Have you ever visited somewhere and instantly just clicked? Like, even if you’d never been there before, something about the place, its people, its atmosphere and its culture just resonated with you? Berlin, for me, is that place. I visited it for the first time last year, and a second trip in June confirmed that my love for it at first sight wasn’t just a passing thing.
I’d never heard anyone say anything bad about Berlin, and I’d never heard of any bad experiences. I didn’t hesitate then, when some pals told me they were booking tickets for Deftones in November 2015, to get in on the action. It helped my enthusiasm that I hadn’t actually had a holiday abroad since I went to Prague for my 21st (enthusiasm or, y’know, recklessness, because who books tickets without considering the travel or expense part of it). We booked a hotel, looked up things to do, even managed to squeeze in five days of holiday in between bridesmaid duties for my girl Bee and my Master’s graduation. So far, so perfect, no?
Well, as it turns out, you can’t plan for an unexpected tragedy. Four days before we were due to fly out, terrorists stormed the Eagles of Death Metal gig at the Bataclan- where Deftones were due to play two days later. The day before, we got the news that they’d cancelled their European tour to fly back home. Obviously understandable, and completely outwith anyone’s control. We swayed over whether to go or not and decided just to go for it. It had been a pretty hectic few months and we knew we’d regret it if we didn’t go. As it turns out, as much as there was a slight shadow over the trip, it was the best decision we could’ve made… so much so that when Deftones rescheduled halfway through our first trip, we knew we’d be back.
Where’d Ye Stay?
On our first trip, we stayed in a pension in the upmarket district of Charlottenburg. In all honesty we booked it because it looked like a silent movie set, but there were certain amenities we could’ve done with: I don’t mind not having a TV in a hotel room- my German isn’t “following a conversation” standards- but a kettle would’ve been nice. It was a beautiful building, and we even encountered a film crew on our first couple of mornings, but probably more popular with people who know the area well.
For our return visit, we stayed in a Best Western along the Kurfürstendamm stretch. It was pretty much what you’d expect- modern, clean, comfortable and, yes, with a kettle. Kurfürstendamm was an affluent suburb of West Berlin when the city was divided, and a walk around any part of the stretch reveals an abundance of amazing architecture. It was maybe a wee bit commercial for our tastes, but if you’re a newbie to the city it’s a pretty good base to start from.
There’s lots of public transport links to take you to different points around the city (seriously, going back to First Bus and the clockwork orange is the saddest thing after riding the rails in Germany). Plus, if shopping’s your thing, you’re pretty spoiled for choice, with department stores and designer shops up and down the length of the stretch. It’s also pretty reasonable for hotel prices, and bar/restaurant tabs aren’t as exorbitant as you might think- even more impressive when you consider that Berlin’s the capital. However, if I were to make another visit, I’d probably be more inclined to look east.
I spent most of my Prague visit eating cheese rolls I’d made up from our hotel’s breakfast buffet, and worried that Berlin might be similarly meat-heavy. Food wise, the country is synonymous with sausage and beer, and I prepared myself for a week of snacks. Turns out I was wrong in the respect: I dunno if it’s because it’s the capital, but there is a huge vegan/vegetarian movement there. Even restaurants that cater to carnivores still have an impressive veggie selection. For all its tourist trappings, Kurfürstendamm has a good selection for the cautious traveller: L’Osteria is a chain, but does some a pretty damn good Italian at decent prices, and their pizzas actually need to be seen to be believed. Seriously. Plus they won points for giving us free bread AND pizza bread due to the wait for our main courses.
To be honest we didn’t visit a lot of sit down restaurants either time (because we be broke) but there’s plenty of opportunities to pick up something on the go. I don’t mind Krispy Kreme but I’ll never be the type to queue outside the store waiting for it to open, and I’ve disappointed by them more than I’ve been impressed. Berlin, though? They go old school with Dunkin’ Donuts. We used to have ’em over here- I even remember there being one in Cumbernauld ASDA- but apparently we can’t have nice things. After sampling several I can confirm that they beat any krispy imposters hands down.
Elsewhere there are tonnes of little cafes and backereis serving up all manner of slutty baked treats (German bread has pretty much ruined all bread for me. Even a roll I got IN THE AIRPORT was better than a Tesco’s meal deal). The further east you go, you’re likely to find fewer big chains and more specialist delis and local fare. If you’re off the beaten track, venture off it some more and you’ll find loads of places like Weinblatt. Located in grungey Kreuzberg, it’s a toaty wee deli but don’t let its size fool you. The seating area is all plush chairs and candelight, and it does an amazing array of veggie (and meaty) goodness.
The real ace for me though? Currywurst. It’s something I’d never even consider eating at home. The sauce is pretty much curry powder and ketchup, which sounds like the kind of shit your mum would boke at if you sent her a picture of your cupboards pre-student loan. Plus the sausage thing. However, it’s admittedly pretty difficult to walk past a currywurst kiosk without salivating. My prayers were answered when we discovered Curry At The Wall which sold- yup- VEGAN CURRYWURST. It sounds like the rankest thing ever. Somehow though, it just tastes so right. And also rum mulled wine. Definitely a welcome pick-me-up after two hours in the Topography Of Terror museum learning about the history of the SS.
We Be Drankin’
Berlin is renowned for its party atmosphere, and yeah, it’s pretty popular for the stag and hen do crowd. We didn’t quite make it to the infamous Berghain, even after prowling numerous websites and forums for tips on how to get in. To be fair, on our first visit it was just two of us, and on our return we only had two nights, so we made the most of what we had. The nightlife in Kurfürstendamm wasn’t quite as wild as I’d imagined Berlin to be, but we found a couple of decent spots. The Monkey Bar, on the tenth floor of the 25h Hotel, is trendier (and pricier) than I’d normally go for. But even I can’t say no to a jungle-themed rum bar with 360 degree views of the skyline. It gets pretty packed and draws an upscale artsy crowd, but people just sit in clusters on the floor on cushions. However, if you venture outside there’s seating all around the building which you can sit and take in for ages.
On our first night, back in November, we ventured for the aforementioned Irish Bar since it was the only place on the main drag that was open late. Not the most authentically German choice, natch, and it was pretty bizarre being in a pub on the ground floor of a shopping mall. Still a more Irish experience than a night in an O’Neill’s, though.
So we didn’t stop by it at summer time, but we followed Tiergarten up to Potsdamer Platz where we found a Christmas market in full swing. Annoyingly the rest of them didn’t open until the week after our trip, so we got wired into the rum mulled wine to retain some seasonal spirit. Because Christmas. It’s not cheap, and yeah it’s still a pretty touristy area, but drinking outside with the smell of gingerbread and candy floss in the air sure beats the one at St. Enoch’s.
The east side offers a grungier vibe: Kreuzberg in particular has an edgy, alternative punk air about it, as well as being home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey. It’s also home to the flourishing young gay scene- I’ve never seen so many same sex couples walking around holding hands, with nary a negative comment. It’s just one more reason to love the city, although sadly we didn’t have time to experience any of its scenes. We took a trip to Neukölln to visit Das Gift, a cosy little dive with a distinctly Scottish vibe.
It’s actually owned by Barry Burns from Mogwai, and you’ll find Buckfast bottles on the gantry and a sneaky wee room in the back where you can sit on threadbare sofas and smoke like the old days. It busies up real fast though and be warned- I’d forgotten how much you actually drink when you’re not going outside to smoke. Their cocktails include the ‘Jim Jarmusch’ and apparently they also had weekly screenings of Game Of Thrones. I’m also a little gutted that I never got to try their macaroni cheese…
TL;DR Pro Tips
Our experience of Berlin bars was embarrassingly minimal because we were staying pretty far from the kind of places we’d normally go. Head east for a more hedonistic DIY vibe, and remember that all around the city places open later than we do here.
You can buy transport passes at the airport for either 48 or 72 hours or up to a week, allowing access to trains, trams and undergrounds. It’s rare that you’ll get asked to present it, but the one time we did see conductors they were built like bears so maybe have it just in case.
Weather wise it’s not that different to yer typical Scottish winter, but hit nearly 30 degree heat in summer… so be prepared.
Most people in central Berlin (and the more tourist-y spots) speak better English than 80% of the British population, but we tried to make some effort at least. Ally asked for my wine in German when we went to Weinblatt and I’m pretty sure it got bumped from a medium to a large.