I have been in Berlin for no more than five minutes and have already assumed the position of an overeager 5-year-old on their first trip abroad. My face is pressed firmly against the cab window, framed by my hands, as I stare through the thick-plated glass in awe. I attempt to take in every flash of the blurred cityscape as we bob and weave through traffic on the 30-minute ride to our hotel—I manage to catch glimpses of utilitarian-style buildings framed by pops of colorful graffiti, with a few 18th-century structures peppered in. Considering I was initially attracted to the city of New York for its grittiness and edge, Berlin already appears promising.
"This city reminds me of New York in the '70s," notes one of the journalists in my group, breaking my trance. He's a lifelong New Yorker also visiting Berlin for the first time—we sat next to each other on the nonstop Lufthansa flight from New York's JFK to Berlin's TXL, during which time he regaled me with stories from Times Square in the 1970s (at my insistence). Though I admit that my understanding of both 1970s New York and past- and present-day Berlin have been largely informed by movies, history books, and hasty Google searches, I found his observation intriguing.
Having listened to an endless stream of New Yorkers, past and present, lament the "old New York" since well before I even moved to the city three and a half years ago, I was eager to experience something even remotely reminiscent of Manhattan in its heyday. I could no longer count the number of times I've felt an inkling of envy surge through my body every time I heard someone mourn the lost authenticity of the city. Little did I know, my experience in Berlin would surpass any and all comparison.
Where to Stay
It wasn't until we arrived at the Orania Berlin hotel in Kreuzberg that I began drawing my own parallels between the edgy, graffiti-strewn district and my own neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Though Kreuzberg is decidedly more developed than Bushwick, which is still in the throes of gentrification, there was a palpable sense of excitement as well as a slight tension in the air. This contrast was perhaps best exemplified by the pronounced cracks in the lobby windows of our (admittedly gorgeous) luxury boutique hotel, which we learned were the result of local anarchists protesting the gentrification in the area by taking bricks to the untouched glass.
Kreuzberg, now an artsy, populous district reminiscent of modern-day Williamsburg, Brooklyn, used to be a working-class neighborhood peppered with cheap, substandard housing. Because of its affordability, it was a magnet for immigrants, students, and artists in the late 1960s—a colorful demographic makeup that served as a wellspring for many alternative subcultures. The punk-rock and techno music scenes, as well as the LGBTQ rights movement, all found roots in Kreuzberg, and continue to characterize the neighborhood to this day. A stroll down modern-day Oranienstraße—one of the district's main drags—will most likely feel familiar to any Brooklyn dweller; it's peppered with photo-friendly cafés and vintage shops, endless bars and restaurants, and plenty of startup offices brimming with fresh-faced employees (Kreuzberg currently has one of the youngest populations of all European city boroughs).
With that said, it's important to note that it's decidedly less on-the-nose than Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, which can sometimes feel like you've stumbled upon the set of a Netflix series (and you probably have). Whereas these "trendy" neighborhoods are almost too self-aware, Kreuzberg is still refreshingly unaffected. Trying too hard, even in a world that encourages shameless self-promotion, is the antithesis of cool in Berlin (and will give you away as an American). Where Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn feel commercialized, Berlin feels unpretentious and, in some ways, undiscovered; it has the same creative freedom as some of the most vibrant, up-and-coming neighborhoods in New York without the global microscope hovering over it.
The hotel, though apparently accosted by some of the locals, adhered to this unspoken code of conduct. It was perfectly unassuming in my eyes, still comfortable and luxurious, but not so much so that it felt jarring compared to the rest of the neighborhood. Aside from the understated lettering on the front of the building, which was kept in its original condition, there was no flashy logo baiting tourists to check in. This nuanced subtlety was weaved into the décor, the cuisine, and the service; I didn't see a housekeeper walking the halls once (yet my room was always perfectly clean). After checking in and sloughing off my luggage, I headed to the streets to further explore the neighborhood.
What to Eat
After wandering Kreuzberg and gawking at the jaw-dropping street art for the first couple of hours (which became my favorite thing to do), my growling stomach inevitably led me to Café Ora, a restaurant by day and bar by night, housed in a converted pharmacy just steps from our hotel. With vintage furnishings, fresh sandwiches and salads, and a comprehensive wine, beer, and cocktail list, Ora quickly became one of my go-tos during the trip. Because Berlin prides itself on its wide range of cuisines, many restaurants, Ora included, leave traditional German fares like schnitzel, sausage, and sauerkraut off the menu. The below restaurants also made a lasting first impression:
Fes Turkish BBQ: I credit this delicious restaurant for single-handedly bringing me back to life after a long night at the Berlin clubs (more on that later). This Kreuzberg mainstay speaks to the strong Turkish influence in the neighborhood—Berlin boasts the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. Book a reservation for a large group so you can all take turns cooking chicken, beef, and lamb over the open flame.
The Visit Coffee Roastery: The espresso was just as alluring as the minimalistic décor in this perfectly simple coffee shop, tucked away in a courtyard behind a neon sign reading "WE HAVE COFFEE." Sip a latte as you wander the neighborhood.
Hallesches Haus: While the design-conscious home essentials are the main draw of this general store (it was crawling with Hay products), the café in the back deserves just as much attention. Enjoy breakfast, lunch, or Saturday brunch in this cozy, plant-filled oasis.
Orania Berlin Restaurant: We enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip in the comfort of our own hotel thanks to chef Philipp Vogel. Definitely order the Parmesan tortelloni, and consider making reservations during one of the hotel's classical concerts, curated by artistic director and Kreuzberg resident Julien Quentin.
Brlo: This brewhouse was probably the closest we got to a traditional German meal, and I wasn't disappointed. Its award-winning craft beers, fermented vegetables, and smoked meats exceeded all of my expectations.
Golvet: I still think about the meal I had at this Michelin-starred restaurant overlooking the skyline at Potsdamer Platz. From chefs Björn Swanson and Michael Schulz, Golvet boasts intelligently prepared classics with Asian influences and a wine menu arranged according to aroma and character. The Norway lobster alone is worth the six-hour flight.
Döner kebabs: Enjoying one of Berlin's famous döner kebabs is a cultural experience in and of itself. The sandwich, a modern take on the grilled Turkish kebab, was created in Berlin after WWII and quickly became the most prolific fast-food option in the city. Mustafas should be on every visitor's bucket list.
What to Do
Though I was instantly enamored with the disaffected charm of Kreuzberg, venturing into the more mainstream Mitte district on day two proved to be just as stimulating. With roughly 140 museums, around 400 art galleries, and 44 theaters peppered throughout the sprawling metropolis, Berlin is a cultural epicenter in Germany and the European Union at large. This artistic prowess is perhaps best epitomized in Museum Island, a cluster of five internationally acclaimed museums situated on the northern end of Spree Island in Mitte. Patrons are granted entry to Pergamonmuseum, Bode-Museum, Neues Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Altes Museum with just one ticket. While Museum Island definitely deserves a place on your Berlin bucket list—even just to check out the architecture—the below cultural institutions and Berlin mainstays are also a must:
The East Side Gallery: Running along Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, this mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall is now an international memorial for freedom and the largest open-air art gallery in the world. It's one example of how Berlin strives to be transparent about the darker aspects of its history; Berliners allow their more complicated experiences to serve as cultural lessons for all.
Checkpoint Charlie: Similarly, Checkpoint Charlie pays homage to what was the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. The original barrier, checkpoint booth, flag, and sandbags are now accompanied by an open-air exhibition that tells the story of those who succeeded and failed at escaping Soviet-controlled East Berlin during this tumultuous time.
The Urban Nation street art museum: For a deepened understanding of the visceral art lining the streets of Berlin and the world at large, pay a visit to this urban contemporary art house. Urban Nation started out as a Berlin street art network and was immortalized as a formal museum in September of 2017.
Brandenburger Tor: An iconic landmark for Berlin and Germany as a country, the Brandenburger Tor is a symbol of the division and reunification of the city. Once inaccessible for locals and visitors during the Cold War, the gate is now emblematic of a reunited and thriving Berlin.
The Jewish Museum: Since opening in 2001, the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg has quickly become one of the most well-known museums in all of Europe. The museum, which doubles as an architectural masterpiece, honors and reflects upon two millennia's worth of German-Jewish history and culture.
Potsdamer Platz: This public square lies right in the center of Germany and used to be a deserted wasteland divided by the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Today, it's a symbol of Berlin's strength and resilience, as well as a cultural mecca brimming with shops, restaurants, theaters, and startups.
Where to Dance
Even though I spent countless hours in museums and on guided tours, the most culturally informative experience of the trip took place in a seedy nightclub. The nightlife scene is so integral to the cultural DNA of the city—Berlin is just as known for its storied history as it is for its vibrant music and club scene—that our trip host actually encouraged us to go out after dinner on Saturday night. With nightlife expert Henrik Tidefjärd as our guide, a few members of the group and I headed to SchwuZ, an LGBTQ-friendly club in Neukölln, at the very normal hour of 2 a.m.
It was here that my admittedly stereotypical visions of Berlin were personified—I'm pleased to report that leather, techno music, nonstop dancing, a bit of ABBA, intimidating looks, and the stench of cigarettes were all in generous supply. I was most struck by how LGBTQ clubs were treated in Berlin as compared to New York and the United States as a whole—it felt no different than any other club in the city and wasn't defined by its LGBTQ-friendly door policy. Rather, it was marked by a refreshing fluidity in regard to gender and sexuality. This sex-positive attitude is nothing new to Berliners—same-sex bars and clubs operated freely as early as the 1880s, and by the 1920s, the LGBTQ community was already visible and established. Today, the city boasts a record number of queer clubs and festivals, including Berlin Pride, Kreuzberg Pride, and the Lesbian and Gay City Festival.
Just as the Berlin club scene rejects heteronormative rhetoric, it also has a pronounced distaste for materialism and superficiality. Designer clothes and sky-high heels will earn you zero brownie points with the bouncers, and as such, posh clubs don't tend to flourish in Berlin. The key to getting into clubs, rather, is to dress down; a fun-loving attitude and a casual-yet-edgy outfit well-suited to dancing until the early morning hours have a better chance of earning you access to some of the city's most exclusive clubs, including Berghain (pictured above), which is by far the most famous venue in Berlin. As such, nearly everyone at SchwuZ wore some version of jeans and a T-shirt with whatever eccentric accessories they wanted; the casual dress also contributed to the freeing atmosphere.
Though I was only able to scratch the surface of the Berlin club scene in my short time there, the history alone makes me want to plan a second trip. Berlin, and more specifically, Kreuzberg, was a feeding ground for the punk-rock movement in the 1970s, and clubs like SO36, Sound, and Dschungel were some of the most respected new-wave venues in the world, attracting temporary Berlin residents Iggy Pop and David Bowie. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave rise to the city's techno music scene, as many historical buildings in the former East Berlin were taken over and transformed into underground venues. SO36 is still open today, in addition to other established techno clubs like Watergate, Tresor, KitKatClub, and more.
Berlin or Bust
My last few hours in Berlin were spent wandering Kreuzberg once again. Though döner kebabs are mainly considered a post-club meal equivalent to a late-night dollar slice of New York pizza, I woke up early to enjoy my last one before heading to the airport. Surprisingly, I found myself dreading my return to New York as my short time in this force of a city came to a close—though the word authentic has been used so many times that it's nearly lost all meaning, it was refreshing to spend time in a place that has managed to maintain a sense of groundedness in the world of Instagram, FaceTune, and Snapchat. My heart belongs in New York for now, but Berlin has successfully claimed a piece of it.