Berlin’s storied western district of Charlottenburg is staging a comeback. Hilda Hoy explored the cultural, historical, and commercial highlights of the area, both past and present.
For years, the city’s central and eastern districts have been hogging all the attention. Development money poured into Mitte, leading to a surge in hotels, shopping, real estate, and tourism. Kreuzberg’s and Neukölln’s reputation for coolness spread far and wide, drawing new residents in expats and local hipsters and earning gushy accolades from international media. Young families and upwardly mobile yuppies staked their claim in pretty Prenzlauer Berg.
All that time, however, one of Berlin’s original neighborhoods of cool has been waiting in the wings. And now, Charlottenburg is shedding its old image and stands ready to stage its comeback. Broaden your horizons and head west to explore a new side to the city.
Amerika Haus, photo by Mila Hacke.
The Best of the West
The unofficial center of the west is Charlottenburg’s Zoologischer Garten, a hub on the regional train, S-Bahn, and U-Bahn networks. The station earned widespread notoriety in the 1980s with the cult movie Christiane F. – We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, the gritty true story of teenagers caught up in the heroin and hustling scene around the station. The area has mostly lost that rough edge over the years, and radiating out from the station are the district’s biggest landmarks: the zoo in Tiergarten, with the sprawling adjoining park; the Kurfürstendamm, a major shopping boulevard in eras past as well as today; and eye-catching architectural standouts such as the retro-chic Bikini-Haus and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church, its bombed-out tower left standing as a reminder of the horrors of war, is one of the few remaining signs of how the vicinity would have looked a century ago.
To explore the area’s highlights on foot, start with a visit inside the Memorial Church on Breitscheidplatz, then do some browsing at BIKINI BERLIN across the street. This concept mall, which opened in late 2014 in the renovated, 1950s-era Bikini-Haus building, features a rotating selection of local, independent designers as well as top-level peeks into the neighboring zoo. Take a stroll down Tauentzienstraße to KaDeWe, a massive luxury department store so iconic that, in the days after the Berlin Wall came down, the neighborhood was flooded with East Berliners eager to gawk at the famous consumerist emblem.
Continue meandering down the elegant Kurfürstendamm – or Ku’damm, as the locals call it – with its luxury boutiques, and take frequent detours to explore the scenic side streets. End your tour at Savignyplatz with a drink on one of the sidewalk terraces looking onto the charming, green square. If a bird’s-eye view has more allure, head back to where you started and take the elevator to the top floor of BIKINI BERLIN’s 25hours Hotel. With stunning views and great drinks, the penthouse Monkey Bar (Budapester Str. 40, www.25hours-hotels.com) is the perfect spot to soak up the area’s contemporary vibe.
Monkey Bar, courtesy of Monkey Bar, 25Hour Hotel
A Center for Culture
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Charlottenburg was known for its nightlife. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and the movers and shakers of Berlin’s experimental scene flocked to the legendary Dschungel club in Nürnberger Straße, which has since been replaced by the Ellington Hotel. The club Linientreu in the basement of the Bikini-Haus building is also no more; the popular attraction for new-wave fans in the 1980s counted Depeche Mode amongst its regulars.
These days, the Charlottenburg scene has rather changed, and its most popular clubs – like Puro Sky Lounge and The Pearl – are known not for their edginess but for being chic, exclusive, and highly particular about dress code. Better to count on Charlottenburg not for party culture but for high culture: art, photography, and literature are what the area excels at.
Just behind Zoologischer Garten station is a grand 1900s building that houses the Museum for Photography, a must for any fan of this diverse medium. On exhibit this month are iconic images by the late great Helmut Newton, as well as eye-catching celebrity portraits by Greg Gorman (pictured below). A more recent arrival to the area – and a fitting neighbor to the Museum for Photography – is C/O Berlin, with numerous exhibition spaces dedicated to contemporary photography. Originally located in Mitte, C/O moved to Charlottenburg in 2014, cementing the area’s reputation as Berlin’s photography nexus. There’s also Camera Work (Kantstr. 149, www.camerawork.de), another nearby gallery of photography, plus the Leica store (Fasanenstr. 71, www.leica-store-berlin.de), purveyor of photography books and cutting-edge equipment from the renowned German camera maker.
Right across the street lie two more classic cultural institutions. Although the readings, talks, and other events at the Literaturhaus (Fasanenstr. 23, www.literaturhaus-berlin.de) are in German, the elegant Café Wintergarten in this historic villa knows no language barriers. Settle into one of the wooden banquettes to sip a coffee or a glass of crisp German white wine and you’ll feel like part of Berlin’s 1920s intelligentsia. Afterwards, head next door to the Käthe Kollwitz Museum, dedicated to the moving, intensely human work of one of Germany’s most prominent 20th-century artists.
Once you’re sated on culture and fixing for a little debauchery, the first stop should be Charlottenburg’s most iconic restaurant, Paris Bar. Since the 1950s, the artsy brasserie has drawn such stars as Madonna, Robert De Niro, and Sophia Loren, not to mention Bowie and Pop. The French specialties like oyster, filet mignon, and escargots may no longer be deemed the best in town, but the ambiance alone merits a visit. Just down the street is Schwarzes Café (Kantstr. 148), a lively local hangout since the late 1970s, with two floors of wooden tables and atmospheric nooks and crannies. Contrary to what the name suggests, this is much more than a café: It also serves drinks and complete meals 24 hours a day. There’s probably nowhere else in the city where you can get a medium-rare steak and a proper martini at 4am.
After that, mosey over to A-Trane, a nearby jazz club that is one of Berlin’s top venues for live music. Over the past decades, A-Trane has hosted jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock, as well as local acts. Settle into a corner table with a tall glass of pilsner and let the sounds and scenery carry you away. It’s all part of the cultural fabric of one of Berlin’s most storied and unique districts.