by Andrew Collins
It wouldn’t be a stretch to declare that Berlin has evolved into first major gay city of the 21st century – it rivals London, Paris, and New York in sheer enormity, cultural importance, and “it” factor, and more than any of other prominent world capital. Its gay scene is defined less by clusters of discos and drag bars and more by the remarkable degree to which GLBT residents and visitors permeate the fabric of numerous neighborhoods.
To be fair, plenty of other big cities – including those mentioned above – have seen a trend away from gay ghetto-ization, and Berlin has a Gay Village (around Nollendorfplatz, in Schoneberg) that bears a striking resemblance to Sydney’s Oxford Street, West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard, and countless others. But outside of this still highly charming district of campy bars and cafes festooned with rainbow flags, your “gaydar” is likely to detect critical mass all over the city, in areas that fall both west of the former Berlin Wall, and east of it.
Particularly among the younger generation of queer Berliners, there’s a sense that every intersection blessed with a few sidewalk cafes and diverting boutiques qualifies as miniature anchor of gay society. And yet in the most buzz-worthy of these areas – such as Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, Schonhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg, and Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain – people care not a lick about one’s sexual orientation.
Berlin is an expansive city with excellent, though sometimes a bit complicated, public transportation (a legacy from the city’s Cold War-era division). One highly enjoyable way to acquaint yourself is to choose a different neighborhood each day, and explore it. Here’s a look at a few of the city’s most alluring districts, and the exact streets and squares where you’re likely to find the great concentrations of noteworthy shops, galleries, restaurants, nightspots, and attractions.
This is Berlin’s city center, home to many smaller sections, a considerable number of international hotels and restaurants, and dozens of prominent attractions. Plan to focus a good bit of your time here, exploring Museum Island (home to the Old Museum, New Museum, Old National Gallery, and Pergamon Museum), as well as Brandenburg Gate and the nearby Holocaust Memorial, a moving and incredibly striking site. Across the street, on the edge of Tiergarten park, you can also view the small but poignant Holocaust Memorial that specifically honors the plight of gays and lesbians. Many other prominent museums are located here.
Just west of Mitte, you’ll find Tiergarten, which is the name of both a neighborhood and the huge park for which it is named. First, let’s point out the exciting part: the area of grassy lawns and light woodland just southwest of Siegessaule (Victory Column), just off of Hofjageralle, is a notorious haunt of gay sunbathers. And in Berlin, you’re perfectly welcome to laze about in public parks completely nude. Tiergarten also abounds with noteworthy attractions, such as Germany’s key institutions of government, which include the Bundestag, occupying the infamous Reichstag building. The park is beautiful to walk through and is also home to a mix of classic and postmodern monumental buildings, from Berliner Philharmonie concert hall to Neue Nationalgalerie (modern art museum).
Southwest of Tiergarten and adjoining the swanky Charlottenburg neighborhood, Schoneberg is itself a rather upscale district with wide, tree-lined streets and handsome homes and apartments. Shoppers flock to KaDeWe, a massive department store comparable to Herrods and Bon Marche. Within Schoneberg, chiefly along the streets just west of Nollendorfplatz (the former home of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood), you’ll find Berlin’s lively and cruise-y Gay Village. You’ll find the majority of the gay bars and sex shops along Motzstrasse, but be sure to venture along Fuggerstrasse and Eisenacher Strasse, too. If you can’t get into trouble (in the fun sense of the word) in this part of Berlin, you may as well pack it in and go home.
“Prenzlauer Berg” Creative spirits and a slightly at-odds mix of self-conscious hipsters and anti-establishment artists favor this enormous swath of handsome 19th-century apartment blocks northeast of Mitte, in the former East Berlin. Although teeming with gay hangouts, Prenzlauer Berg is the least gay-ghetto-ized of any Berlin neighborhoods – along such fashionable streets as Schonhouser Allee, Kastanienallee, and Greifenhagener Strasse, you’ll find cosmopolitan cafes, notable art galleries, fashion-forward boutiques, and elegant boutique hotels. There are few genuine attractions in this neighborhood, but much to see for fans of dining, shopping, and neighborhood exploring.
“Kreuzberg” Just south of Mitte, Kreuzberg was a lower-income immigrant district of West Berlin during the pre-reunification days, but it’s steadily developed cachet in recent years as a haunt of radical activists (queer and otherwise). This is especially the case near the Kottbusser Tor metro station, where you’ll find arty bars, authentic Turkish restaurants, and bohemian bookstores and cafes along Oranienstrasse. The more gentrified SW61 section, around Mehringdamm metro station, is home to the Schwules (Gay and Lesbian) Museum as well as several gay-popular eateries and bars, and an exceptionally good food market, called Marheineckplatz (considered by some to be the finest in the city).
“Friedrichshain” Like Kreuzberg, which it was administratively joined with in 2001, Friedrichshain is a somewhat hardscrabble neighborhood that’s lately become fashionable, at least in certain sections. It’s the area around Boxhagener Platz that has the greatest concentration of indie shopping and dining. It’s also worth walking along Karl-Marx-Allee, which leads into the district from Mitte, and is lined with imposing Stalinist architecture. One of these buildings contains Klub International, a retro-fabulous cinema that morphs into a gay disco the first Saturday of each month.A
Where to Stay in Berlin
Here’s a sampling of GLBT-popular hotels in Berlin, from affordable B&Bs to luxury palaces:
Ackselhaus & Bluehome. Comprising two stunning Victorian boutique hotels and the trendy Club del Mar restaurant, this fab hostelry is steps from the bohemian cafes and funky bars of Prenzlauer Berg. Rooms mix vintage, even rustic sensibilities with modern luxury – like staying with friends with impeccable taste.
Axel Hotel Berlin. New and earning plenty of buzz, the “hetero-friendly” Axel (there are others in Barcelona and Buenos Aires) sits smack in the middle of the Schoneberg gay scene. Rooms are compact but smartly done with fabulous showers, and amenities include a hip restaurant, sexy lounge, and full-service spa.
Arcotel Velvet. The dramatic design of this smart, contemporary, gay-friendly hotel along a trendy street in the Mitte delights style-conscious travelers. Each of the 85 rooms and suites has a wall of windows, and the on-site Velvet Lounge is a snazzy spot to enjoy cocktails.
Hotel Art Nouveau. Mod rooms with either international or color-driven themes are the draw of this antiques-filled boutique hotel about a 10-minute walk from the Schoneberg gay scene. A great choice if you’re seeking upscale digs at fair prices.
Frauenhotel Artemisia. Catering exclusively to women, this lesbian-friendly property is well-maintained with simple but airy rooms. Breakfast is included, and there’s even an art gallery on premises. A very safe, economical option.
Mini Loft Mitte. The slick design of this modern apartment-loft hotel contains 14 chicly furnished units with high ceilings and full kitchens. Given the reasonable rates and central locale near Tiergarten, it’s no wonder this place books up fast.
Pension Elefant. With seven high-ceilinged, charming rooms, this affordable, gay-owned B&B occupies a grand 19th-century building in the heart of the Nollendorfplatz Gay Village.
Westin Grand. A sophisticated, elegant hotel with a wonderfully central location along fabled Unter den Linden near Brandenburg Gate, this posh property has a beautiful gym and pool, excellent restaurants, and tastefully contemporary rooms.
The Little Black Book
Ackselhaus & Bluehome http://www.ackselhaus.de.
Arcotel Velvet http://cc.arcotel.at.
Axel Hotel Berlin http://www.axelhotels.com/berlin.
Berlin Tourist Office Gay Travel Site http://www.visitberlin.de/english/zielgruppen/e”zg”gay.php.
Frauenhotel Artemisia http://www.frauenhotel-berlin.de.
Germany Office of Tourism Gay Travel Site http://www.cometogermany.com/ENU/infocenter/gay”berlin”and”the”east.htm.
Hotel Art Nouveau http://www.hotelartnouveau.de.
Mini Loft Mitte http://www.miniloft.com.
Pension Elefant http://www.pension-elefant-berlin.de.
Westin Grand http://www.westin.de/berlin.