People have always flocked to Berlin for its spectacular nightlife, the era of venal Weimar decadence immortalized by Christopher Isherwood and Liza Minelli. Still today its lax licensing laws for bars, pubs and clubs, disused industrial spaces and residents with 'flexible' working hours mean the party scene is extremely vibrant.
Live music venues have had their fair share of difficulties with the rising rents and the city's relentless construction gobbling up prime riverside sites. Still though, Berlin is particularly generous to the arts, even for German standards, maintaining three world-class opera houses, various philharmonic orchestras and plenty of more experimental performance spaces too. From techno in dingy basements to outdoor performances under summer skies, Berlin caters for every taste and, this being a place where poor equals sexy, your musical odyssey shouldn't break the bank either. But a word of warning before you make a 7pm start on the Jägermeister: pace yourself. Clubs tend to fill up around 2am and parties here last all night, with few places turfing people out before 9am.
The best clubs in Berlin
Easily the city’s most famous club and arguably the best club in the world, Berghain is not just a techno club: it’s a way of life for many of the tireless regulars who call it ‘church’. Housed within an imposing former power station, it emerged from the ashes of a legendary gay predecessor, Ostgut, that fell victim to the city’s massive infrastructure projects. Even ‘non-club’ people will be intoxicated by the open atmosphere, liberal attitudes, eccentric characters, the carefully preserved industrial fabric of the building and, of course, the gargantuan sound system. The club’s reputation for a difficult and random door policy is not entirely undeserved: doorman Sven looms large all night with a seemingly random selection policy (you’ll recognize him from the facial tattoos). We recommend that you be calm, sober and respectful in the queue, and it goes without saying that drunken stags aren’t welcome. Open from Friday night is Panorama Bar, accessed up a flight of stairs from Berghain: this smaller dance floor plays old-school house and has walls decorated with art work by Wolfgang Tillmans. Berghain, complete with darkrooms, is open from Saturday midnights until well into Monday morning.
Housed in a ramshackle former bike shop beneath the S-Bahn railway arches, Golden Gate’s popularity is enjoying something of an upswing these days. Once home to a rather hit-and-miss music policy, with the occasional live show, this grimy little club has now settled firmly into a series of all-weekend techno parties. Its location – smack dab in the middle of a motorway – means it has no issue with noise. The Thursday night parties are particularly raucous, with the club carrying on until pretty much Monday afternoon. The dancefloor manages to ram a deceptive number of people in a Tardis-like feat; the crowd a mixture of hedonistic locals and an overspill of those who’ve fallen victim to the tough Berghain door policy. The atmosphere is extremely relaxed and positive, staying true to the Berlin party ethos of egalitarian fun with no fashion police or posing allowed. People mingle in the outdoor ‘garden’ space, really a small grimy patch with battered sofas – in winter covered by marquee – that is comically visible to passers-by on the street.
As the controversial Media Spree development rapidly spreads down the riversides, gobbling up many of the city’s club spaces, the nightlife action is being pushed ever eastwards. One loosely knit party collective started throwing semi-legal irregular parties in a multi-storied old apartment block. Referred to more commonly as Renate, the club has now carved out a mini-empire down the bottom of Stralauer Allee: there’s an outdoor garden area (with paddling pool), a labyrinth installation, café and most recently, a large open-air venue just across the other side of the Spree. Although international visitors increasingly outnumber locals, the original club still offers a slice of that semi-underground experience with a music policy that leans towards the more hedonistic side of disco house. Depending on the night, one or all of the floors might be open, each decorated in a typically haphazard fashion with rickety bunk seating and ladders running around it. There’s even a secret mini-club in the attic area. Expect long queues between 1am and 3am but once inside, you can run wild, like kids in an adventure playground, exploring the multitude of rooms, corridors and hidden corners.
A popular hangout for ex-pats – due in part to the motley crew of rockabilly American staff – White Trash started life as a one-room restaurant on Torstraße in the Mitte district. Owners Wally and Wolfgang have since transplanted the burger-bar-cum-truckers-stop concept into a new venue out East of the city centre. It’s open nightly for gorging on hefty burgers and slugging pitchers of beer into the wee hours, but things really kick off at the weekend when there’s live music in the restaurant, strippers dancing in the windows and parties in the basement. Overrun by hipster tourists at its former Mitte location, now it's reset itself in its third location as a tatty, lovable, anything-goes Berlin institution.
This slick club was one of the driving forces behind the rise of minimal techno in mid-2000s Berlin, as well as the first to feature a ceiling-mounted responsive LED lighting system, now copied all around the world. The downstairs Water Floor is particularly impressive with its panorama windows looking directly out onto the Spree, as well as a floating deck terrace for watching the sunrise over Kreuzberg. Occasionally it can feel a little overrun with tourists on the weekends, and its increasingly populist bookings don’t help, but pick the right night and you’ll still feel its original magic. Wednesday nights are for the professional ravers, just downstairs open, and there’s few places where you can party well into a weekday morning with such a fine central view of the city. The music is usually some form of tech-house, Watergate doing a lot to support smaller local labels like Keinemusik and Souvenir, and they often have legends like Kerri Chandler playing too.
Although not that old, this venue is about as perfect an example of Berlin’s utilitarian club aesthetic as you’re likely to find. Impossible to even hazard a guess at its previous use, the building has had very little done to it – other than ubiquitous graffiti – but like much in Berlin, the rough and rugged exterior proves quite opposite to its friendly atmosphere. Set in a large property behind Ostkreuz station, it has expansive grounds for open-air partying, featuring a chill-out caravan and wooded area with hidden clearings to get lost in. Inside, there are two smallish dance floors, the usual worn leather sofas (passed out raver optional), and a punchy sound system. The music policy is varied, but niche, with hard techno and deep house favoured. It plays home to the cult gay party Homopatik where local hero Mr. Ties has made a name for himself and his epic party sets.
Where to see live music in Berlin
Named after its postcode (and neighbourhood shorthand) this legendary punk club dates back to Kreuzberg’s now-distant past as centre to West Berlin’s anarchist squat scene. The wild-child artist Martin Kippenberger took over management in 1979, attracting experimental musicians such as Throbbing Gristle and Suicide. Still going strong, and with no sign of betraying its highly-politicized origins, SO36 is suitably scummy inside, with decades of sweat, beer and blood ingrained into the woodwork. While plenty of touring punk and hardcore bands grace their black stage, they embrace all forms of alternative lifestyle, hosting the long-running gay and lesbian Turkish night, Gayhane, which plays its own distinctive blend of middle-eastern dance pop and electronic classics.Oranienstrasse 190, Kreuzberg (tickets 6110 1313, 6140 1306, www.so36.de).
This new arts centre is doing much to revive the somewhat moribund area by Revaler Strasse in Friederichschain known as the ‘clubbing mile’. The re-purposed industrial buildings are something of an adult playground, with clubs, concert venues, bars and even an outdoor climbing wall on offer, but has seen its popularity wane in recent years. Urban Spree, the new project from the French crew behind the much-missed HBC, houses an art gallery, concert hall, studio spaces and Bunsmobile food truck, with an emphasis on the experimental and DIY. There are frequent performances and concerts, ranging from freeform jazz, to acid-folk and improvised instrumental noise. Look out for gigs by far-out noiseniks Psychic Ills and ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki, as well as the occasional curveball like hip-hop mega-producer Swizz Beatz.
A true Kreuzberg institution, this indie concert venue was a cinema in the 1950s and retains its curved bar and neon signage. Iggy Pop and David Bowie went on to produce some of their best work after shacking up together here in the late '70s and since then the rock and indie scene has been somewhat in the shadow of the never-ending techno party. Karrera Klub, usually on Saturdays at Lido, has championed guitar-driven music in the city for over a decade now, always featuring a live gig and then going all night with DJs playing indie dance classics. Otherwise, there is a regular programme of live music with all types of acts, from the avant-garde like Laibach and Lydia Lunch to more contemporary bands like Kurt Vile and These New Puritans.
Berlin opera houses and classical venues
Berlin’s most famous concert hall, home to the world-renowned orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker, is also its most architecturally daring; a marvellous, puckish piece of organic modernism with superb acoustics. The hall, with its golden vaulting roof, was designed by Hans Scharoun and opened in 1963. Over its 120-year history, the Berliner Philharmoniker has been conducted by such figures as Peter Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler – all elected democratically by the orchestra members. Its greatest fame came under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, who led the orchestra between 1955 and 1989, and was succeeded by Claudio Abbado. Since 2002, it has been under the leadership of Sir Simon Rattle. The Berlin Phil gives about 100 performances in the city during its August to June season, and puts on another 20 to 30 concerts around the world. Some tickets are available at a discount immediately before performances.
One of the only original Weimar revue theatres left in Berlin, Admiralspalast was home to the GDR Berlin State Opera during the post-war years. It was also popular with the Nazi government during WWII, it attempted to set the record straight in 2009 by becoming the first venue in Germany to stage Mel Brook’s Nazi-lampooning 'The Producers'. After being threatened with demolition in the late 1990s, it was restored and reopened in 2006 and when it isn’t hosting theatre or cabaret, the Admiralspalst has sell-out gigs by the likes of PJ Harvey and James Blake. You’ll find it right next to Friedrichstrasse station, the classy-but-cool venue of choice for big names who want to keep an atmospheric vibe and good acoustic.
For a taste of Berlin nightlife of a different era, head to this wonderfully original dance hall located in the middle of Mitte’s smart gallery district. In operation since 1913, it has had its fair share of ups and downs, but one thing has stayed constant on its floor – the familiar tappety-tap of a ballroom quick step or foxtrot. The Ballhaus actually has two ballrooms: the vast ground-floor space is lined with silver tinsel streamers and a spacious dance floor is ringed by wooden tables bedecked with white tablecloths and candles, a huge disco ball spinning overhead. Upstairs is another room that never fails to elicit gasps of awe from first-time visitors. Smaller but with high ceilings and a fin-de-siècle vibe, the chandeliered Mirror Salon has huge cracked mirrors, ornate moulding work and candlelight, transporting guests straight back to the 1920s. There’s a full roster of events throughout the week with lessons available, tango on Tuesdays or waltz on a Wednesday, while weekend evenings descend into more of a free-for-all with a live dance band performing to the mixed crowd.
Posters on the U-bahn proclaim Berlin Opernhauptstadt (opera capital) – and with reason. Not only does Germany have one-seventh of the world’s opera houses, but Berlin itself can count on three state-subsidised opera houses – a record not even matched by Italy. This cultural richness is not only a legacy of the city’s long artistic heritage but also of its Cold War division. East and West Berlin were both awash with state subsidies in a bid to demonstrate the cultural supremacy of communist and capitalist philosophy. After reunification there was twice the amount of everything, and, as a result, Berlin now boasts enough classical music for two (or maybe three) cities. The austere concrete Deutsche Oper building contains a stark modernist interior built in 1961 by Fritz Bornemann. Under the current directorship of Scotsman Donald Runnicles, the repertory combines visually striking adaptations of classics like Don Giovanni and Rigoletto with modern works by Benjamin Britten. Cheaper tickets usually sell out in advance but it’s worth arriving an hour early to try for returns.
An excellent example of the way Germany deals with bridging the gap between state-subsidized high culture and its underground performance scene. Hebbel am Ufer is actually a fusion of three different theatres in Kreuzberg, providing a space for younger, more experimental work ranging from drama, music, dance, talks and a strong cultural outreach programme. It provides facilities of international standards to travelling artists who in other cities might otherwise have to make do in low budget surroundings, and is testament to Germany’s extremely generous dedication to arts funding at all levels. Popular global projects like the Complaints Choir, which brings together a city’s local residents to vocalize their irks, find their home here, as well as concerts by indie tastemakers like Destroyer and Zola Jesus. Other locations: HAU1, Stresemannstrasse 29; HAU3, Tempelhofer Ufer 10.