Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit once famously described his eternally broke city as "poor, but sexy." A new crop of sleek budget hotels are betting that economy minded tourists and business travelers like it that way.
On a cloudy autumn morning, the breakfast buffet is buzzing at Motel One, which has been booked solid since it opened near the city's tourist hub Alexanderplatz in June — the newest addition to a growing number of design-oriented budget hotels.
The breakfast of German bread, cold cuts and cheese before Marilyn Stotts seems rustic in contrast to the hotel's minimalist gray interior accented by flashes of color in the turquoise seating and silver globe light fixtures.
"It certainly has the Berlin sense of what's sexy now," said Stotts, a 27-year-old New Yorker on a business trip for a nonprofit organization, who said price was a key factor in choosing Motel One. She paid $82 for her room, and $9 for breakfast.
Rooms in other aesthetically savvy hotels across Berlin cost as little as $53, like a single at Ostel, a no-frills hotel that specializes in retro communist-era East German furnishings.
With the euro reaching an all-time high against the dollar this past summer, it's becoming harder than ever to fashion affordable vacations in European capitals such as Paris and Rome.
Among the major capitals, Berlin remains an exception. According to Deloitte's Hotel Benchmark Survey, Berlin has the lowest average nightly hotel rate of all the major European cities, at just $122, while Moscow averages a steep $364, and London a cringe-worthy $256.
Berlin's affordability is one of the main factors drawing the hip, young crowd of thrifty tourists who don't want to sacrifice on style, according to Berlin Marketing Tourism GmbH spokesman Christian Taenzler. He said significant investments in this niche market have been developing "dynamically" for the past three years. Some 13,000 of the city's 90,000 hotel beds belong to budget hotels, he says, and a growing number can be found in smartly decorated, design-conscious hotels.
Berlin Tourism Marketing research shows that between January and July of 2007, the number of overnight stays in Berlin increased by 11.4 percent compared with the year before. Forty percent of these visitors are younger than 35 years old, a group particularly sensitive to budget and trends.
"Berlin itself is trendy," Taenzler said. "It's affordable, attractive, young, and a big destination for budget airlines."
Along with London, Berlin is one of the biggest centers for budget airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair. But unlike the sometimes out-of-the-way airports used by the low-cost airlines, the chic new Berlin hotels are located near major attractions. From the lobby of Motel One, smack in the city center at Alexanderplatz, guests can contemplate the silver sphere of the former East German landmark TV tower.
Travelers may have to sacrifice certain luxuries. Business traveler Stotts overslept a bit because Motel One doesn't provide an alarm clock or a phone for wake-up calls, she said. Breakfast often costs extra, though some hotels, like Motel One, offer free Internet access.
Such details tend not to bother budget hotel customers, Taenzler said. "They're practical and know they won't spend that much time in the rooms anyway," he said.
And just try finding a hotel breakfast for the equivalent of $9 in London.
Tourist interest has increased in the last few years as Berlin gained international attention with events like the 2006 soccer World Cup. The same year, UNESCO designated Berlin as the first European "City of Design," recognizing it as an affordable city with an edginess appealing to artists and almost 7,000 design companies, in addition to growing fashion, film, and architecture industries.
Germans are notorious bargain hunters, and budget hotels aren't the only place visitors to the city can save while remaining fabulous. Cash saved on lodging can be spent at hip eateries like the atmospheric Monsieur Voung's Cafe, which serves Vietnamese dishes for around $10 on Alte Schoenhauser Strasse in the Mitte district.
In addition, many of Berlin's main attractions are free or cheap. Instead of paying for a guided bus tour, an $8 city-wide day pass for public transportation will get you on city buses, which run from Alexanderplatz to the Zoologischer Garten (zoo) station, a short walk to Kurfurstendamm shopping district and the landmark Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche, or memorial church, left a shattered husk by World War II. With the same ticket, you can ride the S-Bahn to the Ostbahnhof or Warschauer Strasse stops and stroll past the East Side Gallery, the city's longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, which once divided West Berlin from the communist East.
Spend the early evening on edification at one of the many state-run museums that are free on Thursdays starting four hours before closing.
Or show up one hour before any theatrical or classical music production, such as the Staatsoper opera company or the Berlin Philharmonic, and line up at the Abendkasse, or box office, for deep discounts on the remaining tickets. If you have a student ID, you'll get even better deals.
Berlin nightlife is world-famous, just pick up a $3 copy of the English expat magazine Exberliner for show and club listings.
Walk off your hangover and find fascinating artifacts at the Mauerpark flea market on Saturday and Sunday. Then get your history fix at Checkpoint Charlie, the point of crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, or take in the imposing communist architectural statements of Karl Marx Allee.
Top off your stay with an evening trip to the top of the glass dome of the Reichstag parliament building, which will cost only the time it takes to stand in the security check line. From here you'll have a 360-degree view of the city's lights imparting a sense of the frenetic energy Berliners are employing to make the city a world-class destination.
Tourists are drawn to Berliners' attitudes, says Berlin Tourism Marketing's Taenzler.
"A French friend of mine recently told me that Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, but it's a museum," said Taenzler. "Berlin may not be the most beautiful city in Europe, she said, but it's the most vibrant."