It’s been 4 years since Dan and I were in Berlin and this time was no less exhilarating and totally bonkers.
We stayed with Daniel’s friend, Vikas, in Prenzlauer Berg, the former 90s-era haven for artists and current tree-lined, boutique-studded community for young parents.
We arrived Thursday evening and got down to business – tacos and beer at Maria Bonita. It’s a literal hole-in-the-wall that has really good guacamole and knows it’s party go-er demographic (it’s solely open Thursday – Sunday evenings).
From dinner, we walked through Reichsbahn-Ausbesserungs-Werk (aka RAW) a compound of grafitti-covered concrete slabs that only in a city like Berlin could be a place that you’d want to cut through late at night. Formerly a train repair station, it’s now a cluster of bars, clubs, a skatepark, and renovated bunkers.
Our destination that night was the Kreuzberg borough, lots of nightlife and rough around the edges. There’s something for everyone here: speakeasys with no signs out front, punk-metal bars with a jukebox, subterranean Latin dance halls. A personal favorite was Barbie Deinhoff’s if for no other reason than the entirely pink interior.
The next morning Dan and I joined up with a free walking tour that met at the Brandenburg Gate and covered a lot of sites such as the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, pieces of the Berlin Wall, and more. At 2.5 hours, it was packed with info!
My favorite thing to see in Berlin is the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre (Bernauer Straße 111). This open air exhibition is located at the former border strip and thoroughly illustrates the divisive history of the area. It also butts up against one of the “ghost stations”, Nordbahnhof S-Bahn metro stop. Ghost stations were closed-down and heavily guarded train stations of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines in East Berlin. The exhibition describes underground escape attempts and the border fortifications built to prevent them. You can walk around this one and it’s beyond eerie.
I love Berlin because for how cool of a city it is, it is so affordable. That night in Kreuzberg, rounds of drinks for three people were coming to totals of €5-€8! Considered one of Germany’s “least German” cities, it’s diverse and eclectic and the food is no exception. Breakfast that day was at a P-Berg cafe called AnnaBlume where I had a Greek omelette and a free library stood out front.
And later, dinner was equally as interesting. Vikas took us to Fräulein Kimchi: part Korean, part American soul food, and completely amazing! On Friday nights, they offer fried chicken and karaoke.
I chose the pulled pork and kimchi tacos and Daniel chose a burger that turned out to be the most metal thing I’ve ever seen.
That’s a black bun!
After dinner, we went back to Vikas’ apartment where he was hosting a small get-together. Since moving to Berlin, he’s made a lot of friends that come from all over the world. Dan bonded with some Swedes over The Knife, I talked to a Brazilian guy about his African excursions, and a Dubai-born British girl and I shared a bottle of prosecco. Everyone was so pleasant and it was a good thing, because they were going to be our clubbing cohorts that night.
Berlin’s notorious nightlife was something Dan and I were excited to experience again. Vikas decided Tresor would be our best chance of getting in somewhere. This club has a storied past and is set in an abandoned power plant – a labyrinth of concrete passages leading into basement vaults and industrial halls.
The key to being allowed in is to approach in small groups, speak no audible English, and look like you don’t care about getting in. Then, voila! Once you’re in, you’re let loose into a debaucherous adult playground of strobbing lights, thundering house music, and weirdos of all kinds. The next thing I knew, we were leaving at sunrise.
I would like to thank a beverage called Club Maté for always powering our trips to Berlin. It’s like Red Bull x 1,000 and the bars mix it with vodka.
We slept in all the next day and got up in time for a late lunch. Soho House Berlin has a cute boutique/cafe where we got a much needed power smoothie and I browsed clothes that cost as much as my rent.
From there, we went to have dinner in the rotating restaurant atop the TV Tower. The dishes here were pricey, but the novelty was fun.
Afterwards, we went to Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest beer garden. During the summer, people come here to drink outside in the sunshine, but on a rainy evening like ours, the great hall becomes a cozy place to have pints.
After a couple of rounds, Dan noticed someone familiar in the neighboring booth. We weren’t sure if our eyes were deceiving us, but it looked a lot like John Cusack. And he was sitting with a pretty rich and well dressed crowd. We googled why he might be there and it so happened that the Berlin Film Festival was taking place and he was there to promote a film. I wasn’t brave enough to document this encounter, but we’re satisfied with the knowing smile he gave us when we made eye contact.
Maybe it was the hair of the dog or the adrenaline from seeing a celebrity, but suddenly we felt well enough to go clubbing again. Vikas recommended about blank, a former punk squat with a very gritty attitude. The door here was tough, but luckily we made it through.
We had yet to attempt making it into Berghain, Berlin’s most world renowned club where you can enter on a Friday and leave Sunday morning if you wish. After leaving about blank around sunrise, Vikas advised that this might be our best chance, as it wasn’t peak hours and the door might be easiest. Part of Berghain’s notoriety is the door staff and the seemingly arbitrary rules they employ when deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. I’ve heard tales of successes and failures and was anxious about which side of the coin we’d get. There was a small line when we walked up so we joined them in silence. After watching two groups gain access, I was nervous again what chances are there that he’s going to let three groups in a row in? Well, not likely it turns out as he gave us a simple “no”. DENIED! Our egos bruised, we headed home. It was probably for the best we told ourselves.
Again, we woke up late the next day and immediately needed food, and a lot of it. Vikas, being the guardian angel host he was, knew just the remedy and took us to Lecker Song aka dumpling heaven. We didn’t hold back. Dan and I ordered 3 varieties each and watched with glee as the waitress walked over to our table with a tower of bamboo bowls.
Later in the evening, we went to Il Kino, a bar and 52-seat theater showing indie and art house movies. We arrived in time to partake in the vegetarian dinner buffet before the movie (Victoria, filmed in Berlin and in one take!)
On our last day, we made sure to fit in a few more German things for good measure – curry wurst and the cathedral. Berliner Dom is situated on Museum Island and is a behemoth. Vikas also pointed out the bullet holes and artillery hits that cover the columns outside one of the museums from The Battle of Berlin.
Despite two jam packed visits to Berlin, we’ve still left so many stones unturned here. The individuality and counter culture that has proliferated from what used to be an oppressed, divided society never ceases to surprise me. And the fact that so much of the city’s history happened within my lifetime makes learning about it in person all the more interesting.