Berlin: A unique combination of Soviet brutalism, openminded hedonism, and reassuring efficiency.
Crumbling concrete sprawls through a patchwork of graffitied neighborhoods, bisected by rumbling overhead trains, tram lines and the odd bit of Wall. Every urban tribe finds its place amongst the city’s bars, clubs, parks, and warehouses. Locals don’t bat an eyelid at green-spiked Mohawks or old men in regency waistcoats and pink flares.
And yet the trains run on time, the nightclub queues are orderly, and discreet signs advertise bondage workshops, promising to teach you how to tie (and untie) knots safely.
No matter what your thing is. Berlin will accommodate it – in the proper manner.
It’s a city of contrasting charms. From the leafy streets of Prenzlauer Berg with its pavement cafés and yoga-mums to the picturesque dereliction of Kreuzberg teeming with every kind of ‘alternative’ you can imagine (some more genuine than others).
And the beer. I don’t know any other city where it is perfectly acceptable to buy a beer at a convenience store, crack it open and saunter down the street swigging. Young and old, guys and girls, they all slurp as they stroll; standing on train platforms, sometimes even cycling. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but Berliners have made it look almost wholesome.
Like most cities, of course, gentrification is marching through its neighborhoods. Organic cafés are springing up between record shops and vintage boutiques. Gritty has become window-dressing; fairy lights twinkle across raw concrete and graffitied alleyways are festooned with bunting. To experience the edge of Berlin-past, I’m told you should head for Neukoelln, Berlin’s ‘Little Istanbul’ but I haven’t made it that far down the hipster trail – yet.
It’s a vast and rambling city. And, true to form, this is Berlin mini-break style:
Brunch in Prenzlauer Berg
Pretty Prenzlauer Berg is a calm neighborhood of broad tree-lined avenues, pavement cafes and organic farmers’ markets.
Whet your appetite while browsing the Kollwitzplatz organic farmers’ market before heading to Oderberger Strasse or Kastanienallee, where you can take your pick from the bars and cafés that line the street. Café Krone offers an array of poached egg dishes with about as much avocado and homemade granola as you can handle.
On Sundays, the tempo picks up at Mauerpark, which hosts a weekly flea market. Load up on food and beer and join the crowds on the grass, where street performers compete for attention. Alternatively, take your place at the amphitheater and watch impromptu gigs performed by anyone who fancies it.
Techno in Berghain
Berghain is the stuff of clubbers’ legend. A weekend-long den of iniquity where anything goes.
If you can get in that is.
Type ‘Berghain’ into Google and ‘bouncer’ is the first thing that pops up. Sven Marquard is the guardian of the underworld, making and breaking nights with a nod or shake of his tattooed head. He’s a marketing genius, who has taken the lure of FOMO to fever-pitch by keeping everyone guessing about his entry criteria. There are endless forum discussions, articles and even apps to help you Get Into Berghain: Suggestions include: Look cool, don’t look too cool, wear black, look bored and even (obscurely) look gay…
With all that hype, how could we resist…
Firm backup plan in hand, we headed over around opening time on a Friday night to give it a go.
At about midnight, everyone quietly formed an orderly queue and an atmosphere of nervous apprehension descended. The door opened, the Great Man stepped out. And the sorting began.
Each group shuffled forward to be inspected. The lucky ones shuffled in, the unlucky ones shuffled off. Not a word was spoken. Just ahead of us, a bunch of preppy-looking Dutch guys was sent packing, as were two Japanese girls in anoraks. We set our faces into what we hoped was ‘Bored Indifference’ and stepped forward. A slight incline of the head and we were in.
We waited until we’d been searched (phone cameras ‘blinded’ with a sticker) and had our hands stamped before erupting into our victory dance.
We were part of the fresh-faced first wave on a Friday night and so didn’t bear witness to the drug-fueled orgies that allegedly break out sometime between Saturday and Monday morning. We had a great time, ducking out at about 5am before the zombies arrived.
Conclusion: Absolutely give it a go. Just make sure you have a good Plan B up your sleeve.
Punk in Kreuzberg
Kreuzberg is home to Berlin’s punk rock movement, and there are plenty of bars where nostalgic anarchists can sip beer and nod along to classic soundtracks.
Head to Oranienstraße where you can warm up at laid-back Franken Bar before diving into punk institution SO36. After our Berghain excitement the night before, we didn’t fancy the queue, so we hopped in a cab to Clash, a cavernous bar, which happened to in full Oktoberfest frenzy when we arrived. Incongruously tattooed ‘rhinemaidens’ in traditional dress were heaving around tankards of beer, while Basque punk pounded the sound system. A great atmosphere, lashings of cheap beer and pinball.
And the Gates of Babylon
Now for something completely different.
The Ishtar Gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon, dating back to about 575 BC. It was excavated in the early 1900s and reconstructed piece by painstaking piece from crate loads of blue glazed fragments.
And there it is, in the centre of Berlin, in the Pergamon Museum. The original was over half a mile long and 50 feet tall, and they have done a great job conveying the sense of its awesome scale. It must have been quite something 2500 years ago, rising out of the desert.
While you’re there, you might as well take in the Market Gate of Miletus, a vast Roman monument built in 2AD. And the Aleppo room, a perfectly preserved reception room belonging to a merchant in the Christian quarter of Aleppo. It was commissioned during the Ottoman period and is thankfully quite safe where it is.
Once you’ve reached your archeological limit, pop into Café Cinema, a cosy, candle-lit gem with a Berlin-esque patio, strewn with bunting and fairy lights, every inch scrawled with graffiti.
There’s more, of course. Berlin deserves a lot more attention. As if I need another excuse to go back…