There can’t be many cities in the world that have the kind of utterly fascinating history that Berlin can lay claim to. Changing landscapes and regimes, divisions and reunions: the city has been as ever-evolving as a sand dune. There are echoes of the past everywhere, from the Brandenburg gate to Museumsinsel, providing a counterpoint to its cutting-edge design and fashion scene with its hip stores, restaurants, galleries, bars and hotels all clamouring for the title of Next Cool Thing. Among all this are the nuggets of a Berlin immortalised to great effect in the writings of Christopher Isherwood, as well as traces of an even older city, which are well worth exploring today.
Perhaps the most fitting starting point is the district where Isherwood made his home, Schöneberg. It was here, on leafy Nollendorfstrasse, that the novelist shared lodgings with the model and singer Jean Ross, his inspiration for the character of Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin, the character immortalised by Liza Minnelli in the film version, Cabaret. The author plunged into the hedonistic life of the Weimar Republic during his stay, and it’s fascinating to see the place he so eloquently described as ‘the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades.’
A stone’s throw away was the Eldorado, the inspiration behind the club in Goodbye to Berlin; Schöneberg-born Marlene Dietrich herself performed there. Now it’s a small supermarket, but it still has the name ‘Eldorado’ above the door and inside is a display of intriguing black-and-white photos from the club’s heyday. The bars, coffee shops and stores that Isherwood frequented may have long since shut down, but the decadent atmosphere of 1920s Berlin is captured perfectly in Schöneberg bars such as Stagger Lee.
Drink in the past
Perhaps one of the areas most evocative of the past is the historic Nikolaiviertel district, a quiet warren of streets between the bustle of Alexanderplatz and Museuminsel. Here you will find pretty Zum Nussbaum pub, with a history dating back hundreds of years. It’s the perfect spot to indulge in a beer and some bratwurst and listen to tales of old Berlin while you admire the sketches on the wall done by 19th-century cartoonist Heinrich Zille, who was a regular visitor. Afterwards head to opulent Clärchens Ballhaus, a 100-year-old dance hall that has twinkling chandeliers, ornate wood-panelled décor and a live bandplaying most nights – it’s like stepping back in time.
Another spot where the past is celebrated in glorious style is the historic Berlin manufactory of KPM Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur), the porcelain maker founded in 1793 by Frederick the Great. Today, the classical restraint of the label is still evident in hand-crafted pieces such as elegant dinner sets in the label’s signature pearl tones, with gold-leaf touches and hand-painted flower motifs.
A shopping experience of an altogether different kind takes place at Hackesche Höfe, a series of eight linked historic courtyards that were immaculately restored in the 1990s as a cultural hub for the area. Among its quirky range of shops are those that specialise in handmade soaps, cutting-edge book stores and old-world jewellery boutiques. Wander through the cobbled courtyards like a latter-day Sally Bowles picking out her next stage costume.
Those similarly enamoured of vintage style should head to Antikmarkt am Ostbahnhof, open every Sunday, which sells a treasure trove of antiques, from gramophones and trumpets to sumptuous 1920s gowns. The wild nightlife of the Weimar years that Isherwood described so memorably may be a thing of the past, but you can at least enjoy dressing the part.