Bold, brash and brilliant. That’s Berlin. The undisputed queer capital of Germany and arguably the most hedonistic gay destination in the world. But there is more to it than just being a bad-ass party town, as JD van Zyl discovered on a recent visit.
“I honestly think you can find whatever takes your fancy in Berlin,” Carsten says as he takes another drag from his cigarette. We are standing on the rooftop terrace of GMF at Weekend, one of the finest gay clubs I have been to in a long time, with views that stretch ahead of us from Alexander Platz and its gargantuan concrete TV tower (the tallest structure in Germany) towards the distant horizon of Berlin’s outer reaches.
“You mean sexually?” I ask, sounding a little too excited for my own liking
And Carsten should know. Although he lives in Munich where he works as an accountant, he has travelled to Berlin five times in the the last two years, mostly to savour the city’s fleshly delights.
“Have you not been to Lab.oratory?” he asks somewhat incredulously.
I confess I haven’t. In fact, I have never even heard of it until just now. Turns out Lab.oratory, located in a former power station in the Friedrichshain district, is Berlin’s gay sex club of choice where, according to Carsten at least, even the most radical desires are regularly catered for.
“If Paris is the city of love, then Berlin has to be the city of lust,” Carsten muses philosophically as we leave the roof and head back down the stairs to the packed dance floor.
Although this is only my second night in the German capital as part of a five night break, it is already starting to dawn on me just how much I will need to explore over the next three days, though I doubt very much joining Carsten on a trip to explore the city’s erotic pleasures will form part of that. Good thing then that it has never been easier to hop over to Berlin thanks to a number of new direct flights introduced by Lufthansa to the German capital in 2012 as the company steps up activity in anticipation of the long-overdue opening of the swish new Berlin-Brandenburg “Willy Brandt” Airport next year. Just in case I don’t fit it all in.
Hitting the ’hood
Over brunch the next morning our tour guide for the day, Henrik Tidefjärd, also comments on the German capital’s night-time delights. According to him it is imperative that you venture beyond the central Mitte district if you want to well and truly get under the city’s skin – a somewhat different approach to exploring other European city hotspots. “You have to remember about 70 percent of Berlin’s old town was destroyed in World War 2, so the city’s infrastructure is very different to that of cities like Madrid or Paris,” Henrik explains while I gingerly sip on a Bloody Mary.
“During office hours Berlin’s city centre buzzes with people going to the office and visiting museums, galleries and shops,” Henrik explains. “But in the evening and over weekends Mitte becomes rather deserted. That’s when the action moves into the surrounding neighbourhoods.”
Which of the outlying districts should be at the top of a gay visitor’s list? Undoubtedly Schönenberg, which is the closest you will find to a gay village in the German capital. The area around Nolledorfplatz bristles with clubs, cafés, restaurants and cruisey bars proudly flying the rainbow flag (some of them doing so for nearly a century).
Hip and happening
For something more trendy, head on over to Prenzlauer Berg which is dotted with numerous cosy bars and hip cafés. You can be forgiven if at first glance you conclude there aren’t all that many gay establishments to choose from here, but you’d be greatly mistaken. The Prenzlauer Berg scene might be less obvious and stereotypical than that of Schönenberg, but it is very much present. You just need to know where to look, and heading down Gleim Strasse, Greifenhagener Strasse and Schöhauser Allee will get you off to a good start.
One spot not to be missed is the charming Anna Blume café with its scrumptious pastries and hangover-curing breakfasts. On weekends gay locals and visitors flock here, most of them donning oversized Jackie O sunglasses in an unsuccessful attempt to hide the excesses of the previous night. Time your Sunday breakfast to coincide with a visit to the vibrant and decidedly oddball fleamarket in the nearby Mauerpark (“Wall Park”) if you fancy taking some authentic Berlin tat home. A large chunk of the Berlin Wall still cuts through the park and much of the market – which brims with open air acts and street performers – is located in what was formerly the Wall’s Death Strip.
Far from culturally challenged
But Berlin is far from just being a bad-ass party town. With one of the most wrenching histories of any city on Earth – the scars of which is still clearly visible, even today – Berlin is also home to a riveting cultural scene. Taking pride of place among its more sophisticated offerings is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Consistently ranked among the top five orchestras in the world and with a Brit – Sir Simon Rattle – at the helm, any Berlin Phil concert is a treat. An undisputed highlight of their annual calendar, however, is the end-of-season open-air concert hosted in the Berliner Waldbϋhne in front of 20,000 fans amidst a spectacular forest setting. As good fortune would have it my visit coincided with exactly this concert, and although the weather was far from ideal, even the persistent rain barely detracted from the magic of the overall experience.
Prefer getting your cultural fill from museums rather than music? Then Museumsinsel, a cluster of five museums on an island in the Spree river, will be nirvana. A Unesco World Heritage site since 1999, “Museum Island” is currently undergoing a radical transformation thanks to a subterranean Archaeological Promenade which will unite four of the five museums, the Alte Nationalgalerie being the exception. Once completed in 2015, the combined collections will result in the largest museum in the world which will span a massive 6,000 years of human history.
For anybody with even a passing interest in LGBT history, the Schwule Museum in Kreuzberg should definitely also feature on their itinerary. Literally translating to “Gay Museum”, it is dedicated to preserving and celebrating all aspects of LGBT life through a variety of exhibitions, lectures and workshops hosted during the year. Its permanent exhibition is dedicated to 200 years of gay culture, while temporary exhibits honour such gay icons as Oscar Wilde and Marlene Dietrich.
As I board my homebound Lufthansa flight to head back to Manchester, there is no doubt in my mind that after five days in the German capital I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of its offering – nocturnal and otherwise. And I find myself subconsciously already planning my next city-break to the German capital. Maybe, just maybe, I might even arrange it to coincide with one of Carsten’s visits to Berlin for a hedonistic night out on the town.
Where to stay: Pullman Berlin Schweizerhof is close to the shopping strip of Kurfürstendamm (or Ku’damm for short) and KaDeWe, Europe’s largest – and decidedly flash – department store. The rooms are comfortable and the pool and fitness area is perfect for chilling out after a hard night on the dance floor. Moving a little up along the luxury scale is Hotel De Rome, conveniently located on Bebelplatz and a stone throw from such heavyweight attractions as Brandenburg Gate, Museumsinsel and the Reichstag.
Although undeniably posh, Hotel De Rome never feels pretentious and fussy, but provides plenty of opportunities to pamper and spoil yourself. Don’t miss cocktails on the rooftop terrace with its striking views over the city.
How to get there: In June this year Lufthansa introduced a number of direct flights to Berlin from London, Birmingham and Manchester, making it easier than ever to visit the German capital. And with one-way flights starting at just £39 it will also leave you with a bigger budget to splash out once you get there. Worth noting is that Lufthansa has just launched a new check-inn procedure with mobile boarding passes which makes the most of the new iPhone Passbook app, to offer an even more efficient check-in experience.