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Berlin: History, freedom and parties

Low rents and a talent for fun make Berliners different to those in other capital cities as DJ Lucio Buffone explains
The Reichstag in Berlin topped with a glass dome by architect Norman Foster.
Photo by Matthew Field.

From occupier to occupied, rapist to raped. Bohemian to Fascist. Both capitalist and communist, scarred by a wall. Transformed in 21 years to a capital city, under-occupied and devoid of a parasitic financial sector. Berliners are bound by the limits of their talent, rather than mortgages, debt and wage-slave hours.

If New York is defined by limitless possibilities, Berlin’s vibe is defined by a population more concerned with enjoying life than limitless wealth. Rents in Berlin are low, very low. You can have a great life in this city with just part time work. You can look fashionable in retro clothes. If you have friends in this city, you can party for free. Gay and straight are labels. The coolest bars in this city are open to all.

Berlin feels free. You can smoke in bars, bars that are unrestricted by licensing hours. There are no ticket barriers on the U and S Bahn (the metro train system). The adventure playgrounds for kids are designed for fun, not health and safety compliance. The graffiti brightens up the 50s’ tenements.

If you want to find out about history, start at the Brandenburg Gate, walk to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Cross Ebertstrasse and visit the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism. Walk along the route of the wall to Potsdamer Platz and down to The Topography of Terror. On the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, this excellent free museum has a history of the rise of Nazism, juxtaposed in front of a small remaining section of the Berlin Wall, resplendent in graffiti.

Visit the Jewish Museum, visit the Schwules - Gay Museum, visit the DDR Museum, visit Rosa Luxemburg Platz, look at the Volksbuhne. Wonder how the world may have turned out had Liebknecht listened to Rosa and not ordered the Spartacist Uprising. The uprising failed and she was shot in the back of the head and thrown into the Landwehr Canal. She is still my favorite communist. He was shot too.

If you like architecture visit the Reichstag and walk through Norman Foster’s glass dome to see Berlin at your feet. Go to Hachesher Markt on the S Bahn, which crosses the city above ground. Walk through the gothic streets of Mitte. Look up at the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), as it spies on your movements. Imagine living as an East Berliner watched on; but secretly watching West German TV and wondering what was behind the Anti-fascist Protection Barrier. Take a taxi a mile or two along Karl Marx Allee to admire the best of communist architecture, or walk.

At night Berliners party. My favorite bar was Mobel Olfe (Kottbuser Tor Ubahn) in Kreuzberg – a hot mixed crowd listening to a DJ spin Glen Campbell and Peter, Bjorn and John. There are some other cool gay bars nearby on Oraniemiem Strasse and a club called Watergate.

But the zeitgeist is fickle in this city and bars and clubs can go from being rammed to empty in mere weeks. For the latest news on cool parties and culture check out the I Heart Berlin and Sugarhigh blogs. If you sign up to Sugarhigh they’ll send you a weekly email with the hottest nights and cultural events. Both are in German and English.

For an old school gay district you can check out Schoneburg. Similar to The Castro, there’s every kind of gay bar, darkroom and sex club you could want, along with the odd person staggering around the streets, their brains rotted by Crystal Meth. If that’s too extreme but you fancy a cheesy boogie, Schwuz in Kreuzberg is fun in a eurotrash way with a Schlager music room (Think German Eurovision) and others playing gay classics.

The camp option on Saturdays is Klub International at Kino International on Karl Marx Allee, and on Sundays GMF in Club Weekend claims to be the highest club in the city, occupying the 11th and 13th floors of an old Communist Office Block also on Karl Marx Allee.

Berghain is possibly the most famous club in the city. Set in a former power station, on Saturday nights it is nominally gay (but has a mixed crowd) and is notoriously difficult for foreigners to get into. My advice is to make friends with Germans in the queue, and learn some German. ‘Ich bin kalt’ was sufficient last time I went with some friends, and appropriate after spending an hour queuing in the snow. Avoid trying to get in to the cooler parties in big groups.

The coolest shopping district is Hackescher Markt, all the high-end brands have their flagship stores here and there are also a host of independent boutiques amazingly, yet cheaply, styled. For a good example, even if you don’t wear glasses, check out the design of IC Berlin’s flagship store.

There are some cool bars in this part of Mitte (city center). The Mayor of Berlin (who is gay) is frequently spotted at De Liberator, a mixed bar for fancy people. There are many other bars and coffee shops for non-fancy people. There are also cinemas and theaters. If you like Cirque Du Soleil, check out the show Loft at Chamaleon, an acrobatic show with boys in y-fronts and girls in hot pants dancing. You enter the theatre on the stage, through a fridge.

The Berlin Tourist Board has launched a new initiative for LGBT tourists. It’s called Pink Pillow and is a one-stop shop for LGBT visitors. Hotels can sign up in return for offering free services and support back to the LGBT community in the city, and to be registered they must also train their staff in LGBT awareness.

It seems bizarre that such a welcoming city need try even harder to attract LGBT tourists, but credit where it is due. The hotels that have signed up are mainly four and five star ones and you can book through Pink Pillow.

For efficient, well-priced flights direct to Berlin, try Lufthansa.

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