The city known for art, music, and design is also home to a growing technology industry and a booming convention business.
A former member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, musician David Sancious has traveled the world on business. While he goes wherever the demands of touring take him, he adds time in Berlin for fun. That’s where his most recent gig, playing on rocker Peter Gabriel’s European tour, wrapped up. “It was my good fortune that we ended in a city like this,” the guitarist and keyboard player said, citing its surfeit of museums, restaurants and music venues. “Berlin is such a cool place.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so. For the last couple of decades the young and Bohemian have flocked to Berlin’s inexpensive real estate and 24-hour dance clubs, but the German city remained an economic backwater compared to thriving Frankfurt and Hamburg. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, though, that’s starting to change. The city known for art, music, and design is also home to a growing technology industry and a booming convention business — last year it hosted 126,200 events that drew 10.6 million people, according to the Berlin Convention Office, continuing an upward trend. Events included ITB, a major tourism trade show, and IFA, a consumer electronics convention. Companies like Siemens, Bayer and Vattenfall all have outposts in town.
The city’s growing pains are best reflected in its airports. The Berlin Brandenburg airport was scheduled to open two years ago, but technical delays and mismanagement have hampered its debut. Instead Berliners are left with Tegel in the city’s Northwest and Schoenefeld in the Southeast. Tegel’s proximity to the city center means that for those traveling without checked bags, getting from plane seat to meeting can take as little as 30 minutes with a 20 euro ($27) taxi ride. A taxi from Schoenefeld into town costs about double the amount, but express regional trains run frequently from just outside the terminal to various parts of the city. Trains to Alexanderplatz, Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) or Zoologischer Garten take about 30 minutes and cost 3.20 euros.
Berlin is stuck in the past when it comes to paying with credit cards — most taxi drivers and many stores, restaurants and bars only take cash, so it helps to have euros on hand. Currency exchange businesses, which usually charge high rates, are best avoided in favor of the numerous ATMs. Bank of America and HSBC are among the financial institutions that have agreements with Deutsche Bank, allowing customers to avoid cash withdrawal fees.
Cultural know how
Berliners have a reputation for being less than friendly. In restaurants and stores, waiters or shopkeepers are less likely to make small talk than to subject visitors to “Berliner Schnauze,” as the local tendency towards gruffness is called. “Unfortunately the people are less inviting and friendly than in other European cities,” said Agota Angi, a marketing manager at Tjobsrecruit in Romania, who in May attended an event held by a Berlin-based venture capital firm.
The city’s international allure, though, is slowly changing its face. An increasing number of expat-owned locales mean that you can sometimes get the kind of customer service more familiar in North America. These days even a native Berliner might hold a door open for a stranger.
Two hotels in the western part of town near the zoo offer easy access to points throughout the city.
The newly opened 25hours Bikini Hotel is for travellers who like to mingle. It has plenty of open-air common spaces and draws crowds to its top-floor Monkey Bar.
Those looking for more of an urban retreat should check into Das Stue, nestled in leafy Tiergarten park, where visitors are greeted by a giant alligator jaw in the lobby. Subtle animal-theme décor emphasizes the feeling of being in nature. For Sancious, Das Stue captures what he likes best about the city, which is its vast green spaces and lakes comprising nearly a third of the city’s land. “I feel such a connection to nature in this hotel,” he said.
For longer stays, the Gorki apartments are located on a busy street in Berlin’s central Mitte District. Set back from the street for guest privacy, the building comprises 37 modern apartments with names like Dr. Oswald and Fräulein Ilse, which come with well-equipped kitchens. The room rate, which starts at 115 euros, decreases for stays longer than a month.
Dinner for one
Street food with a German twist has arrived in Berlin. On Thursday evenings at Markhalle Neun, vendors sell global bites as well as local specialties like Käsespätzle, a noodle, cheese and onion dish from Heisser Hobel and pickled cheese and pretzels from Brot & Zeit.
Pauly Saal serves top notch regional fare from the surrounding state of Brandenburg, with main courses that include ox and venison. The restaurant is located in a 1930s building that had been Berlin’s first Jewish girls’ school and was recently renovated into a space with galleries and cafes.
Off the clock
The number of cultural attractions in Berlin is vast: Three opera houses, 150 theaters and nearly 600 museums and galleries in addition to a legendary nightlife and fledgling gastronomic movement. This year some highlights revolve around the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and the 25th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall. The German Historical Museum is putting on a special exhibit tracing the outbreak of World War I that includes soldiers’ letters and photographs. On Nov. 8 and 9, the path of the former Wall will be lined with lighted helium balloons.
Sancious checked out the newly opened David Bowie exhibit, which originated at Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum but is here adapted to reflect the iconic singer’s close ties to the city. Located at the Martin Gropius Bau near the studio where Bowie recorded his famous Berlin Trilogy albums, the exhibit displays postcards between the musician and Marlene Dietrich as well as secret police files on his concerts. The show closes in August.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.