It was refreshing to return back to Berlin, where over the years, the city has gained an incredible individualistic reputation, a place to be, create and live.
Ten years on from my initial visit, my new exploration of Berlin somewhat changed my previous perspective of the city. Yes, the city is soaked with history, oozing with sophistication and glamour in some areas, and a living, breathing, story book- but this time, I was able to explore underground Berlin- the nitty, gritty side of it.
Staying in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg meant that we really were getting to grips with the urban edge of Berlin. Away from the polished streets and renowned architectural triumphs, we were fighting the February elements by graffiti studded streets and raunchy underground sex clubs. A completely different experience to my previous visit of Berlin which you can read here.
But I had come this time, to explore the artistic flair of Berlin, with which so many expats choose to thrive in, the cultural identity that hipster Berlin has formed, and the world famous nightclubs with their varied and intense music scene.
Beginning our short weekend trip with a free Street Art tour from Alternative Tours in Berlin was the right choice. Starting in the commercial Alexander Platz and led by a young Aussie who had fallen in love with Berlin herself, she took us around neighbourhoods, pointing out established artists- their work and their message, whilst highlighting stories that accompanied the neighbourhood.
As hipster young artists surged to barren areas of Berlin for cheap rent prices and began to form communities and unique shops and bars, other people followed the artistic trend, meaning rent prices begun to increase. To avoid the costly changes, graffiti and street art suffocates the walls of many neighbourhoods in East Berlin, etching tag names and slogans on buildings that are precariously high and dangerous to reach. Strolling through neighbourhoods, we took in sights of cheap donner shops inviting all to snack, corner shops with towering produce, flamboyant shops selling recycled jewellery and bars that purposefully look shoddy to avoid customers. You can immediately sense that this side of Berlin still seems separate to West Berlin, by identity and by culture.
Mauer Park is a popular tourist attraction on a Sunday and so we headed there afterwards, changing direction from East Berlin, through Central to North Berlin, at the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. The neighbourhood showed us a glimpse of what Berlin is like to those who can afford high rent prices. As similar as to coming out of Shoreditch in London to Notting Hill, sweeping pavements lined with bare trees led us to our destination. We passed exclusive bars and worldly restaurants that actually had tables to sit in- which lacked in many of the restaurants where we were staying.
Preened and proper locals walked their equally preened dogs along the streets and we looked at each other, as if to question each other- which neighbourhood would you prefer? We headed over to the Flea Market just as they were closing up, where painted portraits of Frida Kahlo, vintage jumpers and classic records were on sale. Glancing over our warm cups of Chai Latte and apple pies, we noticed that very little locals visited this market, it merely being a location where tourists flocked to gape and gawk at (or buy lots of earrings in my case). Although a wonderful market to browse, do be wary that it might not be as authentic as you imagine.
From here we headed nearby to an infamous beer hall, Pratergarten, to drink in the traditional style of Steins and sit in orderly rows whilst glugging their home grown brew. But, alas, it being February, the beer hall was shut, and so we were herded into their restaurant – an incredibly fancy establishment. It did look like a lovely place to dine and relax in, the décor looked as if to resemble a lavish hunting lodge, however with no reservation and not the budget to eat there either, we sipped our dark beers and regained our strength to move on.
We spent our final day exploring the key sights that all need to see when visiting Berlin, the Berlin Wall (but the East Side Gallery, rather than the traditional part of the wall kept at Checkpoint Charlie) we saw the messages respected artists left on the walls for the future generations, the original creations left to inspire and educate, as well as the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.
We left little time in our days to see the sights, and all with bleary eyes, aching limbs and heavy heads. That’s only because we spent our nights so vigorously exploring Berlin after dark. On our first night we headed to Wilde Renate, a house party style club filled with weird décor and varied music in all of the rooms, reputed amongst the ravers of Berlin. But in the true traditional style of Berlin, we weren’t allowed entry into the club.
Being rejected from clubs is actually a common thing in Berlin, in fact for the biggest techno club, Berghain, there is even an article on VICE of some of those who have been rejected from the club, for no particular reason. The bouncer at Berghain is notorious for his picky attitude and rude manners, and not wanting to spend hours queuing for a club we might not even get into, we decided not to visit. So it was no real surprise that we were rejected from this club. It could have been the fact that we turned up at 12 when it opened (which we later found out was totally uncool and really you should turn up at 2am to that club), maybe it was because we were in a group (they apparently don’t like large groups), maybe it was because we were obvious tourists, or maybe it was because my friend was seen drinking outside the club, either way- it was a no go. We headed to the bar opposite – which is awesome by the way, although very smoky, so if you are heading to Wilde Renate, make sure you stop here before for a few drinks.
For our second night, we were more prepared and organized for Berlin’s arrogant door staff. We first headed to Icky, a fun gay club. Now this isn’t a gay club which you might be used to visiting in London or any other cosmopolitan city, this was a little more hard core than that. Videos on the walls of… well you get the picture, were unexpected. Ignoring the screens, we made friends on the dancefloor whilst dancing to Spice Girls. Although sticking out like a sore thumb for being a group of tourists, we had a great time and were happy to experience the gay scene in Berlin, albeit briefly.
We then headed to another type of clubbing experience which Berlin is renowned for, a techno club. Watergate was incredibly close to where we were staying, and so it was an obvious choice for us. Making it into this bar/club, we were rewarded by a river view from the bar of the ominous night of Berlin and its stunning architecture that resembled a turret from Harry Potter. Descending downstairs into the thumping dancefloor we saw Berliners really let loose, and joined the sweltering crowd ourselves. Despite the really strict boring dress code which Berliners seem to adopt (black, black and oh did I mention black?), we finally realised and recognised why so many visitors end up never leaving Berlin. They know how to party.
To fully explore and immerse yourself in Berlin, you need much longer than just a few days here and there. It is ideal to explore Berlin by neighbourhood, to fully comprehend the sheer size and diversity of Berlin. Make sure you leave time to recover from its wild nights, so you are able to explore its original pieces of art and significant artefacts of history too.