Beyond Berghain in Berlin

Not cool enough to make it past the formidable doorman at Berghain, Berlin’s high temple of techno? No worries — your bar crawl options in Berlin never run dry.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 12 Sept 2019, 06:00 BST
Clubbers queue outside Berghain
Clubbers queue outside Berghain
Photograph by Celia Topping

As I look at it, the world is upside down. So are the pictures. There’s a carpet on the ceiling with a coffee table hanging beside it. I’m glad that Madame Claude is the first stop on my Berlin bar crawl because if I walked into this upside-down Kreuzberg bar anything other than sober, I’d be worried I’d lost my mind.

The unsmiling bartender is at least the right way up. He offers me a choice of locally made craft beers, before turning on the stereo. I seem to have arrived a little early and the smell of stale smoke has me wishing someone would light a fresh cigarette. An acquired taste it may be, but this is exactly the sort of accessible, grimy joint that contributes to Berlin’s cool reputation.

The next bar is the considerably more refined Ora. This former apothecary is today a slick restaurant and cocktail bar, but the owners have drawn heavily on the building’s pharmaceutical history, changing little of the decor and mixing drinks in chemists’ beakers. The original shelves and drawers, once used for tinctures and potions, now house various cocktail ingredients. The stools have been allowed to rust; the floor-to-ceiling mirrors have a time-worn charm.

While savouring my second sazerac, I ask the barman about legendary Berlin nightclub, Berghain. Housed in a former power plant in Friedrichshain, the city’s techno mecca has earned global notoriety for being both brilliant and seemingly impossible to get into. Is it worth me trying? “They say you should wear black, and nothing too fancy, but...” He shrugs. “Well, good luck.”

The next day, I find myself queueing with a few hundred other would-be clubbers, making my way inexorably forward. It’s a slow process, but, as the place opens at noon on a Friday and stays open for 57 of the following 60 hours — it closes on Saturday from 9am to midday for cleaning and restocking — I’m confident I’ll at least make it as far as the bouncers.

The queue is infamous enough to have its own Instagram account, @BerghainLineLive, designed to ensure clubbers wait as little as possible before the axe falls on their techo-scored dreams. They post updates all weekend so if it’s particularly bad you can just wait in a nearby bar until it’s calmer. Similarly, if the bouncers are feeling lenient or there’s no line, they’ll let you know.

Tonight, it’s busy, so I put my earphones in, pick a Spotify playlist and try to convince myself that, at 36, I still like this type of music. After a few house tracks, I’m willing to believe this will all be worthwhile, but then worry that the earphones themselves might somehow decrease my chances of getting in. So instead I spend much of the 65 minutes it takes me to get to the front dipping in and out of the party chat around me. Much of it is speculation about what may or may not improve chances of entry. People frame everything around what they’ll do if they get in, not when. And their fates rest with Sven Marquardt, the club’s head bouncer, who’s so well known he has his own agent — although this may be as much to do with his sideline as a photographer.

If you think Berghain is what happens when a place becomes too cool, I wouldn’t disagree — although this is exactly the sort of thing a bitter person who didn’t get let in would say. Disappointed, but not defeated, I shuffle off and explore Friedrichshain. And it’s not as though I’m short of other options — this city parties as late as any other on the Continent and somehow manages to lure people back out for day clubs, too. I settle for a nightcap at the excellent Gin Chilla Bar. With 387 varieties to choose from, I order the local Berlin Urban Gin and sink into one of its soft, low chairs. It’s been a strange evening but it’s hard not to be struck by the German capital’s confidence.

Yes, it works hard to perpetuate its cool image and, no, Berghain isn’t the only place that has long queues outside, but this city gets under your skin. It’s the sort of place you visit for five days and quickly begin wondering what the next five years will bring.

Interior of Ora
Photograph by Celia Topping


The city has long been a muse for rock stars

Depeche Mode
Between 1983 and 1986, the British band recorded four albums at West Berlin’s Hansa Studios, and in 1988 played East Berlin’s Werner-Seelenbinder-Halle (the site of the present-day Velodrom cycling arena). Heavily influenced by German industrial music, the group featured German artist Joachim Schmettau’s Hand with Watch sculpture (found in the Hansaviertel district) in the video for their 1983 single Everything Counts.

Nick Cave
Cave moved to Kreuzberg in 1983. He arrived with The Birthday Party, but ended up putting together the Bad Seeds here after meeting German musician Blixa Bargeld, who became the group’s guitarist. They also recorded at Hansa Studios.

Lou Reed
The musician’s concept album named after the German capital was actually written before he’d visited the city. Later, in the mid-’70s, Reed shared a flat in Schöneberg with Bowie and Iggy Pop. He’d hang out with the pair at the Dschungel nightclub, Berlin’s answer to New York’s Studio 54. These days the venue lives on as the classy Ellington Hotel Berlin.

Iggy Pop
Near the Schöneberg flat Iggy shared with Bowie and Reed is Neues Ufer, a gay cafe-bar where they used to hang out. A few miles to the west in Charlottenburg is legendary celebrity hotspot Paris Bar. It was here Iggy and Bowie were interviewed by Rolling Stone in 1979 for the infamous ‘Bad Boys in Berlin’ feature.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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