The Mole Diaries: Berlin

Berlin by mathias is analogue

This article was written by Caitlin Hardee, published on 12th April 2011 and has been read 22058 times.

Caitlin is majoring in German at Whitman College, and chose Berlin for her year abroad, drawn to the city's music scene and vibrant cultural life. Here is her insider report on the German metropolis.
As I write this, I’m perched on a kitchen counter in my Berlin apartment, looking down into the inner courtyard. I live with three friends in a vast, decrepitly beautiful flat on the top floor of an apartment building in Neukölln, the rough-edged, down-at-the-heels, multicultural melting pot district of Berlin. We don’t have a single chair in the apartment, but we have lots of broken stools and enormous, squashy pillows. It’s a good place to write, and think. Berlin is a city that draws in wild dreamers and romantics. Artists, students and revolutionaries have always come to Berlin, with the city offering countless opportunities and experiences to all. Once you are in Berlin, nothing else matters. The city is flat. You don’t see mountains. You don’t see oceans. You are in the center of the universe. Berlin is all there is. If lust for travel should strike you, you wander and gather experiences, and then rush back to Berlin and wonder why you ever left such a beautiful city. It’s hard to explain Berlin’s appeal. Its mayor once famously said, “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” – Berlin is poor, but sexy. That means it’s easy to live cheaply and well, for those who have some money, even for the young and bohemian, but there are many who struggle under the weight of high unemployment and tensions between ethnic groups. Nonetheless, the city is vibrantly alive. Once you’re here, the average study abroad program is going to leave you a lot of time in which to party and enjoy yourself. One nice thing about Berlin – you could literally go to a different bar, club or concert every single night. However, you have to start somewhere. So without further ado – my breakdown of Berlin’s options for having fun and finding your feet.

Finding an apartment

If you’re staying for a longer period of time and aren’t living in program-designated housing, you will have to embark on the great adventure that is finding an apartment in Berlin. If you want to move in with Germans, try WG, or search the site for apartments that are “unmöbiliert” (unfurnished) if you want to find one for yourself and/or your friends without dealing with a German sub-leaser. If you’re moving into a German WG, be prepared to go through the interview process. You can’t just look online, it involves a lot of legwork, traveling all over the city and meeting the tenants, who are infamously picky about who they choose. Good strategies: be confident and friendly, tell cool stories, ask questions, and have attractive qualities to bring to the WG such as playing guitar or cooking. There is a host of websites devoted to giving advice for conquering this interview process – if you’re going that route, look into it. Alternately, you can hire an agent to find you an apartment, whether single or for multiple people. It will cost a lot of money but save you time. My friends and I undertook the search ourselves, for an unfurnished four-person apartment, for our less than a full year stay (a big complicating factor). Took us a while, but eventually we found our beautiful digs in Neukölln. Once you have a place to live, you may have to deal with things like acquiring contracts for electricity and the internet. Some people will tell you it’s not possible to find these things for less than a year, but they are uninformed. You can get cheap, open-ended contracts for power with Vattenfall, and cheap open-ended internet with Alice. Alice takes about a month to come install the internet, but in the interim you can buy a monthly USB internet stick from O2, or use those as a long term internet solution if you don’t mind the higher expense.

Fashion Tips

One great thing about Berlin is its open-minded approach to fashion. This is not a city like Paris and is free from designer snobbery, as you will see a lot of interesting street and alternative style. However, there are some fashion guidelines to keep in mind. Firstly, if you’re a girl, stock up on H&M tights and/or leggings when you get into the city. German girls do not show their legs, not even when clubbing. I’ve yet to spend the hottest months of summer in the city, so we’ll see if more skin appears, but generally if you go clubbing with bare legs, you will be the only one in sight doing so. Tights and leggings are a must. Heels are unnecessary, everyone wears flats and boots. The Berliners are stylish but fairly pragmatic with their dressing, so what would be normal for going out in the States looks over-the-top in Berlin. Both guys and girls – buy nice sneakers, not American style running-shoe ‘sneakers,’ but a local style of Reebok or Converse. Do not wear running shoes unless you are running. Boots are ubiquitous and another good solution to footwear, especially in cold winter months. For winter – don’t bother bringing lots of bulky winter clothing with you from home, just buy one or two warm winter coats once you’re in the city. Lots of scarves are also helpful – all Berliners wear some kind of fabric wrapped around their throat pretty much all the time, regardless of gender and weather, it’s just a necessary part of the outfit.

Shopping

Aside from the much-vaunted Ku-damm with KaDeWe, where most people go to window-shop (but not actually buy anything), if you’re looking for an American-style mall with lots of normal shopping options, there are malls at Rathaus Neukölln, Rathaus Steglitz, and one at Alexanderplatz called Alexa, as well as boutiques all over the city.

Outdoors

If you’re of the bicycle-inclined persuasion, used bikes can be cheaply acquired at the weekly Flohmarkt am Mauerpark every Sunday. The Mauerpark itself is a beautiful attraction – still crowned with a preserved bit of the Berlin wall in wild graffiti-painted glory, it hosts massive open-air karaoke sessions and the huge flea market, where you can find everything from old maps and books to working Polaroid cameras and vinyl LPs. Once you have your bike, you can commute around the city, exercise and enjoy the great outdoors. Or you can hop on the public transit and check out the following beautiful outdoor locations.

BerlinVolkspark Friedrichshain: Unspeakably lovely in the autumn, as the leaves are changing. You can wander the paths in here and forget you’re in a world city.

Tempelhof Airport: The abandoned airport at Tempelhof is always nice for a weekend Spaziergang. Families and couples walk the old tarmac, people fly kites, and windskaters make use of the long runways to get some great momentum.

Schlachtensee: Beautiful lake in West Berlin. You can rent boats, walk around the lake, go swimming, grab ice cream, etc. The water’s cold in spring, but with a little grit it can be enjoyable.

Treptower Park: Definitely a must-see. Treptower has the breathtaking, emotively designed Soviet Memorial, and an abandoned DDR-era amusement park. The park is closed, but it’s easy to climb the fence and explore with the old rides and toppled dinosaur statues for company.

Tiergarten:  Vast tree-filled park centrally located near the Reichstag and Brandenburger Tor. Nice to wander through the main sights in Mitte and then out into the trees. The Siegessäule is in the heart of the park.

Food

As Berlin is a world city, you can eat just about anything here, from traditional German food (boring) to Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian, Turkish – pretty much everything under the sun. It’s easy to be vegetarian. You can find good and cheap coffee in every corner Spätkauf (convenience store). Four bits of advice – do not buy alcohol at the Spätkauf, it’s overpriced. Plan ahead and buy it at a grocery store. Do not buy eggs or fruit at sketchy cheap grocery stores like Netto – my friend once found a Netto egg that was partially hatched and sporting feathers. If you’re craving good Mexican food, go to Dolores, near Alexanderplatz, for truly orgasmic burritos. And lastly, the best pretzels in Berlin are at the Ditsch stand in Friedrichstraße Bahnhof. Incredibly cheap (65 cents currently) and always fresh, warm, and very salty.

Clubbing and bars

Kulturbrauerei: Located in Prenzlauer Berg, the Kulturbrauerei is a good place to start your entry-level clubbing experience in Berlin and work up to speed. These are pretty average clubs. Frannz and Soda both play a mix of house and Top 40 and you will always be able to get in, provided you have ID. Frannz often provides cover discounts for student IDs, so bring those, but many clubs in Berlin will not accept a student ID alone as a valid Ausweis, and will demand to see a passport. Soda has Ladies’ Night most Fridays – free cover and three free drinks for all females, provided you get there before midnight.

Weinerei Forum: Also located in Prenzlauer Berg, the Weinerei Forum is a winery and restaurant frequented by students and foreigners. Theoretically, you can pay 2 euros at the beginning, drink as much wine and eat as much food as you want, and then pay what you think it’s worth at the end. In practice, most people abuse this system, and so the staff are aggressive and unfriendly, and the place is crowded. Pregaming at someone’s apartment is generally more fun.

Ostbahnhof Clubs: Near Ostbahnhof, we have Fritz Club and Maria. Berghain is also in this general area, but its status as number one club in the world warrants its own section. Fritz is housed in the former train station near the current Ostbahnhof, known as Postbahnhof. The building is also a great concert venue, but is primarily a dance club with several floors catering to Top 40, electronic, etc. The atmosphere is generally a notch above the Kulturbrauerei, and entry is still cheap and easy. The one drawback is that they deliberately hold the dancefloor to the temperature of a sauna, so you overheat in no time and have to spend lots of money at the bar cooling off. Maria is one rung higher on the Berlin scene; located on the Spree and well known for quality electronic music with a chill vibe.

Tresor: This place is insane. A former powerplant (feels more like a former dungeon or prison), the club is laid out like a labyrinth, with most of the levels underground, and an impenetrable maze of twisting passages. Trying to find the exit while drunk is always a challenge. The bathrooms are down in the lower levels and look like cells, the walls are rough and industrial. Altogether a completely awesome vibe. They play hardcore electronic music and have a great light show. Entry is expensive, generally over 10 euros. Nonetheless, the experience is better than the cheaper clubs at Kulturbrauerei.

Berghain: Berghain is the most legendary of Berlin’s clubs, frequently ranked at number one in the world by DJs (see olddjmag). The club is huge, the music is top-notch, the people hand-selected to maintain the club’sBerghain by antennereputation. It’s notoriously difficult to get in. Unlike most exclusive clubs, dressing up is the wrong move – the doormen look for experienced, chill, sober people who seem to be there for the music and belong in the scene, and turn away anyone who is loud, in a large group, drunk, overdressed, or otherwise offends their wire-tuned sensibilities. The party goes from midnight until afternoon the following day, all weekend long. Only for people who don’t mind waiting, are prepared to be rejected, and genuinely want to experience amazing techno music.

Watergate: Watergate is also famous and exclusive, but follows the more traditional ‘dress-up-and-look-nice’ standards for getting in. The big draw of Watergate is a beautifully designed lounge with vast windows overlooking the Spree, so it’s often best to do your hardcore partying and dancing somewhere else and come late to Watergate for a few drinks and to watch the sun rise. Some hardcore partiers make a circuit of the garden-variety clubs, hit Watergate at dawn, and then go to Berghain to party into late morning and afternoon.

Cake: Cake is a chill, tiny little place near Kottbusser Tor, half bar and half retro club. The music is a funky blend from the fifties and sixties, and is actually really fun for dancing. This place is uncomfortably packed and smoky on Saturday nights – best time to come is on a Wednesday or Thursday, when there aren’t so many people and there’s no entry charge. The décor is psychedelic and bright, the drinks are delicious (try a G&T or their lurid blue Slutty American shots) and it’s a good place to relax and chat with friends.

Rosis: Rosis is about halfway between the S-Bahn stations of Warschauer Straße and Ostkreuz. This place rocks. Sometimes they host small concerts, mostly it’s a club and bar. You can walk right by it without realizing it’s there – the entry is hidden in a large stretch of graffitied walls and decrepit buildings. The whole place has a wonderful, grungy vibe – overstuffed couches in every corner, a yellow, wildly spray-painted phone booth randomly standing near the bar, and an outdoor area with more couches under a vast pavillion. One room plays standard dance music, the other usually hosts a DJ spinning hardcore. Cool vibe. Entry is cheap.

Zapata: Zapata is another place on the order of small chill quasi-club-bar thing. Housed in the Kunsthaus Tacheles complex in Mitte (perhaps endangered, as the artists finally lost the long battle to protect Tacheles), Zapata isCaitlin and a friend, Fritz Club dark, grungy, and a better place for meeting cool people, talking and drinking than dancing.

Zu mir oder zu dir: Yet another in the Cake-Rosis-Zapata family – Zu mir oder zu dir is small, smoky, and rad. Dancing does not happen here, although they have an in-house DJ spinning pretty good electronic regularly. The interior design is a blend of retro and futuristic furnishings, with wacky couches, great art on the walls, and a strangely molded DJ booth with banks of old TVs. Good place to recline, drink, and talk with friends.

Shisha bars: Two great places if you like smoking hookah – Alhamra and Kleopatra. Alhamra is located in Prenzlauer Berg and is a definite win on the food front – other than drinks and hookah, they serve the most divine hummus and falafel plates. Kleopatra is in Mitte, and has a fun vibe – if the upstairs is crowded, ask for the basement. We once started a dance party down there with some German chicks. With both places, if you’re coming with a large group, making a reservation is definitely wise.

Schiffparty: Located on a boat on the Spree in the vicinity of the Universal building/Oberbaumbrücke, the Schiffparty is a weekly gathering on Wednesday nights for international students, and can be a great place to meet cool people.

Concert venues

Berlin hosts an insane amount of concerts, both from German and international artists. If you have any interest in live music, you’d be crazy not to make the most of it in Berlin. Check your favourite artists’ tour plans regularly, and also get in the habit of browsing the websites of Berlin’s main venues to see who’s coming up. One great website lists every single artist coming to Berlin for the next year or so, in alphabetical order, with date and venue: Konzertkarten. A rundown of some venues:

Columbiadamm venues:
Located near the U-Bahn station at Platz der Luftbrücke, the Columbiadamm venues are a complex of concert spaces variously known as the Crystal Club, C-Club, Columbiahalle, and C-Halle. The smallest, the Crystal Club, is a tiny stage barely removed from the floor, in front of which people lounge in beach chairs and languidly watch acts like Icelandic pop singer Hafdís Huld. The medium-sized Columbiahalle is about the size of a House of Blues – think acts like All Time Low – and has a lovely, old-style theater interior framing the stage. The C-Halle is largest, and hosts big pop and electronic acts, or multi-act events like Fest van Cleef.

Astra Kulturhaus: Located right by the Warschauer Straße S-Bahn station. Nice, medium-sized venue, great sound. Saw the German pop-rock outfit Juli play there.

Lido: Small concert space, expect to see mostly local artists here. Located near Schlesisches Tor U-Bahnhof, not far from Watergate and the Oberbaumbrücke.

Magnet & Comet Clubs: Also located right off the Oberbaumbrücke, these two clubs share a complex and sometimes host concerts – Magnet generally offers rock acts, Comet tends to have more electronic gigs. Magnet has a reputation as being ausländerfeindlich, or xenophobic – give them no reason to deny you entrance. No joke – I went to this place with a pre-purchased concert ticket and my driver’s license and student ID, and was denied entry on grounds of not having my passport with me. Rude security company hired as door staff. The sound and vibe inside the club are generally praised, just come prepared.

Festsaal Kreuzberg: This is a nice little concert hall with a beautiful layout and bar. Located near Kottbusser Tor. Finding it can be a little tricky as about a zillion streets come off the Kottbusser Tor Bahnhof, just ask for directions.

Waldbühne & O2 Arena: 
These are probably Berlin’s largest concert venues – the massive O2 Arena between Ostbahnhof and Warschauer Straße, and the open-air Waldbühne on the outskirts of West Berlin. Both are well-designed concert spaces and generally host only massive, international acts that can afford them, which means, most of the time you won’t be going to these venues. Watch the other venues to catch more artists and for cheaper tickets.

Travel

Although Berlin is the best city in the world and you’ll probably just want to stay there forever, your year abroad is a great time to pack in lots of travelling. Berlin is in the centre of Europe, so you can go pretty much everywhere for cheap fares, from the UK to Turkey and down to Northern Africa. Easyjet, Ryanair, and Swoodoo are all great sites for finding cheap flights. Book a couple months in advance, and you’ll get dirt cheap prices to all kinds of awesome destinations. Personal recommendation – Istanbul. After living in Berlin for a while with the strong Turkish cultural influence, travelling to Istanbul will be highly interesting. The city is incredibly beautiful, has great architecture and food, and you can get amazing flight steals. Going during the off-peak season (the March gap between university semesters is a good time) will also get you better deals on lodging. We stayed in the Sultan Hostel, a cheap place with delicious free breakfasts mere blocks from the Hagia Sofia. Other travel tips – trains can be good options, but are often expensive. Buses run between Berlin and lots of other European cities, and while times are restrictive, the prices are often good, check Berlinlinienbus. Organized carpooling with strangers is also safe and widely practiced in Germany, you can arrange rides over Mitfahrgelegenheit. For accommodation, look up hostels in advance on Hostelworld or join the world’s largest Couchsurfing community.

Photos, unless otherwise stated, by Caitlin Hardee 

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