Soviet Architecture Meets Techno: What To Do in Friedrichshain, Berlin

Holzmarkt reflects the creative spirit of Friedrichshain
Holzmarkt reflects the creative spirit of Friedrichshain | © Bildagentur-online/Schoening / Alamy Stock Photo
Krystin Elise Arneson

Known for its artsy, alternative vibe, Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighbourhood is home to techno paradise Berghain, stunning parks and echoes of the city’s turbulent past.

Located just across the Spree from hip Kreuzberg, vibrant Friedrichshain is a club-filled neighbourhood that has venues for pretty much any kind of music you could want to dance to, from techno at the genre’s temple, Berghain, to Latin ska and Balkan beats in the clubs of RAW-Gelände. But there’s far more to this Berlin Kiez (neighbourhood) than places to dance the night away. During daylight hours, head to Volkspark Friedrichshain for a recuperative picnic, take in the iconic Soviet architecture of Karl-Marx-Allee, or browse the stalls at Ostbahnhof’s Sunday vintage market.

Dance the night (and day) away at Berghain

Berghain is Berlin’s most iconic club, and once you get in – if you get in – expect time to fly by on its dark, pulsating dance floors. It’s not just techno either: although that’s what the club is known for (Berghain bears the casual superlative of being the world capital of the genre), there’s far more to it than that. Berghain is basically three clubs in one, with the main hall playing techno beats and the Panorama room veering a little more toward house and funk. If you’re a gay man who’s feeling sexually adventurous, there’s Lab.Oratory, which hosts fetish and dance parties like Snax. How to get into Berghain? Unless you’re following a themed dress code for the latter venue, wear all black and don’t look too eager.

Berghain is known as the temple of techno

Glimpse Berlin’s history with a visit to the East Side Gallery

A trip to the East Side Gallery is undoubtedly one of the most popular things to do in Berlin, with more than three million visitors walking along this longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall each year. After most of the Wall came down in 1989, this section was set aside and painted by artists from around the world in 1990 as a monument to its fall and, according to the initiative behind the murals, a tribute to “the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people.” You’ll pass more than 100 paintings as you walk along the 1,315-metre (4,318-foot) stretch of the wall, many of which express hope for a peaceful future. One popular spot for photos is the famous My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love mural. Painted by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel, it shows Leonid Brezhnev (the Soviet Union’s leader from 1964 to 1982) and Erich Honecker (the GDR leader from 1971 to the fall of the Wall) locked in what looks like a kiss but is actually a “fraternal embrace”, a special form of greeting among the statesmen of Communist countries.

The East Side Gallery occupies the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall

Go for pre-club drinks at Michelberger Hotel

This hotel right off Warschauer Straße is a great stay if you’re in Berlin – but even if it’s not where you’re crashing, it’s a stylish place for a well-made drink. Designed to be a space for friends to hang out, the lobby bar and café is industrial but welcoming, with space dividers made from books; long, cushion-bedecked sofas; and quirky collaged pendant lights. It’s a particularly good stop for drinks if you’re heading to the clubs in the Reveler Straße district, which is practically across the street – be sure to try a pint of the Mikkellerberger pils, the delicious result of the hotel’s collaboration with Copenhagen’s famous Mikkeller craft brewery. Or, if you must get some work done while in Berlin, it’s a popular spot for freelancers.

In addition to world-renowned clubbing, Berlin has a buzzing bar scene

While away a sunny afternoon in Volkspark Friedrichshain

When the sun comes out in Berlin, so do its residents: summer in this city means heading to the park, and Volkspark Friedrichshain is a very worthy place to while away a day. Located on the border of Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg, the park is Berlin’s oldest and has plenty of surprises for those wanting to explore, including sculptures and monuments, two artificial mountains made from WWII bunkers, and, from May to September, an outdoor movie theatre. If you want to spread your blanket and stay put, there are plenty of shady spots for a picnic or barbecue, so you can grill some bratwurst – most grocery stores will carry disposable grills and charcoal. And, because it’s Germany, there’s even a biergarten in the park – the perfect place to wrap up a lazy summer afternoon.

Marchenbrunnen Fairy Tale Fountain (1913) in Volkspark Friedrichshain

Take in Soviet architecture along Karl-Marx-Allee

Karl-Marx-Allee (you can guess who it’s named after) runs from Mitte’s Alexanderplatz all the way down to Friedrichshain’s Frankfurter Tor, and it’s a stretch that’s a must-walk for both architecture and history buffs. The East Berlin boulevard was built by the Soviets (i.e. the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or DDR in German) after the war and was a flagship project for their part of Berlin’s partition. Almost 92 metres (300 feet) wide, the allee was used for parades (you’ll notice all the benches face the boulevard, not the pedestrian pavement or shops), but it’s most famous for its monumental “wedding cake” buildings, a style that was part of socialist classicism. Look out for the domed, tiered towers along the way. Should you need some refreshment and a dose of nostalgia along the way, stop in at Café Sibylle, which has been serving East Berliners since 1953 (albeit with a few interruptions).

Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee is famous for its monumental “wedding cake” buildings

Spend a night club-hopping at RAW-Gelände

Those after a quintessential Berlin experience should check out RAW-Gelände, near the Michelberger Hotel off Reveler Straße. Once a former train yard dotted with warehouses, the area is now a compound that includes biergartens, bars, artist spaces and clubs of all sorts – whether you’re looking to chill out with a beer; catch a show at Astra Kulturhaus, which has hosted indie performers including the likes of Kate Nash and Lykke Li; or head out for a night of dancing. Cassiopeia has a great lineup of club nights that are perfect for when you’re feeling the techno fatigue, with ’80s/hip-hop/disco Super Tuesdays as well as nights featuring Afrobeat, reggae, and Latin ska. Or, pop into Urban Spree, an art space that plays host to everything from art exhibitions to the annual Italo Festival, which showcases Italian disco and dishes every August.

Tomas Barfod and Tomas Hoffding from the Danish band Whomadewho perform at Astra Kulturhaus in Berlin

Find a quirky souvenir at the Ostbahnhof antique market

Located outside Friedrichshain’s Ostbahnhof train station, this antique market is a treasure trove for anyone wanting a quirky souvenir. Residents come here to find vintage furniture for their flats, but there’s plenty for tourists as well: postcards, records, stamps, jewellery and knick-knacks of varying levels of kitsch can be found here. Pro tip? Browse the stalls after you exit the station, and then head to Volkskammer restaurant, which still serves up traditional GDR specialities almost 30 years on. Dishes include the ‘Falscher Hase’ meatloaf with boiled egg, gravy and buttered carrots, peas and potatoes.

The flea market at Ostbahnhof is a prime spot for souvenir shopping

Get lost in Holzmarkt’s wonderland of clubs, art spaces, bars and restaurants

Another one of Berlin’s artist-compounds – but so much more than that – the Holzmarkt neighbourhood is located on the border of Mitte and is a self-described “kleine kreative Insel” (little creative island) along the Spree that’s a wonderland of open-air events, artistic spaces, and even organic farming. Holzmarkt is a good spot to explore anytime, but it’s also one of the venues for Fête de la Musique, a one-day music festival held across Germany (it originated in France, thus the name) every June 21st; if you don’t head to a formal venue for it, wander the city – there are performers and musicians performing in public spaces across Berlin. Head to Kater Blau for a night of dancing on the deck of a ship permanently anchored in the Spree, and don’t miss lunch or dinner at FAME Katerschmaus, Kater Blau’s restaurant (there are different doors so you don’t have to queue with the clubgoers) and an under-the-radar spot that’s a fine-dining oasis for foodies.

Holzmarkt is Berlin’s creative urban village

Traverse East and West Berlin with a walk across Oberbaumbrücke

One of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, Oberbaumbrücke (Oberbaum Bridge) in its current form has connected Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg since 1896. Its history, however, goes all the way back to 1732, when a wooden version of it served as a gate to the city and a spike-covered tree trunk was laid across the water to dissuade smugglers, a tactic that gave the bridge its name (‘baum’ means tree or wooden beam in German). Fast-forward a couple of hundred years, and the Oberbaumbrücke also played a historic role in post-WWII Berlin as one of the pedestrian checkpoints between East and West Berlin. Now, of course, one can walk across the former border freely, but there’s nothing like seeing (and photographing) it from the water: sail under it during an afternoon on one of Stern und Kreis’ sightseeing cruises that depart from Treptower Park.

Oberbaumbrücke (Oberbaum Bridge) was opened in 1896

This article is an updated version of a story created by Alice Dundon.

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