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The Travel Edit: A Londoner in Berlin

Tom Giddins reflects on his new, inspiring and distinctive home of Berlin, through the lens of a recently de-camped Londoner.

A few months ago I was living in Dalston in a flat I’d occupied for the last five of the nine years I’d been in London. To say it had been ‘lived in’ would be an understatement. The fun loving, open door policy we’d reserved for parties had mutated, resulting in what can only be described as a halfway house for stragglers. The couch saw a lot of action but the kind of action that stays for weeks on end, eats your food and ‘borrows’ your socks.

Factor into the equation the annual rent hike, ever-increasing bills, the sacking of the easily persuaded woman in charge of payments at the estate agency and the 18th name change of the café with the exposed-brick interior across the road – my time had come.

Ever since my first visit over ten years ago Berlin has always intrigued me. Even then, nursing a numb-head on my ‘day-off’ from the inside of a club, walking around the city struck a chord. The first thing I remember was how quiet the streets were. No sirens every five minutes, no bumbling slow walkers purposely there just to annoy you, no ‘tuts’ and no shoulder barges. Saturday afternoons on Kingsland Road can sometimes be confused with a game of British Bulldogs sound tracked by the theme tune to Casualty. Berlin on the other hand seemed very peaceful for a capital city.

And so, after running out of socks in London I decided Berlin was the place for me. A window of opportunity had appeared and through it I jumped.

I arrived in the throes of summer with a pocketful of silver coins, two weeks worth of Duolingo under my belt (the ability to ask someone if I can borrow their kite - it’s really helpful) and a few friends dotted around the place. Although my Airbnb resembled Biker Grove – ramshackle, bunk bed, crap movie posters in every room and cluttered with music stands – it was temporary and I was excited.  

As a newcomer with no job my “look I’ve just emigrated, things take time” attitude helped drown out my meddling conscience. I was able to explore the city unshackled and guilt free.

It was during these early days roaming the streets that I soon noticed a few of the city’s eccentricities that make it such a unique place, and Berlin has many. For instance, when out and about during the day in London, the most common beverage you’ll see in people’s hands is usually emblazoned with a Starbucks or Costa logo. Not around here. Frappe-mocha-cinos are for wimps mate and a fair few Berliners prefer to start the day with a beer.

Never before have I seen so many casual drinkers all day, every day. On the street, on the U-bahn, outside the Späti, and why not? I should point out, not everyone is walking around wasted. Casual is the key word. Drinking is taken much more lightly here; it is a normal part of life, not an event.

And who can deny there is anything more appealing than drinking a cold beer in summer? Maybe not at 9am on a Monday morning in November, but whatever sets you up for the day ahead.

The aforementioned Späti, roughly translated to all-in-one shop, is another macrocosm of culture that exists here and one that Berliners feel very strongly about it. When the government threatened to change the Späti laws in 2015 to prohibit alcohol and tobacco sales on Sundays, the city went ballistic. These laws already exist in Munich, a city Berlin is often described as being the polar opposite to. Petitions and posts were everywhere, and Berliners were far from impressed. Eventually the people won, after-parties across the city rejoiced and Spätis continue to sell booze on Sundays.

Aside from beer, Spätis sell crisps, milk and whatever else you’d expect to find in a late night convenience shop. Grabbing beers at the Späti is normal, and sitting down for a drink in front of it or staying inside is too. Although Spätis are ubiquitous around the city, some are better than others. The majority have a designated seating area, some of the more ‘high-end’ ones have disco lights and PA systems to create the ultimate poor mans rave / questionable night out. However be warned, for any cheapskates thinking this could be a perfect first date venue for a Tinder meet up, the lack of toilets make the old backdoor dash impossible. Should you ever wind up in that predicament, grab another €1 beer, settle in and bask in the shame of having such thoughts in the first place you selfish sod.

However, if drinking in your local shop doesn’t tickle your fancy then you’re spoilt for choice. You won’t find a “pub” pub, but Berlin has many bars and every neighbourhood has its own distinctive kind.

Living in Neükolln, East Berlin, walking along the tattered but endearing cobbled streets in the evening, you won’t go for more than five minutes before a warm candlelit glow catches your eye. Given the quietness of the streets you don’t tend to notice some of the bars until you walk past them. Hidden among the shadows you suddenly find yourself glancing through a steamed up window at a crowd of patrons, drinking and relaxing amid a cloud of smoke – there’s no ban here.

Like a lot of things in Berlin an air of mystery surrounds some of the bars. Hidden treasures crammed with odd chairs and mismatched tables feel like they’ve been opened the week before and will probably shut the week after.

Unlike some of the establishments popping up around East London that adopt a similar interior design, the places here don’t feel forced or contrived. For any sticker enthusiasts out there, your mecca awaits you in the form of a Berlin bar’s bathroom. 

Some plonker once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Sorry to rain on your parade pal, I have to disagree. Compared to London, life is different in Berlin and aside from Monday’s, Tuesday’s and sometimes Wednesday’s I’m far from tired. - T.G

Best Bars in Berlin From Conde Nast Traveller:

Bar Am Lutzowplatz

Bar Tausend

Csa

Deli 31 at Bleibtreu

Diener Tattersall

Felsenkeller

Km36 (Babette)

Newton Bar

Pony Bar

Prater Biergarten

Solar

Universum

Wohnzimmer

See the guide here