The Great Indoors: Berlin Hotel Offers Camping Under Concrete

PHOTO: A new hotel in Berlin offers all the charms of outdoor camping--inside.Jan Brockhaus/Courtesy Huettenpalast
A new hotel in Berlin offers all the charms of outdoor camping--inside.

Love camping but hate the winter cold? Well, now your problem is solved. A new hotel in Berlin offers all the charms of outdoor camping inside a former vacuum-cleaner factory.

Franz Thum is an expert when it comes to tourism in Berlin. Every few weeks, the Vienna native abandons the Austrian capital and heads north to Berlin to sell souvenirs. He's very picky about where he stays the night, and he's tested numerous hotels. But now he's settled on the unique Hüttenpalast -- literally "Hut Palace" -- a recent addition to Berlin's trendy "Kreuzkölln" neighborhood, which straddles the border of the Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts.

"I've found a place to stay here where I can meet nice people," Thum says as he sips a soft drink in the hotel's lush courtyard. He's also drawn by its uniqueness. Indeed, no other hotel in Berlin gives guests the option of camping out year round -- albeit under a concrete, rather than a starry, sky.

Guests can choose where they'd like to hunker down for the night from a selection of wooden huts and camping trailers clustered inside a 200-square-meter (2,100-square-foot) hall that used to be part of a vacuum-cleaner factory. With the establishment of this cozy indoor camping village, what was once a dismal tribute to Berlin's industrial heyday has become a hotspot among tourists and locals alike.

The indoor camping hotel, which opened its doors this summer, is the brainchild of Silke Lorenzen and Sarah Vollmer, two long-time residents of the Kreuzkölln neighborhood. After discovering that the area lacked suitable accommodation for visiting friends and family, they decided to open their own hotel. After weeks of searching, they settled on the defunct factory as their future campsite and began renovations.

Heartbreakers and Swallow's Nests

Before long, they started scouring the Internet for the perfect camping trailer -- and found it in Dresden. With their hard work, the "Herzensbrecher" ("Heartbreaker"), a camping trailer manufactured in the former East Germany, has been born again and is enjoying a second life as a hotel room. "The '50s-era vehicle was in abysmal condition," says Vollmer, who counts the Heartbreaker as her favorite of the Hüttenpalast's rooms. Now that it's been renovated, the metal trailer serves as a cozy room for two. Next door to the Heartbreaker is the "Schwalbennest" ("Swallow's Nest"), the only trailer to not hail from the former East Germany.

In the main hall, guests can get to know one another while lounging in upholstered chairs and enjoying a breakfast of coffee and croissants.

In a far corner, birch logs mark the spot where the hotel's smallest room is tucked away: The "Queck Junior" camper weighed in at just 400 kilos (882 pounds) prior to its renovation. Today, heavy white-lacquered wood paneling weighs the tiny trailer down, preventing over-eager guests from taking it home as an oversize souvenir.

Local Artists Contribute

Like much of the Hüttenpalast, the Queck Junior's interior has been decorated with the help of a local artist. "We wanted to utilize the energy within our circle of friends and acquaintances to give them a platform for their creativity," says Vollmer of her and Lorenzen's desire to get the local creative community involved in their project.

Vollmer, a fashion designer by training, helped design the main hall herself. "We liked the idea of a community but still wanted to offer our guests some degree of intimacy," she explains. The solution was a "room-within-a-room" concept, exemplified by the three small wooden huts within the main hall.

One of these is the "Altes Palast" ("Old Palace"). Sporting a '80s-style interior, the small hut was built using wood that was once part of the vacuum factory's reception area. "It bridges the past and present of this space," Vollmer says. A set of stairs leads guests to the top of the hut, where they'll find a comfortable lounge area that transforms it into an accommodation capable of sleeping four.

'Even Neighbors Want to Stay Here'

The hotel also has a café with a small kitchen. In these common spaces, French, Spanish and English can be heard -- fitting for a hotel in this area known for its multicultural atmosphere. "Americans, Australians, Spaniards -- our guests come from around the world," Vollmer says.

But not everyone who visits the Hüttenpalast hails from so far away: The hotel café has also become a big draw for locals. Thanks to Vollmer and Lorenzen's efforts to integrate them into the hotel's development, it has also avoided the accusations typically lobbed at tourism businesses in the area -- that they contribute to gentrification and attract rowdy outsiders. "That rowdy atmosphere is more likely to be found in the massive tourist hotels," Vollmer says. "People living in the neighborhood have even expressed interest in staying here."

To maintain this personal contact to guests and the surrounding neighborhood, Vollmer and Lorenzen currently plan to keep the indoor campsite's sleeping capacity at 30 beds. For those who shy away at the thought of camping even in an urban space, there are six conventional hotel rooms just off the main hall.

Still, the unique hotel continues to be a work in progress. Plans are in place to build an outdoor sauna in the building's tranquil back courtyard. The sauna shower will be installed in an old British telephone booth that has been wasting away in the backyard for years.

Frequent visitors who value individuality -- like Franz Thum -- are sure to enjoy the addition, which gives them the pleasure of an oddly paradoxical situation: enjoying an outdoor sauna at an indoor campsite.