Berlin: Europe’s Capital of Cool
As European capitals go, Berlin is not of the variety that plays by the rules. Yes, there is a certain grandiosity to the famed Brandenburg Gate which once divided East from West. And yes, there are the impressive, if de rigueur, monuments and buildings that have survived Berlin’s war-torn past. But at its core, today’s Berlin is an undeniably contemporary city brash enough to unabashedly describe itself as “poor, but sexy” in a recent marketing campaign.
While history pulses through East Berlin’s bullet-scarred buildings and the city’s sprawling network of arteries and veins, the beating heart of Berlin is very of the moment. So much so in fact that the Berlin of today appears to have almost been magically plopped down on top of the coarse rubble of history it now so brilliantly defies. Once best known for its buttoned up rigidity, Berlin is now a bastion of creative expression populated by “all the other kids in their pumped up kicks” who have in large part eschewed materialism in favor of leading simpler lives and having one helluva good time along the way. The latter is a seminal quality that has gone a long way toward cementing Berlin’s reputation as the party capital of Europe—a place where anything goes and it’s always good.
To say that nightlife in Berlin outshines the best of what the rest of Europe has to offer would be to woefully underestimate the way in which Berliners have co-opted the progressively sexual, artistically vibrant atmosphere that was not so very long ago the province of all of “the Continent” as it once referred. Berliners aren’t just social, they’re über-social—and not in the pretentious sort of way that is more the norm in New York or London or Paris.
Every night of the week Berlin comes alive with Vernissage events, fashion happenings and nightclubs that roar until dawn and beyond. In tandem with the scene, there are of course the usual doormen, bouncers, queues and even the occasional velvet rope— the difference in Berlin is that all those barriers are meant to keep the genuinely cool people in and the pretenders and superficial show-offs out. You see, Berliners take pride in their city and its culture, and as a result they’re not much impressed by flash or artifice. Looking the part won’t get you in the door of the places you want to go in this town, but being the genuine article will. Coolness and intellectualism trump attitude and designer drag in Berlin, so prepare yourself accordingly if you really want to get into the sublimely alternative, slightly subversive rhythm of the city.
Berlin’s multiple personalities are reflected in the city’s neighborhoods. To understand the city and get into the flow of things, you need to understand the vibe of Berlin’s communities and what to expect of each. Here’s a cheat sheet:
Mitte: Located East, Mitte is undoubtedly the king of cool at the moment as far as neighborhoods go. Bars are packed with locals, the streets are lined with boutiques of the most au courant names in fashion (old and new) and the cafés and restaurants offer some of the best eats in Berlin. [Hint: Beware the doormen at some of the bars favored by locals in this area—they don’t take kindly to arrogant American schtick—so make blending in your modus operandi.]
Prenzlauerberg: I had been warned that Prenzlauerberg had become a tad too gentrified for some Berlin hipsters, but I’m disavowing that notion by saying that I think the neighborhood still has its fair share of charms. It’s certainly not as edgy as Mitte or Kreuzberg, and there seem to be fewer bars and more yuppies with strollers these days, but it’s still a lovely place for a meal, an afternoon walk or a long conversation over coffee—and those are sometimes the makings of the perfect day. After all, who wants to be ‘on’ all the time? Sometimes you need to flip the switch, and this is the perfect place to do it.
Schöneberg: This is the traditionally gay part of town. On and around the major artery that is Eisenacher Street, you’ll find Berlin’s still-thriving gayborhood, chock-full of cruisy restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and bars.
Kreuzberg: It’s a little rough around the edges, but Kreuzberg is a melting pot of Berliners from all straits and probably home to the most alternative scene in Berlin at the moment. It’s funky, it’s pointed and it’s the perfect playground for folks drawn to the kind of raw energy of neighborhoods like the East Village in New York before it became all the rage.
The Hot Spots
Berghain: If you can get into this club, you’re in for one wild ride that could go on for days. It’s black and it’s white, it’s up and it’s down, it’s straight and it’s gay and it’s every bubbly confection that Katy Perry could ever dream up, with a dirty, sexy, no-holds-barred hard-partying edge, the likes of which are unparalleled. Beware the bouncer, don’t go at peak times, don’t dress up in your Sunday best and don’t try to bribe the doormen or you’ll never get in. Best time to arrive: 7 a.m. on Saturday—that’s when the party really kicks into high gear.
Weekend: On Sunday nights, this club in Mitte is the place to be. Three floors and a rooftop are jam-packed with Berlin party boys grooving to the sounds of world-class DJs until 7 a.m., when the party spills out onto the street and the stark reality of Monday arrives.
[Note: As mentioned above, Schöneberg is the gay mecca of Berlin and as such is ideal for bar-hopping, cruising or just generally being as gay as you want to be. Hafen is the oldest watering hole in the gayborhood and still one of the more popular. However, on my last visit, I discovered a charming new bar called Soap that’s definitely worth a cocktail or two as well if you happen to pass by.]
Among Berlin’s many great assets is its accessible public transportation system, which makes getting around the city a relatively breezy affair. Taxis are also plentiful and inexpensive, so that’s an added bonus. Still, because Berlin’s neighborhoods have such defined personalities, you might want to carefully choose the one you retreat to during your stay accordingly.
The Hotel Amano in Mitte is a beacon for the neighborhood’s hipsters and those who hope to get frisky with them. While the hotel itself is modern and minimalist chic along the lines of what I like to call the “W Hotel aesthetic,” added flourishes like a rooftop bar overlooking East Berlin where pretty Berliners congregate and commingle over strong cocktails, a Zen back garden patio where Korean BBQs are hosted weekly, a bustling lobby and a handsomely staffed, always-busy bar make Hotel Amano the place to meet and be seen in the trendiest part of town. Another big selling point is the hotel’s proximity to some of the best shopping in Berlin along Mulackstrasse and the city’s artsy self-proclaimed “little Soho” area.
Dramatically different but equally beguiling is the old-world elegance of the Ritz-Carlton Berlin. Located at Potsdamer Platz, the sparkling ultramodern new 21st century business center of Berlin where big corporations are headquartered and luxury hotels and retailers abound, the Ritz-Carlton Berlin serves up the unique brand of luxury and high-end service that has become synonymous with the brand. The rooms are spacious and equipped with every imaginable convenience and the hotel’s very French Brasserie Desbrosses and Desbrosses Terrace offer a memorable experience in and of themselves (make special note of the Ritz-Carlton’s Sunday Brunch—that is, if you wake up early enough to partake). The hotel bar is also the perfect place for clandestine business meetings or a quiet drink when you need a break from the whirl of nightlife in the city.
A cozier experience awaits at the Ackselhaus Berlin, a boutique hotel in trendy Prenzlauerberg where the rooms are just about as individual as you’ll find elsewhere. Each of the hotel’s suites has a unique theme related to a country or a mood. I stayed in the multi-room Africa suite, where I was nearly spoiled to ruin by everything from the walk-in closet, atmospheric bathtub, iPod-compatible music systems and multiple flat screen televisions, among other amenities. Other suites include a China suite, a Safari suite and a Cairo suite, and each is designed to impress. Best of all, Ackselhaus Berlin offers all of the above and the swagger and luxe of a five-star hotel for under 200 euros a night. A bargain and a treat—does it get any better?
Berlin has one of the most exciting fashion scenes in the world at the moment, so you would be remiss if you didn’t explore the surprising number of designers who have set up shop in Berlin and offer stellar designs at prices that won’t make you flinch. Best bets include “little Soho,” Mulackstrasse and Gipsstrasse in Mitte, Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg and the Berlin Fashion Network, where you’ll find fashions by a collective of innovative Berlin-based designers.
If you’re looking for the exception rather than the rule when it comes to European capitals or if you just want to have one wicked twister of a holiday, Berlin may well be calling your name. Eat, play, shop and play some more in Europe’s new capital of cool. And if you haven’t yet discovered Berlin, don’t worry about being late to the party, because in Berlin the party never stops and neither does the fun.
Find out more about Berlin at visitberlin.de.