The charm of Berlin doesn’t really lie in its appearance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not hideous. It’s just that compared to the Christmas markets and quaint villages you see in guidebooks, it’s not the prettiest place in Germany. There’s graffiti everywhere and it’s a strange contrast to see fancy-looking buildings and tree-lined residential streets plastered with spray paint. Cool, yes. Interesting, definitely. Beautiful? Not so much.
But we didn’t come here for the scenery. We came because this city’s tumultuous past has transformed it into a place that is effortlessly cool and unique. We booked a full week because we had a feeling we would love it here, and I’m happy to report we were right. Berlin was a dream come true, an eye-opening and often exhausting journey from start to finish, and it was tough to leave.
Our visit got off to a rough start as we had to take a train from Cologne at 4:30 am, but once we checked in, ate lunch and had a quick nap, we felt slightly better, and as it was Friday night, opted to sign up for our hostel’s pub crawl.
If you’ve ever been on a pub crawl, you know how it went. The evening flew by in a montage of shots and beers. Needless to say, we woke up the next morning with splitting headaches and resolved not to do anything too serious. But of course, this is Berlin, so fate had something else in store for us. I’ll just regale you with the whole tale, because it perfectly encapsulates our Berlin experience, but fair warning: this is gonna be a long one.
We first realized it wasn’t going to be a ‘chill’ day when the hostel receptionist noticed us looking miserable and advised us to drink something called Club Mate. It was a liquid the color of urine in what looked like an oversized Snapple bottle, but he insisted it was the perfect hangover cure. Desperate for relief, we acquiesced. That first sip was brutal: if you’ve ever had yerba mate (which is the main ingredient), you know it’s an acquired taste, and this tasted like that mixed with old beer and a hint of apple cider vinegar. Still, we forced ourselves to chug a bottle each, and to our surprise mere minutes later we felt pretty much completely normal. I mean, it makes sense - mate contains as much caffeine as coffee and is regarded as a health drink in some cultures, so it’s kinda like Red Bull but you can pretend it’s not terrible for you. We later learned that Club Mate is a cult phenomenon in Berlin, and you can’t walk more than 5 yards down the street without seeing at least one person sipping on it. By the end of the week, we found ourselves craving the taste (I’m personally partial to the pomegranate flavor, but Alex swears by the original formula) and I’m convinced that it plays a role in how Berliners are able to party so hard - this stuff gives you wiiiings.
After our Club Mate recovery session, we both miraculously felt like functioning members of society again, so we met up with my friend Nick, whom I’ve known since fourth grade, for dinner at a Turkish restaurant in Kreuzberg. When he ordered a bottle of raki (basically Turkish ouzo), we had our second sign that this wasn’t going to be a quiet evening. After polishing it off along with some delicious kebabs, we were feeling pretty good, so we headed down the street to a bar called Roses.
Roses is this tiny hole in the wall spot, and the inside is completely, violently, Dolores Umbridge pink: the walls are lined with magenta fur, the ceiling is covered in rose-colored vinyl, and the only light is from tinted bulbs in a few old lamps. It was there that Nick introduced us to a uniquely Berlin concept: the Vodka Mate. Essentially, it’s vodka mixed with Club Mate, but it’s the execution that really makes this drink awesome. When you order it the bartender hands you an unopened bottle of Club Mate. You’re expected to chug some of it, at which point the bartender fills the rest of the bottle with vodka. Now, this would never fly in America. I just can’t imagine a Chicago bartender expecting patrons to be responsible enough to consume what amounts to DIY Four Loko, but in Berlin everyone seemed pretty put-together about their alcohol consumption. During our whole time there, we didn’t see anyone puking or fighting or really being obnoxious at all, which we found really interesting considering that people regularly go out until 8 or 9 am. We’ve been in cities with lesser party reputations that were full of wasted people on the streets well before midnight (looking at you, Manchester). I guess Berliners are just good at handling their liquor.
As the night progressed, we quickly befriended another group of friends who were sitting near us, and eventually we all decided to head to a nightclub called Kater Blau. It was at this point that Alex and I finally came to terms with the fact that we would not be sleeping anytime soon. Upon arrival to the club - at 2 am - we discovered that the line went around the block, but our new friends assured us that this was perfectly normal, so we waited. And waited. And waited. For two full hours. I cannot overstate how miserable this was. At one point the girl in front of us informed us that on the previous weekend she had waited in an even longer queue and ended up spending a full three days in this same nightclub, leaving only once in order to shower. Encouraged by this, we soldiered on.
Finally, just as we noticed the first predawn light appearing on the horizon, we made it to the front of the line. Now would be a good time to mention that Berlin clubs are notorious for having highly selective bouncers. For whatever reason - ego, probably - they pick and choose who comes into their club seemingly at random, meaning that queueing for two hours does not guarantee you admission. Countless pieces of advice can be found online on how to beat the odds, from ‘wear all black’ to ‘learn German’ to ‘they can smell fear’ but the reality is, it’s completely random. Now would also be a good time to mention that Alex and I were wearing our last-resort clothes, having sent everything we owned to the laundry the previous day. Which is to say that all my underwear was in a washing machine somewhere in the bowels of our hostel, so I was rocking swimsuit bottoms under a ratty tank dress and slip-on sneakers…not exactly Cool Club Kid attire. I wasn't confident about my chances.
Picture the scene: we’re at the front of the line waiting for the bouncers to address us. My anxiety is peaking: my heart is pounding, I’ve got nervous sweats, and I’m trying my absolute best to avoid looking anywhere that isn’t the sidewalk in front of me, lest they sense my unworthiness. In my head I'm repeating “act normal, act normal, act normal” over and over, but I'm not sure it’s working.
Eventually the bouncer looks me over, holds up two fingers, and asks something in German. I can’t understand a word she’s saying so I just nod once in what I hope is a confident way. For an excruciating moment, time stands still as we wait for her verdict. I gulp (have I mentioned how sweaty I am?). Then, suddenly, she waves us forward and we realize we have, against all odds, passed the test.
Once inside, it felt like a music festival - it reminded me a lot of Block9 at Glastonbury in particular. The club was made up of a few rooms playing different kinds of techno all connected by a large open-air space. There was even a pizza stand! And despite the late hour - at this point we literally watched the sunrise - there were still hundreds of people roaming around, clutching beers and dancing their hearts out. The vibe was totally different from any club, rave, or festival Alex and I had ever been to. I think part of this is due to the strict no-photo policy (we had to put stickers over our phone cameras to enter), but I also believe the door policy plays a key role. Everyone was there to dance, enjoy the music, and have a good time. No one was too messed up; the atmosphere was extremely friendly, positive and open-minded. I think the bouncers really are capable of curating a quality crowd, so it’s hard for me to fault them despite how frustrating the process is. I really have not experienced anything like it before. I’m a self-conscious person and usually get pretty anxious in crowds, but here I could just let myself go (and I’m sure the confidence boost of making it past the bouncers helped a bit). It was a huge relief as I had been nervous about going in the first place - I always thought I wasn't a ‘club person’ but I guess I was wrong.
So we danced our butts off for a few hours, bouncing from room to room and pausing outside to enjoy the fresh morning air. Unfortunately, my circadian rhythm caught up to me pretty fast once I exposed myself to daylight, and eventually my feet became too tired to stand any longer. Alex was feeling the same way, so we said goodbye to our friends and headed home. The walk to the U-Bahn was oddly serene - that early on a Sunday, Berlin was dead quiet, and it felt surreal to basically have the city to ourselves. To a typical Berliner, our night was probably very tame and average, but for us foreigners, it was totally enchanting. Whether it was the Club Mate, the friendly attitudes of everyone we met, or just the rush of being in such an awesome city with some great people, I’m not sure, but it was an incredibly special experience and I don’t think I'll ever be able to look at nightclubs the same way.
I hate to sum up the rest of our week in Berlin in just a few short paragraphs, but after the wild ride of our first 48 hours we decided to take it pretty easy, spending most of our days at cafes and our nights at quiet bars near our hostel in Mitte. We didn’t just party, though - we also experienced some culture and made an effort to learn about Berlin’s rocky history through visits to the East Side Gallery, the Berlin Wall Memorial, and a few museums.
We highly recommend the Jewish Museum in particular - much of it focuses on the horrors of the Holocaust, and it was a sobering reminder of the horrific things human beings can do to each other. One thing we found fascinating was the way the building’s architecture was used to evoke particular emotions - for example, in the ‘Axis of Exile,’ a section covering the forced emigration of German Jews during the early years of the Nazi regime, there is a garden that is built on a slope with olive trees planted on columns high above visitors’ heads. It’s very disorienting, which reflects the difficulty of being an outsider in a new place. In addition, the museum had exhibits covering the complete history of Jews in Germany for centuries, as well as a temporary exhibit on women’s head-coverings and female modesty across different cultures, which I found especially enlightening.
All in all, I can safely say that Berlin was my favorite city so far on this trip - and the same goes for Alex. In my life, I've been to a lot of cities all over the world and I've fallen deeply in love with a few. But Berlin feels different. It’s easy to go to a place like Rome and fall in love with the romantic intrigue and the spectacle of it all, but in Berlin it’s different - it’s more attainable, more realistic, and that makes it all the more magnificent - and that much harder to leave.