Why Berlin Is So Very Different

What is it that makes Berlin such a unique, dynamic city? Solveig Steinhardt sets out to find the answer.

Take a glamorous and culturally dynamic capital, add a couple of devastating World Wars and a Cold War, then build a wall that will divide it in two for 30 years. Then tear down the wall and start rebuilding the city, but this time add generations of young creative minds from around the world. Sound like a mad science experiment? Maybe, but what you get is precisely Berlin: an eclectic metropolis with lots of spaces to convert and reuse, an ingrained predilection for change, a youthful and tolerant mentality, and an organized approach that nicely unites these elements to sidestep the chaos that defines most big cities. 

Change… And More Change

“Paris is always Paris, and Berlin is never Berlin,” said former French Culture Minister Jack Lang in 2001. Back then, the city’s skyline had more cranes and scaffoldings than roofs, but Lang’s quote is still valid today. This city keeps changing, evolving, transforming, and the Berlin you are looking at now will not be the same Berlin next time you visit. But Berliners have long grown used to impulsive development and sudden change. When it was founded, Berlin’s transition from village to city happened in less than 100 years, and what followed was centuries of rule by many Prussian kings, various statesmen, and one dictator, all of who tried to impose their personal ideas onto the city. Nowadays, new places pop up every two weeks and the city is still dotted with construction sites, some of which have even become actual sights. Take the Humboldt Box, for example, an unusually-shaped box housing a temporary info point and observation platform from which visitors can admire the reconstruction of the old Berliner Schloß within the Humboldt Forum cultural complex.

A Fashion Workshop

The glamorous wave that made the city a flagship of style in the 1930s may have been interrupted by wars and walls, but its spirit is now back, and has inspired a whole new generation of fashion designers. Berlin’s diverse panorama ranges from traditional designers committed to the art of tailoring to highly creative artists who only use sustainable materials and have their shops in Rosenthaler Straße, the city’s fashion hotspot. Concept stores including The Corner or Fashion Network present local fashion to the world, eyewear firms such as ic! Berlin and MYKITA produce creative frames, and shoe manufacturers like Trippen are now world-famous for their quality materials and new designs.

Metropolis or Village?

Some say it’s a metropolis with a village feel, others say it’s just an endless village with a few big-city corners. Whichever way you look at it, one thing is for sure: Berlin is a very relaxed place. You can spend your day drinking coffee and enjoying the first signs of spring by a tree-lined canal or walking around a peaceful Kiez, but you can also choose to dive into the hustle and bustle of city life with a stroll along Friedrichstraße or an elevator-ride to the 24th floor of a Potsdamer Platz skyscraper. But wherever you go, it never feels too crowded, and the city preserves its laid-back feel.  

One City, Two Zoos, Three Operahouses

Berlin's Philharmonie
Berlin's Philharmonie is a world-famous concert venue. (©Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons)

The reunification of the two German states merged East and West Berlin back into one big city, but many of the institutions that had developed separately during the 30 years of division refused to follow the same destiny. As a result, Berlin has two zoos, two world-famous concert venues (the Philharmonie and the Konzerthaus), and three opera houses. Up for some "Magic Flute?" Choose between former East Berlin’s elegant and traditional Staatsoper; the West’s Deutsche Oper, a 1960s concrete box of acoustic perfection; and the young and eclectic Komische Oper. With the visionary Barry Kosky as art director, this operetta theater continues to receive stellar reviews and won the title Opera House of the Year in 2012.

True Transformations

The city’s fragmented history left behind abandoned factories, disused warehouses, and neglected power plants, all of which are now morphing into hip restaurants and event venues – like the Radialsystem V, one of the city’s most eclectic dance and music spaces, created out of a former water pumping station, or the Badeschiff, a former industrial barge converted into a heated swimming pool that now floats on the Spree River. Not too far away, a former power station now houses gourmet restaurant Volt. But the most remarkable conversion of all is Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport: Closed to air travel in 2008, it reopened in 2010 as a park, and its runways are always busy with joggers, skaters, and kite surfers.

A Creative Melting Pot

Paris had its Belle Époque, Rome its Caput Mundi time, London its “swinging” years. Every city has its moment of glory. And Berlin’s is right now. Some say that Berlin is the city that best expresses the high-tech era we live in. But it also expresses contemporary art and creativity, and with 400 art galleries, 35,000 resident artists, and some of Europe’s most important startups – such as SoundCloud and Etsy – setting up shop as part of Silicon Allee, it is undoubtedly one of the world’s creative capitals.

East Meets West

In April 2013, a Canadian astronaut published an impressive photo of nighttime Berlin taken from space. The division between East and West is still very clear in the image, apparently because the street lamps in the two halves of the city, installed when Berlin was still divided, differ. Lighting aside, the border between East and West may be gone, but traces of the city’s Communist past are still very easy to find. Take a walk down Karl-Marx-Allee for Eastern Bloc architecture galore, explore East German daily life at the DDR Museum, or browse the shelves of VEB Orange for retro souvenirs of the GDR.