Heading out early from my hotel, the Swissotel Berlin on Kurfurstendamm (or Ku'damm) the city's main shopping street, I hopped aboard the #100 bus and within 20 minutes was in Museum Island in the Mitte district, boasting five world-class cultural institutions. But before I started exploring, I just had to stop and admire the adjacent Berliner Dom, the domed Italian Renaissance cathedral started in 1894 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I took a peek inside and was wide-eyed by its splendor -- sweeping mosaics, a white marble and yellow onyx altar, an intricately carved oak pulpit, gilded statues and an enormous organ with 7,269 pipes.
In the New National Gallery, I took in the Gerhard Richter exhibit, a major retrospective to mark the popular German artist's 80th birthday. In the Neues Museum, showcasing classical history, I made a beeline to the Nefertiti bust from ancient Egypt, displayed in a climate-controlled room of its own. And though I didn't have time on this trip, many locals recommended the Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary museum in a restored train station, not far from the quarter.
Since it was my first time in the German capital, I had to see the famous sites including the Reichstag with its modern Norman Foster-designed dome, Checkpoint Charlie and, yes, I had my picture taken beside two actors posing as American soldiers (for €2 no less), the Brandenburg Gate and the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall (built in 1961 and torn down in 1989), along the Spree River and covered with murals by artists from around the world.
Back at Swissotel, I had a coffee in the atrium lobby, the Grande Galerie, a great spot for lunch or an after-work cocktail (it also has rotating art exhibits). Housed in a former office building, the 316-room hotel caters to both a business and leisure crowd, both no doubt appreciating the free Wi-Fi. The rooms with blonde wood furnishings and cornflower blue accents, were well appointed with large flatscreens, original artwork and a platform bed with comfy duvet.
I enjoyed a memorable meal at Restaurant 44, whose picture windows face onto the Ku'damm. Chef Danijel Kresovic's modern dishes, which might include dorado with asparagus risotto and veal saltimbocca with new potatoes are flavored with herbs grown an outdoor terrace at the hotel, and the restaurant recently introduced wines from its own boutique label. A fun activity is to book the Culinary Studio where the chef and a group (up to 12) can cook in the state-of-the-art kitchen, making anything from pizzas to local dishes and then sampling the finished products.
The next day, I met up with my traveling companions for the three-hour drive to Dresden and as we neared the center, I was impressed when I saw the skyline of church spires and imposing towers -- especially when you consider that the majority of the city was obliterated by Allied bombers during WWII. I checked into my hotel, the brand new Swissotel Dresden in the heart of the Old Town across from Zwinger Palace. The 235-room hotel is surprisingly contemporary, resembling something you'd find in Miami or LA, with whimsical black Lucite lamps and a silvery-gray mosaic tiled wall in the lobby while the stylish rooms are outfitted with white swivel flatscreens, red leather headboards and Finn Juhl-style Pelican chairs. Pre-dinner I sipped a German Riesling in the intimate Schlossbar before dining in Wohnstube restaurant serving modern Swiss cuisine with local influences and uses regional cheeses and vegetables from surrounding farms.
There are of plenty of things to do in Dresden just beyond the hotel's front door including taking a tour of the restored Zwinger Palace, home of Saxon kings and exploring two of its famous churches, the Frauenkirche, the domed Baroque cathedral, fully restored and reopened in 2005 and the Hofkirche, the main Catholic church where the last Saxon king is buried. In the New Town, across the river, you'll find art galleries, clothing boutiques and hip restaurants and bars (Dresden is a big university town, so there's a youthful vibe to it).
My last day, I treated myself to a treatment in the hotel's Purovel Spa, a lower level space that has been incorporated into the building's original 15th century vaulted stone cellar. After a massage, using essential oils from Swiss alpine herbs and botanicals, I dozed on a heated mosaic tiled lounger in the relaxation room under a centuries-old stone arch. Enjoying modern amenities amid such historic grandeur was the ideal way to cap off my whirlwind German getaway.
Rooms at the Swissotel Berlin from $150
Rooms at the Swissotel Dresden from $125