the colourful Der Kuchenladen (‘The Cake Shop’) at 138 Kantstraβe. This shop and café has one of the best selections of cakes in Berlin and with over 50 to choose from, you may have to go back time and again. It’s open every day from 10am until 10pm.
Books, cakes and tin soldiers