So, it’s been a year in Berlin and it’s time to get personal. If you’re thinking of moving to Berlin, this is what you could be in for.
This is apolitical. There’s a lot I could comment on, but won’t. What follows is pure pleasure and the memorable highlights from living in and exploring a new city. I completely feed off cities, like Pacman or a swarm of concrete-loving locusts – so I guess I’ve made a quite a dent in a fairly short time.
The onset started with launching a business and emigrating in the same week – which was a bit intense, but who likes to be bored. Three days of an enormous biggest trade show of my life, ending up with one of my Top 3 fave musicians ever was playing at the end of the week in a brill little club at the end of my Straße. Meine Willkommen to Berlin party – prima!
Living on Karl Marx Allee for a month. It wasn’t the right kiez, but it was the right architecture! What a fantasy – this street is more Moscow than Moscow itself, a monumental socialist boulevard built to honour the East. This flagship street was, and still is, populated with high spots of entertainment – the flawless Kino International, a few pavilions, cafes, cocktail bars and restaurants. This is where the annual May Day Parade took place, showing off the unison, power and glory of the DDR. There was nothing like having a good run down the entire road straight into a low sun. It’s pretty other worldly – if you’re from West Europe.
I did the obligatory trawl of apartments and had my fill of odd living arrangements but finally got the keys to the fantasy Berlin Altbau apartment right on the canal. The best apartment, on the best street, with the best balcony and the best view. On the fourth floor you get the occasional treat of seeing a formation of swans in flight, powering through the air at eye level. You really are at one with the avian genre up here – though it quickly turns from aww birds to something a little more Hitchcock-ian when the dawn chorus kicks in.
Oddly I lived in the Turkish part of London and am now a stone’s throw from Kottbusser Tor which is practically Istanbul – so it’s a little bit home from home. Nothing like confusing the local waiters with perfect pronunciation in Turkish and then continuing with an appalling German accent.
Having always been pretty obsessed by this city’s history and partition there is nothing quite like spending endless hours burying down into obscurity and extremity. and cross referencing all this knowledge and anecdotal insight makes you all the more sensitive to the bleak history of the city. I don’t think a visit to Hohenschönhausen should be undertaken lightly – it’s certainly not somewhere you race back to. However much you endeavour to explore every single historical site, every DDR secret spot, every bunker, museum, there’s always more. I have loved every moment of discovery, from abandoned DDR apartments in Lichtenberg to hunting out private art collections in Marzahn. Berliner Unterwelten is a great society that manages all the bunkers and more. So much of this city has been razored, so you need a good imagination.
Sammlung Boros‘ story is so quintessentially Berlin. Built as an above-ground WWII bunker, to Red Army prison, to cold-store for Cuban bananas (DDR era), to hardcore sex club (post-wall)…but where could it go from there? A private contemporary art collection of course!
Art. A lot of art, over Gallery Weekend (great for exploring), Berlin Art Week (good for private collections), art in Leipzig, art in Dresden, art everywhere. Dresden museums are pretty stunning. After the Brits blitzed the architectural apple of Germany’s eye they have done an incredible restoration job. And not just a straight recreation, but have modeled a beautiful relationship between the original and the contemporary. How they salvaged collections or where they placed them is a small wonder, from the Green Vaults to the sculpture halls…
Käthe Kollwitz gallery in Charlottenberg. A dark representation of the human condition.
Having a very confusing conversation about Lovage at the market…a woman was trying to tell me its in Marmite (never knew!) – but got Marmite and mermaids mixed up. That’s not an easy exchange to conduct in ‘Dinglisch’ (I believe that’s how it’s spelt?). Talking of which, where’s Maybachufer’s uber herb stall gone? Here’s hoping it’ll be back in the summer.
Staying on food, I have finally developed a vague interest in breakfast. Frühstück has to be the best in the world? [Suicide Sue, above). Not sure what that cake is doing there, couldn’t be anything to do with me…
Deutsches Historisches Museum – you can skip the whole top floor of early history and just work your way from the Weimar era to 1989. At the mid-point of that period, you will see some pretty arresting artifacts such as Swastika bunting. Who’d have thought there would be space for something so ‘cute’ as bunting in the Third Reich?
Schloss Hotel – always fun finding a bit of glamour in the city – and of course it’d be in the Grunewald – the Beverley Hills ‘burb of Berlin.
The German government have pledged to maintain Treptower Park’s Soviet War Monument for eternity. It is an incredible, open space, and the right place to try and process the sheer, shocking numbers of the fallen: over 26m Russians died during WWII.
HAU1 – the most exquisite wood panelled theatre, with strung lights lining the entire circle. A window onto pre-war Berlin and the best venue to see an intimate gig. If you like this, you’ll also like Einstein Café, Volksbühne Theatre and the Alte Europa café in Mitte.
Berlin does have its limitations. There’s an infinite number of bars populated with furniture salvaged from the East. So when you find somewhere a bit different it’s refreshing and odd. There’s a hilarious kind of Scanditrash bar called the Grand which feels so out of place here. And Brachvogel, which is just a simple biergarten but feels like a village out in the German countryside. I kind of gave up on chasing much glam and sent the shoes back to London.
Whilst the clubs have notoriously capricious door policies, bars make a night out very easy with endless Straßes of decent bars such as Weserstraße, Pücklerstraße and Dresdenerstraße. You don’t need to think or plan. Just pick a mood and start at one end…the endless opening hours are a dream. The last time I had a big night out in London we were turfed out of three places. That wouldn’t happen here, oh noooo. I even had to be called home at 4am on a Tuesday – and that place was heaving…
Love the Battersea Power Station mural in Holz Koehlen on Wesertr. This is the view I had the privilege of enjoying for many years in London.
Oh and any old night at Roses delivers! Everyone’s got a story about that place. It’s like some aged, nicotine-stained Pierre & Gilles print come to life.
Getting a bunch of gay guys to Mint, a virtually exclusively citrus lady-gay night. Needless to say these fish out of water didn’t stick around long, but it was great fun working out the pecking order – you could carve the space up like a Battenburg cake working out who called the shots in the Berlin leseratti!
Hanging out at Kater Holzig right down by the Spree is a bit of a midsummer night’s dream! Admire and revel in the extreme lack of ‘Elf n Safety. Some worse for wear guy’s friend even popped down and set his comatose self in the recovery position so he wouldn’t just roll into the river and join the fish. Oh yes, the absence of H&S means you can open the U Bahn doors whilst the train is still moving. There are still a number of paternoster lifts in use! We don’t have these back home.
One christmas night I got willingly kidnapped by some friendly Germans who took me to a deeply subterranean club underneath a supermarket brimming with 1000 gay Jewish ravers partying more than their socks off. It felt like the Berlin I imagined of the 90s.
We accidentally gatecrashed Kraftwerk, a giant industrial space in the Tresor building, with 1500 raving Boston Management Consultants that were celebrating the company’s 50th birthday (whilst I was celebrating mine) – whilst all sporting traditional Deutsche dress. Amazing. Cocktails on tap, hilarious people watching and a good chat with Dimitri, the founder of the club, which resulted in a grand behind-the-scenes tour.
Thinking I was over partying after a run of visitors last summer, but one last push took us to Renate – and loving it! Room after room…I’m not really meant to stay out til 6.30am these days, but it’s amazing how easily it just happens here. Or anywhere for that matter.
Don’t want to go out? Flux.fm is just so gut on a Saturday night you just might never go out again.
In the gay capital of Europe, you can imagine the Christopher Street parade is quite an event.
Bright Saturday mornings after a run along on the Ufer on the canal. Thank you to the guy (a total throwback to 80s Brooklyn) who played the best music ever for 3 hours one morning. I wanted you to go far away when you first turned up, but then I think I wanted to marry you…
Just summer + ‘Open Airs’. Its a bit of a shock to a Brit at first but I know what I’m in for this year, and I’m ready. Love the pop-up summer clubs – squeezed in to any slip of space. I guess that’s why this city rocks in the summer, because there’s still space to do stuff. And if there’s enough space for a portaloo, paddling pool and a dance floor? That’s all it takes.
Berlin can feel very 70s, often. Cafe Am Neuen See Ohh, golden hour at this biergarten is unbeatable. A large dingly dell lake in the middle of Tiergarten surrounded by plenty of benches, Weißbier, and happy, happy people. Come 6 o’clock when the sun is coming down and the kids are playing nicely – with fishing nets in the lake! – and it all goes a bit midgy, hazy with a touch of lens flare, it probably is the best place in the world. If you can rustle up a floppy hat, platforms and a cheesecloth shirt for the evening, then you really will be living the dream. And apparently it’s not unheard of for them to set a DJ up on an island in the lake.
When the sun is high in the summer, and the cars are few, Alexanderplatz turns into a picture postcard. One of those from the 70s that were meant to illustrate the socialist dream from behind the iron curtain. (This only happens when the sun is out, otherwise you don’t get that feeling!)
Schoenberg in the sun offers consistently good people watching. Grab an Aperol and kick back and admire the passeggiata! It feels seriously retro round there, and overwhelmingly like it’s beside the sea – so you get an added-vlaue holiday feeling. (Sitges, specifically!)
The signage and store fronts in West Berlin are gorgeous – in the most wonderful time warp.
If you have time to burn, you do a lot worse than explore a city by way of pool. One week we tackled a Berlin schwimmbad a day. They were all good, but Charlottenberg was the best of them all, with the Bauhaus Mitte a close second…Then you can do it all over again in the summer – the indoor pools close for a few months and force you outside. There’s a sommerbad lido in each district.
Prinzenstraße in Kreuzberg only has a paltry three Olympic sized pools next to each other, a couple of baby pools and a large park to relax in. C’mon Germans, learn to do things properly! I’ve saved the 1936 Olympic pool for this year.
If you’re after a thoroughly surreal experience, firmly at one with nature, look no further than the 25 Hours Hotel which looms high over the zoo. We spent a night there and thought it’d be far too wasteful to seal ourselves in and miss the audio-show. It was a cacophony. There can’t be many more alarming sounds to bring you round in the morning than a cartload of chimps getting overexcited about Frühstück…and the birds, and the rest of the unidentifiable fauna…
Argh will I ever forget trying to find the anatomical theatre in the middle of the university campus on a dead Saturday, on the hottest day of the year? Despite the hat, the oversize shades, the water…it still resulted in heatstroke. But at least I persisted in finding it after giving up twice. It was the last day of Jodie Carey’s bone dust installation, I had to do it, and it was worth it – like a beautiful little chapel, a tiny peaceful, perfectly restored building.
Paternoster joy! I’ve only just ticked this off the list. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to access this beautifully functional specimen (top security), but you can have a crack at playing with the lift at Rathaus Schoeneberg. I probably wouldn’t recommend trying it out in 7″ heels.
I had no idea it was a British invention, paternoster meaning Our Father – the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and “applied to the device because the elevator is in the form of a loop and is thus similar to rosary beads used as an aid in reciting prayers.” [Danke Wikipedia]. There are over 240 of these endlessly looping babies across Germany apparently.
Cookies Cream summer ‘excursion’ dinner in the meadow was a night to remember forever – and highly likely to be repeated this summer. We got dolled up, and took full advantage of Uber’s deal – a free limo there and back. Realised too late that smashy/trashy Kreuzberg is not really the place to be picked up by one of these cars – but who can see through tinted windows? My anxiety soon passed over to the driver who had clearly never been this far East before. I think he thought he was about to pull into Baku any moment.
Eventually we found this Alice in Wonderland scene of tables in a meadow on the banks of the Spree. Cookies Cream had shipped every bit of furniture, every member of staff, music, disco balls, menu ‘n all to this East Berlin al fresco site without any apparent fuss. It was hot, brilliant, drunken and full of mosquitoes which knew no boundaries. Yes, let this be a warning – they can strike at any time, be prepared.
The cocktails at Pret a Diner in Opernwerkstätten – oh my! The smoke truffle old fashioned may sound truly revolting but lemme tell you – it was dirty and earthy in a good way. Credit Stephen Hinz who is behind this bar, in case you’re ever in Köln.
KaDeWe foodhall. Hall being the operative word. It is incredible. Pick your time – not midday Saturday – and start by bathing in the 70s orange glow of the Veuve corner.
An altogether different food experience can be found at Stattbad in Wedding – a great old pool which is used for exhibitions, gigs, and three-course €7 dinners (Lost in Wedding). Really.
One has triumphantly found a German equivalent of my most favourite wine of all time – coming about 80% close in taste. FYI, it’s Tohuwabohu by Markus Schneider. We’ve reaped much joy discovering German wine. The best stuff doesn’t leave the country, and I don’t think they give a stuff that they only have a rep for Riesling.
I’m not disclosing any details about this bonkers dinner. Who starts a wine list at €50 huh? The proprietor wasn’t having any of it when I suggested that they could have a broader price range (perhaps this was why they were empty on a Friday at 9pm?) Great food, but hilariously overbearing service. It was sehr witzig* regardless.
*funny = the latest addition to my vocab. Nothing like feeding off German films to improve it, or English films with DE subtitles for that matter. And the kino sure beats a classroom.
Bjork at Berlin Music Week put on a flawless performance. I heard she’d upped her game, but boy did she deliver. When the sun sets over the expanse of Templehof, it’s pretty stunning. And this might be one of your few opportunities to walk through the former airport itself which is everything I hoped it’d be and more.
The Portishead gig was far to the West in Spandau’s Zitadelle. Oh yes, they overlooked a twinning opportunity there, Bristol and Berlin are a match made in heaven!
Berlin Fashion Week: listening to the fashion bloggers bitching about each other in the lobby of Soho House. Oh you couldn’t make it up!
There are many ways you can tour and explore cities. Berlin, and now Belgrade host the brilliantly conceived B Tour festival as an “artistic strategy festival”; Rimini Protokol/Remote People‘s random intervention trail was beyond funny; and then – for want of a better term – the city’s social enterprise ‘homeless tour‘ – which sheds some light on the social welfare system and offers a totally new perspective. And it certainly reminds you that you should never get too comfortable nor complacent in life.
NSA – Teufelsburg listening posts – hot, overcast, surrounded by forest…in this climate you’re far from Europe and deep into the tropics. NSA is the ultimate Berlin ruin porn and possibly my favourite spot. It appears to be solely managed by the hippies though, and there’s no website, no info, they take money for access during opening hours they set, and seem to make up their own rules. Brilliant. I think I’m going to find my own site here.
Hallowe’en was gut!
The immersive theatre genre is always a gamble – you need to take a punt. Whilst Club Inferno, buried three courtyards in, four flights up was utterly out of this world. But the next production we tried? We practically had to climb out the window to escape – and run. And then try and find a functioning ATM in Neukölln which is still and epic challenge. Yep, cash is still king here.
Volksbühne – literally translates as ‘people’s stage’, but it’s so much more than that! Parties, subterranean drinking dens, gorgeous bars with dripping chandeliers – and that’s before you even get stuck into the quality programming. Much loved, for so many reasons and is fast turning into my living room. Germans are hardcore when it comes to culture – they didn’t flinch over the recent Einstein on the Beach opera at a paltry 4.5 hours long.
I’ve had a right old BMW binge. It started with the 7 Series on the Autobahn, Kraftwerk blasting out, nipping up to Hamburg at 240 kph, legally. Oh yeah, I enjoyed that. The BMW love-in continued with a private tour of the factory at Leipzig – there wasn’t a single bit about that factory that I didn’t LOVE. The spray robots, the almost monastic ambience to the whole place, the Zaha Hadid intervention with the ghost-like WIP car carcasses passing through…the fact that nothing on this planet can degrease a car pre-spray like a bunch of mounted ostrich feathers spun at high speed. With all this incredible tech, you still can’t top a big bird! They even have their own Ostrich farm in South Africa. Genius. And the love just continues with the car club Drive Now – amazing service design.
BAVARIA / BAYERN
Of course BMW is a king of Bayern brands. And Munich, a giant Chelsea has a lot more to offer than meets the eye. What can beat hiring a bike to hop from one biergarten to another across the vast stretch of land known as Englischer Garten (ok, this is no secret and a major pull to the city). What can beat admiring beautiful naked people (FKK) when they look this good? But what can top watching the Middle Easterners appearing from afar and wondering how this culture/car crash is going to pan out?! Yes, don’t underestimate the beauty of a Bavarian, you can tell Southerners aren’t out partying til 5am every weekend smoking themselves out.
And how utterly bizarre that you can surf right in the middle of Munich – on the river that runs through the park.
Munich‘s Haus der Kunst is one of the best art galleries I’ve ever set foot in and a surprisingly positive legacy from the Nazis. Already an incredible building but Germany’s adopted architectural darling David Chipperfield is about to work his magic on it. Every exhibition rocked here, and the Goldener Bar is a stunner. On Sundays they open up the back terrace, wheel out the cocktails, brilliant DJs and just get the party started. If you’re after more partying, Charlie is a tiny 80s throwback in club format. Excellent.
Le Lion in Hamburg: a flawless cocktail bar. In fact we enjoyed Hamburg immensely, the perfect combination of sleaze, architecture and bling – all down to the port.
Leipzig is great, an hour from Berlin. This is where the DDR began to topple, and has a great museum in the Haus in der Runde – a total pilgrimage for me. The Gewandhaus is the only DDR purpose built concert hall and has a wooden interior moulded like a chocolate bar – and only €6 a ticket for the Philharmonie. The city is stuffed with art, especially the Spinnerie. And if you think it looks a bit like Manchester you wouldn’t be wrong – it drew inspiration from our Northern industrial cities. A great restaurant in town is Stelzenhaus FYI. If you go, don’t miss the swimming pool, I learnt of it just a bit too late.
The DDR Museum just outside of Dresden is a spatial encyclopaedia of ‘stuff’ – a warehouse full of domestic, professional, sporting, industrial goods organised room set by room set. You can imagine former Easterners doing their version of the charity shop run every Sunday, turning up with bags of stuff. You certainly don’t leave feeling that they were wanting for many consumables in the DDR. But of course this is a particularly concentrated collection.
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Understanding German = a lighter wallet! I surely can’t be the first person to have weighed themselves down with a ton of coinage in the wallet. When you don’t understand your numbers you just fish out the biggest note you can find to pay for stuff. A year on, I am much lighter.
Moving on…the parents came over I took them straight to Manufactum and bumped straight into Merkel. Oh Ange, you made my Mum’s week, she could’ve gone home happy there and then. Talking of people in the public eye, it was most amusing being in the gym at Soho House working out to the real life Madonna shrieking away in the studio next door. Never quite understood why she was promoting her new gym from somewhere else but there you go, megastars work in mysterious ways.
Exploring the ‘burbs is much more fun than at home. Go West and you get one thing (British and US cold war relics and money), go East and you get something altogether different, usually a little more austere. But travel in any direction and you get lakes! Last summer we stumbled upon Schwanenwerder – an island on the Wannsee. What appears to be a distinctly wealthy and picturesque environment harbours a dark history. The Nazis wrestled these villas from the owners before commandeering them for their own application: schools for Nazi brides, homes for all the main henchmen – Goebbels and Speer. Today you can enjoy some ultra contemporary architecture nestled amongst the villas.
A dazzling memory was a recent sunny Saturday on Müggelsee, with the lake and rivers frozen solid, people ice skating…the sun setting. Wow. You can spend your life planning for the right thing on the right day, but only very occasionally do the planets align to this degree and you see something utterly memorable and magical. This is tributary off Großer Müggelsee.
We try and sustain our home grown Sunday Club. Our jaunt out to Beelitz delivered on all accounts: 60 odd derelict hospital buildings in a forest just outside the city. We clambered into a few buildings with staggeringly long corridors…and stumbled across a token porn production…in fact it turns out, this is the city’s premier porn location! It is an eternal wonder how quickly nature will take over an abandoned building. There’s a lot of quality Urbex to be enjoyed here, but of course time is ticking.
Spreepark / Planterwald is a dark and surreal former DDR amusement park. Our guide’s English was appalling, to the point of hilarity but the decrepit rides were BRILLIANT. Nothing will ever emulate the sound of the rusting Big Wheel grinding around, iron-on-iron, in the wind. Planterwald is as wild and overgrown as it gets – the ultimate horror show set with the soundscape to match.
Mushroom picking – what loot! After a seriously dull 45 minutes of looking we got on a roll and returned to town with a serious haul. Still here to tell the tale thanks to our a dear leader.
Everything they say about German Christmas markets is true – and the Weihnachts Zauber in Gendarmenmarkt is gorgeous.
And the nicht so gut? Or “Opportunities for cobblers, bar owners, aircon manufacturers and makers of hi-vis and thermal clothing”:
I’m British, so we may as well start with last year’s weather. I thought I was being clever coming out last March. I think there was one sunny day before it descended into misery right up to May. In the dead of winter with the wind howling it’s not funny being caught in the central reservation of these wide Eastern boulevards as they get the light phasing wrong again. But when the sun is out for four solid months, oh no, there aint no complainin’ then!
After 30 years of no meat passing these lips it’s accidentally happened twice in Berlin. They just find it funny : /
Customer service still isn’t what it should be. Service can still be excruciating – but I have stopped requesting the Bitsalen as soon as I order, so I must’ve noticed some improvement.
Everrrrbody smokes…put up, shut up, light up or go home. And the other death wish is cycling: the rule seems to be wear black and turn off your lights. And in a city this dark, you can’t see cyclists. No, you’ll never confuse this city for Paris, City of Lights!
I love that there are few apparent rules, but the one you cannot fail to notice is NO JAYWALKING! As a Brit, this is our god given right, but utterly, completely frowned upon here. Not that it stops me. But they do seem to accept queue jumping – it’s almost a spectacle to see it, like Olympic long-jump. I’ve grown tired of commenting.
German is really quite difficult (they said it would be easy!). The definite lowlight of learning German is Dativ : (
Not enough glamour. I’ve said it. It crept up on me – the sudden need to get dolled up like a drag queen. There are simply not enough good places to go.
Berlin Berlinale film festival booking system! You have to queue daily? And four queues in a day? No, there is a better system – it’s called online booking and a numbered seat.
You can’t argue with a good view, but when you’re on the 7th floor with no lift, after the gym, when you’re moving, after you forgot the cumin (again) it’s too much. Germans, you make good lifts, keep a few back for yourselves.
Supermarkets in Germany are curiously very different to the UK. All the branding looks at Lidl level, even when they’re much better. But hats off to Norma the supermarket, for the name alone.
General inconvenience. I’m completely used to it now, but services are not ten a penny. Finding a decent cobbler where I’m happy to leave my best Schuhs is a mission. A recommended dry cleaner doesn’t accept my ‘dry-clean only’ clothes (I still haven’t got the bottom of that one). Shops are closed Sundays, but this is plus.
The transport system! Yes, you would think German info graphics would be superlative. Well they might be, if there were any – maps are all but absent on the U/S Bahn platforms. I have no idea how tourists find their way around – somebody said it was a ‘DDR thing’. Whatever that might mean (obscurity?) that was 25 years ago now…we even have digital print. So c’mon, perhaps a map or two?
Just observations, not issues…cliches aside, it’s been the best year of my life : )
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I know I haven’t annotated the images properly.
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