A fascinating city still bearing the remnants of Prussian decadence, two World Wars and a divided past, Berlin is impossible to cover in one weekend – but it's certainly fun trying
Where? North-East Germany
Why? It really does have something for everyone
When? May-August for warm weather; Sept-Oct to avoid the crowds; December for the Christmas markets
You don't get a much more vivid history than Berlin's – the capital of the Prussian empire in the 13th century, the centre of political history during two world wars and a city divided for 28 years. Berlin is its own creature – a strange mixed palette of Prussian leftovers, an urban grittiness bearing the hallmarks of a prominent youth culture scene, residents from every corner of the world and ultra-modern architecture. It bears the scars of the past but never stops for a break – this city is constantly shifting and changing, and each district has its own distinct personality.
Mitte offers an insight into the city's history, all aspects of it from its neoclassical beginnings to the modern architectural masterpieces like the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz, or Sir Norman Foster's glass dome atop the Reichstag. In contrast are the cool, artistic, emerging districts like Friedrichshain, Neukölln and Kreuzberg. Here are housed Berlin's creative types, and the grey Communist blocks that everyone expects ooze a colour and its own flavour of multiculturalism. The remnants of Berlin's beginnings still show over in Charlottenburg, and the palace is a beautiful sight to behold, while the more unsavoury vestiges of the past can be found in the form of Oranienburg and Schöneweide's labour camps, and Lichtenberg's Stasi prison.
And yet, it's easy to escape the 'city feel', with lakes and forests that spring up at the end of every S-Bahn line, such as Grunewald forest, Wannsee, Schlachtensee and Müggelsee, as well as the green expanse of Tiergarten right in the centre of Mitte. It may not exactly offer the most challenging walks (Berlin isn't really known for hills and mountains) but it does offer some wonderfully pleasant walking trips and cycle paths.
Berlin may ultimately be a city, but it's such a big city so deficient in big businesses – you won't see a skyscraper – that it has an incredibly chilled, international atmosphere, which is what most people miss when they leave. You could live in Berlin for a lifetime and still never quite grasp what it is that makes Berlin so special. It's the black sheep of Germany, and it will always leave you wanting more.
Get to grips with the city's history then learn about its cool modern culture
When to go: The warm weather kicks in in May, and although it can be searingly hot in June/July, locals forego the city for the lake during this time, so it's actually less busy. The weather is generally still pleasant until October, and then the Christmas markets and snow make it worth braving the biting cold. Avoid January-March.
Getting there: Lufthansa fly from London Heathrow to Berlin's Tegel airport three times a day direct for £120 return. Flight time is just under two hours.
Getting around: Berlin's S- and U-Bahn system is cheap and easy to use, but the city is also easy to navigate by foot or bike for shorter distances.
Where to stay: Hotel-Pension Funk, a quirky hotel just off Kurfürstendamm, is set up to give the feel of 'the golden 20s' of Berlin. Single rooms from €34 and doubles from €52.
Where to eat: For good, traditional German grub, try the Schnitzelei or Zum Schusterjungen in Prenzlauer Berg. The best kaffee und kuchen hands-down can be found at Princess Cheesecake.
Top tip: Grab the Berlin WelcomeCard at the airport – for €24.50 it gets you travel with any form of public transport in Berlin zones A and B (not including Schönefeld airport, which is in zone C, Tegel is in zone B) for 72 hours, discounts all over the city and a welcome guide, including a public transport network map.
Rent a bike and get pedalling – it's going to be a long day. Take a ride along Strasse des 17. Juni and through the green depths of Tiergarten and take in the Soviet War Memorial, Bellevue palace, and the golden statue of Victoria atop the marble Victory Column. If you can find it, have a drink to warm up on a cold morning overlooking the lake at Café am Neuen See – the hot chocolates are divine.
At the end of Strasse des 17. Juni stands the Brandenburg Gate; once a gate to the palace boulevard, used as a backdrop for one of the most famous Nazi rallies and what was once part of the no-man's land between two halves of a divided city. Remembers the horrors that once took place at the Holocaust memorial around the corner – the museum is underneath the memorial – and check out the Reichstag on the other side.
Cycle down Unter den Linden and take a detour down Friedrichstrasse; follow Georgenstrasse to Café Chagall (Kollwitzstraße 2; +49 30 4415881) for some excellent Flammkuchen – German-style pizza on thin bread dough – or kaffee und kuchen. Then follow the street down and back up along the river to UNESCO Heritage site Museum Island. The Pergamon museum (admission €14; open Fri-Wed 10am-6pm, Thurs 10am-8pm) should not be missed – the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus will leave you in awe – but if you're more interested in art, then the Old National Gallery (admission €10; open Fri-Wed 10am-6pm, Thurs 10am-8pm) has a wonderful collection of French Impressionists, and the Caspar David Friedrich room is a real highlight.
After wandering the island of antiquity, carry on to Alexanderplatz: the buzzing centre of East Berlin. Treat yourself to some hearty German fare at Brauhaus Mitte, which has its own in-house brewery and fantastic käsespätzle and schnitzel and, for the evening's entertainment, whiz back on the U2 to Potsdamer Platz and see the Sony Center at its best: lit up at night.
Have a relaxed breakfast at the Literaturhaus' Cafe Wintergarten, outside among the lavender or in the warmth in winter, then hop on the train with your bike and head out of the city for a day trip to Potsdam – the Prussian jewel in the crown of Deutschland. Left to rot during the Cold War years, Potsdam is finally restored to its former beauty. Wander through the pastel palaces and Grecian figures and discover Berlin's more sophisticated, underrated sister. Grab a picnic, head for the Schlosspark, and lay out on the river bank with the ducks in frontof the beautiful Sanssouci palace.
Cycle through gorgeous palace gardens and explore the hidden gems among the hedges and trees – the orangerie, the Chinese house, the Roman baths, the three palaces, the busts of the Greek Gods and Goddesses, the different gardens – you'll never find them all in one trip. Once the residence of the Prussian royal family and the site of the 1945 Potsdam conference, Potsdam has both a fascinating history and a stunning beauty.
Top tip: Potsdam is in zone C, so watch out! It's very easy to slip into Berlin zone C – especially when visiting Potsdam or travelling to Schönefeld airport – so you have to make sure that your travel ticket covers this. Ticket inspectors will have no mercy.
Take a morning stroll next to the symbol of divided Berlin, and the epitome of its creative scene: the East Side Gallery. The longest remaining stretch of wall has since been painted by artists like Jim Avignon and Thierry Noir and has become a symbol of remembrance and hope for repression all over the world. Grab a bite to eat at a café at Warschauer Strasse or a cake from one of the train station bakeries. Or, if you're really hungry, then the falafel in bread at Falafel, just next to Görlitzer Bahnhof, is the best in Berlin, stuffed with fresh salad, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots and fresh, handmade falafel.
Hop on the S-Bahn to Lichtenberg and then get the 256 bus to Liebenwalder Strasse/Genslerstrasse to catch the English tour at 2.30pm through the former Stasi prison, Hohenschonhausen. It's worth the journey. While Berlin was divided and the east section was under the GDR government, the citizens of the east were constantly under the surveillance of the secret police: the Stasi. Political opponents and those suspected of aiding others to flee to West Berlin were abducted and brought to Hohenschonhausen, where they were subjected to psychological torture and used as informants after release. The facts are astounding, a chilling reminder of the kind of repression that extended well into the late 1980s.
Head back to Warschauer Strasse for superb Indochinese cuisine at the Lemon Leaf. The area between Warschauer Strasse and Ostbahnhof is a striking example of the stark differences between the east and the west that are still so apparent – the area is a hotbed for students and the international crowd, artists and musicians, and its laid-back, bohemian vibe reflects that.
Top tip: If you're in Berlin on a Sunday, then Mauerpark is the place to be. Don't miss the city's biggest and most popular markets, get there early to beat the crowds and then spend the afternoon enjoying the atmosphere – and the karaoke.