How Berlin keeps the spirit of the Roaring Twenties alive

Seek out the German capital’s historic cabaret clubs, cinemas and dance halls to relive a golden era

Berliners have long been captivated by the city’s ‘golden’ Weimar years. Now, following the success of TV series Babylon Berlin – set in that era and featuring enigmatic police detective Gereon Rath – discerning visitors are seeking a slice of the action too. In the 1920s Berlin was one of the world’s true hot-spots with hundreds of licensed dance halls, cinemas and grand restaurants serving 2,000 covers, and an overarching ethos: Tanz auf dem Vulkan – dance on the volcano. The political eruption came in 1933. ‘The arts blossomed like a meadow just before being mowed,’ lamented playwright Carl Zuckmayer, who lived in the city from 1924 to 1933. However, the charm can be rediscovered – if you know where to go…

Playing the part

Else Edelstahl, the ‘Grande Dame’ of Berlin nightlife, started Bohème Sauvage as a private salon in her living room. It has grown into a series of events across Berlin in old ballrooms, variety theatres and even aboard yachts. ‘Attendees span the age range,’ she says. ‘Everyone makes an effort to dress in the style of the era, and we even use fake Reichsmarks at the events.’ Event-goers have been known to receive a 50 million RMs fine for attempting to use a phone.

Bohème Sauvage now has a boutique in the eastern district of Friedrichshain, Le Boudoir, where authentic attire can be rented or acquired; you will find 20s-style Tilda Knopf dresses, gents’ three-piece suits and all the accessories.

Else Edelstahl with performer Le Pustra (Daggi Binder)

Berlin burlesque

1920s Berlin revelled in the quality and range of its burlesque shows, and for those curious to see what it has to offer today, Else Edelstahl recommends Zum Starken August in Schönhauser Allee. Alternatively, on October 18-21 a burlesque festival will be hosted in two of the city’s more atmospheric venues – the Wintergarten on Potsdamer Straße and the Heimathafen Theatre in Neukölln.

Dance halls, cinemas and other events

Clärchens Ballhaus ballroom in Mitte, founded in 1913, has seen a rise in the popularity of its weekly swing nights. Nearby is the characterful Ballhaus Berlin with original table phones – the Tinder service of its day (the phones still work).

The Delphi Theatre in Prenzlauer Berg was Berlin’s last silent film cinema. It was chosen for shooting Babylon Berlin, and the exceptional acoustics make it a leading venue for musical theatre. On December 14-15, it will host 1920s-themed cabaret events, which promise a ‘voyeuristic glimpse into the surreal world of smoky late night “Nachtlokals”.’ The Babylon Cinema on Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße opened in 1929, too; consider trying to catch The Blue Angel or another early classic there.

The table phones at Ballhaus Berlin (Thomas Henry)

Getting there and getting around

Multiple airlines fly direct to the city’s two main airports. Pick up a Berlin Welcome Card, which covers all public transport into and throughout the city.

Where to stay and eat

The Art Deco themed Waldorf Astoria is an oasis of calm in the Zoo district (at the south-western corner of central Tiergarten park). This was the hub of the entertainment world in the Roaring Twenties. Fritz Lang’s monumental Metropolis had its premiere over the road at the Ufa-Palast (now Zoo Palast) cinema. Zoo remains a carnivalesque collision of humanity – and indeed animals, which can be heard at the zoo itself, founded in 1844. Order a gin-based 1934 Cosmopolitan or champagne with chocolate bitters at the first floor Lang Bar of the Waldorf Astoria and admire the ceiling lamps resembling golden film reels.

The Lang Bar at the Waldorf Astoria

Food-wise, you can travel back a century at Einstein Café in Kurfürstenstraße, or indeed at the more rustic Max und Moritz bar in Kreuzberg. But for a culinary experience that excels at reinterpreting the past, try Pauly Saal in Mitte. This beautiful former Jewish Girls’ School, built in the late 20s and combining Arts and Crafts and modern styles, was soon closed down by the Nazis. The Michelin-starred food features humble ingredients imaginatively prepared – flank steak cannelloni being one standout dish.

Finally, don’t overlook Leydicke, a time capsule of a distillery in Schöneberg that is justifiably proud of its home-made raspberry schnapps. And at the austere, Bauhaus-style Erich Hamann chocolate shop in Wilmersdorf, you can pick up a beautiful selection box; share the decadence back home.

Daniel Pembrey’s upcoming novel Shadow Play is set in wartime Berlin. He was a guest of British Airways holidays (from £240 per person for 2 nights at the Waldorf Astoria Berlin with flights departing from Heathrow)


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