Berlin’s cultural scene is lively, edgy and the richest and most varied in the German-speaking world. With three state-supported opera houses, five major orchestras – including the world-class Berliner Philharmoniker – scores of theatres, cinemas, cabarets and concert venues, Berlin is spoiled for entertainment options.
Classical-music fans are truly spoilt in Berlin. Not only is there a phenomenal range of concerts throughout the year, but most of the major concert halls are architectural and acoustic gems of the highest order. Trips to the Philharmonie or the Konzerthaus are a particular treat, and regular concerts are also organised in churches like the Berliner Dom and palaces such as Schloss Charlottenburg.
Top of the pops is, of course, the world-famous Berliner Philharmoniker, which was founded in 1882 and counts Hans Bülow, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan among its music directors. Since 2002, Sir Simon Rattle has continued the tradition. He will be succeeded by Russia-born Kirill Petrenko in 2019.
Though not in quite the same lofty league, the other orchestras are certainly no musical slouches either. Treat your ears to concerts by the Berliner Symphoniker, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, the Konzerthausorchester and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Note that most venues take a summer hiatus (usually July and August).
Berlin also has two music academies. The prestigious Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler and the new Barenboim-Said Academy (https://barenboimsaid.de), which supports mainly musicians from North Africa and the Middle East. Students often perform free or low-concerts in various venues, including the new Pierre Boulez Saal in Mitte.
A special treat are the Sunday chamber concerts in a historic mirror hall above Clärchens Ballhaus in the Scheunenviertel.
Not many cities afford themselves the luxury of three state-funded opera houses, but then opera has been popular in Berlin ever since the first fat lady loosened her lungs. Today fans can catch some of Germany’s biggest and best performances here. Leading the pack in the prestige department is the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the oldest among the three, founded by Frederick the Great in 1743. The hallowed hall hosted many world premieres, including Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Giacomo Meyerbeer, Richard Strauss and Herbert von Karajan were among its music directors. Since reunification, Daniel Barenboim has swung the baton.
The Komische Oper opened in 1947 with Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II and still champions light opera, operettas and dance theatre. Across town in Charlottenburg, the Deutsche Oper Berlin entered the scene in 1912 with Beethoven’s Fidelio. It was founded by local citizens keen on creating a counterpoint to the royal Staatsoper.
Berliners keep a wide array of cinemas in business, from indie art houses and tiny neighbourhood screens to stadium-style megaplexes with the latest technology. Mainstream Hollywood movies are dubbed into German, but numerous theatres also show flicks in their original language, denoted in listings by the acronym ‘OF’ (Originalfassung) or ‘OV’ (Originalversion); those with German subtitles are marked ‘OmU’ (Original mit Untertiteln). The Cinestar Original im Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz only screens films in the original English.
Food and drink may be taken inside the auditoriums, although you are of course expected to purchase your beer and popcorn (usually at inflated prices) at the theatre. Almost all cinemas also add a sneaky Überlängezuschlag (overrun supplement) of €0.50 to €1.50 for films longer than 90 minutes. There’s also a surcharge for 3D movies plus a €1 rental fee if you don’t have your own glasses. Seeing a flick on a Kinotag (film day, usually Monday or Tuesday) can save you a couple of euros.
From May to September, alfresco screenings are a popular tradition, with classic and contemporary flicks spooling off in Freiluftkinos (open-air cinemas). Come early to stake out a good spot and bring pillows, blankets and snacks. Films are usually screened in their original language with German subtitles, or in German with English subtitles.
Berlin plays host to most German and international movie premieres and, in February, stages the single most important event on Germany’s film calendar, the Berlinale. Founded in 1951 on the initiative of the Western Allies, around 400 films are screened in theatres around town, with some of them competing for the Golden and Silver Bear trophies.
Dozens of other film festivals take place throughout the year, including Achtung Berlin, featuring movies made in Berlin and, yes, the Porn Film Festival. For the entire schedule, see http://berliner-filmfestivals.de.
Live Rock, Pop, Jazz & Blues
Berlin’s live-music scene is as diverse as the city itself. There’s no Berlin sound as such, but many simultaneous trends, from punk rock to hardcore rap and hip-hop, reggae to sugary pop and downtempo jazz. With four clubs – Musik & Frieden, Bii Nuu, Lido and Privatclub – the area around Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn station in Kreuzberg is sound central. Another prime venue, the Astra Kulturhaus, is just across the river in Friedrichshain. Some venues segue smoothly from concert to party on some nights. Scores of pubs and bars also host concerts.
International top artists perform at various venues around town:
Columbiahalle Originally a gym for members of the US air force, this hall now packs in up to 3500 people for rock and pop concerts.
Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide This 17,000-seat outdoor stage in the shape of an amphitheatre was built in the early 1950s and is a popular venue for German pop and rock concerts.
Mercedez-Benz Arena Berlin’s professional ice hockey and basketball teams play their home games at this state-of-the-art Friedrichshain arena that’s also the preferred venue of international entertainment stars.
Olympiastadion With a seating capacity of nearly 75,000, the storied Olympic Stadium has hosted top music acts, the premier league soccer team Hertha BSC and even the Pope.
Tempodrom This midsize hall in an eye-catching tent-shaped building has great acoustics and eclectic programming from concerts to snooker championships.
Waldbühne Berlin Built for the 1936 Olympics, this 22,000-seat open-air amphitheatre in the woods is a magical place for summer concerts.
With more than 100 stages around town, theatre is a mainstay of Berlin’s cultural scene. Add in a particularly active collection of roaming companies and experimental outfits and you’ll find there are more than enough offerings to satisfy all possible tastes. Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg and the area around Friedrichstrasse in Mitte (the ‘East End’) are Berlin’s main drama drags.
Most plays are performed in German, naturally, but of late several of the major stages – including Schaubühne, Volksbühne and Gorki – have started using English subtitles in some of their productions. There’s also the English Theatre Berlin, which has some pretty innovative productions often dealing with socio-political themes, including racism, identity and expat-related issues.
Many theatres are closed on Monday and from mid-July to late August.
The Berliner Theatertreffen (Berlin Theatre Meeting; www.theatertreffen-berlin.de), in May, is a three-week-long celebration of new plays and productions that brings together top ensembles from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The light, lively and lavish variety shows of the Golden Twenties have been undergoing a sweeping revival in Berlin. Get ready for an evening of dancing and singing, jugglers, acrobats and other entertainers. A popular venue is the Bar Jeder Vernunft and its larger sister Tipi am Kanzleramt whose occasional reprise of the musical Cabaret plays to sell-out audiences. In the heart of the ‘East End’ theatre district, Friedrichstadtpalast is Europe’s largest revue theatre and the realm of leggy dancers and Vegas-worthy technology. The nearby Chamäleon Varieté is considerably more intimate. Travelling shows camp out at the lovely Wintergarten Varieté.
These ‘cabarets’ should not be confused with Kabarett, which are political and satirical shows with monologues and skits.
With independent choreographers and youthful companies consistently promoting experimental choreography, Berlin’s independent dance scene is thriving as never before. The biggest name in choreography is Sasha Waltz, whose company Sasha Waltz & Guests has a residency at the cutting-edge Radialsystem V. Other indie venues include the Sophiensaele, Dock 11 and Hebbel am Ufer. The last of these, in cooperation with Tanzwerkstatt Berlin, organises Tanz im August (www.tanzimaugust.de), Germany’s largest contemporary dance festival, which attracts loose-limbed talent and highly experimental choreography from around the globe.
In the mainstream, the Staatsballett Berlin (Berlin State Ballet) performs both at the Staatsoper and at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Berlin’s vast expat community fuels a lively English-language comedy scene with everything from stand-up to sketch and musical comedy being performed around town. Upcoming events are posted on www.comedyinenglish.de. The Kookaburra comedy club does English-language shows some nights.
Need to Know
- Early bookings are always advisable and are essential in the case of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Staatsoper and big-name concerts.
- Some venues let you book tickets online for free or only a small surcharge using a credit card. Pick them up before the show at the box office.
- Theaterkasse Ticket outlets commonly found in shopping malls charge hefty fees.
- Eventim (www.eventim.de) The main online agency.
- Hekticket Half-price tickets for same-day performances online, by phone and in person at its outlets near Zoo station and Alexanderplatz.
- Koka 36 For indie concerts and events.
- Some theatres sell unsold tickets at a discount 30 minutes or an hour before shows commence. Some restrict this to students.
- It’s fine to buy spare tickets from other theatregoers but show them to the box-office clerk to make sure they're genuine before forking over any cash.
- The ClassicCard (www.classiccard.de) offers savings for classical-music aficionados under 30.
- Tip (www.tip-berlin.de) Biweekly listings magazine (in German).
- Zitty (www.zitty.de) Biweekly listings magazine (in German).
- Ex-Berliner (www.ex-berliner.de) Expat-oriented English-language monthly.
- Gratis in Berlin (www.gratis-in-berlin.de) Free events (in German).
- Berlin Bühnen (www.berlin-buehnen.de) Browse by genre (theatre, opera, dance, etc).