In 2004, Berlin’s then-mayor Klaus Wowereit sought to attract young creative types by declaring the city arm, aber sexy (“poor, but sexy”). The funny thing is, it worked. Today, Berlin is home to zero big banks and not a single blue-chip company. But what the city does have is culture. There’s a vibrant art scene, along with the best clubs in the world, museums, theaters, opera houses, and indie stages galore. It’s a madcap city with a seductive vibe, from the insane party nights at the Berghain nightclub to extended meals on leafy boulevards in Prenzlauer Berg.
This Berlin spirit that everybody wants to be a part of is the result of a unique set of historical circumstances. After the wall came down in 1989, virtually the entire eastern part of the city became a lawless playground for young people in search of fulfillment. East Berlin in the ’90s was a wasteland—empty buildings, cheap rents, and enough free space to realize everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Money? Not important.
Those days are over, of course, but there’s no need to mourn the past. The city has taken a fresh and unexpected turn. You can feel it in innovative restaurants like Dóttir, in cozy, boho-style cafés like House of Small Wonder, or by simply strolling around in Kreuzberg or Neukölln.
Berlin is all about freedom—especially at night. Everybody can and will do whatever they want, whenever they want, and with whomever they want, and the widespread use of English makes it easy for everyone communicate. The city is working on what you might call refinement, which is good news, because Berlin can be rough. That the German capital is not exactly an architectural wonder is clear. But take comfort in the fact that even the most depressing concrete blocks will grow on you. You might even find beauty in them. But the crabby cab drivers? Inattentive waiters? Indifferent shop assistants? That’s Berlin, too. Take it with a smile.
The city has cleaned up a bit in the last two decades, but an edgy urbanity persists—in the nightlife, but also in the ruins of the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse, the refurbished Reichstag building, and scores of old Prussian palaces. Graffiti meets cobblestone, high-end boutique hotels abut dimly lit, barely furnished dives. This chaotic cross-pollination of club culture, art, music, film, and fashion is central to the city’s appeal. The quality of life is high, especially on long summer nights when you’re canal-side with a beer, or watching bikers race down abandoned runways at the gigantic Tempelhofer Park, a former airport.
Berlin is known as a culinary wasteland, but the era of tasteless potato dumplings and heavy gravy is finally behind us. Hundreds of restaurants, cafés, and markets have opened in the past ten years, ushering in inventive new cuisines and plenty of Gault Millaut points and Michelin stars along with them. Tim Raue, who was raised in the scrappy Kreuzberg district, leveraged the city’s grit to excel in the already tough world of fine dining. His eponymous restaurant (two Michelin stars, nineteen Gault Millau points) delights with a unique food concept inspired by multiple Asian cuisines.
Upscale and regionally minded takes on Italian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Israeli, and even Peruvian cuisine are proliferating. There is a lively debate going on about who makes the best burgers and steaks in town and the latest winners are Shiso Burger and Grill Royal. No time to go to southern Italy? Don’t worry, the best Neapolitan pizza you’ve ever tasted is served daily at Standard Pizza in Prenzlauer Berg.
Then there are the clubs. Ignore the talk of Berghain being over. Just because everyone knows about Berlin’s temple of techno doesn’t mean it’s lost its bite. Get past the door and the music will wash over you. Berghain’s entry policy is a hot-button topic; there are literally hundreds of forums online offering advice—from the bizarre “look more gay” to the relatively reasonable “don’t look too mousy” to the basic “be familiar with the DJ lineup.” In fact, its door is radically democratic. It’s not about fame, money, nationality, skin tone, or gender—it’s not even about looks. It’s about assembling the best imaginable crowd. Still, there is absolutely no shame in being turned away; even regulars suffer that fate. There is always another club.
Locals love to talk about the Berliner Luft (“Berlin air”). It may not be thicker or thinner than anywhere else, but it is certainly more invigorating. Come take a deep breath. Feel it? That’s the spirit.