EuropeLGBT Travel

In Berlin, a legacy of irreverence, acceptance

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Berlin’s Christopher Street Day parade draws thousands each summer.
Berlin’s Christopher Street Day parade draws thousands each summer. Photo Credit: Pedro Becerra/VisitBerlin

It takes temerity to open a luxury hotel in a Berlin neighborhood best known for its countercultural vibe and anti-gentrification anarchists — and then to house it in a historical building that hosted a nightclub in the 1990s called Trash.

Balanced on the razor's edge of grit and glamour, the Orania.Berlin perfectly captures the cool Kreuzberg vibe that has marked the colorful neighborhood since its emergence from the shadows of the Berlin Wall. For more than a century, the handsome six-story, sandstone building has faced onto the vest-pocket park called Oranienplatz from its perch on Oranienstrasse, the backbone of Kreuzberg.

As a formative center of Berlin punk and hip-hop culture, Kreuzberg (also known as X-Berg from its literal meaning "Cross Hill") has historically been home to one of Europe's youngest urban populations. What was once one of the city's poorest neighborhoods and home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey has become the creative, cosmopolitan heart of the city. 

It was into this fray that entrepreneur Dietmar Muller-Elmau wandered. Scion of the hotelier family behind Schloss Elmau, the hotel that hosted the 2015 G-7 summit (which produced the iconic photo of President Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel amid the Bavarian Alps), Muller-Elmau had a vision of re-creating the building's original performance venue. Opened in 1913, Cafe Oranienpalast hosted cabarets and concerts for more than a decade during the Jazz Age.

As the author Christopher Isherwood revealed in numerous novels and memoirs, Berlin in the '20s was a polymorphous playground for LGBTQ people. The world's first homosexual organization was founded in 1897 in Berlin by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. 

Before the wars, Berlin's population quadrupled as people were drawn to the glittering polyglot metropolis, widely considered the crossroads of the modern age.

Berlin's first gay bar opened in 1977 in the Schoneberg neighborhood, the current home of Berlin's Schwules Museum, which relocated from Kreuzberg in 2013. One of the foremost institutions for LGBTQ history and culture, the Schwules Museum features four exhibition spaces, a cafe and a climate-controlled storage area for its LGBTQ archives.

Today, nearly half a million Berlin residents hold foreign passports, and nearly one-third of the population is foreign-born. The citywide multiculturalism reflects the official tag line "Berlin 365/24," a reminder that Berlin remains open to all. With neighborhoods as diverse as the LGBTQ community, 21st-century Berlin has become Europe's gayest capital. 

Each summer, half a million people celebrate Christopher Street Day in the streets between Kurfurstendamm and the Brandenburg Gate. 

Equally diverse is Zoo Berlin's annual Gay Night at the Zoo, an open-air party situated amid the 90-acre zoo in Berlin's Tiergarten.

The lobby at Orania.Berlin features a Steinway piano used for concerts.
The lobby at Orania.Berlin features a Steinway piano used for concerts.

Kreuzberg cool at Orania.Berlin

In keeping with Berlin's citywide spirit of youthful rebellion, the Orania.Berlin was baptized with paint bombs upon its opening in August 2017. 

Since then, the 41-room hotel has been adopted by Kreuzberg denizens who have welcomed Orania.Berlin's cultural programming. Jazz and classical concerts are held in the hotel's soaring lobby with its Steinway grand piano atop a corner stage. Musical guests include artists such as pianist Larry Porter, who played with legendary jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, and other Berlin luminaries who also appear at Orania's sister property Schloss Elmau. 

Upstairs in the Orania.Salon, panoramic views of the city skyline provide a spectacular backdrop for record releases and film screenings. Hotel guests also receive complimentary tickets for the curated literary evenings, poetry slams and DJ sets. 

Located in the lobby in front of an open kitchen, Orania.Restaurant is helmed by Michelin-starred chef Philipp Vogel, whose menu focuses on three complementary elements for each dish. A scallop, for example, is served with Jerusalem artichoke and hazelnut. Similarly, the cocktails at Orania.Bar are expertly crafted with exotic ingredients such as Monkey Shoulder whiskey, chili, cherry and bitters, all of which go down smoothly amid the neo-Weimar buzz. 

The 41-room Orania.Berlin is located in the colorful Kreuzberg neighborhood. Pictured, an Orania.45 living room; the 45 refers to the room’s size in square meters.
The 41-room Orania.Berlin is located in the colorful Kreuzberg neighborhood. Pictured, an Orania.45 living room; the 45 refers to the room’s size in square meters.

Accessible via elevator or the building's beautifully restored grand staircase, Orania.Berlin's rooms are sleekly furnished in natural materials by B&B Italia. A variety of woods — apple, oak, ash, cherry and teak — complement textiles in burgundy, gray and gold accessorized with Elmau's signature elephant. Upholstered window seats overlook Oranienplatz for a bird's-eye view of the neighborhood. The spacious bathrooms function as walk-in dressing closets complete with built-in wardrobes and rainforest showers. From hardware to lighting, the rooms are exemplars of impeccable craftsmanship, and the overall atmosphere radiates a timeless Bauhaus elegance.

At breakfast in the lobby restaurant, a fire crackles in winter. As the neighborhood awakens, as a woman in jilbaab crosses the park, as a Berliner bicycles his two young children to join his parents in the dining room, a cast-iron skillet of shakshouka (whose etymology means "stick together") serves as a fitting culinary metaphor for the myriad global influences shaping this modern luxury hotel.

A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Orania.Berlin's rates begin at $250 per night, making it that much easier to fly Lufthansa's business class on its newly inaugurated JFK-Berlin route. From one end of the rainbow to the other, the spirit of Stonewall lives on in Berlin.

See www.slh.com/hotels/orania-berlin.

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