Ever wonder what really happens on a tourist pub crawl? Luke Atcheson braved the empty clubs, Jäger shots and foul-mouthed Australians to find out.
It’s Friday night and I’m standing in a group of about 70 people with luminous yellow wristbands at the Postfuhramt in Mitte. After taking €12 per head, our two guides for the evening bounce up the steps of the former C/O gallery to rally their troops. “Are... you... readyyy?!” shouts the gruff English one. “Yeaaah!” screeches the camp American one. “No, no, no!” goes the young Englishman. “If you can’t scream louder than him, we aren’t going anywhere.” Sideways glances are exchanged as the comedy double-act continues until they are satisfied with our levels of whooping and clapping. There is just time for a group photo: “Everybody say... Bootylicious!” That’s the camp one, by the way. And one last bit of advice: “Please don’t photograph or slap the ass of the prostitutes. They will smack you down!” That’s the gruff one, who then jogs to the front, leading the charge on a four-hour tour of Berlin’s “cool bars” and “hot clubs”.
Outside the first place, Silberfisch, the corseted bleach-blonde sirens of Oranienburger Straße cause quite some consternation, particularly among the 40ish English guys on their “annual lads’ trip abroad”. They snap a smartphone souvenir of one the prostitutes with a swiftness that manages to avoid the forewarned smackdown. Averting my eyes, I survey the rest of the group: most are in their twenties, two-thirds are men and nearly everyone’s a visiting sightseer, though there are a couple of very new Berliners on board. The lucky ones have a friend or two from home to cushion the awkward moments, while the rest go it alone, sheepishly introducing themselves and where they’re from. I’m no less nervous, wondering whether my improvised tourist persona is going to pass muster amongst these real McCoys.
Just down the road after Monbijou Park, our next stop is 1a Lauschgift. Our multi-national mass is instructed to wait outside the door while the guides prepare some mischief inside. After an eternal five minutes of drinkless small talk, the doors open and a glistening tray of free Jägermeister shots awaits. Then there are the plastic-cup drink specials: “Triple rum or vodka with your choice of mixer: €5. All drinks inc. 1 free shot of Jäger!” That makes five measures in this bar alone, which runs sort of contrary to the tour company’s official statement: “The mission is to show you Berlin’s nightlife, not to get you drunk.” No amount of alcohol, however, can stop us from noticing how empty all the fauxleather sofas are.
Conversation naturally centres on the common ground of travelling: where have you been? How was it? And where are you going next? Everyone has remarkably similar plans and the general consensus is that Amsterdam and Prague are in fact the most awesome cities of all. Over the first couple drinks, whole countries and histories are condensed into polite monosyllables. Polish history? “Great”. Sachsenhausen? “Good”. There is also a lot of talk of ‘doing’ continents. Some of the Americans and Australians are even ‘doing’ Europe for the second time, which seems to involve staying in as many hostels as possible in one summer. In this world of tick-box tourism, Berlin’s nightlife is just the next item on a to-do list; neatly sandwiched between Anne Frank’s house and Wenceslas Square. And when people have only two days in each place, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many are enticed by a ‘greatest hits’ nightlife tour and the chance to meet fellow lonesome travellers.
The next stop is what was advertised as the ‘underground bar’… which, semantically-speaking, is fairly accurate. It’s down a flight of stairs beneath the Hackescher Höfe, guarded by a pack of hired goons fresh from the gym and/or tribal tattoo parlour. But perhaps it’s too underground, because not a single person is inside. The highstreet store soundtrack of the Black Eyed Peas and David Guetta crashes around the cavernous black walls, lyrically brainwashing our troupe into submission: “I gotta feelin’... that tonight’s gonna be a good night.” The third batch of free shots is obviously kicking in as half the group forms a semi-embarrassed circle around two young guys from Singapore who are keen to show off their best dance machine arcade moves. My fake smile has its limits, so I seek refuge at the bar with the older English lads. They tell me about their afternoon waiting around Checkpoint Charlie for the Solar Bar and its panoramic views to open; after riding the elevator 17 floors up, they were turned away for wearing shorts. The guide then gives us orders to move on. As our pub crawl leaves, with almost split-second precision, another similarly sized group files in.
In fairness, my fellow pub crawlers are now realising that this is a total stitch-up. It’s Friday night in what’s supposed to be one of the greatest nightlife capitals in the world and yet in three bars, the only other people we’ve come across is another tour group. There are murmurs of forming a splinter group and finding some real bars, but it quickly fizzles out. Near to Alexanderplatz, the penultimate place is equally underground and equally deserted. A woman rightly laughs that it’s actually a worst-of-the-worst tour of Berlin. Meanwhile, the Aussie guy next to me starts comparing international levels of promiscuity. News that I was born in Dublin prompts the following knee-jerk reaction: “Not to be a dickhead, mate, but Ireland has quality sluts. I was there for St. Patrick’s Day this year, and the girls? Easy as fuck.”
After the promised four “cool bars”, only one “hot club” remains. As we wait on the S-Bahn platform, the guides hand around a 0.7l bottle of Jägermeister followed by a plastic glass for tips; having designed neither the route nor the concept, they deserve every penny and more for their sterling efforts. Finally, we arrive at Warschauer Straße and the tour’s official end. At Matrix Club, open 365 days a year (a stick-on suicidal Christmas in Berlin if ever there was one), we bump into not only the other tour group again, but also some real-life locals. And they don’t come much more real than these patrons, all sporting perma-tans direct from the Playa del Brandenburg. Most of us, however, jaded by the combination of free shots and empty bars, manage just one loop of the club and its dancing cages before calling it a decidedly early night. Not as you and I know it, but nevertheless: Berlin nightlife – tick.