BERLIN — The birthplace of bohemia and a certain inimitable street style, Berlin is best seen on foot. In the city center, the area of Mitte — German for “middle’’ — was one of the first districts in the former East to be gentrified after the fall of the Wall in 1989; surprisingly, it is still reinventing itself today.
The lively style and constant change converge to create a kind of urban shopping paradise that centers on hip, trendy Mitte and its surrounds, featuring a collection of everything from edgy boutiques and organic cafes to upscale jewelry shops and galleries (like one in a former gas station), all frequented by creative artist types. On a mid-December visit, the crisp winter days made a retail adventure — with brisk walking and frequent stops — even more inviting.
Mitte is also where I found two stylish yet affordable hotels: the year-and-a-half-old Soho House (Torstrasse 1, 011-49-03-0405-0440, www.sohohouseberlin.com, from $224), a 40-room hotel in a historic Bauhaus building that has become the buzzy epicenter of artists, writers, and designers in the city; and Casa Camper (Weinmeisterstrasse 1, 011-49-03-0200-03410, www.casacamper.com/berlin, from $244, including breakfast and round-the-clock buffet), by Camper, the Spanish shoe company. Opened two years ago, Casa Camper has appropriately fabulous design — intimate and cozy, with clean, uncluttered lines — and a terrific Asian-tapas restaurant, Dos Palillos, by Albert Raurich, former chef de cuisine at the celebrated El Bulli.
With one (or both) as home base, you are ideally situated to explore. I stayed at Casa Camper, but I started my stroll west on Torstrasse from Soho House, and before long I hit upon a fresh crop of streetwear shops, including Primitive (Torstrasse 102, 011-49-30-2887-3618, primitiveshoes.com), a born-in-Los Angeles skate-fashion label, and the recently opened Superficial (Torstrasse 102, no phone, www.superficial-berlin.com). The latter’s aesthetic is rock ’n’ roll chic, with a punky-pop edge and soft jersey dresses and screen-printed T’s that are perfect for Lady Gaga’s dancers. Not surprisingly, one of the mega-star’s former dancers frequents the establishment (and performed at the shop opening).
Co-owner Tony Vouardoux, a filmmaker originally from Switzerland, curates an ever-changing selection of items, such as his own capsule line of nylon windbreakers printed with the fluorescent palette of the old analog television screen test ($78), a flower-patterned belt with a butterfly buckle ($26), and nail polish bottles with a girl-figurine top ($13). Other tongue-in-cheek items for the season included shiny Christmas tree ornaments shaped like grenades ($25).
Perhaps because Vouardoux is a filmmaker, Superficial is the kind of retail shop that blurs boundaries. The hairdresser for the singer Beth Ditto has crafted accessories that were carried here, but he has also been employed to cut hair as a kind of performance art in the middle of the store. Vouardoux has also had guest painters in from Tokyo sit outside on the street, painting custom T’s for passersby at the bargain price of $20 apiece.
In just the five months he has been open, Vouardoux has been observing rapid change in the neighborhood, with new shops opening seemingly every week. “There are so many things happening on this street, so we really wanted to be here,’’ he told me, watching an eye-candy parade of pedestrians go by. “It’s been in the shadow of Mitte for a long time - it’s still edgy, still with graffiti on the walls, and there are all these young people and creatives. Of course it’s still a shopping area, but it’s a little bit underground.’’
A couple of doors down, A.D. Deertz (Torstrasse 106, 011-49-30-9120-6630, www.addeertz.com) sells relaxed, elegant menswear, including multicolored leather gloves ($37), knit caps ($53), and handwoven overalls ($343). “For a lot of years, nothing ever happened on Torstrasse,’’ said Wibke Deertz, the owner and designer, who opened the shop in December 2010. “Now this is the edgy part, with the credibility that comes along with that. It’s been a good year.’’
A.D. Deertz occupies a long, narrow space that has a minimalist, art-gallery feel: bright blue-and-red-checked scarves are stacked on low wooden stools - as are suede shoes - and canvas bags hang on the wall like pieces of art. In the back, big loft-like windows let in an abundance of natural light.
Artist Anna Hellsgard, whose four-year-old shop Bongoût (Torstrasse 110, 011-49-30-2809-3758, www.bongout.org) specializes in screen-printed artists’ books, shirts, and other works, has been a relative fixture on the booming street. She showed me the silkscreen atelier at the back of her store, and an exhibition by artist Ehren Tool, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who, since 2001, has created a striking series of more than 6,000 ceramic cups featuring complicated war images of skulls, Tomahawk missiles, and bombs (each cup $72).
Afterward, I peeled off from gritty Torstrasse onto quieter, tucked-away Linienstrasse, a parallel street. The shops here are hidden in a different way, amid pretty brick residences, apartments, and historic buildings. I encountered galleries galore and retail finds of a different sort, such as clothing made from recycled fabrics at pop-up store Upcycling Fashion (Linienstrasse 77, www.upcycling-fashion.de), and high-end jewelry by designer René Talmon l’Armée. After 17 years in Paris, he has just opened Atelier René Talmon l‘Armée in his native city (Linienstrasse 109, 011-49-30-9559-8466, www.renetalmonlarmee.com).
Trained in a traditional goldsmith atelier in Berlin and at the prestigious Hermès workshop in Paris, l’Armée cultivates a look that might be called vintage-inspired: He uses old-fashioned hammers, anvils, and magnifying loupes to create his pieces, and his boutique resides in an 1850s building (obsessed with the history of place, he even showed me a black-and-white print of the building in 1979, from a monograph by photographer Hans Martin Sewcz on Berlin’s Mitte district). But the aesthetic is wholly l’Armée’s, with a rugged, modern edge - the atelier’s interior features custom-built jewelry showcases that recall bell jars, and his new line includes hammered silver cuff bracelets lined with crocodile skin for men (price upon request) and delicate black diamond strand necklaces for women (from $132).
“There are so many great shops here - it could be hairdressers, it could be clothing, but they’re all little places with very good design,’’ l’Armée said. “You just have to walk around and look.’’
Around the corner on Auguststrasse, you will find Marron Interior Studio (Auguststrasse 77, 011-49-30-2809-4878, www.marronberlin.de), owned by Sandra Baumer and her husband. The five-year-old store sells beautiful housewares; near the entrance, I found a nice display of the small and simple, including Sukie travel journals ($16) and coral plaid tea towels ($25 a pair); of particular charm were a set of bone china cat cups (about $18 each) and a larger version decorated with a turquoise owl (about $22). On the far side of the shop were the large and dear, including carved wood bowls and serving trays ($769) and an exclusive selection of furniture from the current collection by German design house Richard Lampert. The latter is more suited for daydreaming, but I took a few photos for inspiration.
After all that shopping, I wanted to recharge. By day, I hit up the recently opened goodQ (Tucholskystrasse 43, 011-49-176-3228-9718), a yogurt and sweet shop owned by Mario Attard. Though there are cookies and other bakery items for sale, a small cup of plain yogurt topped with pomegranate is a perfect and refreshing treat (about $3.40).
By night, I had been told to people-watch on the rooftop bar of the Soho House. But I did that one better, hunting down a craft cocktail at Buck & Breck (Bruinstrasse 177, 011-49-176-3231-5507, buckandbreck.com), a tiny, refined 14-seat cocktail bar that guests enter by ringing a bell marked simply with the word “BAR’’ (look for the faux-gallery window; in mid-December, there was a tongue-in-cheek display of battered men’s shoes). If there is space, one of the owner-bartenders - Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro and Holger Groll, two of the city’s most respected mixologists - will come down and let you up.
Upstairs, in an intimate, warmly lighted room, impeccably crafted cocktails take center stage: a frothy Ramos gin fizz resembled a pristine white milkshake, and a Manhattan sparkled like a garnet. I found myself sipping a perfectly balanced Talisker Old-Fashioned next to one of the creative neighborhood denizens who sold me the dress I was wearing. Now that’s uber-local.Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.