Berlin Music Guide: Clubs, Gig Venues, Festivals & Record Stores
Berlin is a hive of musical activity, literally all day and all night – whether you're looking for a punk gig, a great record shop, or a four-day party in an adult playpark, the German capital has you covered
Contrary to popular belief, the Hauptstadt’s not all techno. The city has a rich history in combining music with activism – and Berliners know that sweating it out whilst shoving a finger to the man isn’t restricted by genre. From cabaret and Dada to Brecht and Weill’s socialist musical theatre – via punk, industrial, new wave and electronica – Berlin’s restless spirit has always been ahead of the curve.
In most Berlin neighbourhoods, music is as common as graffiti. Sure, the city’s got a few more fancy coffee establishments than it did ten years ago, but you’ll still find crusty punks in residence on the S-Bahn, dazed techno lovers drifting home in the early afternoon, spontaneous boom box parties along the canal, drum circles at the flea market, and Sunday afternoon open-air karaoke at Mauerpark. If you’re lucky, your local all-hours off-licence (known colloquially as a späti) will transform into a one-room disco on a bank holiday Monday.
Berlin’s inspired a thousand musical tributes, and has been home to ground-breaking musicians of all dispositions. Bowie and Iggy shared a flat in the West, Nina Kraviz and Ben Klock ripped up the rulebook as Berghain residents, and Nils Frahm and Laurel Halo continue to re-write contemporary composition. Still, finding a party that suits you can be tricky. Venues are often hidden behind an unremarkable door, tucked round the back of a car park, or guarded by a stony-faced bouncer – it’s no wonder that many tourists wonder what all the fuss is about. Keep your ear to the ground via Resident Advisor, No Fear of Pop or LOLA, and we’ll introduce you to some of Berlin’s best musical offerings.
Live music in Berlin
As you’d expect, Berlin has hundreds – hundreds – of wonderful music venues, in all shapes and sizes. For major touring acts, you’ll find yourself at Columbiahalle, Tempodrom or even the Max-Schmeling-Halle for stadium-sized fun. For a smaller band, you’ll be looking at basements, bars and even under the U-Bahn rails. There’s plenty of overlap with the city’s clubs, too: Berghain’s door policy becomes infamous at 3am, but you’ll have no trouble with a ticketed gig in the early evening. This list could last thousands of words, so here are some of our favourites...
In the heart of Berlin’s faddiest district, tucked away from the roadworks and faded shop fronts of the Karl-Marx-Strasse, is Heimathafen Neukölln. A quiet courtyard makes this beautiful old theatre feel like an oasis of calm, with its high ceilings, a huge balcony, fancy plaster work and plush red curtains. There’s an outside bar for sunny days, and glitter balls to light up long winter evenings. Expect a Burlesque Festival, Billy Bragg or The Breeders – their booking policy is varied, but always quality assured.
Other mid-size venues include Bi Nuu – tucked under the tracks at Schlesisches Tor – Lido, Astra, or Kantine am Berghain (perfect for pretending you’ve been to the real deal). For electronic experimentalists try Funkhaus, a Bauhaus-style venue with its own storied history.
Monarch is not Berlin’s best music venue, for all the right reasons. It’s cramped, sweaty and the bar’s in the middle of the dance floor. Still, three floors up and parallel with the raised train-tracks, its wall of windows offers a rare view of the hectic interchange at Kottbusser Tor. You’ll find gigs and clubnights of all genres, but keep an eye out for musicians promoted by Puschen for an intimate show with an artist likely to be your next favourite band. Other smaller gig venues include Musik & Frieden, once known as Magnet and a staple of Berlin’s indie rock circuit, and Privatclub.
With a punk legacy that’s second to none, SO36 has seen it all. A relic from the days when Bowie and Iggy prowled Oranienstrasse, it opened in 1978 and pushed a dangerously radical agenda during the fraught Cold War years. A YouTube video proudly lists the legends who have graced this stage, and if you’re lucky you’ll meet a regular who’ll burn your ears with anecdotes from the club’s ferocious past. SO36 continues to provide a stage for progressive voices and is home to a long-running LGBTQ club night, as well as fundraisers, panel discussions, and, of course, brain-shaking rock shows.
Venues with a similar ethos include Schokoladen – your go-to for local DIY rock bands – Bei Ruth, and Festsaal Kreuzberg, which, having recently re-opened after a devastating fire, promotes righteous musicians of all persuasions.
Clubbing in Berlin
Before we plan our outfits and bring in the beers, have this: a (reductively) brief history of Berlin techno. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, German pop culture changed forever. East and West Germany began the gradual process of reunification, and this was felt most profoundly in Berlin – a city divided by politics and ideologies. A wash of abandoned buildings (some still half-destroyed after WWII) became ad-hoc illegal nightclubs with parties that lasted for days. Promoters, DJs and ravers from both sides of the wall got down on the same improvised dance floors, and shared their passions for a 4/4 beat, the Detroit sound, and the EBM popularised by groups like DAF. Techno became a counter-cultural force.
Iconic clubs (and labels) like Tresor and Ostgut emerged in the years that followed, just metres away from the remains of the border, and continue to party today – although on different premises, and the latter has a new name: Berghain. This spirit of determination – political, inclusive, and subversive – feeds Berlin’s nightlife still. It’s also why the door policy can be so tough; the subculture is precious and protected.
Still, there’s basic advice that’s always worth following: wear something you can dance in; consider earplugs; know that German bouncers have little patience for a British-style pre-drink sesh; queue in small groups where possible; remember water; always get consent. Berlin’s clubbing is a broad church, so don’t stare, and don’t be a dick.
Is it the summer?
Get yourself outside! Berlin’s summers can be long, hot and stormy (phew), so find yourself a club with a scenic outdoor area to watch the sun rise – and possibly set again, too. Sisyphos is the granddaddy of open-air partying, and from midnight on Friday straight through to Monday morning (estimated 10am close) you can top up your tan, roll in some sand, nap under some palettes, and dance for as long as your body lasts. Nearer a festival than your usual club, and its location in outer district Lichtenberg means you’re more likely to stay for the long haul. Remember to grab a pizza or something at some point, and try not to get too lost down this rabbit hole. Also try Griessmuehle, which offers a sandy adult playground on the banks of the Spree.
Is it the winter?
Best heat up at the altar of Berlin’s techno behemoths. Find a club with myriad confusing rooms and you’ll wander for hours, discovering new sounds and scenes to keep your party train rolling. Salon zur Wilden Renate feels like a topsy-turvy house party, ludicrously decorated and sweaty as hell. Ritter Butzke, similarly, has plenty of nooks and crannies filled with surprises that you’ll need a whole weekend to explore. For hip hop, D’n’B, dancehall and electronica, try Gretchen (also a great gig venue), or for a smaller, family feel, Loftus Hall has an excellent, eclectic programme.
Music Festivals in Berlin
Unsurprisingly, Berlin’s pretty good at these too. The capital throws a street party better than most, and you should get used to public holidays filled with antifa marches, DJs on balconies and home-made floats careering down the road, selling margaritas. Karneval der Kulturen and the infamous May Day celebrations are huge events, and can be as much about protests as they are about partying. Do not be a dick here, either.
A city-wide festival borrowed from the French, which takes place on the summer solstice (21 June). The day honours music in all its forms, and is intended to be non-profit – no-one pays, or gets paid, to attend. In years previous, Berlin’s interpretation has featured a huge open-air party by RBMA, so the non-corporate creds are occasionally suspect, but Caribou did play a blinder that year… Stages and amps will pop up on street corners and park bandstands, so you can stay in your Kiez, or neighbourhood, particularly if you’re in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain or Prenzlauerberg.
Based around Torstrasse, a central road just north of Mitte that connects several streets of bars and venues, the June day fest has now become a whole weekender. It’s walkable, compact and extremely laid back – think of it as Tenement Trail but with genuine sunshine, scenic smoking areas and lovely German pints. This year it incorporated 10 fantastic venues, ranging from the chandeliered (Volksbühne) to the sweaty, disco-balled Bassy club. The line-up invites midsized names from Europe and the States, and showcases Berlin’s local scene, too. Young Fathers played a few years back, and Priests, Carla Dal Forno and Flamingods stole the show in 2017. All for 20 quid, too.
Started in 1982 and revived in 2013, the annual Atonal festival ensures that experimental electronica continues to take on whole new meanings. Expect soundscapes, eardrum-scraping bass and site-specific sound installations, as well as mindboggling visuals. Founder Dimitri Hegemann opened Tresor in the festival’s fallow years, and the festival now occupies the club’s new premises, as well as neighbouring clubs OHM and Kraftwerk – a huge ex-power plant. Innovation, intellectual stimulation, and a straight-up celebration of the city’s nightlife.
Berlin Record Stores
Done with dancing, and after yourself a waxy souvenir? Berlin’s got plenty of record stores, too. Learn some important haggling vocab – ja, nein, WAS???, du spinnst! – and get ready to dig. Aside from the options below, be sure to check out the offerings at your local flea market. Mauerpark has tons of choice but is often priced higher for the tourist factor, while the Boxhagener Platz and Nowkölln markets might be more likely to offer you a bargain.
A former squat, CoreTex is on the same street as SO36 and the two institutions go way back. Head here for punk paraphernalia, and to hear about all the writers, photographers and musicians that have built Berlin’s punk scene. CoreTex is involved with some labels, too – notably Oi! legends Bad Dog and Grapes of Wrath.
Hard Wax has an iconic reputation for an impeccably curated selection, and it’s your first stop for techno, minimal, house and dub. Hidden in a run-of-the-mill courtyard near the canal between Kreuzberg and Neukölln, and founded in 1989 – an important year, you’ll remember – it’s said that Marcel Dettmann and Modeselektor have worked behind the till, and a Hard Wax tote bag is a coveted thing.
In Friedrichshain, Bis Aufs Messer is your go-to for a cool book, fancy coffee beans, a rare zine, and releases from its labels ADAGIO830 and Vendetta. Expect rock, indie, metal, hardcore, punk and more, with a selection that covers under the radar bands from all over the world.