Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Berlin: Digging Through One of the World’s Coolest Cities

I hated Berlin at first glance. Arriving on a rainy day, the cab I took from Tegel Airport to the Penzlauerberg neighborhood cut through a massive expanse of industrial streets filled with the sorts of factories, warehouses and square concrete residential slabs you’d expect from the Soviet’s Cold War frontline.

A panoramic view of an area in Berlin

Berlin Panorama
Photo: Seier+Seier

Berlin wasn’t on my original itinerary for this trip. I left the States planning on relaxing in Spain, but tickets from JFK to Germany proved much cheaper than flying NYC to Madrid. I felt certain I’d hightail it to Seville after just one or two days in Berlin.

I ended up staying a month.

Wandering around that grey city, waiting for check-in at my hostel, I decided to pass the time taking a few pictures. Taking a hundred pictures of some of the developed world’s ugliest architecture didn’t seem too appealing so I started to focus on the city’s ever-present street art. Even in this relatively unhip neighborhood there was some good graffiti. And as I walked further into the city I saw how the seemingly unbroken lines of Soviet residential buildings often made way for magnificent centuries-old archways that lead to gorgeous courtyards that somehow survived the war.

By the time I set my bags down at my hostel, Berlin had me hooked.

 

A Half-Finished City

I eventually made it to Spain and while spending time with a friend from home I encountered a traveler from Berlin. We talked about his home for a couple minutes and during our conversation he referred to his city as “half-finished,” a casual comment that really gets to the heart of why Berlin is so special.

West Berlin occupies just about the same boundaries it ever did, but the Soviet’s couldn’t stop expanding East Berlin. Most likely as a narcissistic show of power, the Soviet Union kept building new factories and new residences on their side of the wall, well beyond Easy Berlin’s 20th century capacity.

After the Wall fell all this mindless industrial muscle flexing resulted in lots and lots of perfectly functional, totally vacant buildings. Since the 1990’s Berlin has experienced a veritable flood of young, broke, creatively minded individuals itching to fill them up.

Or, at least, cover them up.

 

Making Socialist Architecture Beautiful

Berlin’s abundant street art caught my interest before any of the city’s other virtues made themselves apparent, and to this day these tags, murals and flyers adorn the most cherished memories of my time there.

At first I assumed street art was legal in Berlin, seeing as it covered pretty much every available surface of every populated corner of the city. I didn’t learn until later that getting caught producing graffiti, tagging, and any other form of street art that involves painting or otherwise semi-permanently defacing a building carries with it a hefty fine of 1,000 Euros for each offense.

Rather than buckle under the fine, Berlin’s street artists got creative with the law. As they argued- if businesses and clubs could flyer the city every day with their advertisements, then there’s nothing illegal about posting paper wherever the hell you want. The law had to agree. Berlin street artists began to focus on creating intricately designed and precisely cut flyers displaying their skills, and these street art flyers quickly appeared everywhere.

A colourful house in Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

Prenzlauerberg, Berlin
Photo: Mishkabear


Berlin’s artists aren’t just very creative, they’re also very smart and well versed in legal issues. Decades of living under an oppressive police state created a population-wide aversion to surveillance and anything deemed an attack on civil liberties. Taking into account the large size of the city and its citizenry’s aptitude at protest, most of the small civil laws existing in Berlin (like no smoking in bars) are totally unenforceable, leading to a situation where the city’s creative class basically does whatever they want. And that’s a good thing.

 

Repurposing Everything, Everywhere

I’d be lying to you if I told you Berlin was nothing more than a wonderland of anarchist artists creating a new hyper-localized world within city limits. Berlin also provides Starbucks franchises, American Apparel outlets, and lots and lots of cheesy tropical themed restaurants complete with fake palm trees and drinks slurped out of plastic coconut shells. But Berlin’s wealth of abandoned Soviet-built projects means whenever a neighborhood gentrifies the artist squats just shift a couple blocks over to the next stretch of virgin concrete blocks.

The Soviet Union clearly didn’t create these neighborhoods and factories with an eye towards enabling a ruthlessly creative global party culture, but twenty years after the fall that’s what their utilitarian designs house, often hidden behind dark doors left blank to maintain the scene’s “underground” aesthetic. Just a few of the repurposed locations I loved include:

  • The Berghain. Berlin’s most famous nightclub and occasionally labeled “The Greatest Club in the World.” The Berghain was once a power plant and now takes advantage of the building’s massive caverns to create a one-of-a-kind dance floor throbbing with appropriately minimalist house music. Aside from their seemingly arbitrary door policy (enforced by a massive German wearing a U-Boat jacket with a face covered in barbed-wire tattoos), The Berghain may be best known for its weekly ongoing dance party that starts late Friday night and ends around noon on Monday.
  • Dr. Pongs. Who knows what this still-dilapidated building once operated as, but now it provides a home to a small barely-a-bar stacked with a full DJ rig in one corner spinning American 60’s soul classics and a single ping pong table in the front room, ringed by regulars taking their shot at a never-ending series of games.
  • Litchblick Kino. Built into an old storefront leading into a 30-seat screening room, Litchblick plays all the modern independent and foreign movies you could ever want. Sandwiched in between screenings of the best of world cinema you’ll find regularly scheduled classics, such as Litchblick’s weekly Saturday night 12:00 am screening of Casablanca.
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      A True International City

      People walking to event at the Berlin Cultural Celebration

      Berlin Cultural Celebration
      Photo: Erik Broß


      The thought of spending a Saturday night watching one of the most anti-German film classics of all time while surrounded by Germans may sound surreal, but it feels totally normal and organic in Berlin. So much of modern Berlin derives its character from its increasingly international population. When the Wall fell, East Berlin became home more than just German artists because foreigners from all over Europe and Asia have arrived over the last two decades to help rebuild the city.

      The international character of Berlin struck me my first night there when I had dinner at a Korean restaurant close to my hostel. I wasn’t explicitly looking for Korean food, it just happened to be there, and the price was right.

      This scene repeated itself multiple times of the following month. I felt hungry, grocery stores were closed, and every popular street food cart, deli or restaurant I stumbled upon served decidedly non-German cuisine. I had lots of sausage, ham and sauerkraut in Berlin, but I always sought it out explicitly from old-fashioned eateries. The city’s street-food scene is dominated by foods that owe much, or all, of their origins to other corners of the world.

      Consider the two most popular street foods in Berlin:

      • The Currywurst uses a German sausage as a base but diversifies the dish’s origins by adding on ketchup, mayonnaise, French fries and a cadre of non-European spices. Despite its wide-ranging culinary influences Berliners associate so strongly with the Currywurst they built a museum to it.
      • The Doner Kebab is the second. It is a cousin to the Gyro, born in Turkey. You can find the Doner all over Europe but the only city offering these treats as abundantly and as deliciously as Berlin is London, and Berlin is the only place I’ve witnessed the majestic sight of a 40kg Kebab cone.

       

      One of the Coolest World Capitals Around

      Berlin has gained one of the most exciting and most liberated artistic movements in the world. You’ll need to dig below its Soviet-designed surface to find the excitement, and if you’re looking for Romantic passion you need to search elsewhere. But with a little looking, and a local guide or two, Berlin will unfold before you in consistently surprising ways. It’s one of the most exciting experiences around.