An experience of Berlin’s nightlife must start (or end) at Berghain, a city institution
Converted factories and grain mills are the hot spots in Berlin’s edgy, endless nightlife
In the once famous song Berlin By Night, a proto-punk band, PVC, sang in gawky school English about their city: “You don’t see them all day/They only come out at night… Strange creatures never seeing the sun/They come out of the darkness just to have some fun."
That was in 1982, when Berlin was still divided by the notorious wall, but the lyrics are as true today. At the time West Berlin was famous for its nightlife—the absence of curfew for bars and clubs meant that the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed had partied until dawn.
Berlin has always been a party town, at least since the Roaring Twenties, though this party culture has reached new heights today. It is argued that these days a good Berlin party barely starts before midnight, and can go on for several days. 3 Tage Wach (3 Days Awake) is a song from 2008 that pays tribute to that tradition. Written and recorded by DJ and producer Lützenkirchen, it describes the new party culture of Berlin in a nutshell. The lyrics are about partying for three days without sleep, fuelled by drugs and alcohol; the beat is a pounding piece of mean electronic music, both heavy and monotonous. The song has travelled the world proclaiming Berlin the party capital of the universe.
In the decade since this song was released, rents in Berlin have risen disproportionately, the cost of living has gone up, and new inhabitants and gentrification have pushed more people to the city’s outskirts. But the city’s reputation as a place to have fun stands strong.
Among the celebrated clubs are Berghain, techno mainstays like Tresor and Watergate, while clubs like About Blank, Ritter Butzke and Suicide Circus set the current musical standards. Every sexual orientation is catered to, and then some predilections you’ve never heard of, at clubs like SchwuZ and KitKat. On the waterfront are nightclubs like Ipse and Club der Visionäre, where Berlin feels, at least in summertime, like San Francisco in 1967.
An experience of Berlin’s nightlife must start (or end) at Berghain, a city institution. The legend is that Berghain’s parties last for days. Some even say weeks!
The music the DJs play on the massive sound system, said to be the best in the world, is uncompromising. The space itself—multiple dance floors in an old power station with massive walls, high ceilings and a cathedral-like atmosphere—is impressive: a salute to techno.
As in most German clubs, photography is not permitted inside, so to understand what Berghain is all about, you need to visit it. That is, if you can make it past the gatekeepers, led by famous bouncer and photographer Sven Marquardt. How does one enter this place of pilgrimage? First: Don’t be a group of young men having a bachelor’s party. Just don’t. Second: Don’t look as if you spent more than 10 seconds contemplating your outfit. Third: Be eccentric, be distinct, be yourself. If that’s a contradiction, it’s one Berghain’s gatekeepers want you to solve.
Top tip: Don’t go there if you see a long line. That way, at least you won’t spend half the night waiting, only to be dismissed. When are the lines shortest? On Sunday mornings until noon. That’s when the weekend-long party winds down and only a few adventurous revellers are trying to get into the most mysterious club in the universe. Try your luck!
Berlin has changed massively in recent years. For example, the Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg areas, the heart of nightlife in the years after reunification, have turned into business or residential neighbourhoods. To get a glimpse of how Berlin looked, and especially smelt, in the 1990s, you should visit Schokoladen in Mitte. Its continued existence in the time of exploding Berlin real estate prices is nothing short of a miracle.
Schokoladen started in 1990 with a bunch of artists squatting in a former chocolate factory. After decades of trouble with neighbours and the building’s owner, the place is now an officially recognized cultural project subsidized by the city. It may look a little like a museum in its derelict post-wall glory, but the atmosphere is lively. Nearly every night there is either a concert, a party, a book reading, or some other event. Prices are reasonable and the bands that play are generally indie and at the beginning of their careers. What is not Berlin at all about this club is that concerts start at 7pm and parties at 9pm, no doubt because the area is now inhabited by former hipsters and their nuclear families.
One of the most exciting Berlin clubs these days is Griessmühle. Occupying a spacious compound at the edge of a canal, it hosts several underground organized party series, many catering to a gay audience. A former grain mill, from which the club derives its name, the space is a confusing ensemble of bars, dance floors, open spaces, a garden, seemingly abandoned rooms, and stairs apparently leading nowhere. It’s located in Neukölln, which has transformed from a primarily residential area for immigrants to one of the coolest places in town. The best thing about Griessmühle is its diversity: It hosts a wide array of parties that cover nearly every aspect of club life, sexual preference and music taste, whether techno, house, minimal or disco. Griessmühle represents the image Berlin is nursing devotedly: that of a broad-minded, forgiving, free-thinking, liberal and libertine city.
Listening to the songs of Seeed, probably the most successful band besides Rammstein to come out of Berlin since the wall came down, you might well imagine yourself in the Caribbean. The 11-member reggae band Seeed was born in Yaam Club. From its beginnings in 1994, the club has been a place where all nationalities living in Berlin come together. Over the years, the open-air club has had to change its location, but two things have remained: its multicultural ethos and proximity to the Spree river. Especially on a hot summer’s day, with reggae, dancehall and hip hop on offer, Yaam makes Berlin feel like a Caribbean town.
Möbel Olfe is not easy to find. Located in an old furniture store in West Berlin, it calls itself a “trinkhalle", or drinking hall. It is a reminder of a once vibrant and diverse neighbourhood pub and bar culture. This part of Kreuzberg, called Little Istanbul because it is dominated by Berliners with Turkish roots, has recently become gentrified. Möbel Olfe, with its bare walls, seems mostly unaffected by these developments. It is popular with the LGBTQ+ crowd, but also attracts professionals drinking their first after-hours beers, and the creative proletariat hoping for an epiphany.
After you’ve had a few draught beers, wander down Skalitzer Straße, along the elevated U-Bahn, and look out for an underground concert at Monarch. Finally, close the night on Schlesische Straße, on what has become Las Ramblas of Berlin, the city’s most lively and happening promenade. Here, busloads of tourists walk through the street carrying a glass of alcohol in their hand and the idea in their head that they will find the essence of Berlin on this very street. A deceptive hope, but that’s okay, Berlin can handle it. As PVC put it 36 years ago: “You all may join in if you like to see Berlin by night."
The writer was a Media Ambassadors India-Germany fellow with Lounge for two months.