Berlin is a divided city.
Not between East and West, of course, but between serious and fun. There’s a generational and attitudinal wall bisecting the city that at times can seem almost as insurmountable as the one that once separated the German Democratic Republic and West Germany.
And I didn’t want to have fun.
I went to Berlin for a few days last summer to immerse myself in the most infamous milestones of 20th-century history. But I was visiting my 21-year-old daughter, Emma, who was working there that summer because it is, as she put it, “the coolest place on earth.”
We explored together, and Emma quite gamely came along to many Holocaust memorials, World War II exhibits, former Stasi prisons, Checkpoint Charlie, Soviet monuments, synagogues, learning centers, cemeteries and remnants of the Berlin Wall, all part of what Emma calls the Stations of the Iron Cross.
And even I found it impossible to ignore the vibrancy and bohemian chic in fair-trade coffee shops, vegan restaurants, art galleries, squats, comic book stores, vintage shops, street fairs, at concerts, on bike paths and inside all those throbbing, black-lit nightclubs that were emptying at the same time I was going out for morning coffee.
That’s the Berlin that Emma wouldn’t allow me to describe as “hipster,” a word that she says is as dismissive to her generation as “yuppie” or “preppy” were to mine. But it’s a beard, bike and baby-stroller world that feels like Brooklyn and even the weirder precincts on the TV comedy “Portlandia.”
I was visiting Berlin, but she was living in Berlandia.
I wanted to visit the two places at once, but that can be disorienting: It’s a bit like walking in a long funeral cortege and crashing into Coachella.
I dipped in warily, staying at a relatively new but stately hotel, Das Stue, which is right next to the Tiergarten in a leafy, sleepy neighborhood of embassies. It’s in western Berlin, though that distinction has become almost as obsolete as the Left Bank versus Right Bank view of Paris.
There is no escaping history, though: Das Stue is in a curved 1930s Fascist-style stone building that was designed in concert with Albert Speer’s grandiose plans for the capital. The Nazi regime ordered foreign embassies to move into a diplomatic enclave near the Zoo — it became the Danish embassy in 1940. The entrance is elegant and worldly, and the rooms are sleekly luxurious but with a mod kick, including bathroom taps so cunning and abstruse — chrome cubes with red and blue dots — that showering felt like a cognitive test on Lumosity.
Which was fitting, because at times, the whole city felt like an entrance exam I hadn’t studied for. The U-Bahn subway and buses are famously efficient, but just finding the station was a challenge, possibly because I don’t speak any German and brought only two guide books, “PastFinder Berlin 1933-1945” and “PastFinder Berlin 1945-1989.”
Also, Emma and I had a mutually assured dysfunction pact: She wouldn’t let me whip out a map in public (not because she was embarrassed to be taken for a tourist but because I can’t read them), and I wouldn’t let her pile up expensive data-roaming charges looking for directions on my iPhone.
In short, it took us four hours and a bus, a train, three subways, one in the wrong direction, and a taxi to make it to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, an infamous Stasi prison that was featured in “The Lives of Others.”
Because we were so late, we had to piggyback onto the last tour, a group of international students.
Our young guide began our tour of padded cells, tiger cages and interrogation rooms in the notorious Special Camp No. 3, where the Soviets, he explained at some length, starved, tortured and murdered many hundreds of prisoners from 1945 until the East German police, known as the Stasi, took over in 1951.
One pretty blond Russian in the group kept muttering to her friend and finally blew up. “I’ve had it up to here with ‘the Russians did this, the Russians did that,' " she hissed at him. “We weren’t the Nazis.”
The rest of the tour was on tenterhooks.
We took a cab back, almost as shaken by the flare-up of international tension as our immersion into the G.D.R.’s regimented, routinized system of repression.
I warned Emma that we were by no means done.
The Jewish Museum, in a zigzag building conceived as a deconstructed Star of David, is fascinating, but it’s less a learning center than it is an abstract expression of remorse: Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, called it “the epitome of kitsch.”
We spent hours, but learned more about the Holocaust at the Topography of Terror, a glass-and-concrete museum and documentation center built over what were once offices for the Gestapo. Admission is free. Visitors can examine a remnant of the Berlin Wall, as well as the ruins of prison cells. Most of the exhibition examines in harrowing detail the toll of Nazism. Several school groups were there, sitting cross-legged and silent as teachers painstakingly explained what happened in places like Treblinka.
It’s a very disturbing and affecting experience, of course. By the end, Emma wondered if she had missed her calling. “Do you think it’s too late to become a Nazi hunter?” she asked.
There was more, of course. Much more. The old Stasi headquarters in central Berlin, now the Stasi-Museum Berlin, was creepily fascinating, even down to the stark, midcentury office décor of offices, smoking lounges and interrogation rooms — not West Elm, but certainly East Elm.
That served as a prelude to the vast Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park, one of three memorials to the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who died in the conquest of Berlin; this one also serves as a cemetery for 5,000 Soviet soldiers. It was raining when we finally trudged our way to the centerpiece: a gigantic statue in Socialist Realism style of a Soviet soldier holding a rescued baby and stomping on a swastika beneath his boot.
Hours later, as we limped to the subway stop, soaked, hungry and tired, Emma spoke up. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Mom,” she said, with real admiration in her voice. “You’ve managed to make this city no fun at all.”
Emma took charge of dinner and chose a popular Korean restaurant called Kimchi Princess, a cavernous room warmed by graffiti art, blaring music and lighting that turned everything a racy bordello red. It was 7:30, which Emma said was early. But it looked busy to me, communal tables filled with young, mostly English-speaking diners in flannel shirts, tattoos and Warby Parker eyewear, many of them seated across from older couples — mothers in Talbots and dads in J. Press.
The chic Korean waitresses who brought us bibimbap and japchae spoke perfect English, and could not have been nicer.
It felt like parents’ weekend at Oberlin.
And that was true virtually everyplace we went. We did not feel snubbed by bus drivers, burghers or even tall, thin saleswomen in artsy boutiques. Berliners, despite their brash reputation, were eagerly nice, without the frayed patience and contempt that tourists can encounter in Paris or Venice or London. (With one glaring exception, which came later.)
We were there in July, before events in Gaza incited anti-Semitic acts in Europe, including in Germany, and before the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store in Paris. But we saw enough of the nation’s mood management to understand why hate speech is more conspicuous and closely watched in Berlin than, say, Rome.
The Holocaust is still imprinted on the German identity; tolerance continues to be taught in classrooms as intently as Latin once was. In Berlin, in particular, a city split into two for more than four decades, repression is a carefully curated memory: Everywhere we went, there were groups of young Germans on a listening tour of their own failed history.
And that may have been part of the reason we were treated so kindly: Berlin, a city that was never quite like any other, is intent on being normal. The more tourists and expats flock to Berlin, the more it becomes just another lively European city, and not merely a reconstituted crucible of tragedy.
On the second day, I felt ready to try a more contemporary hotel, and the25hours Hotel in western Berlin’s Bikini-Haus complex (in a modernist mall with a High Line-like rooftop park) fit the bill: there are hammocks in the reception floor that overlook the Zoo and a cafe that offers Five Elephants coffee, a local brew from a coffee house run by an American barista who uses an artisanal Dietrich roaster made in Idaho.
The hotel’s rooms are designed to look like SoHo lofts, with concretelike floors, futon-style beds, a bike attached to the wall and a glass shower stall in the middle of the room. Robes aren’t made of terrycloth; they are poncholike hoodies in muted shades of gray and beige.
Gunmetal-colored hallways are garnished with curly graffiti art that is somewhere between menacing and cute; an antique mini Cooper is parked in the ground-floor lobby with 1960s music blaring from its radio. On the roof is a delightful bar and terrace restaurant. The whole place looks cool, but also whimsical, or as Emma put it, as if Vibe.com’s headquarters had been decorated by Anthropologie.
Emma loved 25hours, but I preferred our third hotel, the cool but more subdued Gorki hotel in Mitte, in eastern Berlin, a converted apartment building where graceful, spacious rooms are called apartments and are equipped with a Nespresso machine and full galley kitchen — perfect for visitors who want to feel like locals.
Emma took me to her favorite cafes, vintage shops where clothes are sold by the kilo, record stores, bookstores, wine bars and Sing Blackbird, a high-end boutique/vegan cafe that sells ’70s suede maxi skirts and detox smoothies. (Luckily, we just missed a conceptual food show, the Küchenautomat, a giant condomlike air bubble, or “mobile social sculpture,” that served as an outdoor kitchen in the garden of the Berlinische Galerie, a museum of modern and contemporary art.)
I favored Linienstrasse, a quiet, elegant street near the hotel that looked a little like Paris, only instead of historic buildings with plaques indicating eminent former tenants like Lamartine, there was a perfectly preserved eyesore, a dilapidated, crumbling squat covered in colorful graffiti and painted slogans like “Soldiers are Murderers” and “Foreigners in, Nazis out.”
It stands defiantly across the street from a walled garden, a small, leafy churchyard filled with graves of 18th- and 19th-century Prussian officers, some eminent civilians and, inevitably, a mass grave for victims of World War II and the Berlin bombing.
Meals in certain sections of the East were disorienting: so like the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and yet so not. We had bagels and shakshuka at Mogg & Melzer, a high-concept deli in a gallery and restaurant complex in what was once a Jewish girls’ school, built in 1930 in the Weimar-era New Objectivity style. (It closed during the war, and many students, teachers and the architect, Alexander Beer, died in the camps.)
We had a delicious and glamorous dinner at Lokal, a fashionable farm-to-table restaurant run by a binational couple, Maren Thimm and Gary Hoopengardner. It could have been an intimidating experience: We got there an hour before the 9 p.m. reservation (I was hungry), as groups of casually elegant Germans and other Europeans were lining up. They all looked famous, even though I didn’t know them. Mr. Hoopengardner had a pirate scarf on his head and a slight German intonation, but turned out to be from Cleveland, and he couldn’t have been nicer to two strangers curious about our old, polished wood table, which he said was salvaged from a country schoolhouse by Ms. Thimm’s father.
As we left, he gave us the contact number for his brother, who teaches tango in New York.
The only place we encountered a chilly, German minimalist welcome — Dieter in the old “Saturday Night Live” “Sprockets” skit — was at an art gallery in Sammlung Berlin, a building that serves as a concrete timeline of the city’s fate: It was built in 1942 at Hitler’s command as a bunker; served as a Red Army prison in 1945; was used as a fruit cellar for Cuban imports in the Stasi era; and after the wall fell, became a notoriously wild techno-pop music space and S & M sex club.
Now, just as fittingly, it is privately owned by Christian and Karen Boros, who have an apartment on the top floor and have turned the underground area into a showcase for their contemporary art collection.
The Boros Collection is open to visitors, by appointment and 12 euros, but with evident ambivalence. The first installation is a room filled by giant black curved screens positioned around speakers that amplify the buzzing of fluorescent lights. I asked our guide, a pale, severe young woman in black (I mentally called her Dieterette) why the artist’s name was not on display. She stared at me for several beats then replied, pityingly, “It’s an aesthetic choice.” (“Just by asking,” Emma whispered in my ear, “you’ve already failed.”)
Online, I discovered that the artist’s name is Alicja Kwade. We stayed another half hour, then skulked away.
After so many good experiences, that one flick of continental snobbery felt especially wounding. It was the only time I felt a pang of regret over reunification and muttered to Emma: “Mr. Gorbachev, build back that wall.”