Berlin. Really, where to start? Has any other place been so written into the fabric of the last century; so buffeted by history, culture and conflict? From the Great War to the Cold War, to being a key player in the EU; across opera, early film and surrealist art, to minimal techno and warehouse raves, the German capital has rarely stepped out of the spotlight on the world’s stage.
And that spotlight has lit up some dark times certainly, but there’s far, far more to the place than memorial plaques and politics. To live in Berlin today is to be within the most vibrant space in Europe – a city in a constant state of flux and abuzz with creativity. There are good reasons why so many respected artists and musicians have fled this way in decades past, keen to experience the artistic atmosphere of the former West Berlin; in one part, the sonic influence of Kraftwerk and the Krautrock music scene, and in the other the sheer decadence, debauchery and nihilism of areas in the West that had been sliced in two by the Berlin Wall. Everyone from David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, to Depeche Mode, Peaches, U2, Bloc Party and DJ Paul Van Dyk has lived or recorded here, and taken musical inspiration from its unique historic and cultural offering.
Berlin has a vibrant student population of over 160,000, and it’s easy to see why – compared with other major global cities the rent is low and the living is cheap… and the Friday nights regularly stretch through to Monday. “In Berlin, you never have to stop”, wrote the New York Times recently, and for many that’s the city’s great problem – the sheer difficulty in finding time to get anything else done amid all of the wonderful distractions.
A stroll around Berlin
Heck, just venturing down the street without getting waylaid is something of an achievement, in a city with this many bars, venues and performance areas clamouring for your attention. Lively, varied and generally low-cost are very much the keywords here. There’s a grittiness throughout that’s a large part of the city’s charm, and a laid-back and easy nature that can come as quite a shock to those used to the pretensions found in many other European capitals.
As for where to go, well – Berlin’s best spots don’t tend to scream for attention. Often just following the buzz on the street can work, or looking out for queues outside of nondescript office buildings (current top club Weekend hides within the 15th floor of an Alexanderplatz tower block, with no signs or velvet ropes to be seen). Failing that, the listings at Tip and Zitty can be pretty invaluable in a city this restless for constant reinvention.
But for sheer history, little beats Kreuzberg’s legendary punk club SO36 – formerly the heart of the city’s anarchist squat culture and still a highly-politicised centre for the Berlin music scene, it’s a perfect nexus of impassioned volume and decades-old sweat that hosts established names and new blood alike.
And then there’s the Berghein/Panorama Bar, regularly feted as the best club in the world and certainly Berlin’s most famous; housed within a former power station, it’s a sprawling and imposing warehouse complex of pitch-black alcoves and steel gantries and a nightmarishly inscrutable door policy. Still, once inside the parties last for days, and the Panorama Bar – so named for the view afforded from its shutters when they’re raised at daybreak – often puts on mid-level bands within its phenomenal space.
The sounds of Berlin
Former 1950s cinema venue The Lido remains a firm favourite amongst Berliners, championing guitar music and upcoming Berlin bands with its Saturday night Karrera Klub and maintaining an innovative list of bookings from across the local and international avant-garde and alternative scenes, while Friedrichschain’s relative newcomer Urban Spree houses an art gallery, concert hall, studio spaces and food truck, with an emphasis upon low-fi and experimental music and noise.
At the other end of the scale, the Olympiastadion, known globally as the stadium which hosted the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games during Hitler’s reign, puts on massive shows in striking surroundings by artists such as Genesis, U2, Madonna and Depeche Mode, while the Waldbühne, or woodland stage, emulates a Greek amphitheatre and has hosted classic performances by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Gabrielle, Metallica and Muse. The Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide, another amphitheatre, is a mainstay of the summer festival calendar hosting acts including Arctic Monkeys, Pearl Jam, German metal band Rammstein, and BIMM’s own graduate George Ezra, while the Zitadelle Spandau – a stunningly preserved High Renaissance fortress – has rocked to the sounds of Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails, The Pogues and more.
As for areas, much of the alternative scene is focused upon Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain in the grungy, gritty east, with the cafes dark, the bars loud, and the vibe laid-back and inclusive. Those seeking a more established mainstream should head to Prenzlauer Berg, Spandauer Vorstadt or Schoneberg, where the neon’s brighter, the bars are smarter and the clientele more on-trend. And when you’re done with dancing or moshing, there’s always the cheap cinema on Tuesdays and the abandoned theme parks and National Security Agency (NSA) listening stations that dot the edges, not to mention the hundreds of world-class galleries and museums, from the East Side Gallery to the incredible Pergamonmuseum – many of which are free on Thursdays.
And then suddenly it’s the weekend again. Like we said, getting stuff done is going to be hard.
HAVE YOU SEEN OUR ’24 HOUR GUIDE TO BERLIN’ YET?
To celebrate the launch of BIMM Berlin we challenged a group of local creative professionals and students, led by recent graduate Bahar Dopran, to explore Berlin and have as much fun as possible. Tough job but somebody had to do it. Read Bahar’s guide to enjoying the best of Berlin – in 24 hours here.