Everybody has their own reason to visit Berlin. Mine was to dance with ghosts, drink amongst angels, and take a deep dive into everything eerie and ancient the metropolis has to offer.
Two nights in Berlin was not nearly enough, but it was plenty to give me a taste for the dark, rich layer cake that is the capital of my current host country. But I wasn’t about to spend my precious hours (in the depth of winter, no less) doing just anything in Berlin. I sought out the city of my imagination—the crazy, raucous, vibrant town where the glamour and social upheaval of the Weimar era was still alive, the Bauhaus was still changing the way we see and think, and where the punks and goths were still rebelling against a history so sordid that all they could do was tear everything down, including themselves.
We paid our respects at the Holocaust Memorial, snapped photos in front of the Brandenberg Gate, and ogled the modern architecture of the Neue Nationalgalerie, and all of it was great. The Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum was well worth the entire trip to Berlin in the first place, and it was the mere cherry on top of the treasure trove of sphinxes, lions, mosaics, metal objets d’art, and ancient scientific equipment contained therein. Walking the freezing, sodden streets all day and night gave us a thorough perspective on Berlin as a city of contrasts—oldness and newness, beauty and horror, tragedy and reinvention.
But given the city’s important place in history, it was still the everyday pedestrian stuff that impressed me the most. Berlin is cool, or should I say, Berliners are cool. While there’s epicness everywhere you look, it’s the creativity of the locals I most admired, from the storefronts to the restaurants to the well-dressed commuters on the trains.
Speaking of shopping and food: it would have been unbeatable had it not been holiday-closure-time. You would be hard-pressed to find a chain store in Kreuzberg—there’s just not enough room amidst the clever boutiques, secondhand shops, and concept stores. (And, you’ll be pleased to know that the goth movement is still alive and well in Berlin. We entered into at least three different, well-stocked shops. For. The. Win.) We ate and drank at a tiki restaurant, a hip-hop burger joint, and…um, yes, a bona-fide goth bar. If you can dream it, you can probably find it somewhere in Berlin.
Though my trip was in the dismal lull of late December, it bore some unexpected fruit: Christmas markets. Christmas in Germany is like all of the awesome of American holidays rolled into one boozy, fluorescent, deep-fried celebration. A two-week-long boozy, fluorescent, deep-fried celebration, that is. Every bundled-up Berliner man, woman, and child headed out to one of the 20+ markets to drink their way warm (be it with gluwine or hot chocolate). We decided to pony up the two-euro entrance fee for the fanciest Christmas market in Berlin, which got us a personal visit from white, sparkly angels, a serenade from an orchestra of child accordionists, and access to a shopping that made the bazaars of fairytale Persia look like a carnival on its way out of town.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing I saw was Clärchens Ballhaus, a dusty old supper club from the days were ladies painted cupid’s bows on their lips and stocking seams up the backs of their legs. You can still go to Clärchens to engage in some full-on group dance lessons, complete with dinner and afterparty. If you sneak upstairs, however, you’ll find something a little different.
When we got to the mirrored ballroom, it was void of people…and any form of light. I thought of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland where the ghosts waltz maniacally downstairs as you fly by on your “doom buggie.” In the dark, I did my own waltz with my camera, snapping pictures wildly in the hopes of catching a ghost. (Or just a decent view of the room.) I don’t know whether the mirrored ballroom is technically open to the public, and in a way, I hope it’s not. Even ghosts need some space to kick up their heels once in awhile.
A friend of mine told me that Berlin is like a curio cabinet: you have to open up doors to see the exquisite stuff contained within. And perhaps that’s exactly what the city has—inner beauty. Without its difficult history, still so present in many of our minds, it would doubtless be as interesting or as compelling for a second (or third, or fourth) visit one day.