Destination: Gay Berlin
BY Matthew Breen
Berlin is a wholly different place than it was just a few short years ago, and the transformation of the city is fascinating. Each time I see the city it is through new eyes: first as a young teenager, then as an adult, and again twice in the past year—in winter and in summer, with more time on my hands to explore each of the city’s textured districts.
Don’t speak German? Don’t worry. Long gone are the days when an American accent was remotely exotic. Americans have been living here in such great numbers for such a long time that we’re a dime a dozen, and a recent influx of Brooklynites has caused some to christen the city “Berlyn.”
Each of Berlin’s neighborhoods has a distinct personality and caters to a different crowd. Mitte is the center of the city and is composed of parts of the former East and West. That which wasn’t destroyed in World War II abuts new high-rise buildings, including those that fill the former no-man’s-land that surrounded the wall. Mitte is the site of the city’s most familiar monuments: UNESCO Heritage site Museum Island, the Brandenburg Gate, and Alexanderplatz, where the Sputnik-inspired Fernsehturm (“TV tower”) remains the symbol of the city and the tallest structure in Germany. The infamous KitKatClub, location of the HustlaBall Berlin, is in the Mitte district, and is a trance and techno dance club where anything goes and sexual activity (straight and gay, though it’s more gay on the weekends) is encouraged. The only thing strict is the door mistress and her dress code—woe to you if you try to enter in jeans and a T-shirt. In the summer months, Gay Beach is an outdoor nightclub and beach party right near the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), with sandy stretches, beach chairs, a dance floor, and cabana beds.
Nearby Tiergarten is the new site of the Schwules Museum, dedicated to Germany’s gay art, prominent figures, and red letter dates. The museum has rotating exhibitions and archival holdings, and since its beginnings in 1985 has grown into one of the world’s largest and most significant institutions for archiving, researching, and communicating queer history.
Schöneberg has been the traditionally gay district since well before the reunification—and before the Wall. Motzstrabe is the site of the city’s Gay Pride celebrations, and was known as a gay-popular avenue as far back as century ago (Christopher Isherwood and David Bowie lived there). The street is now host to bars, cafés, sex clubs, leather couturiers, and purveyors of skimpy underwear, much of which caters to the more fetish-oriented crowd. Though younger gays tend to spend more time in the Kreuzberg district, many establishments here are veritable institutions: Bruno Gmünder, the publisher of erotica for men, has its flagship shop, Bruno’s, there; Tom’s Bar is a classic cruising club with mazes; Butcherei Lindiger makes kinky custom leather clothing; Heile Welt (Motzstrabe 5) is a tightly packed but polite cocktail bar for meeting friends; and Green Door’s unimpressive exterior belies the craft cocktail bar’s slyly quaint gingham interior.
Students, Turkish immigrants, and artists drive the gay scene in Kreuzberg. The district was a longtime hub for squatters and is marked by graffiti and street art—some of it gorgeous—and the notions of refinement and luxury are anathema to residents. The bars are often extremely packed and very casual, and stay open until the sun rises. Möbel Olfe was once a furniture store, and on weekend nights is packed beard-to-beard with hirsute 20-somethings (don’t go if some spilt beer will ruin your night or your outfit). The pink shag-carpeted kitsch jewel box of a bar Roses (Oranienstraße 187) is truly a must-see, and Schwuz caters to under-21s with pop-themed nights. In summertime, Badeschiff is a beach and pool that floats on the river Spree; it’s men-only on Monday nights, and in winter it’s covered and converted into a sauna.
Club Berghain located in a former 1950s power plant near the Ostbahnhof train station, is Europe’s 800-pound gorilla of techno. Its name is a portmanteau of the names of the neighborhoods it straddles: Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. The cavernous dance floor’s ceiling is about 60 feet high, and the room has space for 1,500 guests of all stripes, but the provocative permanent exhibit of giant works by gay artist Wolfgang Tillmans and the labyrinthine space peppered with dark rooms make it clear that gays—and hedonism—rule this space. There’s also Lab.Oratory, a sex club in the basement.
This area has seen more changes than any district. A neighborhood populated by the working class and the very poor in the GDR days, Prenzlauer Berg became a site for illegal pop-up parties in abandoned or derelict buildings in the 1990s. Gentrification brought organic supermarkets, designer shops, galleries, families with children, and lots of money. But jabs at the modern moneyed in Prenzlauer Berg can be felt at flea markets, as well as at Pasternak, which offers delicious Russian dishes with menu names like “Proletariat” and “Peasantry” and features Soviet-style propaganda art on the walls. Kastanienallee is a see-and-be-seen avenue peopled with trendy shoppers, with plenty of sunny brunch spots in good weather. The beautiful Kollwitz Square is always busy, but especially so on Saturdays, when a large farmers’ market takes over and organic butchers, fishmongers, and clothiers sell alongside vendors of flowers, fruit and vegetables, boutique chocolates, and folk art.
It’s Friedrichshain, in the former East, where I spent most of my last trip. (The photo above is of the Oberbaum Bridge connecting the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg that were once separated by the Wall.) The district oozes a counterculture sensibility and is only now becoming transformed by gentrification. The rough-around-the-edges vibe is a draw for students, artisans, and artists. The neighborhood is anchored by Boxhagener Square, and on sunny days the park is packed with tattooed 20- and 30-somethings lounging in the sun, drinking beers brought from home or nearby corner shops. Beer is a way of life in Germany, and consistent with Berlin’s relaxed ethos, you can take your beer with you just about anywhere, including on the metro. Bohemian and alternative are terms that lose some specificity in our contemporary era that commodifies them, but they’re virtually defined by the residents of Friedrichshain.
Bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and clubs lie in such concentration here that one barely needs a plan before heading out. Simon-Dach Straße, lined with colorful 19th-century buildings, is a prime spot for a happy hour, a genuine “bar mile.” The 20 bars and cafés have room for 2,000 people to sit streetside for conversation and people-watching.
Food options are endless, including many Thai, Korean, and German restaurants. Datscha serves incredibly lush borscht, and Mutzenbacher melds Austrian-style cuisine with a hint of glammed-up Alpine décor. Himmelreich is a convivial queer locals’ spot with lots of outdoor seating, cherubs dangling from the ceiling of the bar, and a ladies’ night each Tuesday. Watch out for bicycles in this neighborhood; cyclists apparently don’t much care for the idea that they should be kept to the streets. Pedestrians be warned.
Berlin is approximately four times the size of Paris, just for the sake of scale, but it’s easy to find a place to lay your head. Out in Berlin (Out-in-Berlin.com) lists LGBT-friendly accommodations, and Siegessäule will help guide you to the best parties each evening.
The city is vast and diverse, and any trip will leave a pattern of impressions that make your Berlin distinct from anyone else’s. The city has history, nightlife, dining, markets, parks, music (and tons of vinyl shopping), and imperial remnants (including in neighboring Potsdam), and I feel I’ve just scratched the surface. But this much is universal throughout the city: Germans love to gather in open places when the sun is shining, and the attitude is infectious and welcoming. Grab a currywurst and a beer, find a sunny spot, and let the day take you where it will.
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Destination: Gay Berlin
BY Matthew Breen
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