Going into Berlin, I was filled with excitement and expectations of a lively city with a grunge vibe renowned all over Europe. Even in America, I heard time and time again that Berlin’s scene was just vibrant, mysterious, interesting and weird; all aspects of a city that I look for and thrive off of. I was excited to see art galleries, the techno scenes, graffiti and a city vibe known for being edgy. Disappointingly, this was not my experience at all.
First off, within the first day arriving, I had three encounters with German people that were just unwarrantedly rude; in fact it was so uncalled for it made me think perhaps there was a racial undertone to it. Within every city I go to in Europe, the nicest, most generous people to me have always been Arab men and Black women. In the countries where I do not speak the language, they have always been the first to do their absolute best to give me recommendations, offer local goods and engage with me in a way that just gushes with hospitality. At the same time, the rudest people to me are always white workers and professionals. Numerous times, it is these white workers that are abnormally microaggressive when I pay for a service or food or ask for directions or recommendations, or simply just ignore me or dismiss me in ways I see they do not to other white tourists. Additionally, in talking to some white tourists at my hostel, it came up that while in every establishment I entered I was asked to present my COVID-19 vaccination documents, they never were.
These miniscule differences in treatment add up, and they ostracize and embarrass you when others around you see it. At one airport, a security guard said I had to take off my shoes before I entered the security screening. He said this to me and no one else. Some members of a family in front of me began to take off their shoes too as they heard that but looked around and realized that no one else ahead of us had to do so too. They then stopped taking off their shoes and continued on in the line, all giving me weird glances. Given this and the fact that central European countries are extreme sticklers when it comes to rules and policies, my entire experience kept being spoiled when having to engage with these white workers who would enforce certain rules on me in ways that signaled discrimination.
While touring the actual city itself, I was disappointed to see how un-aesthetically pleasing it looked compared to most other European touristic cities. There just was not that city charm I look for, and it was truly only the occasional graffiti that added some color and beauty to the overall atmosphere. The historical sites were also strangely underwhelming. The Berlin Wall is not as expansive and big as I thought it was, and the artwork was strangely not impactful. That being said, walking the length of what remains of the Berlin Wall was probably one of the most surreal moments I had in Berlin. It was a moment in which it felt very real that this wall used to once signify an absolute hindrance to freedom. And the fact that today I am able to see it with artwork on it and half destroyed is in itself powerful. Other sites like the Brandenburg Gate, Gendarmarkt, Alexanderplatz and the areas in which there was a concentration of landmarks and museums were just simply underwhelming. There just was nothing else to it but the site itself, there was little to no vibe and energy the way I have found it in most other places in Europe. The Berlin Wall memorial where black stones signal the Jews murdered during the Holocaust was most definitely impactful in its intentional design to make you feel claustrophobic, but also added to my overall consensus that there exists almost a dark cloud looming over the city.
The trendy neighborhoods supposedly iconic for conveying Berlin’s grungy scene also were not as lively as I thought they would be. I feel like I have to chalk up the lack of energy to the weather being cold. I feel as if during the spring and summer where there’s more warmth, there just has to be more people out, giving the city very-much-needed vibrance. Ultimately, it was the clubs I went to that had me absolutely rejuvenated. The venues, the music and the energy inside them were completely unlike the outside, making the clubs feel like truly a different world. In my eyes, the clubs, alongside the incredible Turkish food, were the savior of the city. They gave me a glimpse into the liveliness and creativity of Berliners. The way they transformed huge factories, warehouses or parking lots into lavish clubs was simply beautiful and exciting. The colors, the venue setup, the interior planning for these clubs all were just very intentional in creating an experience.
Overall, I would never flat out say that Berlin should not be a destination city for you, but I think it’s important to know that the hype does not really match the reality. In talking to some friends in Europe who have visited Berlin before, they’ve said Berlin is transformed around Christmas, more throughout the summer and during really big events. Keep that in mind, but ultimately, if you truly want to see the life and heartbeat of Berlin, I say head straight to the club.