We’re not positioned to overhaul the justice system, but we have proof that prison reform can considerably improve conditions: Berlin’s spectacular hideaway Wilmina hotel. In a moving show of turning the city’s complex past into a thoughtful, engaged enterprise, Grüntuch Ernst Architects have preserved much of this 1896 courthouse and prison (heavy doors, window bars, iron staircases, even an intact cell), while freeing its spaces up into a starkly romantic eatery, convivial billiards lounge, expressive exhibition halls and bright white bedrooms. Sustainable, coolly stylish in that inimitable Berlin fashion, and with secret guests-only gardens, everyone involved has absolutely done this monument justice.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £93.34 (€108), including tax at 7 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of 5% per room per night on check-out.
Rates don’t include breakfast (from €22 a guest), but guests can get free coffee and tea in the lounge.
The hotel is fully wheelchair accessible, with a lift to all floors and two rooms which have specially adapted bathrooms.
At the hotel
Roof terrace, guests-only garden, two courtyards, lounge with small library (with art and design books and cool magazines) and fireplace, 24-hour gym, spa and sauna, billiards table and board games to borrow, small boutique, charged laundry service (not available on Sundays), and free WiFi. In rooms: smart TV with Chromecast, desk, free bottled water, Frama bath products.
Our favourite rooms
No-one will be rattling on the bars to be released from the hotel’s gallery-white-walled rooms, which have luxe touches by the way of Cocomat beds and Frama bath products, and are softened up with veils and framed, pressed plants and flowers (picked by the owners and their daughter). If you prefer just ‘the cool’ over ‘the cooler’, the penthouse suites are on the building’s new top storey and have chainmail veils to shield the windows rather than bars. But, our favourite might be the Garden Loft, which has its own private entrance (through an original door), a small kitchenette, and some of those original parts to add an edge to your stay.
There’s no spa, but up in the eaves you’ll find a sauna which can be booked privately for one-hour sessions. The gym has a stepper, treadmill, weights for buffing up and yoga mats to borrow – and, we suppose, you could traipse around the courtyard for your daily exercise.
You may be in prison, but Frama products are not a steal, which is why it’s so thoughtful that they’re offered to use for free in your room. This will give you a legitimate reason to splash out on some take-home bottles from the hotel’s boutique.
In the morning the library is a bustling breakfast room (unless it’s summer when you’ll dine on the terrace), but from 2pm it’s a space to read and work. And if the stay seems familiar, that’s because it was a backdrop in The Reader and Alone in Berlin.
A limited number of pets are allowed to stay in some of the hotel’s rooms on request. The charge is €45 a stay and your furry friend will get a bed and bowl. See more pet-friendly hotels in Berlin.
Wilmina is surprisingly amenable to junior detention, to a point… All rooms fit a baby cot, some an extra bed, some have a kitchenette; and, while there are few focused distractions, the ambience is welcoming for all ages.
Wilmina hotel has gongs to prove its sustainable cred, winning the BDA Prize Berlin in 2021 and the German Sustainability Award in 2023. Of course, it has the usual Earth-kind touches (minimal use of plastics, LED lighting, recycling, sourcing local, plant-based menu options…), but the building itself has been very sensitively converted, leaving much as is, not only for minimal intervention, but also to tell its story and turn its dark past as a prison into something altogether more hopeful. And, the outdoor spaces have been lovingly wilded too.
Between city view and garden view, go for green; and for cocktails, sit under the strung lights in the courtyard.
No uniform, and any jumpsuits you see these days are more likely to be designer.
German cuisine isn’t always the wurst (entschuldigung) – chef Sophia Rudolph proves it with her veggie-focused menu at Lovis Restaurant. Her six-course menu might include spiced pumpkin with goat cheese and a spritz of citrus, mushroom ravioli in a Szechuan jus, or confit egg yolk with cabbage and vadouvan seasoning. And don’t worry carnivores – there’s also aged entrecôte, braised beef, confit trout… It’s hard to believe that the wildly romantic dining room – with soaring brick walls, dramatic drapery, strings of lights that float like fireflies, and a lush garden to spill out onto – was once the courthouse’s lockyard, now spectacularly reformed.
You’re less likely to find yourself behind a bar, than slid into a booth at Lovis clinking a date-night cocktail, or out in the courtyard enjoying a moment of rare tucked-away peace in a go-go-go city. Soft and alcoholic drinks can be bought at reception too. Maybe take them up to the peaceful roof terrace to enjoy the view.
The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Otherwise, breakfast is served from 7am to 11am (8am till noon on Sundays) and dinner from 6.30pm to 11pm. The bar closes at 1am on those days.
There are few streets in Berlin that aren’t cool, but Wilmina hotel’s home of Kantstrasse (named after the philosopher) is an especially lively haunt.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport is just a 30-minute drive from the hotel.
For roaming around the city, your closest S-Bahn train stop is at Charlottenberg, less than a 10-minute walk away, and the nearest U-Bahn stop is Sophie-Charlotte-Platz, a 10-minute walk north. And, if you’re interrailing cross-continent, you’ll pull in at Berlin Central Station, a 30-minute drive away.
You won’t need a car in Berlin, whose public transport systems are very reliable, and whose citizens tend to prefer greener methods of getting around. But if wheels are a necessity, there’s limited free street parking and a charged garage about 800 metres away.
Worth getting out of bed for
Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s doctrine of ‘transcendental idealism’ boils down to the belief that we can only know things through experience. So it’s only fitting that while you’re staying on the street named after him (Kantstrasse in the upscale Charlottenburg district), that you get out and do things. Say, head around the corner to cult bookshop Bücherbogen, or maybe laze amid the leafy, lake-y serenity of Lietzenseepark, which has its own beer garden. Head east and you’ll hit the vast zoo and aquarium, head north and Charlottenburg Palace, which, with its many windows, expansive gardens and Rococo swagger, cuts a dashing figure; then the Deutsche Oper opera house shows Berlin’s brilliant old-new contrast with a concrete block of a building. For classic artworks, the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection is extensive, and for more modern works, there’s Kontor, Galerie Mutare, Stallman, C/O Berlin, the Museum of Photography, and very many more. And, Wilmina itself, with its white walls and fascinating bones makes an excellent exhibition space – indeed, the hotel often hosts cool creative pop-ups and exhibitions (previously working with Amtsalon and Kicken Berlin gallery). To reach the capital’s postcard attractions (the Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag, street-art coated sections of the Berlin Wall, the DDR Museum…), you can take a leisurely hour-long stroll through the Tiergarten, or hop in a cab for 30 minutes. And, you can easily feel like you’ve left the city by exploring the walks, scenic look-outs, historic hunting lodges and sombre memorials of Grunewald Forest beyond the city.
Kanstrasse highlights the city as a melting pot, with its rep for top Asian cuisine. Especially at Madame Ngo’s, where the pot in question is filled with unctuous, warming phở that hits every taste point on the way down. They also do full-to-bursting bánh mìs (the Madame Ngo is a pork-y, pâté-slathered beast) and tropical salads. Ryotei 893 serves especially decadent sushi, with morsels of sake, unagi and foie gras; tenderloin tartare with caviar and crème fraîche; and sashimi taquitos with a squirt of truffle mayonnaise. And Lon Men’s Noodle House does slurpable dishes that are quick, fast and filthy in the best possible way – very well udon (sorry). You might be surprised what you find between your buns at the Butcher, where toppings run to babaganoush, tahini, hollandaise… They also have veggie picks, and a meaty cocktail list. And, Funky Fisch might have a divisive name, but its menu is unimpeachable, with huge bowls of creamy prawn tagliatelle, rich bouillabaisse, and a laden seafood bar.
And, yet another favourite of Bowie and Iggy Pop was Schwarzes Café; while it’s no longer a 24-hour hangout (although barkeeps are fairly loose with closing time), it’s still as cool and artsy as it ever was – just follow the neon parrot sign.
Paris Bar is a legend around these parts; allegedly opened by a French soldier who was missing his homeland’s cuisine, it became the centre for bohemian tomfoolery from 1962 onwards. Iggy Pop drunkenly rolled around outside, David Bowie liked the steak frites, artist Martin Kippenberger paid his bill with paintings: it’s a place that sings with stories. And, we admit we’re partial to a snifter of Berlin’s sleaze – Galander Charlottenburg is set in a former brothel, but it’s gone from slutty to sleek, now hung with chandeliers and staff wear black-and-white tailoring – but there’s still plenty of alcohol-sloshed sauce to be had.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this judged-fit hotel in a former courthouse and prison on hip Kantstrasse and left freely of their own will, a full account of their carceral-to-cool break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Wilmina in Berlin…
Most people in jail are considering how to escape, but not us. No, when it comes to new Berlin boutique hotel Wilmina, we’re clamouring to get in (and potentially throw away the key, if they’ll allow us). Built in 1896, this former courthouse and women’s prison was the only building in its (now quite trendy indeed) Kantstrasse-set neighbourhood, and beyond its Baroque façade its vast red-brick buildings, now-romantic courtyards and secret gardens (hidden beyond hefty steel doors, which only guests get the keys to) still make it feel like an outlier. But, not solitary – in fact, the architects took great pains to unlock the sociable potential of the spaces. Formerly dingy tiers of staircases have had lightwells opened up; cell walls smashed down to create bright white rooms, some with bars still half in place over enlarged windows; scrubby yards are now green or strung with firefly-like lighting, chasing away any foreboding while keeping the building’s complicated past in focus. During the war, members of the resistance and anti-regime activists were held here, so the architects felt a responsibility to preserve it with respect – one of the cells has been kept as a mini museum, and original features enhance that gritty, urbanite-cool feel Berlin does so very well. But, Wilmina’s very much about the now too – they want guests to feel welcomed and looked after as individuals, encourage mingling in restful lounges and a games room (and soon on a rooftop with a pool), and collaborate with the city’s creative groups and galleries to hang fantastical artworks and dreamily disruptive installations. So, cancel the jail break, and book a city break instead.