It was 1pm on a Monday afternoon that I found myself awkwardly peering at a small group of people underneath the TV Tower in Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Obviously, it was the tour group I was looking for, but you know when you’re still not sure and feel ridiculously awkward asking? That, friends, is my life. Thankfully I spotted an Alternative Berlin flyer in a friendly looking bearded bloke’s hand, reassuring me I was in the right place.
I’ve already gone on a fair bit about how much I was a fan of Berlin, sharing a two-day Berlin itinerary as well as my thoughts on the 25Hours Hotel. I’ve got more to come too. But the part that really sealed the deal for me was exploring the city’s more alternative districts, on one of my favourite ‘free tours’ I’ve been on to date. Having already seen some of the major and important sights (e.g Brandenburg Gate and the chilling Holocaust Memorial), I wanted to delve a little deeper in my short time in the city and explore the more alternative side.
Street Art at Intimes cinema, Friedrichshain
After a quick Metro journey, we arrived in Friedrichshain, located to the east of central Berlin. For anyone interested in street art, nightlife or alternative culture, it’s basically a must-visit district. It’s creative and artsy, evidenced by the street art that adorns the walls.
Our first taster of the diversity within the street art scene came in the form of Intimes cinema. Or rather, the cinema’s exterior, which features a wall jam-packed with smaller sized pieces of artwork, constantly evolving as new works are added and older ones lost underneath.
There’s a real mixture of styles – from ‘wheatpasted’ paper works, to the 3D carved lions. Stickers are also pretty popular, filling up the smallest of spaces that wouldn’t fit a normal sized work. You could spend so long here, just looking at every detail. Thankfully, our tour leader Ben gave us plenty of time to explore the more hidden pieces, and talked to us about the artists and their styles.
A bombed out train depot given a new lease of life
One of the coolest areas around on an alternative Berlin adventure definitely includes the bombed out train depot by Warschauer Straße Metro station. Stepping through one of the entrances to this space, every single wall has been covered with street art of a plethora of different styles. Murals sit alongside tags to create a colourful visual display that really pops against the industrial buildings.
The space is home to clubs and bars including Cassiopeia, Astra and Suicide Circus. The venues cover a mix of genres, with ‘subculture’ being a real key element, from rock and metal to electronic music nights, and live shows. I really, really want to head back here at night to experience it all for myself once the sun goes down…
Oh, two other cool things worth noting…firstly, you’ll find one of the ‘world’s smallest discos’ here. In a converted phonebooth. And secondly, the space is home to Skatehalle Berlin – skate fans (and old school PlayStation-ers) will be interested in the fact that skateboarding superstar Tony Hawk has skated here.
As well as the club scene, skate park and climbing wall, the space is also home to Urban Spree, an artistic space for creative types to work, exhibit and meet. It’s a real key location for grassroots art in Berlin, and a huge contribution to the fact that the city has one of the best up-and-coming urban art scenes in Europe.
The Kreuzberg district
As well as Friedrichshain, another area of interest for those looking for a more alternative side to the city is Kreuzberg. A former West Berlin neighbourhood, it’s been known as a hub for a range of diverse communities over the years and into the present day – from Turks to punk rockers and the city’s LGBTQ scene.
Although many of the local nightclubs have closed down (cheers, gentrification), but the famous SO36 club, which hosted the likes of Iggy Pop and David Bowie in the 70s, is still a fixture of the area.
One of the city’s best-known pieces of street art also resides in Kreuzberg; Victor Ash’s ‘Astronaut Cosmonaut’ mural. Created as part of the 2007 Backjumps art festival, it’s inspired by the ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and United States in the 1950s-60s, and the Cold War.
Pit stop! Sunny days call for a drink, so we grabbed some beers and enjoyed them in Mariannenplatz, a park area at the edge of Kreuzberg. In the park, you’ll find the Bethanien, a former hospital now used as a creative and cultural space for events, exhibitions and local initiatives.
The Treehouse Baumhaus an der Mauer
My favourite story of the tour came at the end, when we arrived at a wonderfully, charmingly higgledy-piggledy looking house. I guarantee that any Alternative Berlin guide will tell the story in much more detail than I have, but to give it a go…
Osman Kalin, a Turkish immigrant, acquired the land and in 1983, began to develop the space as a garden with a small shack, which eventually became what’s referred to as ‘the treehouse’. Although the patch of land officially belonged to East Berlin, it was actually technically geographically part of West Berlin. Despite numerous attempts to evict Kalin when the Wall fell, the retired father of six refused to give up his land. Nowadays, Kalin can sometimes be seen sitting outside in his garden space, soaking up the weather and waving to passing locals and tourists alike.
Despite it being only March, my visit just happened to coincide with one of the first sunny days of the year…and as we walked past, we spotted Kalin himself. The smallest thing I know, but hearing this quirky little story and then getting a smile and a wave from the actual man behind it was one of the most satisfying moments of the whole weekend.
YAAM Beach Bar
Our final stopping point on the tour was YAAM Beach. It isn’t an natural beach, because, y’know, Berlin’s kinda very inland. It’s actually a man-made urban beach, with a bar and art gallery, with ‘YAAM’ standing for ‘Young African Art Market’. A super chilled out atmosphere, music, art, tasty Caribbean food and activities make it the perfect spot to kick back in the sunshine.
As I was exploring solo, it was nice to spend some time with a few of the tour group members who stuck around, as well as asking any leftover questions to Ben over a fruit beer or three. I left with a slightly giddy head, sand in my shoes, and a much better understanding of the city beyond the usual tourist limits.
The Alternative Berlin tour was fantastic for seeing loads of art, unusual spots and locals’ favourite hangouts, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to see even half of these places in the time I had, or discover the stories behind them, without having a knowledgable guide. If you have three hours or so to spare and want to experience the alternative side of Berlin, I’d 100% recommend this tour.
Alternative Berlin tours last approximately three hours, running daily at 11am and 1pm. The meeting point is Alexanderplatz, underneath the TV Tower outside Starbucks, and you’ll need a valid AB Metro ticket to take part.
(Although it’s a free tour, make sure you have a bit of cash to tip your guide for what you think the tour was worth. Not sure how much to tip? Have a look at what similar ‘paid’ tours go for!)
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