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Berlin's looking up; Emily Bridgewater goes off the beaten tourist track to find the German capital is bustling with invention and creativity.

Byline: Emily Bridgewater

Sitting on the beach, knocking back a cold beer and watching the sun set - it was a near perfect way to toast a Saturday night.

But this wasn't Bondi Beach, nor Bognor beach, but Ostrand beach in Berlin. Yes, landlocked Berlin.

See, Berlin is a city of surprises, and the chilled-out beach - complete with sand, deckchairs and a bar - situated on the east bank of the river Spree, tucked midway between the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, is just one of them.

Explore this eclectic city and every street corner will tantalise your senses - whether it's a chic boutique where you were least expecting one, a wall daubed in Banksy-style graffiti art or a sombre reminder of the Second World War.

Our base was boutique Hotel Otto in the stylish neighbourhood of Charlottenburg in the north-west of the city and an easy ten-minute taxi journey from Tegel airport. A gem of a hotel, it is run by staff passionate about exceeding customer expectations; from the friendly and informative front desk service to the complimentary homemade cakes served in the top floor lounge from afternoon 'til late. Our top floor suite, complete with kitchen and spacious lounge, also boasted a terrace offering far-reaching views of the city. It's modern and stylish but uncomplicated - almost utility chic, and the epitomy of Berlin. Breakfasts were superlative, all organic and homemade, from pancakes and maple syrup with fresh fruit to traditional currywurst sausages and tiny sugared jam doughnuts known as Berliners.

They were unquestionably essential for a long day of sightseeing.

We invested in a Welcome Berlin card, which for less than EUR10 a day offers unlimited use of public transport as well as discounts on entry to hundreds of the city's attractions.

It was money well spent because - like London - Berlin is a sprawling city and while many of the key sights, such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, are within walking distance of one another, the use of the excellent train, tram and underground system is essential in making the most of your stay.

The city is divided into distinct neighbourhoods, or kieze, each with a unique character and atmosphere. While you could spend your Berlin break dashing between guide book sights, for a true feel of today's Berlin it's about finding the neighbourhood best suited to you.

The old West Berlin kieze, such as Charlottenburg and Schoneburg, are elegant with tree-lined boulevards and classy little shops and restaurants. It was here we discovered home ware emporium Stilwerk - a sort of shopping mall for interior design fanatics. The famous KaDeWe department store on Kurfurstendamm was also close by, and as foodies we headed straight for the gourmet hall, which offers no less than 1,400 different kinds of bread, and almost as many types of sausage. However, contrary to popular belief, German food isn't just about bread and sausages, and we were never short of restaurant options in these neighbourhoods.

Superb Japanese food, prepared before our eyes, was guzzled appreciatively in hip hotspot Kuchi, while pizzas and salads to die for were served up in Zwolf Apostel (12 Apostles).

Heading east towards Berlin's business and political centre, or Mitte Unter Den Linden, the buildings become more serious with the imposing Brandenburg Gate epitomising the post-Cold War reunification, the glass-domed Reichstag - home to Berlin's government - and the astonishing Holocaust Memorial.

This is also the museum district and while you could spend days going from one to the next, we cherry-picked and spent a few hours admiring the works of Warhol and Beuys in the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum fur Gegenwart.

It's worth noting that this gallery offers free entry on Thursdays after 2pm. We also caught an excellent Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Martin Groupias Bau in the nearby district of Western Kreuzberg, within walking distance of Checkpoint Charlie. There you can have your picture taken with the guards and take in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Also walkable were the neighbourhoods of Friedrichshain and Eastern Kreuzberg, which line either side of the Spree. In Friedrichshain, the East Side Gallery displays the longest and most colourful chunk of the Berlin Wall, while Eastern Kreuzberg is home to many Turkish families, evident by the plethora of kebab shops and Turkish grocery stores. Here we also spent a night at Spindler and Klatt, an old bread factory that's been transformed into a chic restaurant and nightclub offering fusion food and sublime cocktails.

Travelling back into the heart of old East Berlin, into the kieze of Mitte Sheunenviertel and around Alexanderplatz, buildings become more run down, graffiti more prolific and people more eclectic.

However, the atmosphere buzzes with creativity, vibrancy and hope. At every turn there is a tiny gallery, shop or coffee house. Here unit rentals are low enough to allow young talent and entrepreneurialism to flourish.

This was our Berlin. Not only did we love the shops with their inventive window displays and the edgy art galleries, we ate the best falafels at Dada Falafel and slurped tastiest noodles in Susuru. At night brave the vertigo and take the lift up to the viewing deck of the iconic TV Tower on Alexanderplatz. More than 200m high, it offers breathtaking city views, and there's even a bar to help calm the nerves.

If you prefer to see the cityscape by day, head for the Reichstag where you can climb inside its glass dome for panoramic views.

On Sundays, more kitsch goodies - new and second hand - as well as tasty street food can be found in the flea markets in Prenzlauer Berg.

Berlin is a certainly a city on the up, filled with delights and surprises.

TRAVEL FACTS Rooms at Hotel Otto start at EUR80 per night for a standard room, to EUR220 for the suite, not including breakfast, which is EUR13.50 per person per night For more details go to www.hotelotto.com Details of the Welcome Berlin Card and all of Berlin's attractions are at www.visitberlin.de

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The Reichstag, larger-than-life graffiti and Checkpoint Charlie
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 24, 2010
Words:1007
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