Be spontaneous in Berlin

Time Out and Booking.com threw down a challenge to music blogger Jackson Waites – hear something new and explore an unknown city with great musical taste

To prove how easy it is to have a great time on the fly, we didn’t hand Jackson his travel documents until the last minute, so he had to put Booking.com’s app to the test, booking accommodation as he went and taking on a series of music-themed challenges in Berlin.

If you want to follow in his footsteps, we’ve also compiled a list of ten top-rated hotels from Booking.com and ten must-do amazing experiences in the city.

Plus, don't forget to enter our fabulous wing-it competition to win a weekend in Barcelona.

Introducing Jackson Waites

Introducing Jackson Waites

Jackson is the founding blogger of the First Ear music collective. Editor, radio host, DJ and self-confessed ‘space cowboy’, he’s the ideal wing-it correspondent for our mission – to tell us something new about a journey into sound in the German cultural capital.

Where he booked

Where he booked

With just a couple of hours to go before our flight, I picked up the Booking.com iPad app and flicked through the options until we spotted the Nhow hotel. After reading in the description that it was a purpose-built music hotel we were sold, but upon arrival we realised it was far cooler than we could have expected.

Upon entering the hotel there is a spacious reception area which leads onto the bar and a full stage, which hosts DJs and bands most nights. Potentially the coolest thing about this hotel was the room service, and not just the excellent currywurst. Electric guitars, keyboards and CDJs were available to hire for free. If you're a music lover visiting Berlin you must stay here!

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The trip begins

The trip begins

I set off for the airport. Time Out had confirmed that a ticket with my name on it would be waiting for me at Luton Airport. Berlin was my lucky destination for the weekend, with a flight out of the UK at 1.30pm! At such short notice, I couldn’t help but wonder what sketchy accommodation I might be left to choose from, but with seamless effort on the Booking.com app, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and efficiently I was able to secure a room to my liking.

 

One would assume that booking a hotel for the same night would not leave you much choice, but the quantity of rooms available was incredible. After flicking through a selection of hip and trendy hotels, I found the perfect place to stay for music lovers. As described, ‘it is a place where music lovers will feel at home.’ After completing the booking, the app automatically downloaded the confirmation as well as a guide to Berlin for both online and offline use, and I was set to go.

 

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The Nhow hotel turned out to be a great choice. Not only for its music theme but its location – on Booking.com it’s easy to search anywhere you’re staying by area and narrow down your choices. The hotel’s huge windows offered a great view of the River Spree, and the terrace alongside the river was very handy as temperatures hit the early 30s.

First challenge: seek out a record shop that’s a local secret

First challenge: seek out a record shop that’s a local secret

The concierge at the hotel recommended a few record shops to visit, and although I was lost half the time trying to locate them, I eventually found where the good vinyl was. I ended up visiting a couple record shops and markets, purchasing numerous but necessary treasures; I purchased as many records as I could physically carry onto a plane.

Tucked away in the corner of a courtyard, past two dark alleyways, The Record Loft was hands down my favourite record shop I found in Berlin, probably due to a perfect combination of hype and suspense, as the shop was still closed when I finally found it. Luckily I was able to find refuge and comfort in a nearby bar until the shop opened for business. There was a number of listening stations, which, as every crate digger knows, come in handy when you’re buying records you’ve never heard before!

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Second challenge: take a trip into the musical unknown

Second challenge: take a trip into the musical unknown

The challenge read ‘Find a gig or club night recommended to you by a local that’s not to your usual musical taste.’

The kind chaps at the record shop flooded me with recommendations for techno nights, most of them in old warehouses, factories and storage units. One thing I didn’t foresee was that locating these disused industrial spaces with the best underground parties can be quite challenging. 

 

Despite being plastered with ‘No drinking’ signs, every train I rode on Saturday night seemed to be a moving party. So with spontaneity in mind, I decided to wing it and just get off the train where most other partygoers did. This strategy paid off, as I ended up in Kottbusser Tor right in the middle of Berlin’s Pride celebrations, with every venue oozing good vibes. At 5am I was dancing to German trip hop in a random underground club, when I realised that this night was ten times more interesting and eventful than anything I could ever have planned.

In fact, I didn’t even have to leave my hotel to experience new sounds. The Nhow’s music theme runs throughout the hotel and one of the nicest touches is the five lifts, each of which plays a different genre of music – the jazz lift was my favourite.

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Final challenge: find the nearest iconic music landmark

Final challenge: find the nearest iconic music landmark

As I considered my final task, the hotel I was sitting in seemed to be the perfect setting. I had to seek out a location where a band had shot an album cover or music video, played their first gig or something along those lines.

With my hotel on the same street as MTV Berlin, Universal Music and the Berlin Wall I had no shortage of iconic places to visit. However, they seemed too easy to count as a ‘challenge’. Growing up I heard a lot of David Bowie’s music from my dad, who was a huge fan, and I remember being amazed that he almost sounded like a completely new artist every few years.

 

One particularly interesting period in his career was the time he spent in Berlin towards the end of the ’70s, so I decided I must visit somewhere relevant to Bowie. He recorded two albums at Hansa Studios, or ‘Hansa by the Wall’ as it was known in those days. When I found the studio I did the natural thing, of course, took a picture and sent it to my dad, because we all love making friends and family jealous when we go away – it’s half the fun!

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Ten great things to do in Berlin

Boho shopping in Neukölln

Head here for vintage finds from classic fashion pieces to movie memorabilia. Even if you’re not buying, browsing the stores selling musical instruments, clocks and furniture is great fun, and you can pick up delicious farmer’s market supplies if you’re renting an apartment.

[Pic: David Clack]

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Tour the Wall

Remnants of the notorious Berlin Wall have become a popular tourist trail. Today, Checkpoint Charlie, for example, is a garish tourist trap with a massive McDonalds and street traders selling tacky souvenirs. However, walking around these places can still be a thought-provoking experience and the Wall is unavoidably significant in this beautiful city’s history.

[Pic: Alexander Herold]

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Contemporary Fine Arts

Berlin is one of Europe’s most culturally hip cities and a visit to the galleries is a must for art lovers. One of Berlin’s best-known spaces, Contemporary Fine Arts has been presenting idiosyncratic art from around the world since 1992. The programme is diverse and includes homegrown artists, upcoming and acclaimed, as well as big stars of the British art scene.

[Pic: Jochen Littkemann]

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Go to the flea market in Mauerpark

Taking a stroll around a cheap and cheerful market is always a more realistic snapshot of any city you’re in, so even if you haven’t come here to buy cheap clothes, CDs and secondhand junk, it’s a fascinating place to wander round. This is one of the biggest and busiest flea markets in Berlin, with students and locals selling their wares. Dig deep and you might find some treasure.

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Reichstag

This nineteenth-century place of politics was gutted by fire in 1933, but today a shiny modern space designed by Norman Foster stands in its place, a proud home for the Federal German Parliament. Stunningly beautiful, it’s open to the public and free to visit. Its dome sheds light on the governmental workings below, thanks to energy-efficient mirrors.

[Pic: Elan Fleisher]

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Take the Trabi Safari

The humble Trabant car was a symbol of the contrast between austere East Germany and flashy, BMW and Merc-driving West Germany for years – immortalised by U2 turning one into a massive mirror ball for their ‘Achtung Baby’ tour. The Cold War relic has been given a colourful makeover by Trabi Safari, who offer city tours as you sit in the back of a Trabant convertible.

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Bauhaus Archiv

This has to be top of the to-do list for anyone who has a passion for modern design. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, designed the elegant white building that now houses this fascinating design museum. The permanent exhibition includes furniture, ceramics, prints and sculptures, along with photographs and sketches created in the Bauhaus workshop between 1919 and 1933, at which point it was closed down by the Nazis. 

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Club der Visionäre

Canalside nightlife is one of Berlin’s favourite ways to relax and have fun. Tucked under an enormous weeping willow, this club has a small indoor dance floor and a wooden deck with a large jetty stretching out across the water. The roof has been sealed off, so now the place is open even on the coldest winter days and nights, though in summer it truly shines.

[Pic: Shutterstock/vvoe]

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Hugos

For a foodie treat, indulge yourself at what’s considered to be Berlin’s best restaurant right now (with the awards to prove it). Chef Thomas Kammeier’s classic haute cuisine mixes it with contemporary German style. Plus the views are amazing – the restaurant occupies the entire top floor of the Hotel InterContinental.

[Pic: Marc Meyerbroeker]

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A kebab at Imren Grill

For the few who don’t know, the döner kebab is the king of fast food in Berlin. Naturally many of the best places can be found in the Turkish areas of the city, and the Imren Grill is a five-star choice without doubt. Their outlet on Boppstrasse, close to Kottbusser Damm, has a big bare-bones dining room and offers specials like baked fish with stew and rice, but ultimately, the dönerim brot (kebab in toasted bread) is the star attraction.

[Pic: Tommy Tannock]

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Ten top-rated Berlin hotels on Booking.com

Hotel Adlon Kempinski

The Adlon is a legendary five-star hotel situated in Berlin’s Mitte, beside the Brandenburg Gate. It’s the ultimate in spoil-yourself accommodation, with state-of-the-art facilities, a shopping arcade and a two Michelin-star restaurant. Phew!

Book with Booking.com

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Casa Camper Berlin

A funky designer hotel with brilliant free fitness facilities, free refreshments 24 hours a day and free wi-fi, as well as natural toiletries and a panoramic city view from the top floor Tentempié Lounge.

[Pic: Camille Blake]

Book with Booking.com

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Hotel Johann

A good choice for Berlin nightlife, this chic, contemporary hotel is located in the buzzy Kreuzberg district of Berlin. All rooms include a flat-screen TV, free wi-fi internet access and parquet floors, and you can rent a bicycle at the 24-hour reception.

Book with Booking.com

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B! Apartments

Mitte is a great district to stay in if you want to be at the heart of the city action, and these apartments are within easy reach of Berlin’s major attractions. Each apartment has a living/sleeping area, flat-screen TV, free wi-fi, a big bathroom and well-equipped kitchen.

Book with Booking.com

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The Circus Hotel

Located directly opposite Rosenthaler Platz underground station (two  stops from Alexanderplatz), this comfortable, stylish hotel has some New York townhouse chic about it. There’s an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and a café, plus a restaurant, Fabisch, which serves German specialities.

Book with Booking.com



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