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Berlin calling

Elisabeth Jahn / kbmFebruary 2, 2013

Hot techno beats, casual sex, and the coolest insider tips - Berlin's nightlife draws revelers from all over the world. But can the capital live up to its reputation? DW's Elisabeth Jahn went to find out.

Taxis in front of the Brandenburg Gate
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"In the nighttime, when the world is at its rest, you will find me in the place I know the best, dancin', shoutin', flyin' to the moon..." 

"Sky and Sand," the Berlin anthem by DJs Paul and Fritz Kalkbrenner, is stuck in my head.

Until 2010, Bar 25, the joint the Kalkbrenner's made famous, was the heart of Berlin's party scene. People would meet up at the electro club in the Friedrichshain district in the afternoons and then danced the night away in a blur. But then Bar 25 was torn down.

Where can I find that feeling again? I wonder. I set aside an entire weekend and head out to find the magic must be living on somewhere in this city.

Paul Kalkbrenner
Paul Kalkbrenner and the 2008 film 'Berlin Calling' helped iconicize Berlin's nightlife

Playground for grown-ups

The owners of Bar 25 opened up Kater Holzig, just on the other side of the Spree River. But "Way too hyped up" and "totally arrogant rules about getting in" is the word on the street about it. Nevertheless, I head there on a Thursday evening for a swing dance event, get in without any problems, and only pay three euros ($4) at the door instead of the usual 10-euro cover.

Bright lights and signs flash in the courtyard of what used to be a soap factory. A huge skeleton is pinned to the brick wall and smaller papier-mâché figures light up now and then. Once I find the right door, I make my way up the stairs to the swing dance room.

The walls are covered with cartoons, old paintings, artificial ivy ranches and cloth netting, as if the interior decorator bought up everything available at the flea market. Instead of stuck-up hipsters, relaxed couples bob blithely across the wooden dance floor. 

In less than half an hour, I've learned the basic swing step and even gotten to know a few of the other guests, like 22-year-old artist Thalia Stefaniuk. She just moved to Berlin a few weeks ago because she believes the city is the art capital at the moment. "Even this club is totally amazing," she says, enraptured.

Club Kater Holzig in Berlin
Kater Holzig is run by the makers of Bar 25Image: DW

The swing dancers seem to come from all over, since many are speaking English. At 11:00 p.m., the electro club opens downstairs and I head down to take a look. Industrial metal lamps give the place a cool, cellar-like atmosphere. The music is monotone and there's no trace of the lively flair I'd found upstairs.

Before I leave, I spot four large letters above the bar - "OUCH!" - and wonder if the barkeeper can read my thoughts. 

Apartment turned club

The following evening, I venture out into an isolated, dilapidated apartment building in Friedrichshain. What apparently started out as an illegal club has since officially become the Salon zur Wilden Renate.

It's 1:00 a.m., but I'm still one of the first guests. There's a small dance area on the first floor, which must have been the family room. The walls have been sloppily plastered and chunks are falling off. The crowd is remarkably diverse, ranging from 20 to 40 years old, from alternative to chic.

After a few hours and a few beers, I start philosophizing about the merits of Berlin's nightlife with French 23-year-old Arthur Pelen. "There's lots of room here for unusual clubs like this one and international crowds," he sums up.

Sven Marquardt
Germany's notorious bouncer and photographer Sven MarquardtImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Like Arthur, even those who don't live in Berlin manage to find the most obscure party locations. But it's not always easy getting past the bouncer.

The dark side

On my third evening out, I head straight to Berlin's most legendary party spot: Berghain. I'm so determined to find out what all the hype is really about that I file into the long line at the door, even though it's -8 degrees Celsius (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit) outside. The people standing in front of me nervously look toward the bouncer.

There is no mistaking the barbed wire tattoo on his face. Sven Marquardt, Germany's most prominent bouncer, guards the place like a king on his throne and decides who he wants to let into his "temple" - and will be stuck shivering outside in the cold.

After about half an hour, I make it past Marquardt and enter the eerie club via a steel staircase. As if by remote control, figures are moving to techno and tech house on the main floor. In the massive, dimly lit room, each person quickly recedes into the anonymity they came here to find. 

Apart from its state-of-the-art sound system, the club is also known for being sexually uninhibited. It started out as a gay fetish club, but these days the crowds are mixed. Nevertheless, two dark rooms remain for those looking for a place to experiment.

Berghain is still a legend - and can mix a good gin tonicImage: DW

"Are you interested?" a man asks me. I respond with a firm "No" and he leaves me alone.

Up in the Panorama Bar, I am surprised to find that a good drink doesn't have to be expensive. My top-shelf gin and tonic costs just six euros.

Sipping on my drink, I sit back and realize that there isn't just one place where Berlin's nightlife legend lives on. Rather, it's constantly reinventing itself. There is no shortage of hidden, rough-around-the-edges destinations in this city. You just have to find them. And once you do, the adventure is up to you.