Germany’s capital has a smorgasbord of after-dark offerings and cultural delights, be they outdoor, underground or alternative. Seth Sherwood gets the lowdown on Berlin’s famed nightlife and art scene.
“Divine decadence, darling!” That famous catch-phrase from Cabaret should be stamped on the licence plate of every vehicle in Berlin, a strong contender for the title of most decadent city in Europe. It’s a place where everyone on the street – from students to socialites – seems to be carrying an open bottle of beer. It’s a city where the myriad bars and clubs rarely have official closing times (or cover charges) and the U-Bahn underground train system stays open all night on weekends to ferry home the final stragglers. Better still, it’s a city with a smorgasbord of after-dark offerings – upscale, outdoor, underground, alternative – catering to every taste and proclivity.
Then there are the city’s cultural delights: you can scarcely hurl a bratwurst in Berlin without hitting an artwork or artist. Some 180 museums, several gallery districts and an ever-expanding crop of more than 400 individual art spaces mean you’ll need practically a year to explore the scene and a Sherpa to carry your catalogues.
So between after-dark activities and boundary-pushing art, if you can’t get your kicks in Berlin, you probably don’t have legs.
Few people symbolise Berlin’s glamour quite as strongly as fashion photographer Helmut Newton. The legendary shutterbug may be gone, but his spirit lives on among the red leather banquettes, panelled wood ceiling and huge mirrors of his namesake Newton Bar. His black-and-white images of tall naked models line one wall, and the bar’s signature Absolut Newton cocktail (vodka, bitter lemon, sugar, orange and lime slices) is the star on an enormous drinks list that includes more than 50 cocktails, dozens of single-malt whiskies and even a 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar of Moët & Chandon. Charlottenstrasse 57, +49 30 20 29 54 21
The drinks list might be shorter at the Amano Bar, but it’s long on creativity. Having trouble finding a decent libation with rosemary-honey espuma? Jalapeño-infused agave tequila? Sink into one of the low sofas of this dark and angular lounge and let one of the black-clad liquor ninjas behind the bar concoct a 55N, 6W (Ardbeg Scotch, lemon, smoked Danish sea salt, eggwhite) or one of the other avant-garde cocktails on the ever-changing list. And if the effects go to your head, stumble upstairs – the bar is attached to the Hotel Amano. Auguststrasse 43, +49 30 80 94 15 0
It’s fitting that the tall windows and bare white walls of Bar 3 suggest an art gallery. The minimalist-cool space’s horseshoe bar is niched quietly in one of Berlin’s many gallery-rich districts and is a favourite hangout of neighbourhood painters, sculptors, photographers, journalists, curators and dealers. Weydingerstrasse 20, +49 30 97 00 51 06
What pairs well with the pork belly, pork knuckle, pork sausages and the other pig-packed bar snacks on the menu at Rutz – other than a prescription for Lipitor, of course? Potential answers abound in the 50-page wine list of the glassy and airy bar-restaurant, a favourite of suited businesspeople and tweedy couples. The 800-bottle cellar is piled with vintages from Italy, South Africa and France, to say nothing of scores of German white wines. But the real revelations are German reds such as the Philipp Kuhn pinot noir. Chausseestrasse 8, +49 30 24 62 87 60
From April to September, all segments of Berlin society flock to the long picnic tables at Prater, a lovely old-world beer garden dating back to the 1830s. While children run and shout in the playground, the grown-ups – yuppie couples, groups of students, tattooed rockers, white-haired grandparents – munch down on enormous bratwurst hot dogs and chug tall glasses of the house pilsner and dark ale. On a warm night, under the tall trees and long strands of bare light bulbs, there are few more magical spots in the city.
Kastanienallee 7-9, +49 30 44 85 68 8
Club der Visionaere
For something more contemporary, follow the trail of high heels and retro-reissue Adidas to the long wooden canal-side terraces of Club der Visionaere. The bohemian boathouse is popular with global cool kids and fashionistas from their teens to their forties, and is enchantingly lit with red and blue lights and lorded over by weeping willows. A huge bottle of Augustiner beer and a surprisingly good pizza with prosciutto make for an excellent snack. It’s all well worth the meagre $2.40 cover to get in. Am Flutgraben, +49 30 69 51 89 42
It costs a bit more – $18 on some weekends – to break into Watergate, a vast, sexy multi-level nightclub whose outdoor deck practically floats on the Spree river and offers postcard views of the glimmering cityscape. Like the notorious hotel during the Nixon era, it tends to see its most illicit action in the middle of the night, thanks to a roster of top international DJs, two dance floors, multiple bars, and a booming sound system that probably registers on the Richter scale. Falckensteinstrasse 49, +49 30 61 28 03 94
Other than trolls, few folks relish spending their nights under grungy railroad bridges – except those lucky enough to be admitted into Tausend. At one end of the long dark windowless room is a stage often animated by jazz and funk bands. At the other, an enormous circular artwork resembling a glowing eye appears to gaze at the entertainers. And above, the curved, barrel-vaulted ceiling is covered with mirrored tiles that reflect the lithe blondes, scruffy guys in blazers, and other well-heeled patrons. The cocktail card, another of the city’s best, features creations like the frothy and acidic Jerry Louis (walnut Bourbon, eggwhite, lime, agave syrup). Schiffbauerdamm 11, +49 30 27 58 20 70
HBC, the highest above ground of the underground set, hides at the top of an anonymous grey concrete stairway. Climb to the second level and you’ll find yourself in a huge brutalist concrete space that feels like a Socialist-era relic – indeed, this used to be a Hungarian cultural centre – kitted out by hotshot designers with kooky neon lights, tables made from instrument road cases, and other playful touches. An art gallery, concert hall (which doubles as a cinema) and excellent gastronomic restaurant are all found in various chambers. But the bar is the biggest draw, thanks to its regular party nights and panoramic views of the landmark Fernsehturm television tower and the gothic St Mary’s church. Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 9, +49 30 24 34 29 20
From the looks of the dowdy floral furniture inside Cake, there’s a grandma somewhere in the States filling out a burglary report for the local cops. No matter. The suburban Blue Velvet time-warp interior is part of the charm at this bar full of musicians, designers and other hip Berliners. The soundtrack tends towards American funk and soul while the drinks card pays homage to the Coen brothers via the Lebowski cocktail (vodka, Kahlua, milk). Or call on the green fairy with the Cake Dream (absinthe, apple juice, passionfruit syrup). You’ll be ready to fly home. Schlesische Strasse 32, +49 30 61 62 46 10
Nobody comes to Bierkombinat Kreuzberg, aka BKK, for the atmosphere, which consists of little more than some thrift-store couches. A few arrive for the music mix, which ranges from punk to new wave to power pop. Most, though, make the pilgrimage to this friendly neighbourhood bar for the homemade beer. The blonde ale is smooth and sweet, the dark ale creamy and malty. Wheat beers and seasonal brews also appear from time to time. Manteuffelstrasse 53, +49 17 91 42 66 70,
The renovated neoclassical Neues Museum is a time warp that reopened in 2009 after decades of disuse. The diva is the bust of Queen Nefertiti dating to 1340 BC, but Heinrich Schliemann’s discoveries from ancient Troy and the partially reconstructed Egyptian temples are also impressive. Bodestr 1, Museum Island, +49 30 26 64 24 24 2
The airy white halls of Hamburger Bahnhof unfold like the glossy pages of a coffee-table book on postwar art. Andy Warhol’s towering green-yellow Mao (1973) adorns one white wall. The playful graffiti-pop monsters and faceless bodies of Keith Haring’s works hang from others. The stunning gamut of artists and works also includes the haunting abstractions of Cy Twombly, the mixed-media collages of Robert Rauschenberg, and installations by Joseph Beuys. Invalidenstrasse 50-51, +49 30 39 78 34 11
The building alone – a graceful rectangular glass-and-steel structure by Mies van der Rohe – is worth the admission price at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Within, Picasso and Kandinsky make cameos, but the real stars are the local boys. Max Beckmann’s crowded canvases deservedly get a whole gallery, while the extensive collection of paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is anchored by the jagged figures of Potsdamer Platz (1914). Potsdamer Strasse 50, +49 30 26 64 24 51 0
For years, the 900-metre road Auguststrasse has drawn contemporary-art aficionados like flies to sherbet, thanks to heavyweight galleries such as the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Eigen + Art. The most promising new kid on the strasse is Me Collectors Room. The two-level space contains a chic café, a concept store and a permanent “wunderkammer” or chamber of wonders filled with old shrunken heads, ancestor skulls, and other macabre knick-knacks. The rotating exhibitions are drawn from the vast Olbricht private collection, which spans everything from Renaissance art to Cindy Sherman photos. KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststrasse 69, +49 30 24 34 59 0; Eigen + Art, Auguststrasse 26, +49 30 28 06 60 5; Me Collectors Room, Auguststrasse 68, +49 30 86 00 85 10
Townhouse or gallery? Arndt sports multiple apartment-like rooms, parquet floors and Le Corbusier couches, and shows the works of contemporary luminaries such as French installation specialist and photographer Sophie Calle, and the impeccably tailored British self-portrait duo Gilbert & George. It’s just one of the prestigious galleries elevating Potsdamer Strasse into the city’s hottest new art artery. Potsdamer Strasse 96, +49 30 20 61 38 70
And for something completely different, climb the graffiti-covered stairs of Tacheles. The multistorey venue is like some huge punk-rock department store, with a warren of studios, shops, theatres and bars where tattooed artists, designers and performers ply their trades for a very diverse public. Oranienburgerstrasse 54-56a, +49 30 28 26 18 5
PHOTOGRAPHY RENE RIIS
This article was published in the September 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.