“Finally, after a week of recovering from Berlin, I have found time to sit down and write about it. Berlin was not what I expected. Having heard numerous times from multiple people about the wonders of Berlin, I expected a city radiating wealth, beauty, art, and architecture.”
Photo cred: Ellen Wright
However, much of the city, especially the outlying neighborhoods, appears demolished, almost like an industrial wasteland. While the old architecture remains, much of it has been rebuilt from bomb or fire raids and is still damaged in many places. Since it is winter, the city was dark, giving off an ominous lure and at times eerily quiet. The first day was spent exploring the city center; however, it wasn’t until that evening that I realized how complex Berlin really is.
Berlin is a labyrinth. To find the history, art, food, and culture scene within the city, you have to dig deeper, and when you do, you’ll understand why Berlin is renowned. I left Berlin in awe. At the end of four days, I’d barely touched the surface and left wanting to come back and experience more of this vibrant, pulsing city. It would be impossible for me to attempt to summarize Berlin, I barely had time to sleep let alone explore all parts of the city; however, I can highlight the best moments. As I often find, the most memorable moments, the moments when I felt connected to the city and involved in its life and culture, were not the moments planned and spent at the most famous sights or memorials; rather, they were the moments on backstreets, in cafés and bars, biking along the river, or eating street food late at night. These moments formed the reason I want to return to Berlin and my desire to experience more of the behind-the-scenes motion that makes the city tick.
Below are some favourites:
Döner Kebab + Beer
The €7.00 Döner kebab, complete with chips & beer in Prenzlauer berg.
I went to Berlin with two of my best friends from England. We left London at 2 a.m, arrived at our hostel, Generator Hostel East Berlin, at 11 a.m, and spent the entire day trekking around the center. Come night time, all we wanted was a hot meal and a drink. After taking the wrong directions (either that or receiving bad advice at the hostel), we ended up wandering around some cold street with no decent restaurants and absolutely zero nightlife. Our hostel was of course open, but the scene surrounding it seemed to be one of fast-food chains and late night convenience stores—not super stimulating for three twenty-year olds in Berlin. However, after much deliberation, we finally gave in and went back to the hostel. On our way back, we bumped into what looked like a chip and burger shop but turned out to be a Turkish kebab shop with a little bar in back. Three hours later, we were closing the place down and had consumed some of the best kebabs of our lives. For only €7.00 we got a massive lamb, chicken, or meat kebab complete with all the trimmings, a side of chips, and a large beer. Not to mention the fact that the bar had very cheap shots of Jäger.
Stasi Prison & Exhibition
Talking photographs of former prisoners at the Berlin- Hohenschönhausen memorial (Stasi Prison). Photo cred: Ellen Wright
Security televisions at the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen memorial (Stasi Prison). Photo cred: Ellen Wright
Although we purchased a Berlin Welcome card offering reduced entry to most museums and unlimited travel for three days, we chose to explore most of the city by bike. On our second day, we rented bikes at the hostel and made our way towards the Stasi Prison. Needless to say, we got lost multiple times. However, we had some lovely nonsensical chats in broken English and horrible German with some charming older ladies in a flower shop, who eventually directed us to the Prison. When we got there, two hours later then planned, we were told the only way to see the Prison was by tour and the next English one wasn’t for three to four hours. When we asked if there was a museum, we were repeatedly told that this was not a museum but a memorial. However, after some friendly banter, we were directed to the free exhibition (museum) directly behind us.
The Stasi Prison exhibition was enthralling. Spanning four to five rooms, including the former offices of head directors at the Prison, the history of the Prison complete with details about the lives of the prisoners and the Stasi secret service police were presented through interactive video, text, and a collection of artifacts. A timeline chronicling the history of Russian occupation and the Soviet era in Berlin guided us through the exhibit and the different stages of development at the Prison. The exhibit was personalized to include extensive detail on the lives of former prisoners there with testimonials from survivors. When entering the Prison, we had met a tour guide, dressed like a guard, who had chatted with us in good English and directed us to the exhibit. Once inside, we recognized his face among that of the former prisoner’s portraits and learned that today, many of the former prisoners volunteer as tour guides in an effort to work through past experiences and educate people about the history of the Stasi in Berlin. I left in wonder and in horror of the place, but grateful for the opportunity to experience such a well-curated exhibition.
Roses in Kreuzberg, 10 p.m till 7 a.m. Photo Cred: Zitty Berlin
Roses is a bar we half stumbled past, neglecting its tiny staircase and light-up sign. It was around 11:00 p.m when we arrived at Roses, and following the recommendation of a guidebook, we weren’t sure what to expect. Inside, besides the fact that we were the only three customers there, the first thing we noticed was the static pink fuzz covering every inch of the wall. I have been in bars and clubs that are decked out three stories tall in leopard print and jungle theme, but this place was as kitsch as I’ve ever seen. Every single corner, shelf, or wall space was covered in plastic flowers, animal heads, horns, weird Victorian paintings, zebra stripes, or an incredible amount of pink fuzz. There were two men and a women at the bar—no sign of a bartender— and a electric red sign reading, “Naked Sex-Party Every Second Thursday” (this is the point at which we practically ran out the door). However, after a few minutes of gawking and staring empty-handed at the bar, a woman got up, came over to us, and introduced herself. We quickly learned from her and the fellow bartenders that the sign was a joke, and that Roses didn’t really get hopping until around 4 or 7 a.m. The woman laughed, reminded us never to listen to anything a man says, and asked us, “Girls, what will it be?”
For the next few hours, we sat in the back surrounded by the pink fuzz, drinking and laughing. By 12:00 a.m, contrary to what the barman had said, the place was packed. Techno and house beats pumped over the speakers, and drinks and cigarette sparks flew through the air. It was like being inside some kind of wonder world and the crowd was eclectic, but welcoming. A predominantly gay bar, everyone seemed carefree; although, like any place, there were a share of oddballs. The staff we met looked after us, and they were kind enough to give us sound advice on where to carry on. I could have easily stayed hours, but the rest of Berlin called, so we threw back our drinks, said goodbye to the bar staff, and gave the pink fuzzy walls one last pat.
5 a.m Currywurst
5 a.m currywurst at Curry 36, Kreuzberg. Berlin’s most famous fast food: fried sliced sausage, and chips covered in a tangy red curry sauce.
Currywurst is the fish & chips of Berlin, except even more revered. Berlin’s most famous fast food, almost every street corner has a currywurst stall slinging the boiled or fried sausage, topped with spicy curry sauce and a side of chips, into the hands of eager tourists and locals alike. In Berlin, there is even a museum dedicated to the dish, The Deutsches Currywurst Museum, and it boasts the best currywurst itself.
Of course, the best time to eat a fried sausage with chips is very early Friday morning and lucky for us, that was just the time we were finishing our night out. Headed down the street in Kreuzberg, we bumped into Curry 36, one of Berlin’s well-established curry joints, in operation since 1981. They were just serving the last curries of the evening when we rolled in around 5:30 a.m. Deep-fried sausage and sauce-smothered chips in hand, we made our way to a taxi and headed back to our beds in the hostel. For €4.30 for two currywurst with chips, I could not have found a better street food deal in Berlin. And, of course, the hours of operation, 9 a.m till 5 a.m, were a plus.
Berlin by Bike
Biking along the Spree river
Bike lights in Berlin. Photo cred: Ellen Wright
By far, the best way to see Berlin is by bike. Unlike London, where biking rewards you with a trip to the emergency room, Berlin is designed for biking. Wide and well-allocated bike paths allow cycling on almost all major roads and routes around the city. Bike rental is cheap, less than €15 a day, and easy to find, as rental shops are everywhere. From Generator Hostel we rented bikes for €10 a day and it took roughly twenty minutes to get into the city center. Biking in the city was a gloriously easy experience and made getting lost joyful.
Beautiful places to bike included Museumsinsel (Museum Island), historic Mitte, the Neue Synagoge and the Jewish quarter, Potsdamer Platz, East Berlin, and of course, The East Side Gallery. We biked the length of the East Side Gallery, stopping to look at the most famous sections of the Berlin wall now more renowned for their artistic significance then the history behind them. Crossing the Oberbaumbrück bridge, we stopped for lunch and shopping at funky vintage stalls. We passed Galerie Heba, a gallery run by a father-daughter team dedicated to making sculptures out of rolled newspaper and complete with a small café/bar in the back. We poked our heads into German supermarkets, furniture stores, and had a good laugh outside a vintage stall, trying on over sized glasses from the 80s. Overall, the day was spent wandering wherever the bikes or river took us, and for me, it was the most enjoyable part of the trip.
Drinks in Friedrichshain
Friday night in Friedrichshain: Dachkammer Bar & Café, Simon-Dach Strasse No.39
We first stumbled across Friedrichshain in East Berlin during the day, by bike, while looking for a German restaurant. However, the cobbled streets and clusters of bars, restaurants, and speciality shops lured us back for our last night in Berlin. We never made it to the restaurant, but we did make it to Dachkammer a wonderfully warm and lively wooden bar on Simon Dach strasse.
Simon Dach strasse is one of the most popular streets in Friedrichshain and known for its late night bars and street life. We’d noticed Dachkammer during the day by its lovely wooden tables adorned with empty Hendrick’s jars holding fresh tulips, and its canopy of vines overhanging the building. Inside, at night, the place came alive. The tables and chairs were made from etched wood, the walls were exposed brick, low-hanging dimly lit chandeliers and individual candles illuminated the place, and antique sofas were provided for lounging. A recipe for an extremely over-priced hipster hangout, Dachkammer was the complete opposite. The vibe was laid back while providing a lively energetic crowd enough stigma to keep drinking. The bartenders were attentive and kind, and the cocktails were made fresh from scratch and strong—so strong in fact one was enough. At a price of €6–€6.50 per craft cocktail this place really was special, and I will definitely be back.
Berghain layout. Photo cred: Life Clubbing, Blogspot
Ah, at last we get to the part about Berlin in which most people my age are well versed and experienced. Even if you’ve never been to Berlin, or visited Europe, you know about Berlin’s clubbing culture. Rated one of the best cities for clubbing not only in Europe, but in the world, Berlin’s nightlife holds a certain stigma. Infamous bouncers such as Sven Marquardt* guard the doors of notoriously hard-to-get-into clubs such as Berghain. Many foreigners expect to go to Berlin and have the most wild, crazy, time of their lives.
And some do. But many get turned away.
Why does this happen? While Berlin is certainly a city dedicated to party culture, and many do get to party, the attitude towards clubbing is much different than it is in America or England. People are there for the music and to dance; the idea of getting messed up or hooking up is not prevalent in their minds. Nightlife in Berlin is about maintaining a good atmosphere in the clubs, and those who threaten this atmosphere or diminish the quality of the night for others are not welcome. Overall, the quality of the music and the respect for Berlin’s clubbing culture is what makes nightlife in this city irresistible.
Inside Tresor nightclub. Photo cred: Resident Advisor
Last weekend, I had one of the best clubbing experiences of my life. This was precisely due to the attitude towards clubbing established in Berlin. We arrived at a techno club called Tresor at 3 a.m. We spent the next ten to fifteen minutes waiting in line. We waited in a single file line, one of us ahead of the others, and didn’t drink, smoke, or chat. Pretty soon, we were let in. Tresor, like most clubs in Berlin, is located in an abandoned plant. Up until 2005, it was originally located in a deserted department store, equipped with a fully functioning basement often referred to as “the vault.” However, in 2005, the club closed and switched to its current location near Mitte. At first, the space seemed huge. However, on second look it became clear that it consisted of three interconnected floors, one of course being the basement vault. It was easy to get our bearings after walking around a few times. When we entered at 3:30 a.m, the place was just getting going and was crowded but not overly packed.
We chose to go to Tresor and not Berghain for the simple reason of not wanting to waste time. While Berghain is known as the ultimate clubbing experience, we had no way of knowing if we would get in and did not want to waste hours standing in line. Tresor, an equally good techno club, with a historic line-up of DJ founders such as Paul Van Dyk, Ellen Allien, Blake Baxter, Jeff Mills, and Mike Banks, offered a great alternative. Far less difficult to get into then Berghain, and with a large crowd of friendly people who genuinely love techno music, Tresor was an ideal option for the final night in Berlin.
Sven Marquardt, nine year bouncer at Berghain club, Berlin. Photo cred: The Guardian
*Sven Marquardt has since retired from his nine year position as bouncer at Berghain.He has recently published his memoirs Die Nacht ist Leben, The Night is Life, in German, and revealed his soft side.
Overall, top tips for Berlin:
- Bike! By far the best way to see the city!
- Generator Hostel is a great, affordable place to stay. The staff are informative, engaging, incredibly helpful, and overtly happy people. The hostel has all needed facilities, including breakfast, dinner, a bar, laundry, lockers, bikes, and even a free morning walking tour of the city. It is located in East Berlin. www.generatorhostels.com
- In Berlin, street food is the way to go. Food stalls are incredibly cheap (€1.50 for a massive bratwurst !) and are located throughout the city. Many neighborhoods have their own street food festivals or streets dedicated to food stalls. International food is also good and a must!
- For great views of Berlin visit the Dome at the Reichstag building, Berlin’s building of parliament. Tickets are free as long as you book in advance, and on a clear day the views are beautiful. www.bundestag.de
- Mix with the locals! Experience the nightlife! This is really the best way to mix with Berliners and Europeans in general. Overall we found everyone to be extremely friendly and had no negative experiences. We put ourselves out there, but found many people who didn’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with us.
* Not for the faint of heart.
All writing and photography is of the author’s own unless otherwise stated.
Night Club, Berlin, Tresor. “Club History | Tresor Berlin.” Club History | Tresor Berlin. Tresor Berlin, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://tresorberlin.com/>.