Despite its history, the gay-friendly capital of Germany may be Western Europe’s best kept secret

MARK LOWRY  | Special Contributor

WILLKOMMEN, BIENVENUE | The remnants of the Berlin Wall are a sobering reminder of the city’s past, but the German metropolis is now a feast for travelers — literally, as street pretzel vendors prove. (Photos by Mark Lowry)

Of all the great cities in Europe, Berlin is probably not the first one that comes to mind when Americans make travel plans. Paris and Prague are more glamorous. Rome and Athens are more scenic. Amsterdam is more… well, everything.

But Berlin, with its troubled modern history, has been making a comeback on the world stage — even among the gay community, notable considering how gays were treated in Germany during the 1930s.

That’s actually been the story for about a decade. Apparently, those who are helping it come back, including the nearly 15,000 Americans who have moved there since the Berlin Wall came down, don’t want the secret out. The main selling point: It’s the cheapest of the major cities of Western Europe for lodging, shopping, eating and sightseeing. That’s good news for the budget traveler who doesn’t want to sacrifice comfort or good grub.

There is rich history to take in (much of it a reminder of evil regimes from not so long ago) and brilliant museums to tour. For the gay traveler, there’s a vibrant and large scene, eager to accommodate every fetish.

Like all of the other major European cities, it’s extremely easy to get around Berlin, thanks to a proficient bus system and underground and aboveground rail systems (U-Bahn and S-Bahn, respectively). Oh, and beer, which is big in this part of the world, is allowed on mass transit. And the drinking age starts at 16 — good to know. (Don’t worry about all the drinking, though, because the region’s carb-heavy foods, including schnitzel, sausages and curry wurst, usually soak that up. Plan to gain weight on this trip.)

Here are a few tips and must-sees for your Berlin excursion.

East vs. West vs. the World

It’s impossible to think of Berlin without images of Hitler, the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation and the Berlin Wall. That history is significant to this once-divided city, and while there are many reminders present to prevent such things from ever happening again (such as the bombed-out but still-standing Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche), it’s still a sensitive topic among German residents. (It’s best to take advice from Fawlty Towers: “Don’t mention the war!”)

Touring that history can easily take several days, and that’s if you’re just staying in the city and not taking charter buses out to some of the closest concentration camps. Start by visiting the only part of the Berlin Wall left standing, in the “Around Unter den Linden” section of the city. The wall is a powerful symbol (as are the cold, Stalin-esque buildings next to it, where the Nazis officed), but walk though the outdoor exhibit next to it, “Berlin: Between Propaganda and Terror,” and visit the museum on its grounds.

A few blocks down, in the Kreuzberg section, is “Checkpoint Charlie,” the entry point to the American sector of the formerly divided Berlin. The checkpoint stand and American military officials are there for photo ops. Also telling: Note the McDonald’s a few feet away.

After taking a stroll on the nearby Unter den Linden and to the historic Brandenburg Gate, you can wander to another powerful reminder of the past, the Holocaust Memorial, with its concrete slabs in a grid pattern. The memorial opened in 2005, and underneath is a museum dedicated to Jews murdered in World War II. Not far away, in the Tiergarten section, is the famous neo-Renaissance home to German parliament, the Reichstag. In the 1990s, an elliptical globe, designed by Sir Norman Foster (who designed Dallas’ Winspear Opera House) was added so visitors can walk up and around it. If you want to do that, arrive early — the line is long.

Museum Island

Museum Island is exactly what it sounds like, and you’d be remiss not to tour a few of its major museums, notably the Pergamon Museum, which houses a mammoth altar excavated from the ancient Asia Minor city of Pergamon. There’s also a brilliant section dedicated to Islamic art. Also worth trips on Museum Island are the Old National Gallery and New Museum, all in historic 19th century buildings that mostly survived the bombings in World War II (much of the rest of the city didn’t, although many historic buildings were purposefully not targeted by Allied forces).

You can get a good overview of that part of the city, as well as parts of Tiergarten, by taking a tourist boat on the Spree river, around the City Centre. On that ride, you’ll take a tour of German architectural history, from Baroque (the Berliner Dom, a church that warrants a an indoor visit) to Modern (the Bauhaus Archiv). Along the way, you’ll see the home of the Berliner Ensemble, the theater company that Bertolt Brecht ran, which still does excellent productions of his (and others’) works.

For the gay traveler

Like much of urban Western Europe, there’s now a progressive, accepting attitude towards homosexuality in Berlin, and gay establishments proudly fly their rainbow flags throughout the city. Most of them are located in the Schöneberg section. There are several guides to gay Berlin, but we found the one produced by Queerline Media the most helpful.

Apparently, most of the dance clubs open late and let the pretty people in first, but if you’re into rough trade or leather, there are plenty of options. Fetishes are proudly trumpeted (many of the guides list special events, such as “golden shower Thursday”). Leather stores display military, bondage and gas mask paraphernalia (gas masks, really — considering this city’s history?) in their windows. There are many options for gay-specific lodging, but if you stay at Tom’s Hotel you’ll get passes for area cafes (such as the popular Sissi), saunas and other establishments.

Given Berlin’s history with gays, who were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the Nazi regime, it’s fitting that there is a gay museum, the Schwules Museum in the Kreuzberg section. Housed in two multi-level residential buildings, it features a fascinating pictorial history of gay Germany, with occasional special exhibits. And you can always seek out Marlene Dietrich’s grave.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.