After David Bowie’s death in January 2016, the German Foreign Office tweeted a farewell to the groundbreaking artist, thanking him for his role in bringing down the Berlin Wall. Bowie fans already know that his time in Berlin was the stuff of legend: sharing a run-down apartment with Iggy Pop, soaking up a seedy nightlife, and producing the three albums that would later become known as the “Berlin Trilogy.” Yet, many have forgotten that “Heroes,” the tragic love song he penned after watching a romantic scene alongside the Berlin Wall, became something of a battle cry for the divided city.
Of course, Berlin remembers, which is why the city continues to celebrate Bowie’s legacy by showcasing his stomping grounds as cultural landmarks. Travelers can take advantage of one of the numerous guided tours that offer anecdotes and entry to his former dives. Otherwise, most of these spaces are open to the public and easily accessible by foot. After visiting his old apartment on Hauptstrasse 155, be sure to visit the places that Bowie sought for inspiration.
As one of the first venues to boast a regular lineup of punk bands in West Berlin, SO36 was a favorite spot for David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Thanks to its roster of punk rock bands, new wave acts, and performance artists, the venue is often compared to New York’s CBGB during its heyday. Fortunately for Berlin, SO36 still stands and remains true to its roots by showcasing new artists, experimental performances, and the city’s most avant-garde. —Oranien Strasse near Heinrichplatz, Kreuzberg
Today, the Hansa Studios is world renowned, not just for hosting David Bowie but for the bands that followed: Depeche Mode, Pixies, U2, and REM to name a few. The studio is a few steps from the popular, if not overly congested, Potsdamer Platz—but when Bowie used the space in 1977 to produce the album Low and record Heroes, it was just 200 meters from the Wall, stuck in an abandoned “no-man’s land” section of West Berlin. Its desolate location made it ideal for experimentation, and the electronic production on Low would mark a pivotal shift in Bowie’s sound.—Köthenerstrasse 38, Kreuzberg
Neues Ufer Cafe
A few doors down from Bowie and Iggy’s old apartment, Neues Ufer is one of Berlin’s oldest gay cafes. Meaning “the New Side,” Neues Ufer was established in the 1970s to celebrate a new beginning and to remember the gay community in Schöneberg that once existed before the war. Bowie was a frequent patron at the cafe and his picture still hangs on the wall.—Haupstrasse 157, Schöneberg
Completed in 1894, the Reichstag has stood to witness Berlin in many iterations. But it’s Bowie’s personal memory of what is now known as one of the most cuturally significant events in the divided city that conveys just how profound his connection was to Berlin. In 1987, long after it became a landmark of the German Empire and just a few years before it hosted the reunification ceremony of 1990, Bowie returned to the city to take part in the Concert for Berlin, a three-day show in front of the Reichstag. After realizing that East Berliners could hear the performance from the other side of the Wall, and had begun to sing along in unison with fans on the other side, Bowie broke into tears on stage. Reading his reflections on this performance, it’s easy to see why:
“We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did “Heroes,” it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more. That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about.”
Watch the 1987 performance here. The Reichstag—Platz de Republik 1