Time Travel in Berlin: Back to the 20s, 50s and 70s

How great would it be to make short trips to the past? It doesn’t have to be too far back: spend a weekend dancing in the 20s, go shopping in the 50s and watch a band play in the 60s… Let me tell you a little secret: you don’t need a time machine for that! In a city like Berlin, history is everywhere – not just the buildings, but also the opportunity to actually experience it. Here’s where you can be a part of modern history…

Time Travel in Berlin. Image courtesy of suze / photocase.de

1920s: Absinth, Swing Dance and Modern Architecture

What Berlin was like: The third largest city in the world and leading in culture, science and politics: the Twenties were very golden in Berlin. In this era between the two World Wars, Germany was the progressive Weimar Republic. It was the time of Bauhaus architecture, movies by Fritz Lang and starring Marlene Dietrich, the poetry and plays of Bertolt Brecht and the philosophy and psychology of CG Jung.

Sightseeing: Modern architecture was one of the prides of the Weimar Republic; the light and affordable houses had all the new amenities (kitchen, bathroom) and were meant to display the new society after World War I. Six of the estates built in this period are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Hufeisensiedlung in Britz and Siedlung Schillerpark in Wedding (both designed by Bruno Taut) were built in the 1920s and still haven’t lost any of their charm.

Shopping: No drink says 1920s like absinth does. The best way to find out why everyone loved ‘the green fairy’ is by trying it yourself. The collection of Absinthe Depot is impressive and you can buy your portion of inspiration/hallucination by the bottle or the glass.

Drinking: Gambrinus trifft Bacchus is truly a hidden gem on Oranienburger Straße. Local beers and the traditional Berlin cuisine have been on their menu since 1896 and the interior and atmosphere don’t seem to have changed since the 1920s. The bar, complete with an old cash register, is stunning.

Dancing: In Clärchens Ballhaus, people have been dancing for more than 100 years and the wonderfully authentic Spiegelsaal (Hall of Mirrors) still houses swing dance evenings every Wednesday night. If you really want to go all the way, you should make sure to check out the monthly Bohème Sauvage club night. Nobody gets in without the right outfit and the changing venues are always authentically 20s too.

1950s: Karl-Marx-Allee, Rock-‘n-Roll and Mad Men

What Berlin was like: The city was still recovering from the devastating war that had ended just a few years before. The Berlin Wall had yet to be built, but the differences between East and West were already starting to show: while the glamour was returning on and around Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, the East Berliners were learning to cope with a planned economy and shortages. At the same time the GDR government tried to show its strength and prosperity by building Stalinallee (now: Karl-Marx-Allee).

Sightseeing: Two very prestigious housing projects were taking shape in the 1950s: Karl-Marx-Allee in the East and the Hansaviertel in the West. Both projects were designed to shape the future of living and were at the same time an opportunity for the young governments to show what they were worth.

Shopping: Class of Berlin is more than just a vintage store: it is easy to tell that this place is owned by people with a passion for the 1950s and 1960s. This is where you buy your petticoats and Mad Men hats. New clothes sold in a very impressive 1950s building is what you find at Bikini Berlin, a “concept mall” in the former Bikini-Haus (opened 1956).

Dining: Opened in 1956 by actress Rosita di Capri, Mädchen ohne Abitur still breathes the 50s atmosphere and still serves its German and international classics – albeit with seductive names like ‘l’amore grande di giacomo’.

Drinking: Have a drink – and a new (retro) hairdo – at Tussy Lounge, with 1950s interior and music. Want some extra excitement with your beer or cocktail? Head to Kugelbahn, where two authentic 1950s ‘Kegelbahnen’ (bowling like it once was) await you.

Dancing: The US were all the rage in West Berlin’s 50s, so head to Roadrunner’s Paradise or Bassy Club to experience some true rock-‘n-roll.

1970s: Bowie, Istanbul and the TV Tower

What Berlin was like: Tucked away behind the Berlin Wall, the island West Berlin attracted punks and other free thinkers from all over the world; its liberal music scene and subculture had no equal anywhere in the world. In the mid-seventies, David Bowie and Iggy Pop shared a house in Schöneberg. Because of the low rents in districts like Kreuzberg, West Berlin also attracted a lot of immigrants, mostly from Turkey. The contrast with East Berlin couldn’t be bigger, even though the new head of state Honecker allowed some liberalization: long hair, short skirts, jeans, jazz and beat were no longer forbidden.

Sightseeing: Alexanderplatz is synonymous with 1970s architecture. It has the TV Tower (368 metre, the highest building in Germany), Galeria Kaufhof (also a department store in the GDR), the former Haus des Reisens and Haus des Lehrers, two prominent high-rise buildings, and the gigantic Park Inn Hotel.

Shopping: Your soundtrack to West Berlin’s wild 1970s is for sale at Core Tex, a record store that also has its own record label. Looking for a specific 1970s outfit? Humana at Frankfurt Tor probably has it. It’s the largest second-hand store in Europe and consists of 5 floors filled with vintage clothing – also sorted by decade.

Dining: It is hard to imagine with the sheer endless number of Turkish restaurants in Kreuzberg these days, but there was a time when a Turkish restaurant was still something exotic. Restaurant Istanbul opened in 1960 and for a long time remained the most important traditional Turkish restaurant in town – diplomats and politicians also liked dining here. The nationality restaurants of the GDR have all disappeared, but if you want to try the authentic GDR cuisine in a setting that’s unmistakably 1970s, you should head to Volkskammer.

Dancing: SO36 is a living legend: the club first opened in 1978 and quickly grew to be Germany’s centre for punk and new wave. It closed in the 1980s, reopened in the 1990s and these days still keeps punk – as well as many other musical genres – alive. A little less authentic but all the more classy (at least in its design) is Avenue Club in the basement of Café Moskau, a famous restaurant/bar on Karl-Marx-Allee in GDR times. After careful redesign, this place now has a stylish 1970s club atmosphere.

Bonus Tip: Time Travel to the Middle Ages

A little bonus tip for fans of medieval history: take the opportunity to time travel all the way back to the Middle Ages with a visit to Museumsdorf Düppel. Traces of a 12th century village have been found here and an open air museum consisting of several carefully reconstructed houses show what life must have been like in Berlin-Cölln.

Central Berlin - Düppel
Museumsdorf Düppel. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans