Berlin is a fun, modern, extremely livable city, with low rents, large apartments, sensible prices, good food, a thriving cultural and art scene, and excellent daycare and kindergartens. There are also layers of history and a divided past that reverberate throughout daily life here. The past is never oppressive, and at the same time, it is never repressed.
This outlook is what makes the city such an interesting and open place to live, and is what attracts the many ex-pats, artists and searchers who end up here on the banks of the Spree.
What is it known for?
Ever since the wall came down in 1989, Berlin has been known as a bohemian paradise, a place where the empty spaces between east and west could be pioneered and inhabited by the most creative types, who could create and carouse with impunity. Now that the capital has been mostly stitched back together by architecture, development and investment, that gritty, democratic aspect is slightly less apparent, but the attitude still exists.
The steles of history, from the Holocaust memorial to Checkpoint Charlie to the rows of plattenbau (dreary prefab housing blocks made of concrete) in eastern Berlin, are part of the fabric of the city. As are the forward-thinking developments like the towers of Potsdamer Platz, the Hauptbahnof, the new central train station and the glass dome on top of the Reichstag.
Berlin's art scene is one of the best in the world, with artists still living near the galleries that represent them, thanks to cheap rents that have thus far allowed a creative class to flourish in the city's centre. The best bars and clubs still have a democratic and open door policy, although a velvet-rope scene is beginning to creep in. There are plenty of parks and urban farms, and the beer at the beach bars on the banks of the Spree will cost less Euros than almost anywhere else.
Where do you want to live?
Berlin is a large city, but there are five or six neighbourhoods that top the list for people wishing to live close to the cultural scene. Mitte is the most popular, being the first area colonized after the Wall came down, and now the most sought-after place to live for everyone from moneyed ex-pats to the German pied-a-terre buyer. It is chockablock with art galleries, boutique hotels, design shops, hipster bars and cafes - there is even a Soho House, which opened last year. Along with neighbouring Prenzlauer Berg, which has the same late-Victorian apartment blocks and spacious flats, Mitte has been gentrified right out of the urban pioneer's pocket book.
Those people have moved further east and south. "If you're over 35 or have kids, you'll live in Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte," said Alexander Korte, founder of BerlinInvestment.com, an estate agency. "But if you're under 35, you'll be looking in Friedrichschain, Kreuzberg or Neukölln, which recently became sexy." Many younger ex-pats are moving to Reuterkiez and its tree-lined streets on the border of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Rents here can be 600 or 800 Euros a month, whereas in Mitte, a two-bedroom can go for 2,000 Euro.
Longterm ex-pats and residents have seen the neighbourhood change around them. "Mitte feels a little bit like Soho in New York," Kimberly Bradley, a journalist who lives there with her partner and daughter and who has spent seven years in Berlin. "With six new hotels and the condos, the street traffic has become posh."
For those who want a detached house, Korte suggests Pankow, or, if you do not mind a commute, try southwest Berlin near Zehlendorf or even out in Potsdam.
Potsdam was home to the German emperors and is crammed with Prussian palaces, perfect for a day trip. Weekends away from town can be spent in the forest in Spreewald, about 60 miles south of Berlin or head north, to the lakes in Uckermark. Another favourite getaway for Berliners is the Baltic coast and islands like Rügen with its wide beaches, and Hiddensee, which is car free.
Berlin has excellent rail connections to cities around Germany, from Hanover to Munich, as well other capitals like Prague and Vienna. Although Templehof Airport was closed a few years ago, the city is still served by two airports and the new Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport will open in 2012.
Berlin is a renter's paradise. Around 85 percent of Berliners rent, and landlords are restricted in how much they can raise the rent and how fast they can evict a non-paying tenant. Because of this, landlords are sticklers for requiring a credit check, proof of income and references from the previous landlord - most of which is impossible for ex-pats to provide. "It's better to look for a shared flat or a sublet," advised Korte. "Or someone who wants to move out, but not break their lease."
For those interested in buying, property is still cheap in Berlin and a good investment, according to Korte. "The market is going up and if you compare it to any other Germany city, it is ridiculously cheap," he said. The process is relatively informal: you make an offer and go to a notary and sign, without closing dates and so on.
Many new condos are going up on the city's empty lots. These construction gaps, left by the war or reunification, are becoming luxury buildings with all the amenities you would expect, and it is having a knock-on effect. "It isn't the super cheap place it was and the slacker factor has decreased," said Bradley. "But there are playgrounds everywhere, lots of green spaces and a tremendous amount of affordable culture."
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