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July 27 2012

Crowd-free places: My perfect London day out

For calm contemplation during London 2012, the author of Quiet London suggests peaceful galleries, an art bookshop, a life drawing class – and a visit to William Blake's grave

I'd start my perfect day with a bowl of muesli, eaten in my swimming costume, ready for a gentle swim at the Golden Lane leisure centre, a small, quiet pool near the Barbican . Next I'd walk up City Road to two art galleries: the Parasol Unit (parasol-unit.org) and Victoria Miro, (victoria-miro.com) both in beautifully converted old buildings on Wharf Road. I really like the architecture around here – the exterior of Trevor Horne Architects (trevorhorne.com) round the corner on Micawber Street is my idea of heaven in a building. With its huge gabled roof, this would be the blueprint for my own house and studio.

Still eager to see more contemporary art, I'd wander back down to Iniva (iniva.org) the Institute for International Visual Arts), a culturally diverse organisation on Rivington Place which is also an education and research centre. Its exhibitions are thoughtful reminders that quietness and excitement are perfectly compatible. It would be tempting to spend a few hours in its library, too, but I'd probably be hungry by now. I'd walk through leafy Bunhill Fields, the former dissenters' burial ground, passing William Blake's grave, to Carnevale (020 7250 3452, carnevalerestaurant.co.uk). This quiet vegetarian restaurant and deli has a small patio room at the rear and I'd invite a friend to join me for tabouleh and roasted red peppers.

Afterwards, I'd try out an awareness through movement class at the nearby Open Centre (opencentre.com) on Old Street then follow my gentle exertions with a leisurely browse in the fascinating BookArtBookshop (bookartbookshop.com), 10 minutes' walk away on Pitfield Street. It's one of the best places to find limited edition artists' books in London.

My perfect day wouldn't be complete without doing some drawing, however, so I'd quickly walk back down Old St to the Prince's Drawing School, for a life drawing class (princesdrawingschool.org). In addition to drop-in classes, which start from £16 (£5 for young people), this is also a good place to see perceptive, intelligent drawing by current students. After doing a few charcoal sketches I'd treat my husband to a meal at the urbane Searcy's Restaurant in the Barbican (020 7101 0220, searcys.co.uk/barbican-centre). Together we'd watch the sun set over the peaceful, inner city lake.

• Siobhan Wall is an artist and author of Quiet London (Frances Lincoln, £9.99), a guide to London's more peaceful side. To buy a copy for £7.49 go to guardianbookshop.co.uk


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September 21 2011

The guilty pleasure of Florentine food

The art in Florence evokes a world of decadence and indulgence. And so does the cuisine

Some people think Italian food is healthy. Those people have obviously never eaten lard crostini. I am sorry to say that I became an expert on this carnivorous speciality on research trips a few years ago when I was writing a book on Renaissance Florence. I am back in town to see a fascinating art exhibition called Money and Beauty, that has just opened at the Strozzi Palace. The exhibition is about the luxury of the Florentine Renaissance – and I can't wait to taste some decadence of my own in the shape of my favourite local dish, lardo di colonnata.

At Antico Fattore, a trattoria that skulks in the shadow of the Uffizi Gallery's grey pilasters in the heart of Florence, this dangerous delight of Tuscan cuisine is on the menu. In my experience, a perfect version turns to a mist of fat in your mouth and leaves a delicious salty aftertaste. The dish at Antico Fattore is nice, but doesn't quite melt. However, the plate of roast wild boar that follows, in a sweet sauce, accompanied by cannellini beans and a powerful Chianti, more than satisfies my yearning for a taste that evokes the days of Medici banquets.

Italian food conjures rich historical associations, and not just because you can eat in old restaurants like this one, a few steps from the Ponte Vecchio which, 500 years ago, was at the centre of Florentine sustenance. The famous shops that span this ancient bridge over the Arno were in those days all butchers, who chucked their unwanted cuts – the bits that could not even be pressed in a vat to make lardo – straight into the river beneath them.

The simple ingredients and no-nonsense presentation of Italian regional cooking link us to age-old traditions of "slow food", perhaps in Tuscany more than anywhere else. But how authentic are such antique echoes? Money and Beauty offers a provocative perspective, suggesting that Renaissance Florence was more about refined hedonistic high dining than the hearty home cooking we now associate with the city.

The Renaissance began in Florence in the 1400s. That defining epoch in the city's history was made by money – through the immense wealth of the Medici and other families who invented modern banking. If you were invited to one of Lorenzo de' Medici's banquets in 1480s Florence, you could be expected to drink wine served from a black marble jug with gold ornamentation, made by by Andrea Verrocchio – there's one in the exhibition.

Yet the most revolutionary aspect of these Renaissance banquets might escape us because we take it for granted: the tablecloth. In Renaissance paintings, including Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, dishes are neatly laid out on a precisely folded cloth. The 16th-century Tuscan writer Aretino claimed it was "those clever little Florentine brains" that pioneered their use, putting flowers on the table, and delicately flavouring foods with herbs instead of gothic fistfuls of pepper.

As for the actual food, it included some treats that not even the bravest Florentine restaurant offers up today. Songbirds were a delicacy: larks, thrushes and other uccelli. In other ways, the Renaissance Florentine palette was more sophisticated than today. Experts on contemporary Tuscan food tell you it does not include fish – ordering seafood in Florence invites a defrosted disaster. Yet a painting in the Strozzi exhibition shows a young man carrying a fish for supper.

The various Tuscan varieties of Pecorino cheese are still arguably the region's finest product. When the Florentine artist Michelangelo lived in Rome it was cheese that friends used to send him as a reminder of home. Pork too is an enduring obsession. Da Vinci wrote a vivid description of how Tuscans slaughtered pigs by cutting their throats. A fresco of Florence under siege in 1529, in the Palazzo Vecchio, shows them being roasted in the open air by the attacking army, the aroma wafting over the walls to torment the inhabitants – 30,000 of whom were to die of starvation.

But is Florentine food now too hearty and rustic, too wedded to its ribollita – "reboiled", a warming compost of greens and bread – and its wild boar sausages? Some would like to revive the more refined tastes of the Renaissance court. The Strozzi Palace aims to "make Florence a dynamic contemporary city", and to accompany the exhibition has challenged seven restaurants to invent dishes that incorporate pure gold. So this autumn you can order squid ink and seafood cappellacci with pure gold and eggs garnished with gold leaf at experimental restaurants including Gastone and Ossi di Seppia. Gastone even flaunts the great taboo of modern Tuscan food – the shock is not the gold, but the seafood.

Still, Florence is not the place for futurismo. After a morning looking at paintings by Botticelli, I am more than content on the Uffizi cafe terrace on top of the Loggia on the city's great piazza, eating spicy, sweet-sour Tuscan salami. Long live the old masters of food.


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July 12 2011

Cornish cafe sells celebrities' leftovers

Uneaten morsels left by Prince Charles, David Bailey and Michael Winner at a cafe in Kingsand are to be sold for charity

Celebrity memorabilia is huge business in the auction rooms of London, New York and Los Angeles. But a Cornish cafe is getting in on the act by selling off leftovers that remained on the plates of famous visitors.

Among the goodies being sold by the Old Boatstore in Kingsand are:

• A small lump of bread pudding left over by Prince Charles, valued at £300.

• A crust from a cheese and tomato sandwich left by photographer David Bailey, for £100.

• A shell fragment from egg in a sandwich eaten by comedian Hugh Dennis, for £100.

• A small uneaten piece of lemon drizzle cake left by film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner, for £100.

• A single blackcurrant from a bowl of ice cream left by swimmer Sharron Davies, for £100.

The so-called Museum of Celebrity Leftovers was created by Michael and Francesca Bennett, who say the collection began in 2004 when David Bailey dropped in and left a crust.

They now have more than 20 exhibits stored in airtight jars and want whoever buys the cafe to take them on, too. The money made from selling off the leftovers is to go to charity.

Francesca Bennett said: "We were so chuffed that David Bailey came in we kept part of his sandwich as a joke. It just grew from that.

"It's so quiet here, it's really surprising that so many famous people should turn up in such a small village."

The exhibits are not preserved but are not showing signs of going mouldy, she said. "They just seem to be drying out, really."


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April 21 2011

Food for thought ... Why cuisine or couture can never equal great art

Clothes are to be worn and food is to be swallowed: they remain trapped in the physical world. True art, however, is of the mind

What is art, and what is not art? We all know the answer to that. Potentially, since Duchamp, anything goes as art. So perhaps that question has no meaning any more. A better question might be: what is interesting art? Or better still: what has the potential to be great art?

This last question is the one I choose to pose. It is prompted by the ongoing promotion of certain activities as serious cultural forms that might in the past have been treated with less reverence. Admittedly, this week's announcement of the top 50 restaurants in the world makes no explicit claim that chefs are great artists, but the seriousness with which these exercises take food means the line between culinary genius and genius full-stop seems thinner all the time. You could argue that a similar line has already been crossed by Alexander McQueen, the late British couturier whose designs are to be celebrated by an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In some banal way, it's easy to say that food is art; that clothes are art. What's more interesting is to ask whether they can be serious art: can they move us; change the way we see the world; make us think about profound matters?

The idea that food is an art, that cooking can be high culture, is nothing new. It goes back at least to Brillat-Savarin, a French aesthete who philosophised the pleasures of cuisine in the early 19th century. In fact, French culture has seen food as artful for a long time, and since the French also invented modern art, perhaps the imagination that can cherish a well-cooked omelette is also the imagination that can value the ordinary world as a cultural artefact. On the other hand, Vincent van Gogh joked that the folk of Provence were stupefied by their endless bowls of bouillabaisse, conveying the point of view that food is nothing more than carnal. It cannot feed the mind. It can soothe, but it does not inspire.

The same goes for clothes. Can fashion make you think? It can definitely make you think about fashion. But McQueen took on dark themes, or so argues a passionate piece about his posthumous exhibition in the Telegraph. The designer was a brooding romantic who used fashion to express his anxieties and release his demons. If that is the case, can his clothes be considered profound? Do they really go deeper than the surface?

I like food and fashion, but I do not believe they ever come close to doing what great art does. Food is to be swallowed, clothes are to be worn. But although I think about art every day, how many great works of art have I touched? I have handled Leonardo da Vinci drawings, but the physical contact, though moving, was not the point.

Art is of the mind; it is ethereal. Everything it gives us it gives to our brains. Fashion and food fail to be serious art because they are trapped in the physical world. Compare a still-life painting of food – one of those rich, laden Dutch images of lobsters and lemons – with a real plate of food. The painting is very obviously not food – it does not give what food gives. But it does nourish something deeper instead. It reaches the parts of us that chefs and couturiers cannot reach.


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October 12 2010

Pop-up culture

Temporary shops and restaurants were once a way for artists to subvert empty urban spaces. Now, they're just as likely to be part of a corporate marketing strategy

In a dark, dank nightclub beneath some railway arches, with the clatter and chug of trains overhead, I am having a minor Proustian moment. This London club was last open in the late 1990s, and its smell sends me straight back to that era, my student days: to Britpop and Blur, late-teenage clinches, 70p for a vodka and Coke. The aroma is strong, sour, specific, but it won't linger here for very much longer.

Over the last few weeks this long-abandoned club has been taken over by a group of young event organisers for an ambitious, 99-day pop-up project called Counter Culture. The programme will deliver photographers and DJs, comedians and poets, art exhibitions and parties, a different lineup each night, spiriting this sprawling, downtrodden building straight into the 21st century. One of the four organisers, 23-year-old Lee Denny, meets me at the door, apologises for his moustache ("I'm not trying to look cool, I promise") and shows me around the venue he first discovered when he came to an underground party here.

Denny has some experience of pop-ups: five years ago, he started his own small music festival, LeeFest, in his back garden, and he still runs it each summer, albeit from a larger venue. He leads me into the smaller of the club's two main rooms, kitted out with old, over-stuffed sofas and a much more expertly stuffed fox head. The artist responsible for the fox only works with roadkill, says Denny, and he's particularly excited about a live taxidermy workshop she's going to be running.

We move on through a small changing room, where a pair of grubby grey y-fronts hangs from a high ledge, and out to the main stage. On the opening night, in late September, the club filled up with 980 people, "and musicians kept arriving," says Denny, "people who remembered the place, and had heard about what we were doing. There was Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, and Suggs from Madness. He said 'Have you got a trombone?' and then he got up on stage and was like," he holds one hand to his mouth and slides a fist deliberately through the air, "rum-pa-pum-pum-pum."

Counter Culture is just one of thousands of pop-up events that have opened in the UK and beyond over the last few years – ranging from the small to the large, the cool to the rubbish, the sublime to the ridiculous. There have been pop-up shops, restaurants and gardens; pop-up galleries– one in an abandoned Woolworths in Leytonstone – and cinemas – Tilda Swinton even carted one around the Scottish Highlands. There have been pop-up gigs in launderettes; restaurants in front rooms; films projected in disused petrol stations or on to hay bales in fields.

Those are the more guerrilla projects, the grassroots events, often put together on a wing, a prayer and a stiflingly small bank loan. But alongside these are the corporate-backed pop-ups, the temporary shops and bars and restaurants that appear with increasing regularity, often hosted by well-known venues.

The Double Club in London in 2008, a part-Congolese, part-western restaurant and bar backed by fashion label Prada, was particularly successful. A branch of Central Perk, the coffee shop from the TV series Friends, which opened in London's Soho for a fortnight last year, was used to promote a limited-edition box set of the series. In 2006, Nike opened a shop in New York for four days, selling a special edition basketball shoe at $250 a pair. Gap has used a school bus, kitted out with merchandise instead of seats, as a travelling pop-up shop in the US.

There have been pop-up projects that have opened for an hour, like Mary Portas's vintage clothes sale in 2008, and others so successful that they've eventually become a permanent fixture, such as Tom Dixon's Dock Kitchen restaurant in Portobello Dock in west London. But what unites these disparate projects is essentially a strong fascination with the temporary, with the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, the idea of excitement, urgency and a dynamic interaction with urban (and it is usually urban) spaces. These are projects that stand in opposition to clone towns, to the idea of uniformity and unending drabness.

The debut of pop-up businesses is often traced back to 2004, when Rei Kawakubo of the cutting-edge fashion brand, Comme des Garçons, set up a temporary shop in a disused building in Berlin. Realistically though, while the "pop-up" description might be fairly new, the idea is as old as the hills. The current craze has echoes in everything from the restaurants traditionally run in people's homes in Cuba to the shop that artists Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin opened in London for six months in 1993, where they made and sold mugs and T-shirts and ashtrays.

The artist Dan Thompson set up his first pop-up gallery with friends in a bakery in Worthing in 2001; he now runs the Empty Shops Network, which advises artists who hope to start projects in one of the country's many disused high-street stores. (It's estimated that 13% of all UK shops are currently empty – and that one in five of those may never be used again.) He says that his inspiration comes from the magical curiosity shops that have appeared for centuries in fiction, "which no one can ever quite find again. I love creating something that's gone so quickly that people say afterwards: 'Was that you? Did that happen?' I love that excitement that you can create in a town, that sense of – what's coming next?"

While these businesses have counter-cultural roots, there's no doubt they've become a corporate concern. As Ali Madanipour, professor of urban design at Newcastle University says, there are two key readings of pop-ups, which aren't mutually exclusive. One is that they can be "a positive way of making more intensive use of urban space," he says, "bringing life to parts of the city that are under-used – they can provide space for local activity, civil-society events, impromptu gatherings. But on the other hand, they can also be an aid to consumerism, in which brands create a stage setting, adding colour and texture to the general mall atmosphere that is the backdrop to many of our urban spaces. Pop-up businesses support shopping – they bring a festival atmosphere to shopping."

The exclusivity of pop-up events means those that are ticketed often sell out extremely quickly. Denny says he now finds it "impossible to get excited about a new place that's opening indefinitely – you think, 'Oh yes, I'll go to that at some point' and you end up there in 20 years. Whereas if it's temporary it's like: 'We've got to do it right now.'"

When pop-ups are hosted by established businesses, this exclusivity and popularity can lead to obvious rewards for both host and brand. Over the last few weeks, the London restaurant Meza has been hosting a MasterChef pop-up, with former contestants from the TV show cooking for diners at a cost of £49 for three courses. When I went there last week, the atmosphere was loud, buzzy, excitable – obviously good for the restaurant, and good publicity for MasterChef. It apparently sold out in 72 hours.

One of the attractions of pop-ups for businesses is that they can act as an informal, unacknowledged market research project. Last week the smoothie maker Innocent ran a pop-up event in London called the Five for Five cafe – offering a two-course meal designed to deliver five portions of fruit and veg for £5. Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent, said that the event, held in a disused tramshed, was "a no-brainer. Put on a bit of a party for the people who buy the drinks, meet and hang out with them, and find out stuff you wouldn't discover in some weird research group . . . You get all these charts and graphs that say your customer is a certain age, that they live in a certain place, do a certain thing, and then you see the real people. We could just loiter in Sainsbury's by the fridges and watch the people who come and buy our drinks, but we'd probably get kicked out."

Like the MasterChef event, the Innocent cafe sold out quickly, and was cleverly run – the cavernous space was dressed with fairy lights, fruit trees and herbs on every table; there was friendly service, and good food. Any pop-up event this well thought out, prompting this much goodwill, is clearly an excellent piece of marketing.

Germain says a pop-up event is better value for money than running an advertising campaign. "You're getting a more intense return," he says. "Fewer people, yes, but you're hopefully forging relationships that will last a lifetime." Their pop-up event also enabled them to communicate their brand in an incredibly strong, concentrated way. "Everything we want to do was under that roof," he says. Their core message was literally: "up on the back wall, written in big letters: Eat your greens."

Stephen Zatland, a partner at management consultancy Accenture, says that pop-up businesses give retailers other benefits which might not be immediately obvious to the consumer. It's a chance, he says, "to try out a new store location, to see if the kind of people they want to attract will start flocking there before they invest in a permanent site. Manufacturers can try out new products, new services, deliver them direct to the customer, promote a new brand, or try and re-invigorate an older brand".

And they can carry out all this research and promotion for a relatively low price. Zatland says that compared to opening a permanent site, pop-ups are fairly inexpensive. The recession, with its surfeit of empty shops, has played a key role in this trend. "When a lot of Woolworths stores became available, for instance, retailers picked up on those and rented them for a short period to try out something new on the high street."

The pop-up trend has been so big, for so long, that there have been whispers that it must be about to fizzle and die. But Zatland suggests this is unlikely. "There's another interesting trend for a more permanent kind of feature," he says, "where there's a site for maybe eight different pop-up stores, and the content of that site will rotate, change, every eight weeks, or every three weeks. That will be good, I think, because it encourages customers to keep coming back to see what the new feature is."

When I ask Thompson about the corporate fashion for pop-ups, about the way they're being used to flog us more unnecessary stuff, I expect him to be disdainful. But it's quite the opposite. "I love it," he says, "I love the fact that such a daft idea, started by artists, has taken over. I went to a pop-up Gucci put on, and it was fantastic. It's like Quentin Crisp said – don't keep up with the Joneses, drag them down to your level. We've completely subverted all these great brands, who are now having to think differently, more creatively, and that has to be good for our town centres."

There's no doubt that pop-ups can aid regeneration and make a genuine difference. As Thompson points out, "if you live somewhere the size of Worthing or Coventry or Carlisle or Margate, and you lose a few shops, you really notice it. If that's your home town, and you're passionate about it, you'll fight to make it better."

Horton Jupiter (whose real name, he jokes, is "Mystic Rock") is less positive about some aspects of the pop-up phenomenon. He has been running a cafe called The Secret Ingredient from his front room in Newington Green, London, for over a year now, and says he prefers the term "home restaurant", because pop-up has "become something that people use as a marketing tool". He appreciates the temporary, impromptu nature of pop-ups, but projects like his, he suggests, are meant to be precisely an escape from capitalism, from the robot on the end of the phone, towards something more illicit, subversive, personal and warm.

For landlords whose properties have been empty for a while, these events are a great way to promote their building, bring people flooding back in, and perhaps get some free maintenance and decorating work done too. Thompson says he's never "paid anything more than a peppercorn rent – we cover business rates, we cover insurance, and in every shop we've been to we've left it in a better condition than we found it. We'll give it a lick of paint, a clean and tidy. We took a shop in Shoreham-by-Sea, initially for six months, but now for another six, and a place that had been derelict for 10 years has been completely refurbished – which has led to two other derelict shops nearby coming back into use as well."

Where artists go, corporations follow. And so does gentrification, as areas blossom, flourish and improve - and rents subsequently head skywards. Perhaps now, at a time of deep economic anxiety and trouble, we should just enjoy the most exciting of the pop-ups, those that bring life to depressed corners, flowers to abandoned skips, the flicker of film to the hollow beneath an underpass.

There is something slightly sinister about the marketing guile – and rampant consumerism – behind some of these projects, but many are straightforwardly brilliant, and there seems no shortage of people happy to get involved. "Every time I walk past an empty shop or building," says Denny, "I think: I've got to do something in there, I just have to! If I had time, every empty space that was remotely intriguing would be filled."


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December 05 2009

Back on the bloc: an architectural tour of East Berlin

Twenty years after the fall of the wall, young Berliners are finding a new love for GDR architecture, which is being reclaimed for galleries, bars and clubs

Berlin has been melded back together so well over the last two decades that there are now very few obvious visual clues to the division that once was: the shiny "golf ball" TV Tower, the East Side Gallery (the longest remaining stretch of the wall), and the odd scattering of blocky GDR buildings, which defined eastern development in the 1960s when the city was in dire need of reconstruction. Although many of these East German government buildings were knocked down after 1989, and many of those that still stand are ugly, cheap monstrosities, the most iconic remaining examples of this era-defining architecture are now winning the interest of a new generation, thanks in part to the current buzz around the 20th anniversary of the wall coming down. Many young Berliners now think of the GDR era with nostalgia; it's no longer something to forget.

The distinctive buildings – clean and modernist, inspired by Bauhaus or grandly Soviet – which did away with the sharp corners and rectangles of Nazi buildings – have been adopted by businesses, and are now home to many of the city's coolest nightspots, galleries and cafes.

One of the city's most exciting conversions is Soho House Berlin, complete with hotel and pool, which is due to open early next year in the "Big House", the former headquarters of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party. The politics may be gone forever, but the form is back in fashion. Here's where you can see it.

Capitain Petzel

This new gallery, housed in a classic Soviet-modernist glass-box which is flooded with light, was designed in 1964 as a showcase for arts and crafts from across the eastern bloc. The name Capitain Petzel comes from Cologne dealer Gisela Capitain and New York gallerist Friedrich Petzel, who joined together to open this gallery last autumn. It shows a roster of celebrated international artists in a building with a huge wow factor.
• Karl-Marx-Alle 45 (+49 30 2408 8130, capitainpetzel.de).

Club Rechenzentrum

This building used to be the technology centre for East German radio (the name means "computer centre") and is hidden away in the woods on the banks of the Spree. The minimal house and techno club is in a vast single-story rectangular prism, with a frosted glass and wood exterior. In the winter, all the fun is in the vast low-ceilinged main room, but on warm nights there is an adjacent man-made beach – both with celebrated sound systems. As well as dancing, you can chill out on deckchairs by the water, eat from a barbecue and when you're done, rent one of 40 tents in the woods provided by the club and sleep off the excess.
• Nalepastr 10-16 (club-rechenzentrum .de). Entry €8-12, tents €10.

Galerie Im Turm

This "Gallery in Tower" sits in one of the two white Stalinist-style towers flanking Frankfurter Tor, East Berlin's grand square. The towers were once the crowning glory of Karl-Marx-Alle, the monumental socialist boulevard designed by the GDR's star architect Hermann Henselmann, who trained at the Bauhaus but was persuaded by the government to design in the Soviet style. The towers now contain luxury apartments, plus the gallery, which opened in 1965, and used to be a space for official GDR art. Today it supports the work of up-and-coming young artists. Be sure to peek out the windows and marvel at how undeviatingly straight Karl-Marx-Alle is leading to the Fernsehturm (television tower).
• Frankfurtur Tor 1 (+49 30 422 9426, kunstamtkreuzberg.de/k_galerieimturm).

Klub Der Republik

This bar/club takes its name from the Palast der Republik, the GDR's showcase building which was a huge glamorous hall for concerts, parties and events that also housed the East German parliament. The original building was controversially torn down last year but this club, which occupies a former ballroom, scavenged some of the fittings and furniture from the Palast before demolition – from multi-bulb wall lamps to Formica tables. A favourite of Prenzlauer Berg locals, the pre-clubbing ambience is relaxed and the music ranges from electro to pop.
• Pappelallee 81, Berlin 10437 (+49 30 4403 5653. Free entry, but €1 donation to the DJ.

KMA 36

This is a great, unheralded bar that has no signage – but you can see it's a bar as it is housed in a stocky glass cube of a building that was formerly a cosmetics showroom and shop for GDR make-up and hair products. Barely furnished, with an upstairs mezzanine level resplendent in mirrors, on warm nights there are plenty of wooden cinema-style chairs lined up outside for drinking on the wide pavement.
• Karl-Marx-Allee 36. Free entry.

Restaurant Schönbrunn

One of many brilliant outdoor spots to while away a sunny afternoon in Berlin, Restaurant Schönbrunn sits bang in the middle of the Volkspark Friedrichshain with a prime spot by the fountain pond. The building, a low glass-fronted construction with its original sign, was a pavilion in GDR times. While open until late, the best time to visit is during the day when you can take advantage of the large terrace or the beer garden that snakes alongside. The food is waiter-served Bavarian fodder with a twist, such as chicken with beer risotto, or spätzle pasta – or you can just take advantage of the beer selection. Inside, there are retro 60s-style details, including the ball-chair bar stools, and cluster ceiling lights.
Volkspark Friedrichshain (+49 30 453 0565, schoenbrunn-berlin.de).

CSA Bar

A super-stylish cocktail bar that was formerly the ticket office for Czech Airlines, though you can be sure the offices didn't look half as good back then. Now there's a minimalist retro interior – glass panels, low leather seating, sculptural lighting – very James Bond film set. There are myriad cocktails on offer and this is the kind of place you could happily challenge the bar staff and order off menu.
• Karl-Marx-Alle 96 (+49 30 2904 4741, csa-bar.de).

Air Berlin flies from Stansted to Berlin from €60 one-way including tax. The new Cosmo boutique hotel in Mitte opens 2 January 2010, from €99 per room per night through designhotels.com.


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