Berlin is the second-largest city in the EU after London, with over 3.5 million inhabitants. Each of Berlin’s neighborhoods is like a little city unto itself. Often these neighborhoods have such vastly different cultures and streetscapes that you might wonder how they ever ended up next to each other. The old East-West divide is still visible, but far less pronounced than you might imagine. It is not uncommon to see rows of beautifully restored historic buildings in East Berlin or brutalist housing projects in the capitalist West. Indeed, without knowing, it is often impossible to guess which side of the wall you are walking on.
After the wall went up, the former center of Berlin was split down the middle, becoming peripheral to both East and West Berlin. East Berlin began to develop around Alexanderplatz, which was garishly remodeled during the 1970s in tacky communist style. The West on the other hand, separated from the historic core by the wall, had to construct new institutions and a new downtown, which grew up around the Zoologischer Garten train station and Kurfürstendamm. As a result, there are many duplicates in Berlin: two national theaters, two cultural districts, and two (if not more) “downtowns.” All this makes for an endlessly confusing urban landscape.
As a general rule, the East and the parts of the West that were closer to the wall are still cheaper to live in than well established western districts like Charlottenburg. However, gentrification is occurring rapidly. Young Germans and wealthy expatriates are flocking like never before to immigrant enclaves and working-class districts in search of low rents and alternative lifestyles, altering the character of these neighborhoods as they do so.
Kreuzberg (aka X-berg) is probably the most famous of Berlin’s neighborhoods among young people.
The first hipsters arrived back when they were called hippies, taking advantage of the rock-bottom rents in this neighborhood, whose property values tumbled when the wall was built. Many came from other parts of West Germany to take advantage of a government loophole that exempted West Berliners from the nationwide mandatory military conscription in place at the time. Thus, even from its earliest post-war days, Kreuzberg has been a hotbed of protest, student life, youth culture, leftist politics, and substance abuse of all kinds.
Today Kreuzberg faithfully upholds this historic legacy, but with each passing year the sidewalks are getting cleaner, the drug dealers fewer, and the rents higher. It is now common to see yuppy families with young children peacefully strolling through Kreuzberg’s graffiti-drenched alleys.
Neukölln, just south of Kreuzberg over the canal, is a more recently “hipsterfied” neighborhood of Berlin and as such remains affordable even to the starving artists that make it their home. The most desirable area of Neukölln is the part closest to Kreuzberg, nicknamed “Kreuzkölln.” This area is home to large concentrations of ultra-trendy bars and cafés, Turkish barbershops, and second-hand shops. The artist community here is enormous and thriving.
Although further out then Kreuzberg, it is still a pretty straight shot on the U-bahn to get downtown (or anywhere) from Neukölln, which contributes to its popularity. Additionally, a huge expat community, cultural diversity, and a burgeoning nightlife scene all contribute to making Neukölln one of the most sought-after places to live in Berlin for young people.
Prenzlauer Berg $$$
Prenzlauer Berg was one of the first areas of East Berlin to catch the eye of West Berliners after reunification, and it is easy to see why. Prenzlauer Berg offered dirt-cheap rents in historic buildings that somehow escaped falling prey to the good intentions of communist central planners. Many of the residences here are beautifully ornamented, brightly colored, turn-of-the-century art-nouveau apartment blocks, thoughtfully arranged around cobblestoned streets and manicured parks.
Though not without its critics, P-Berg is generally considered one of the more pleasant places to live in Berlin. The borough feels very much like a cohesive city unto itself and maintains a more laid-back pace than other neighborhoods. That said, Prenzlauer Berg also hosts an ample supply of pubs and cafés to keep you diverted throughout the day and night.
As the name suggests, the “Mitte” district is right in the middle of Berlin and contains the lion’s share of Berlin’s famous sights and cultural attractions. It is here that you will find the Reichstag (parliament) building, the government offices, the gleaming new Hauptbahnhof (central train station), the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, the largest embassies, the swankiest hotels, and the most expensive bars. Although it may not always look like much, this is the power center of modern day Germany.
In the days of the GDR, the Berlin Wall ran south along what is now Ebertstrasse before turning East towards the river Spree, thereby enclosing virtually all of the Mitte district in the communist sector. This history is most salient around Alexanderplatz, which was built after the war as the new center of East Berlin. Here is central planning at its boldest: massive, grey towers surrounding an enormous square, crowned by the TV tower, the icon of the workers’ paradise. However, walk a bit further down Unter den Linden, the imperial main street, and the scene could not be more different. Here are the vestiges of old imperial Berlin, restored with varying degrees of faithfulness by the communist regime and their successors, culminating in the Brandenburg Gate, at the threshold of the West.
Friedrichshain is the place to be for anyone missing the bad old days of the DDR. Apparently there are many such people, making Friedrichshain one of the handful of “in” neighborhoods in Berlin, despite (or because of) its monumental Moscow-inspired boulevards, Stalinist architecture, and bleak color palette. The main drag in this part of town is the aptly named Karl Marx Allee, which dissects the sprawling grey tower blocks between Alexanderplatz and all points “tief im Osten”—deep in the East.
Most of Friedrichshain has a quiet, pleasant atmosphere, but down by the Spree, closer to Kreuzberg, things get positively frenetic. The riverside is the site of one of the few remaining pieces of the wall, reimagined as the East Side Gallery, where artists have been let loose to beautify this concrete piece of history as they see fit. Also here is the iconic bridge-plus-border-crossing (the “Oberbaumsbrücke”) where clandestine Cold War-era plots and intrigues were once orchestrated daily by shadowy organizations from both East and West. Nowadays the bridge to Kreuzberg is the main thoroughfare for hordes of drunken revelers progressing from Berlin’s hippest bar scene (in Kreuzberg) to the enormous clubs on the other side of the river in Friedrichschain.
Charlottenberg has been the poshest address in the city since the heady days of 17th century Prussia, when the eponymous palace was constructed. Now that Berlin is reunited, Charlottenberg is less desirable, especially commercially, as the population of the city has shifted eastwards. Nevertheless, as a residential area, Charlottenberg remains the haunt of the well heeled. If you’re looking for Berlin’s most elegant fin-de-siècle mansions and tree-lined boulevards, this is the spot.
Wedding (pronounced Vedding) is a predominantly working-class and immigrant neighborhood, long known for its less-than-stellar crime rate. That is just beginning to change now, but don’t expect it to be anything like Kreuzberg. Among those that discuss such things, Wedding is the ‘next’ Kreuzberg, but this might be a 20 year project.
Schöneberg was the cool part of West Berlin back when West Berlin still existed as more than a concept. These days, like Charlottenberg, it has suffered somewhat from reunification, now that Berlin’s center of gravity has shifted East. However, this means there is still and will continue to be cheap-ish accommodation available in this area, which is very close to Berlin’s commercial center (the old center of West Berlin around Kurfürstendamm).