Eccentric and expressive, Berlin attracts a swarm of creative’s from all industries, especially the arts and music. I’m often asked where to go, what to do, and whom to connect with. Being perfectly honest, like so many people who take weekend breaks in Berlin, I’d managed to avoid discovering the vibrant growth of hipster restaurants, galleries, drinking dens scattered over the city in favour of enjoying the music and social scene. So this May I spent four days with my boyfriend trying to conquer all…
I arrived on the afternoon of May 1st, international workers day, which in so many ways embodies the vestiges of Berlin’s socialist past and its refusal to become an anachronism. In Kreuzberg, where I was staying, it’s a pretty big deal. I had been invited here by Lacy Barry, to stay in her stunning apartment, which is uniquely styled with her work. Lacy’s works primarily with paper, almost like large colourful origami, but at this scale the paper gains an almost trans-dimensional quality, like perfect mathematical two-dimensional shapes have somehow found their way into our three dimensional reality and formed complex and beautiful facsimiles of the objects present in our natural world. I was quietly awed by a set of wings, of this same creation, lain out in pastel against the white wall of the apartment, which was an oasis tranquility and order.
Outside Kreuzberg was a hot inviting mess of street drinking, police road blocks and techno music. Only 6 years previously, in the aftermath of the crash, street protests had turned to street war, with molotov cocktails thrown by protesters and the area becoming a temporary no-go-zone for the cops. So the police clearly were clearly taking it seriously. Perhaps it’s the inevitable march towards gentrification, but this year at least May the 1st felt a lot more like Carnival back home with street parties on nearly every corner. Berliners just love an open air party, and in this tolerant town they are remarkably well accepted by the police. They range in size from intimate gatherings to packed events produced by viral events created and shared via Facebook. Some have even been promoted via graffiti tags or street art. Imagine a massive self-supplied sound system, DJ’s playing whatever they want in any glowing green location across Berlin; Brilliant! However our evening plans were far from casual.
Given the scene outside, it felt strange to slip on smart attire, but I wanted to experience some fine dining, glamour and glitz on our first night in town, and so we did. Feeling bizarrely overdressed for the ongoing street party-protest-rave, we struggled to leave Kreuzberg via for the amount of roadblocks and police cars. We eventually broke free in a taxi towards Mitte. Ourselves now calm and collected, our car pulled up to a red carpet framing the entrance to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, as we experienced the culture shock equivalent of taking an ice bath in June. Here was the home of Les Solistes restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire.
Pierre Gagnaire has a god like reputation. His infamous French creations in London’s wacky Sketch restaurant has long fed a queue of hungry fans. Here in Berlin Les Solistes felt ordered and German with classically sharp service. I was immediately met and glided to a stunning dramatic table setting. The styling was crisp, exclusive and spacious with ample distance between tables. I nestled on a seductively stunning sofa coated in deep purple velvet.
The sommelier left seconds before his arrival with an impressive selection of champagne bottles on ice and an eclectic mix of amuse-bouches, gluten-free bread baskets and two types of butter, classically salted and a yellow creamy curried butter. Les Solistes has a reputation for dining experiences, which reflect Berlin’s zeitgeist persona. We had the four-course tasting paired with a flight of rare wines but you can certainly choose more mountainous flights. Our first dish was Oysters served chilled, red beet water with beer from Bavaria; followed by Marinière of crayfish tails with green curry and green spring vegetables.
The main was light slices of duck breast, apple marmalade and rhubarb with vadouvan, potato and almond cream, beautifully complimented by a Foie Gras ice cream and jellied consommé, served in a intricate glass blown cup. Our finally was the chef’s signature showstopper ‘The Grand Dessert of Pierre Gagnaire,’ a colourful stream of jellied liquids, sorbets, caramels and reductions. Eccentric flavours such as bubblegum were recreated in foamy formulas! The menu was incredibly inventive with quirky German character.
Having spent over two hours blasting our taste receptors with Pierre Gagnaires edible flamboyancy, we were whisked off to experience The Fragrances bar and The Curtain Club at The Ritz.
Do you remember the first time you had a drink? It’s that freshness of experience that every mixologist might aspire to create when turning out a new creation. To surprise, to snap us to our senses and to evoke memory. To provide us with an experience that lifts us from ourselves, even before the effects of the poison. Arnd Heissen’s Fragrances bar expands the realm of mixology into that of the deeply experiential, leveraging our sense of smell, the most evocative of all the senses, to create cocktails that are made with as much narrative as liquor.
Entering the bar you are first presented with a series of perfumes and images spaced at regular intervals down a dimly lit corridor. This is the menu; there is nothing in written form. To make an order you sniff the perfumes, which are matched to cocktails available, from which you pick whichever appeals to you most. Options include a cocktail that mimics the experience of a day at the beach, or the feeling of being in a forest after a storm. Complicated garnishes provide the mise en scene, in the form of a miniature wooden hut full of cedarwood smoke, or frothy foam with the aroma of sun cream.
With most drinks priced at €14, the menu is expensive by Berlin standards, but considering the attention to detail involved represents excellent value for money. We tried, Honour by Amouage (Tanqueray 10, Rose infused Ketel one, Wandering Poet Sake, Fresh Lemon, Eau de vie of coriander, Rhubarb Nectar, Vetiver-jasmine-incense-syrup), Vera By Penhaligon (Pear puree, Saffron infused Zacapa 23, Bulleit Bourbon, Rose Water, Magnolia-vanilla-honey-toncabean-syrup, sandalwood) and Un Matin D’orage (Ginger infused ciroc, shiso leaf, fresh leon, magnolia-jasmine-ylang-syrup). For a final night-cap we were also treated to a musically choreographed fire-flare performance cocktail at the Curtain Club, Fragrances’ sister bar, which turned the heads of every patron, and left us giggling with awkward anticipation. Watch out for the Kinky blazer fire display!
Saturday’s goal was to explore the new trendy hotspots. Firstly the newly opened 25 Hours Hotel Bikini Berlin. Situated in City West, the hotel is flanked by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church and sits just in front of Berlin’s zoo ‘Zoologischer Garten.’The hotel is adjacent to Bikini Berlin extra-ordinary shopping mall, housing fashion boutiques galore, live DJ’s and health food pop-ups; it reminded me of a little of Shoreditch’s Boxpark but bigger, more innovative and just that bit less of a tourist trap. While the city zoo may not be a draw for the hipsters, the 25-hour hotel’s ‘Monkey Bar’ overlooking it is a landmark attraction. Ten stories up you are encouraged to perch on a tiered bench amongst a sea of faces, all together like a school photo, together observing the animal behaviour below and around you. With the seating mimicking the enclosure, the place really seems to state that at the bottom of it, we’re all apes. Likewise the interior decorated was a wild jungle aesthetic, serving plush juicy cocktails!
NENI is the hotel’s restaurant, adjacent to Monkey bar. NENI’s truly invigorating interior has light pouring in from every angle, leaving diners suspended in nature, gazing at panoramic views! The hand crafted wooden tables were filled with bums and happy faces; the food mimicked the brightness of the surrounding. Chef, Hayo Molcho has sculpted the perfect menu taking inspiration from Persian, Russian, Arabic, Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish, German and Austrian Influences, a magnificent cocktail of colour and flavour. The food is designed to be shared so you can try a little of everything, each dish is served in pots and pan from the kitchen. You feel instantly at home, you can order homemade iced tea and lemonade from the counter. Ideal for friends, families and visitors escaping from the surrounding shopping lures in the area.
From the menu you must try the luminous trio of Dreierlei Humus (Beetroot and Horseradish, Curry and Mango flavors) accompanied with two fluffy fresh pita breads served in handmade buttercup yellow canvas bags. You can enjoy dishes such as caramelized aubergine with chili and ginger, contrasted with scallops on roast beets and lentils, mouthwatering hanger steak and sweet potato chips or more heavy options of fried chicken. Portions can be served in two sizes. Dessert was a light lemon cheesecake aside a frothy lactose-free flat white. This lunch was a total success, we left uplifted, taking our final gazes of their immaculate interior which was a mix of exposed chrome pipes, neon lighting, white wash furniture, draped vibrant green foliage much like being in greenhouse
Back on the ground floor, I ordered my first German uber ride to Mitte where we stomped up a set of stairs into an apartment converted into a digital art space. Invitees were stuffing their faces with fresh cheese and grapes while gulping down kombucha elixirs. We were introduced to the Art and Culture Magazine called Splendid Berlin and mused on the local chattering. Gallery hopping in Mitte is definitely a pleasant way to spend your weekend afternoon. With an hour to kill before our dinner at the much talked about Industry Standard, we decided to take the rapid metro journey to Neukölln, Berlin’s Dalston equivalent.
Pacing at Londoner speed through a sea of Middle Eastern restaurants and electrical shops before we arrived at the unsigned entrance to Industry Standard in about 15 minutes. Industry Standard was recommended to me by numerous people, I was advised that the food was great but on the pricey side for Berlin. Home to the best-deconstructed steak tartar and an exciting range of bio-dynamic cider, and wines (curated by Viniculture). The rustic interior was small, clean and minimal with a black and white sketch, designed by a tattoo artists who also happens to be their kitchen porter. There was certainly a sense of community and commitment to the team who took things very seriously. The menu is select and bold featuring dishes such as bone marrow with citrus, radish and toast, Oysters Mexicana style (a famous liquor shot in Kreuzberg) . Their cooking has its roots in rustic French and Mediterranean cuisine, expressed with modern rigour. Of course there are no bookings there and it’s rammed every night!
Sunday was spent in a pop-up vintage market in Kreuzberg. One of the many, which sprout up in the city at any time. Records, clothes and useless trinkets straight from a dusty wardrobe were all on offe. Street food and coffee caused congragation. I left with a heavy bag filled with new vinyl, crockery and coffee beans! We later explored Kreuzberg by foot. Many places at shut on Sundays so we couldn’t get into the famous boutiques thus embarking on a window- shopping voyage.
We explored the more upmarket shopping area of Friedenstein before checking into nhow hotel where we could rest our stomachs and bodies in preparation for a night out at Kater Blau. A mad merry go round club suspended onto the river on what looks like a sunken ship. Underground and fantastical, I happily immersed myself in their themed ‘Who The Fred is Fuck’ themed cigarettes (exclusive to the club), tribal glowing wall art, statues, bespoke Club Matte (German equivalent to red bull) named ‘Kater Matte.’ I danced in multiple rooms, and became especially attached to a sofa raised two feet above the ground on their their upstairs floor with a stunning balcony overlooking the main club. You have to be on the guest list here so plan ahead. Our casual walk home took 15 minutes along the Berlin Wall.
Vibrant and stylised, the nhow hotel brings joy and playfulness to your stay! It’s kitch and quirky design appeals directly to that childish sense wonder we often miss in ourselves. Starting with the pink and white pills (edible chocolate) available from the reception desk at check-in, every aspect of our stay was sculpted to our amusement, from the gallery floor with local art, their guitar room service where a Epiphone SG guitar and amp delivered to our room upon request, eccentric interior designs featuring a theme of pink, silver and white and finally their musical elevators, each with its own genre inviting you to make a taste distinction each morning as you leave you room. My boyfriend played guitar (of course), allowing us to rock out our hotel room in a brief moment of teenage fantasy! There is also a DJ room service available if you prefer. It felt like we had been catapulted into a musical theme park for adults themed in pink.
The hotel is handily located in the unofficial clubbing district with optimal travel access, and bikes available to hire. Many of the rooms boast impressive views over the river spree, fully kitted with bespoke amenities and waterfall showers. Their stunning lounge spills onto the riversides promenade. At night the lounge transforms into a social space with live bands, DJ’s and stage shows! A standard room costs around €150 per night, suites vary around €230.
After a much deserved lie in, we relaxed into our final day at The Liquidrom Spa. Perfectly accessible in the heart of Kreuzberg, the liquidrom is described as ‘ berlin bathing-culture’. It’s a modern and authentic spa favoured by Berliners for their immersive experiences of music, literature, detoxification and pleasure. Yes there is a no towel, bikini’s sign on the doors. This was the ultimate end to the trip, shedding our indulgences and sweat from the previous night at Kater Blau, we apprehensively roamed in our gowns between their finnish sauna (90° C), a Himalaya salt sauna (65° c), a fully-glassed Kelo panorama sauna (80° C) and outdoor steam bath (40° C). Once you have purchased your day pass at the desirable fee of 18 euros, you are free to stay as long as you like. People were sunbathing naked on suspended chairs sipping beers while others were lapping up mini massages or sipping on lactose-free smoothies from their spa menu, and of course there was a cake selection, I had to tell myself “Your in Germany for god’s sake- of course!).
The main feature of the spa is their darkened dome saltwater pool with a window in the middle, where you can watch floating clouds or gaze at the bright moonlight while you lightly hover around in an almost pre-natal euphoria. Floats are there for you to place under your arms and legs allowing you to lie backwards and feel like your in the air, or you can hook your feet on metal borders on the outer circle of the dome, allowing the buoyant salt water to keeps your body a float up. Couples were entwined in erotic embrace while trio’s of friends were water dancing as if they were entering an audition for swan lake. Neon floating balls were provided while interchanging lighting interacted with your mood. Underwater speakers played music into the water from beneath so you could be put into a trance while your ears are submerged in water. Often there are events with live performances and DJ’s who play a range of music from deep house to classical music or live readings of poetry or literature.
I’m never one to miss out on an experience, they host sauna sessions throughout the day offering various workshops from salt scrubs, coffee detox’s and ‘hot and cold’ sessions where ice cubes are used on the body. I committed to the salt scrub workshop, I stripped naked to join my naked warriors, dripping and groaning in discomfort (the sauna was 90 degree’s). The door was closed, I was left amoungst 25 people sitting on soaked. The lady hosting the session entered, dunking a large white towel into water soaked with scented infusions, she then whipped this in the air with a swirling action for 10 minutes, inhaling the aromas, finally we were let out for a gasp of for fresh air and scrubbed our whole bodies with salt. 2 minutes later we were to return for a second, even hotter round. There were definite drops outs but I was left with the survivors before I finally got to shower and dive into an ice old pool! Refreshed, baby soft and invigorated, I was ready to return to the Nhow hotel!
I left Berlin only to book my next return for July Feel Festival. Having bitten into the lifestyle scene, my hit list has started to grow from the top burger joints such as The Bird to the ultimate sushi or kilo sale shopping! Feeling more of a local now, I will endeavour to supply you with more of my explorations shortly.