With its cheap beer and non-existent licensing laws, you might think Berlin is overrun with drunken stags on Irish pub crawls, but instead you'll find a rich and very civilised drinking culture. The are Berlin bars and pubs to suit all tastes, whether you want to settle into a comfy sofa with a craft beer and book, or savour alcoholic craftsmanship in a concept cocktail bar.
There's no real central drinking area in Berlin, each neighbourhood bringing its distinctive characteristics to bar culture. The old West is more old-fashioned, the bars following a café-style with food also served at the table. Schöneberg was always known for it's nightlife, home to both a Weimar-era Isherwood and much later, David Bowie, but since the wall fell a lot of the action has shifted eastwards. Around Nollendorfplatz you'll find a number of excellent cocktail bars and the traditional gay centre. Kreuzberg's more rough and ready with plenty of boozy DJ bars around Kottbusser Tor and further south in Neukölln you can go full barfly at places like the louche Tier.
The locals love a drink but due to most bars being located in residential blocks, drinkers tend to get more and more hushed as the night progresses, displays of drunken behaviour are extremely rare. As with most places in Berlin, don't expect to be able to pay with credit cards anywhere so be sure to carry sufficient cash. And for those used to a last orders call, do remember to go home - Berlin's bars really do close when the last customer leaves!
The best Berlin bars and pubs
With an unmarked entrance – look for the iron door under the train overpass – and strict entrance policy, this grown-up bar/lounge is as exclusive as Berlin gets. This is where the well-heeled come to be seen sipping innovative drinks in a tubular, steel-ceilinged interior lit by eerily eye-like 3D installations. Try a bracing Wasabi cocktail in summer or a malt whisky served with local pine honey in winter. Go late, look sharp. There’s also a restaurant called the Backroom Cantina, serving pricey fusion food.
This rowdy beer garden has been doing Berliners a brisk service since 1852, and lies across the courtyard from an old ballroom of the same name, attracting a noisy crowd. The enthusiastic beer-swilling, big wooden tables and platefuls of Bratwurst and Bretzeln (pretzels) can almost make you feel like you’ve been teleported down south to Munich. There’s an indoor bar with a traditional German restaurant but in summer you want to join the all-day buzz outdoors with a house-brewed Pils in the shade. Brunch is served from 10am-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Subtitled the ‘Institute for Advanced Drinking’, this tiny bar is a Berlin classic, largely thanks to its eccentric owner, Gregor Scholl, who is ever present, smartly dressed in bow tie and waistcoat. There is no menu: Scholl will ask which spirit you like, and whether you want something süss oder sauer (sweet or sour). A short while later he’ll come back with one of the best cocktails you’ll ever taste (until the next one). Don’t waste his time or talent asking for a caipirinha. You have to ring the bell for access, and it’s worth calling ahead to check there’s space.
Berlin is famous for its Kneipen, which are best likened to a working man’s club. There are many different types: some act as clubhouses for fanatic fans of the local football team Hertha BSC, some play speed metal and some are just cosy places for local guys to congregate. This dive just off Kottbusser Damm is a fun example, with its bizarre cornucopia of toy dolls, old bicycles and instruments hanging from the walls. They take pride in their open all hours policy, a badge on the wall proving their 30 years of never closing – and that really means never here. The area’s endemic unemployment means it’s usually rammed at all times of the day with rowdy characters propping up the bar or hammering away at the table football. Naturally, the beer is cheap and plentiful.
Located in a backstreet off Torstraße, this Bar 3 is a favourite of the media types that prowl the streets of Mitte. With a large horseshoe shaped bar taking up most of the room, seating options are confined to bar stools, otherwise it’s standing only. This place packs out with slick, bespectacled clientele and the occasional actor or celebrity. The house wine is very good but try the Kölsch beer from Cologne – tradition dictates that it is served in a tiny glass, continually refilled by the barman until you abandon it half full or lay a beer mat over the top.
Homage seems to be Berlin’s preferred method for naming bars, and here iconoclastic fashion photographer Helmut Newton is immortalized. An entire wall of this large bar is dedicated to a series of his black and white nudes – for those unfamiliar with his pictures of statuesque models, they put today’s waifish examples to shame. Located near to what counts as Berlin’s business sector, the rich red leather chairs and heavy oak tables are geared towards a well heeled crowd, and there’s even a private cigar lounge upstairs. Stick to the classics here – martinis or a good single malt whisky – and watch the world go by from their heated terrace with a view onto Gendarmenmarkt.
This Kreuzberg bar shot to fame when the slight but magnificently bearded owner Atalay Aktas won the award for best mixologist in Germany. You’ll find his altar to the cocktail around the corner from Kreuzberg’s Markthalle Neun. They operate a knock-to-enter policy, and the small bar is divided into three distinct areas, low seating and black wallpaper with golden fleur-de-lys decorating the walls (the name means ‘Black Grape’ which says something about the desired décor). It’s all about the detail here, the enormous hunks of ice and antique glassware perfectly paired for the concoctions within. There’s no menu here and the waiters simply ask your flavor preferences for Atalay to work his magic behind the brick-walled bar.
One of the newest bars to hit the cocktail scene, Le Croco Bleu is the baby of Berlin drinks royalty, Gregor Scholl, who began his career at the Charlottenburg stalwart Paris Bar before opening the cultish Rum Trader. Housed in the old machine rooms of the 19th century Bötzow Brewery, its name derives from a semi-apocryphal story about a pair of Berlin Zoo crocodiles who were given shelter in a basement pool at the end of the Second World War. They’ve cleverly built around the original machinery and piping, installing a beautiful tiled floor, high chairs upholstered in emerald green leather, glass tables and an assortment of stuffed animals. Their rare gin collection is impressive, as are the cocktails that fly out of the small cubbyhole bar, their Acu Acu a particularly potent blend of aged rums, orgeat and absinthe.
The big picture windows, basic furnishings and old maps and prints on the walls provides a low key, old school setting – a welcome retreat in a touristy neighbourhood. Altes Europa is a reliable stop off for anything from a mid-afternoon drink to a rowdier night out with friends. The bar serves Ukrainian vodka and draught Krusovice in both dark and light varieties and from the kitchen there’s a bar menu of traditional middle European cooking to set you on your way.
This place perfectly captures that unfinished – and inexplicably sexy – look with which Berlin’s fashionable set is so enamoured. Kim has been a favourite for twentysomething art-scenesters since it opened in February 2007. The door is unmarked: just look for an all-glass facade and crowds of people sporting billowy monochrome clothing. The dimly lit, white-walled space is left deliberately DIY, a symbolic act of resistance against the relentless commercialization of Prenzlauer Berg. The large mirrors come from the now-demolished GDR parliament building Palast Der Republik and under a geometric dropped ceiling handmade by co-owner Oliver Miller are stackable chairs and tables that guests can arrange as they like. Cheap drinks and a rotating roster of neighbourhood DJs add to the don’t-give-a-damn aesthetic.