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Berlin Neighborhoods

Berlin travel, as with many huge world cities, often feels like wandering amid a collection of villages running together as neighborhoods within its districts. Most Berliners love their local Kietz (neighborhood) and often spend most of their time there, rather than exploring the rest of the city. Berlin’s central district is logically called Mitte (literally “middle”) and incorporates its downtown and the bulk of the tourist sights. Dotted around it are various primarily residential districts; well-rounded cafe and nightlife scenes make them well worth exploring. Beyond are the city’s suburbs: In the east they’re typically sprawling high-rise developments and zones of heavy industry, while the western suburbs remain wealthy and attractive with an almost rural expanse of large woodlands (the Grunewald) and lakes (the Havel) whose beaches lure many Berliners on hot summer days.

Mitte

Berlin’s central Mitte district is huge, cosmopolitan and varied. Its many attractions and parks alone are enough to entertain you for at least a weekend. Its giant swathe of green that sticks out on any Berlin map is the Tiergarten, a giant central park. At its southeastern corner lies the swish modern Potsdamer Platz—Berlin’s Piccadilly Circus or Time Square—while just east of the park lies the Brandenburg Gate, the city’s most famous landmark and the starting of its premier boulevard Unter den Linden. This runs east past the upscale shopping street of Friedrichstrasse and a series of stately Neoclassical buildings built during the city’s 19th century heyday as Prussian capital. Here Museum Island houses Berlin’s most magnificent museums. Farther east again is an easily identifiably East German part of the city, where the Fernsehturm (TV tower) looms over Alexanderplatz, the eastern city’s main commercial and transport hub. Northwest of here, the Spandauer Vorstadt was once the city’s Jewish neighborhood, and still has reminders of those days, though today it’s best known for the bars and nightlife centered around Oranienburger Strasse. Also here are the Hackescher Höfe, a series of attractively renovated old courtyards, and a loosely-defined fashion district full of stylish shops selling urbanwear.

City West

In the days of a divided Berlin, most of Mitte lay in the East, so the neighborhood just to its west became West Berlin’s downtown, now commonly called City West. It’s full of modern showcase architecture surrounding the iconic war-damaged spire of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). Since the city’s reunification, this district has tended to revert to its pre-war role as a shopping area, with the up market Kurfürstendamm Boulevard as its most famous strip. As a residential area it’s pretty high-class with a dining scene to match, but late-night nightlife tends to be fairly thin on the ground.

Schöneberg

Schöneberg is famous as the location of Berlin’s main gay village, gathered just south of Mitte and U-Bahn Nollendorfplatz. It was here that Christopher Isherwood lodged as he wrote about Berlin in the 1930s, while today a range of gay businesses—cafes, restaurants, bars and bookshops—continue to provide a distinct flavor to the leafy residential streets. Otherwise, the district tends to be short on sights, although the south includes Rathaus Schöneberg, the town hall at which John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Berliner” speech.

Kreuzberg

Kreuzberg, the residential district immediately south of Mitte, is an old low-rent and working-class district that developed its present character in the 1960s and 1970s when a squatter movement thrived in its old tenements and a wave of Turkish settlers arrived. Their legacy has been to produce a fairly grungy, non-conformist neighborhood full of alternative and ethnic businesses and some of the city’s most vibrant nightlife. The key strips here are the heavily-Turkish Kottbusser Tor and the district’s main shopping street, Oranienstrasse.

 

Friedrichshain

Just east of Kreuzberg and over the River Spree and back in what used to be East Berlin lies Friedrichshain. The neighborhood was all but destroyed and replaced by rather modern and soul-less buildings. Nevertheless, a studenty nightlife quarter has taken shape around Simon-Dach-Strasse and the nearby Boxhagener Platz, which both bustle day and night in their location near Berlin’s most heavyweight clubs. The district is also worth seeing for some unusual 1950s Eastern Bloc architecture: the broad Karl-Marx-Allee boulevard flanks a series of housing projects that built “palaces for workers” and were indeed some of the best residences behind the Iron Curtain. Also of interest in Friedrichshain is the East Side Gallery—a series of murals painted on a long stretch of the old Berlin Wall.

Prenzlauer Berg

Prenzlauer Berg had the perverse luck to be fought over street by street in the Battle of Berlin. As such it was one of the few Berlin districts that could be easily reconstructed. The cash-strapped GDR government was able to patch it up rather than level it, resulting in an uneven mix of modern and decidedly pre-war side streets bearing facades scarred by wartime bullets. This makes the neighborhood the best place to get a feel for Berlin in its 19th-century heyday, even if there are few real sights of note. But Prenzlauer Berg has long been the haunt of artists, intellectuals and non-conformist thinking, so its cafe scene is fantastic, and its nightlife—while not as avant garde and edgy as elsewhere in Berlin—is always on the boil.

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