The essential guide for all international Berlin conquerors. Living in Berlin since 2008 New Yorker author Giulia Pines takes you by the hand and tells you what to expect as an expat. Her lively book gives the answers to every existential question regarding: history, official stuff, finding a place to live, learning German, getting around in the city, Berlin with children, work life, shopping, eating, culture, books, and other expat resources. Page through it for inspiration. Lean it to assuage your worst fears and help fuel your dreams. Use it as a companion, but don't assume that it possesses the power to dictate exactly what your experience of moving to Berlin will be. With 21 photographs by Paul Sullivan.
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A Guide to Making a Home in the Hauptstadt
With photographs by Paul Sullivan
Finding Your Feet in Berlin
1st edition—Berlin: Berlin Story Verlag 2014
© Berlin Story Verlag GmbH
Unter den Linden 40, 10117 Berlin
Tel.: (030) 20 91 17 80
Fax: (030) 20 45 38 41
E-Mail: [email protected]
Cover design: Norman Bösch (cover picture © Pedelecs by Wikivoyage and Wikicommons | CC-BY-SA 3.0 | http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
Editing: Nadin Wildt
Photography: Paul Sullivan
1. Welcome to Berlin
2. Berlin’s Many Faces
3. The Official Stuff
4. Finding a Place to Live
5. Learning German
6. Getting Around in the City
7. Berlin with Kids
8. Student Life in Berlin
9. Work Life in Berlin
10. Shopping, Cooking, and Eating
11. Free Time and Entertainment
12. Expat Resources
13. Berlin in Books
Most people don’t happen upon it by chance. They read an article, hear a snippet of a travel story from a friend, or feel that unmistakable pull towards a place where history is celebrated, all-encompassing, engulfing—not just a side note. In an era where everything and everyone is connected and nothing remains undiscovered for long, Berlin can offer a respite: a place still in the midst of its own discovery, doing just fine at a more laid-back pace quite contradictory to the rest of the world, and even to the rest of Germany.
I wasn’t one of those people. I felt a pull of a different sort, attracted by the one thing most new arrivals seem to avoid almost by instinct: the German language. A university graduate back in 2008, a New Yorker who had never really left New York, I had only the vague sense that I wanted to experience something different, along with a cursory interest in learning German. A friend told me about the Goethe-Institut, and with that, it was decided: I would go to learn a new language, attempting the study abroad year I’d never had. And if it was going to be Germany, it would have to be Berlin. It was only after I had booked my plane ticket and registered for my first German class that I began to hear murmurings of what I was in for: Berlin was exciting. Berlin was cheap. Berlin was as hedonistic as it had been in the 1920s. Berlin was already over. Berlin had not yet begun. I would love Berlin.
I listened to as much advice as I could take, and then ignored most of it. I knew all the while that, although it might help me, each opinion I listened to could shape my experience of the city before I had even gotten there and had a chance to make it my own. Friends told me to move to Friedrichshain, to live in Prenzlauer Berg, that I would love Kreuzberg. I listened to none of them and found my first flatshare somewhere else. I was bombarded with all manner of helpful advice on how to learn German, how to avoid falling into the trap of associating only with English speakers—or worse still, only Americans. I cannot say that I consciously followed any of it—and neither should you.
I urge you to use this book in much the same way I used all that friendly advice. Page through it for inspiration. Lean on it to assuage your fears and fuel your dreams. Use it as a companion, but don’t assume it possesses the power to dictate exactly what your experience of moving to Berlin will be, or that it can tell you exactly how to live once you get here. Berlin is changing so fast these days (then again, that’s what they said five, ten, and 20 years ago), you may find it difficult to keep up, even with the help of a book such as this one. Embrace it.
Berlin is exciting. Berlin is still comparatively cheap. Berlin has many sides, some of them as hedonistic as they were in the 1920s. Berlin is already over. Berlin has not yet begun. You will love Berlin.
Old meets new in Berlin’s Regierungsviertel
Much like that famous Winston Churchill quote about Russia, Berlin can often seem like a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” To young first-timers, it may seem impossible that a city this vibrant, this central, and this cosmopolitan could still be so cheap. To those who were born here, or perhaps have lived here for a good portion of their lives, it can be perplexing and somewhat laughable that anyone would care about this place: Berlin, after all, spent much of its life as a somewhat provincial outpost just within the borders of several great empires—before finding itself at the center of 20th century history. To everyone else, Berlin is simply a fascinating and bewildering place that, even in the years since its reunification, somehow seems to live outside the boundaries of normal time and space.
It’s quickly catching up on all counts, though, and visitors these days will find a city both thoroughly wrapped up in itself and embracing of all outsiders, a city where deep construction holes and swiftly rising ultra-modern buildings are just as common as old mainstay neighborhoods that don’t appear to have changed in a century, a city where a student can feel just as at home as an artist, or a high-powered politician, or a retiree, as long as he doesn’t take himself too seriously. The ubiquitous quote from Berlin’s longtime mayor Klaus Wowereit, that the city is “poor but sexy” has probably been used to sell everything from guidebooks to T-shirts by now, but those repeating it often ignore the greater significance of it: it is not the words that Wowereit (or “Wowi,” as he is known to his supporters) chose to use, but rather the fact that he said them at all: that even the mayor of a European capital is comfortable enough with his hometown to label it in such a way, and to be reasonably certain of no resulting backlash. Most would agree with him: Berlin has been penniless for far too long. But like many a penniless artist, its lack of money has forced it to get creative in other ways.
Berlin nowadays is a city still coming into its own, in more ways than one. In 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and only one year after official reunification, the German parliament voted, by an extremely small margin, to make Berlin the capital of reunified Germany. (During the divided years, Berlin had been the capital of East Germany, while the West German capital was moved to Bonn.) Ask many German politicians today, and publicly they’ll tell you that it was a good decision, but privately, perhaps they’re still struggling with it. Although the impressive, modern Regierungsviertel (government quarter) has come to define “new Berlin,” many politicians forced to work there may still long for their genteel homes in the south. In fact, the conventional cliché is that many still have homes there, staying in Berlin only as long as it takes to vote and attend a couple of high-powered luncheons, and then high-tailing it back to the other side of the Rhine. Now, with the addition of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s central intelligence agency, entire city blocks at the northern edge of Mitte, Berlin’s central district, have been overhauled. A barren stretch of the city has now been enlivened with shops, hotels, and cafés, all intended to service a swarm of government agents.
In addition, companies that jumped ship when the Wall went up, abandoning the city after the war for the southern regions that were safer for business interests, are returning. Once again, Berlin is proving itself ripe for business and industry, and nothing has reflected this trend more strongly than it’s emergence as the so-called “Silicon Allee,” the German home of international startups. In just the last five years, Berlin has been flooded with startup offices, some of them the European headquarters of companies that have already found a measure of success elsewhere, others merely German versions of already successful ideas. Most of these companies are relentlessly international, hiring employees from many parts of the world who speak many languages and have decidedly 21st century talents, like coding and social media expertise. In many ways, Berlin is the perfect city for startups, as the Berlin lifestyle and the startup lifestyle fit each other so well: both are laid back, unconventional, and value creative drive and innovation over long but less productive working hours. It’s no great shock that Berlin and Silicon Valley have become fast friends; it’s only surprising that it didn’t happen sooner.
Add to that the fact that every year, Berlin is flooded with students and artists, the former attracted by essentially free educations offered at multiple top universities, technical colleges, and trade schools, the latter lured in by the still relatively cheap rent and the buzz of creativity fueled by it. If a comparison must be made between Berlin and some other city, think of New York in the 80s, minus the crime. The historical explanation for Berlin’s low rents will be discussed later, but suffice it to say, they’ve been enough to give every artist, musician, or writer who might have been discouraged by the cost of living in most other cities a chance at some level of success here. With rents for studios or co-working spaces still only a couple of hundred Euros a month, and living costs still well under a thousand a month depending on the neighborhood, artists can afford to get creative without sacrificing precious time and energy on a boring day job. The dearth of drive, however, and the lack of a true challenge to overcome has its advantages and disadvantages. While some truly embrace the open, effortless lifestyle Berlin provides, others find the lack of outside pressure to succeed dulls their ambition, making it difficult to reach goals, much less set them in the first place. It is as if the entire city, having been bombed to shreds in WWII, has decided to remake itself not once, not twice, but over and over again. And its inhabitants, taking their cues from the city itself, have decided that the best way to live there is simply to follow suit.
It is hard to say whether Berlin attracts a certain type of person, or whether those who move here become that type after a certain amount of time, but as you navigate the neighborhoods and face the faces of this ever-changing city, you’ll find that those who choose to make it their home are of the most unconventional sort. Welcome to their midst; you are now one of them. Berlin today may be the seat of government, it may have several major universities, but really, it is the perfect blend of history and creativity that makes Berlin what it is today: perhaps not just a great 21st century city, but a model for what 21st century cities should be.
Many, if not most, newly-minted Berliners are young enough not to remember the Berlin Wall, and for many of them those tumultuous, heady days when the Wall fell, taking Communism and the Eastern Bloc down with it, are only a vague recollection. So newcomers can often arrive with an embarrassingly limited knowledge of what Berlin was like before they got there. This is a shame, as having some idea of Berlin’s history can be crucial to understanding and appreciating it.
Starting from the beginning would fill a book on its own, but the most relevant recent history, and the story that makes for the most compelling reading, starts towards the beginning of the 20th century. Berlin started right where the city still looks its oldest, at the area where the Spree River parts to encircle Museum Island, where the Nikolaiviertel and the Fischerinsel still charm with their reconstructed period buildings. Two settlements—Berlin and Cölln—merged to form what would first be part of the Margravate of Brandenburg (still the name of the region surrounding Berlin today), then the capital of Prussia, and much later the center of the German Empire.
By the end of WWI, Berlin was still the capital, but it was hanging on by a thread due to overcrowding, lack of coal, and the simple fact that it was at the center of a defeated empire, now no longer a monarchy but a republic—the so-called Weimar Republic. Although the interwar years are the ones Berliners tend to wax nostalgic about (though few are still alive today who could remember them), the Roaring Twenties and the Golden Age they were not, but rather an exuberant, topsyturvy, dangerous world of excess, “divinely decadent” as the inimitable Sally Bowles, star of the Christopher Isherwood novel Goodbye to Berlin that would later become the musical Cabaret, would have it. Here, Communists and Nazis clashed in the streets, the value of the German Reichsmark soared, and Jews, homosexuals, Roma people, and other so-called “undesirables” first began to suspect that their world was collapsing. But it was also a whirlwind of creativity, producing some of Germany’s greatest works of art, literature, music, and theater.
Still, high unemployment, exorbitant reparation payments (which caused inflation in the first place, as the German government frantically printed money and borrowed in order to pay back the victorious allies), and a feeling of an old order and a highly prized culture slipping away may have first led the public to vote Hitler: in just a few years, he went from a far right nuisance many assumed would not gain ground to the chancellor of Germany; a country very quickly losing its status as a free-thinking republic. By the time Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, things had already devolved quite rapidly for Berlin and its citizens. While it was of course the Jews who felt the brunt of it, even a full-fledged “aryan” who didn’t blend into the background by following the rules or dared to express anything but full support for the Nazis could quickly find himself under suspicion—or worse.
After the war destroyed any traces of Berlin the Nazis had not already ruined, it was left a bombed out shell of its former self. The remains were divided among four victorious powers: America, Britain, France, and Russia. This division reflected a division of power along the same lines nationwide, with each country taking over a section of Germany along with Berlin. Berlin, of course, was in a uniquely precipitous position as Russia began to exert greater power over the Soviet Occupied Zone. By 1949, after withdrawing from the council of allied powers that governed occupied Germany, Russia proceeded to form its own satellite nation of East Germany, with East Berlin as its capital. This left West Berlin, by name still a part of West Germany, an island of capitalism in the midst of an increasingly hostile communist state.
That hostility came to a head in 1948, when the Soviets sealed off access to West Berlin in an attempt to besiege the city and take it for themselves. In one of the allies’ first postwar triumphs, which would cement America and Britain as valuable friends instead of occupying powers in the minds of a generation of Germans, airplanes manned by practically every member of the English-speaking world (America, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) delivered all the supplies needed to sustain West Berlin and its people by air. Tempelhof airport, built in the 1920s but redesigned during Hitler’s time as a symbol of Nazi power, would act as the gateway for the Berlin airlift or Luftbrücke (“air bridge”), becoming a symbol of Berlin’s postwar resilience in the face of a new threat.
The ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (memorial church)
It was not only this failed power grab that left East Germany feeling the crush of defeat, however; due to ever-harsher economic conditions in their sector, East Germans were increasingly leaving their homes and crossing through East Berlin into West Berlin and from there into the rest of West Germany where, they hoped, a more prosperous future awaited them. After failing to convince the newly-minted East Germans it was in their best interests to stay, the government employed another tactic in 1961: practically overnight, the Berlin Wall was built, dividing a city that was already divided, deepening a wound that was now completely, horrifyingly permanent.
In the coming years, over a hundred desperate people would be either killed or wounded trying to breech the Berlin Wall. Families would be torn apart, neighborhoods would be ripped in two as entire buildings were demolished—sometimes rental houses occupied by normal people, occasionally even historical churches, their steeples toppled in one fell swoop—to make way for the death strip and its impressive array of traps and alarms. With its many monuments, museums, and the touristy Checkpoint Charlie recreation, the Berlin of today sometimes seems fixated on turning the years between 1961 and 1989 into a James Bond film—or at least a John le Carré novel. And while the history of the Berlin Wall is no doubt one of the 20th century’s most intriguing, a spy story of epic proportions around which the fate of the world seemed to revolve, it is also, at its core, profoundly sad.
Postwar West Berlin would continue to grow and thrive, mostly thanks to an overwhelming influx of capital from the rest of the country. The city-state that was no longer the capital of its own country but sort of an entire country of its own—an island nation in the midst of troubled waters—would be turned into a destination for arts and culture, fueled by tax money, the youngest, most daring members of the population, and an ongoing reputation as something of a refuge for those who didn’t belong. A perpetual sense of dread hung in the air: the very real threat that the Russians would once again try to block the city’s connection to the outside world or invade it directly made it very difficult for established companies to risk setting up a headquarters there. Those who could, moved, and took Berlin’s industrial potential with them. Likewise, to West Germans living anywhere else, benefitting from an economy on the upswing, dubbed the Wirtschaftswunder (economic wonder), nothing could be farther from the radar than their former capital. So rents stayed cheap, the establishment stayed out for the most part, and Berlin became the ultimate paradox: a metropolis coasting along on its own underdog status while the fate of the Western world seemed to rest on its shoulders.
Then the Berlin Wall fell, and Berliners rejoiced over a miracle they hadn’t dared to hope for in their lifetimes. But once the party was over, the two countries were left to pick up their many pieces and paste them together, somewhat haphazardly, into what would become a new Germany…again. In many ways that experiment is still underway, as Berlin explores what kind of a city it wants to be and its inhabitants enjoy a certain influence they might not have in other cities. Because they are here, now, they have a hand in crafting a city that still has yet to truly become one.
Although every city-dweller nurtures a feeling of pride, of “I was there when…,” Berlin’s unique history makes it a special case. Shortly after moving here, you’ll probably find it difficult to keep track of the number of times you’ve been subjected to stories about the night the Wall fell (that’s November 9, 1989). Some of them will be intriguing enough that you’ll want to hear more, others you’ll just have to nod politely to, but what you choose to read into these stories will be a pretty accurate gauge of how you react to the Berlin mentality in general. Make no mistake about it, these nostalgic reminiscences can be both entertaining and moving, but they’re also meant to put the listener in his place, projecting an attitude that is both insular and welcoming, friendly and testy, and above all, serves to communicate a sense of “having been there” that the newly-minted Berliner can only hope to attain.
This is all a very roundabout way of introducing the concept of Berliner Schnauze, which is hardly worth translating, as any direct translation would fail to come close to its actually meaning. It is that sense of attitude with a wink, complaining with one corner of your mouth turned up in a sly smile, rudeness crossed with humor. The cheek you’ll sometimes get at Berlin’s trendier cafés and restaurants doesn’t even come close, for Berlin is so young and international these days, Berliner Schnauze has become the domain of the old or at least middle-aged. But they’ve been through a lot here. Let them keep it.
Of course, what they’ve been through also has a strong effect on their attitude towards outsiders. Unlike many rapidly changing capitals, where the amount of time one spends there can only really be measured from the day he arrives, Berlin’s inhabitants can be divided into two fairly solid categories: those who were there before the Wall fell, and those who weren’t. Nowhere else in recent history has an event so affected its people, so the distinction is therefore notable and even necessary. Putting one foot on each side of the thin brick line that memorializes the path of the Wall certainly makes for a good tourist photo. It’s something else entirely, though, to remember what those streets actually looked like pre-1989, and to feel the significance of stepping across the greatest of great divides.
Perhaps in a year or two you’ll be able to remember things that the current flock of newbies couldn’t even imagine: when that towering office building was just a gaping hole, for example, or when a certain neighborhood still felt undiscovered…at least to you. Then you’ll know the simultaneous feeling of pain and longing mixed with fascination that must surely greet the native Berliner: he’s seen it all, for sure, but he no longer recognizes his own city. The only response to this threat of encroaching change? Berliner Schnauze.
Visitors to Berlin may well end up wondering why they didn’t choose to move here earlier. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall over two decades ago, the city still displays a dichotomy that runs along east-west lines. Those who come to Berlin seeking the refinement and sophistication of a world capital may be satisfied or dismayed, depending on where they choose to live. This is why a thorough understanding of Berlin’s districts can be extremely valuable. The hedonistic atmosphere of post-1989 Berlin has given way to the upper-middle-class comfort and relaxation of gentrified neighborhoods: those who used to party the night away have since grown up and had children of their own, and their districts have changed along with them. Meanwhile, the old West, once seen as stuffy, is now experiencing a rebirth of its own, as those too old for the student areas but too alternative for the married-with-kids lifestyle seek a third way, renewing classic Berlin neighborhoods as they seek their own renewal.
A little over ten years ago, Berlin’s neighborhoods also experienced something of a renewal, albeit only a surface one. Up until 2000, Berlin comprised 23 different Bezirke or official districts, each with its own distinctive history and character. Then, in 2001, these 23 were consolidated into twelve, some of which are still shaking their heads in puzzlement, wondering what got them stuck together so arbitrarily. Still, many of the same age-old mentalities remain, while the names seem to serve only government employees (so called Beamter) or opportunistic real estate agents. Whether they serve to give you a broader picture of your new home, to inspire you to explore, or simply to confuse you, here are the twelve official districts of Berlin.
Your first few days in Berlin will most likely be spent in this district, and indeed it is not hard to guess what “mitte” means, even if you don’t speak German. Mitte’s energy ranges from staid to bustling to overwhelming, it contains most of the historical sites, hotels, and museums you will find in any guidebook, and nearly all of the noteworthy government buildings, including the Reichstag. It is not only central geographically, but truly in the middle of everything.
Areas: Everything from guidebook-ready (old) Mitte to Moabit, Tiergarten (including the park), and Wedding.
Top attractions: Potsdamer Platz has been built up considerably in the decades since the Wall fell, an approximation of New York’s Times Square with its shiny steel skyscrapers. Unter den Linden too is a name on the lips of everyone who first sets foot here, a grand boulevard ending in the Brandenburg Gate and flanked by the American, British, Russian and French embassies. The Scheunenviertel—once a gritty no man’s land where Jewish immigrants made their homes, and now some of the most desirable real estate in the city, is full of elegant, immaculately renovated Prussian buildings interspersed with commercial streets offering a mixture of small restaurants, cafés, and boutiques. Farther north in Wedding, the Panke canal, dotted with old industrial buildings turned artist workshops, is the perfect scenic Berlin walkway, and bustling Leopoldplatz sits at the center of one of Berlin’s most diverse areas.
Best Kept Secret: Moabit constitutes one of the last true “old Berlin” neighborhoods, seemingly impervious to gentrification, tourism, and trends. On partially cobblestoned, leafy streets, you’re bound to pass small businesses that have been around for decades, restaurants with loyal local clientele, and pensioners sitting outside local Kneipen (pubs) having a beer at midday. The Hansaviertel, a small Kiez or neighborhood within Moabit, was the result of Interbau, an international competition to find architects who would reimagine a neighborhood devastated after WWII. The goal was to create something so new and modern as to rival the bombastic magnificence of Karl-Marx-Allee, then being built in East Berlin. Walking through the Hansaviertel today is a bit of a nostalgia trip, helped by the fact that hardly anyone under the age of sixty seems to live there.
Cost: Quite high to moderate, depending on area. Touristy Mitte has grown to be the most expensive part of the city, while parts of Moabit, Wedding, and Tiergarten still offer comparatively affordable spaces.
Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, separated by the Spree river, may be next to each other, but to most of their inhabitants at the time of their union, they were about as different as could be. Now the neighborhoods in this central and highly livable area have grown closer. Both were known as highly alternative just after the Wall fell: Friedrichshain as a longtime worker’s quarter, Socialist stronghold, and home to some of the East’s most impressive buildings, Kreuzberg sufferered from the blight and isolation caused by being surrounded by the Wall on three sides.
Areas: Friedrichshain consists of Stralau, Oberbaum City, Boxhagener Kiez, and the area around Karl-Marx-Allee, and Kreuzberg consists of two districts known by their old West German postal codes: Kreuzberg 36 (for post code SO36) and Kreuzberg 61 (for post code SW61).
Top Attractions: Connecting the two districts via the Spree is the Oberbaumbrücke, the Disney castle-ish gothic bridge where inhabitants of the two districts meet each other annually in spectacular displays of good-natured rivalry: a water and vegetables fight in summer. The buildings along Karl-Marx-Allee are simultaneously revered and reviled, both for what they represent and for their architectural style, which fascinates many but reminds others of the fascist architecture that characterized Mussolini’s reign in Italy. Love it or hate it, one cannot fail to be anything less than bowled over by the endless wide boulevard with Mitte’s iconic TV Tower at one end, more reminiscent of Moscow than any city in Germany. Make a point of walking among these so-called Stalinbauten, starting at Alexanderplatz and strolling east past other Communist landmarks like the Kino International and the former Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung. Kreuzberg has an abundance of parks, including the shabby and beloved Görlitzer Park, a strip of green that used to be a railroad terminal, the magnificent Viktoriapark with its waterfall and stunning hilltop view, and the new Park am Gleisdreieck, a sprawling collection of playgrounds, community gardens and walkways made out of an old train depot.
Kanuliebe (canoe love) on the Spree between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain
Worst Kept Secret: The Landwehrkanal running through Kreuzberg all the way to Neukölln is an idyllic walkway that plays host to one of the city’s most beloved outdoor markets, Maybachufer, where Turkish vegetable sellers call out their wares, making for a lively atmosphere slightly reminiscent of Istanbul.
Cost: Once astonishingly low, housing prices have really gone up in recent years, especially in Kreuzberg areas like those around Chamissoplatz, Graefestraße, or the beautifully renovated and newly hip Markthalle IX, an old brick market hall.
The district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg is also something of an anomaly. Although the joining of the two might seem strange to their inhabitants, even a born and bred Berliner would now find it difficult to pick out on a map exactly where one ends and the other begins.
Areas: Tempelhof is about as suburban as you’re going to get in Berlin. The three green, leafy, and wholly un-urban neighborhoods of Mariendorf, Marienfelde, and Lichtenrade share space with the northern section that borders the former Tempelhof airport (now a park, its runways given over to bikers, skaters, and kite fliers), called the Fliegerviertel (flyer’s quarter) for the many airmen and passengers that surely passed through it. Schöneberg contains several tiny and desirable Kieze, including the Bayerisches Viertel or Bavarian Quarter, and the areas around Winterfeldtplatz and Akazienstraße. Nollendorfplatz is the traditional heart of gay Berlin, whereas the so-called Rote Insel or “red island” used to be a Communist stronghold. The sleepy neighborhood of Friedenau has some beautiful old buildings and a high concentration of pensioners.
Top Attractions: Schöneberg boasts a substantial number of attractive, old-world squares, like the highly sought-after Viktoria-Luise-Platz, that feel almost Parisian in their upscale, fountain-trickling elegance, and the bustling Winterfeldtplatz, which hosts one of the city’s best outdoor markets every Saturday. Former Schöneberg inhabitants as diverse as David Bowie, Christopher Isherwood, and Marlene Dietrich are almost attractions in themselves. The Fliegerviertel is one of the city’s most unexpected quarters: It’s tiny, one-lane streets are lined not with apartments, but with two- and three- story standalone and row houses that conceal back gardens.
Best Kept Secret: The Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände, an old train depot in the space between two 19th century rail lines, now turned into a sprawling nature reserve where gravel paths crisscross old train tracks and the rusty remnants of industry still peak out above the trees.
Cost: The southern parts of Tempelhof (Marienfelde, etc.) offer mostly single-family properties inhabited by their owners. The Fliegerviertel used to be a true best kept secret, but has now gotten a lot more expensive as people realize they have a chance to live in their own houses while still technically in the city center. Schöneberg has gotten much more expensive as of late as well, with costs now equaling or topping properties in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.
Long on the brink of something, Neukölln finally exploded in popularity about five years ago, and has been on the up and up ever since. Once considered one of the most blighted and dangerous neighborhoods (as it still appears to many who don’t live there and would never set foot there), Neukölln is a high-density immigrant area where cheap prices and proximity to Kreuzberg have attracted students, artists, and underdogs since long before its name was on the lips of real estate agents. Though there may not be so much in the way of well-known tourist attractions to lure visitors, do not dismiss this neighborhood simply because it does not yet show up in some guidebooks. Its many Kieze, each with its own local flare and proud history, make Neukölln one of Berlin’s most livable districts.
Areas: Although it extends quite far south and consists of both inner-city high rises like Gropiusstadt and practically rural farmland along the former German-German border, the area most people talk about when they talk about Neukölln north of the Ringbahn consists of several neighborhoods: Kreuzkölln, the part of Neukölln bordering the idyllic Landwehrkanal, Schillerkiez east of Tempelhof, which has experienced rapid gentrification since the airport became a park, Rixdorf at central Neukölln’s southeastern end, and Britz below the Ringbahn.
Top attractions: The pathway along the Landwehrkanal can provide a perfect place for promenading, and the section of the canal next to Kottbusser Brücke is also home to the beloved twice-weekly Maybachufer market. Farther south, the hidden idylls of Körnerpark, the tiny Comeniusgarten and the hills of Thomashöhe and Lessinghöhe (literally: “heights”) provide welcome breaks from city life. Several cemeteries flanking Hermannstraße’s lower reaches offer a sense of history and weightiness amidst the commercial bustle. Richardplatz, the square at the center of old Rixdorf, formerly a Bohemian village before being incorporated into Berlin, draws crowds for an old-fashioned Christmas market where revelers drink mulled wine and shop for church crafts by gas lamp light.
The pub Ankerklause on the Maybachufer at Kottbusser Brücke is a popular spot in all seasons.
Best Kept Secret: Gutshof Britz, a former manor estate that now houses a restaurant by a Michelin-started chef, a wonderful Heimatmuseum or local museum with an exhibition of objects representing Neukölln history, and a working farm.
Cost: Although getting up there due to its popularity, Neukölln’s southern neighborhoods still offer some very cheap real estate.
One of Berlin’s largest districts and its most heterogenous, Pankow stretches to the northernmost border of the city, where quiet suburbs centered around S-Bahn stations feel almost rural. At its southern end, Pankow is thoroughly urban.
Areas: The dense neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg, Weißensee, and Pankow are closer to Berlin’s center, while farther north the areas of Heinersdorf, Blankenfelde, Blankenburg, Karow, Malchow, Buch, Französisch Buchholz, Niederschönhausen, and Rosenthal are more like clusters of villages than real city districts.
Top attractions: Prenzlauer Berg stands out more for its reputation than for any one of its neighborhoods: over the last decade or so, it has been repeatedly trumpeted in the media as the one exception to sinking German fertility rates. Like it or not, sooner or later you’ll probably have an opinion about Prenzlauer Berg. Disparaged by older locals as a gentrification travesty, proof that West Germans who quickly moved in after reunification merely destroyed every ounce of character it had left, Prenzlauer Berg has a lot of controversy brewing under its cobblestone streets, kid-friendly cafés, and stroller-filled squares. True, a lot of the East Germans who were here when the Wall fell were quickly disenfranchised, unable to buy the crumbling houses they had lived in for decades because they came with hefty price tags in the form of renovation contracts (practically collapsing buildings, for example, went for very little at governmental auctions, as long as the buyers promised to sink a fortune into their reparation). But other Berlin neighborhoods have seen much the same; a general trending towards young families taking over while the elderly move on.
Weißensee is one place where time seems to have stood still. At its center is the eponymous lake and at its southernmost corner stands the largest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe. Until recently, the neighborhood of Pankow seemed to have somehow missed the gentrification wave. In the last few years, however, fueled by demand from those priced out of Prenzlauer Berg, Pankow has become known for the highest concentration of building projects in the city. Centered on Breite Straße, its main shopping street, Pankow was always a bit too far from the excitement of the center. But now it’s catching on with families in a big way, who see the district, with its many small green spaces like the Bürgerpark, Schlosspark, and Volkspark Schönholzer Heide, as a perfect, low-key place to raise kids.
Best Kept Secrets: The Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg (an actual Berg
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