By now it is a cliché to quote the former Berlin mayor who famously said Berlin might be poor, but it is sexy. Things have also changed: Berlin is not poor and it’s more expensive. Today, you don’t move to Berlin because it’s a deal. You move here because it’s a great place to live that continues to have a non-conformist, open-minded attitude quite different from most European ‘museum’ cities. Berlin is still sexy, it’s just a lot of other people think so too.
Originally (in the 90s and 2000s), artists were lured to Berlin because, with a mountain of debt and a dismal housing market, it created conditions of economic failure necessary for artists to live cheaply and pursue their work. As cities like New York or Paris became unaffordable, writers, visual artists and musicians moved en masse to the old worker neighbourhoods of the East –filling these old Soviet-era blocks with studios, happenings and self-destructive/enhancing hedonism. A friend who taught visual art in New York for three decades watched the geography of the art scene move through her graduating seniors. In the eighties they moved to SoHo, in 1990 they were in the East Village, later they were living in Brooklyn. In the 2000s and 2010s, every single student dedicated to pursuing a career in visual art moved to Berlin. They joined artists from all over the world and Germany’s own arts community.
Berlin for a time had an inevitable reputation for dilettantism. Or off-grid experimentation, depending on who you asked. It was full of artists, would-be artists, and those wishing to capitalise off Berlin’s image of cool: hoteliers, hostel owners, restauranteurs, tour guide companies, bike companies, the lot. Many criticised these artists for enjoying a city which allowed them to be conspicuously artistic rather than actually creating art. And many argued that it was precisely the plethora of entertainment here that made it so difficult to stay productive. This image of Berlin lives on, but mostly in a way commodified for tourists and weekenders trying to get into Berghain.
Things have changed for locals. That same wave of gentrification that swept New York passed through its familiar stages across Berlin: first Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg in the 90s and 2000s, then Kreuzberg and Neukölln in the 2010s, and Wedding and Moabit today. In the last edition of this guide (2019), I wrote that Berlin was ‘much more expensive than, not just Athens, Warsaw, Lisbon or Lvov, and about the same price as Barcelona, Madrid’. Today, I need to write that it’s suddenly a third more expensive than Madrid and about the same price as Amsterdam. Berlin is still a third cheaper than Paris, and much less expensive than London, Tokyo and New York.
How about moving here to ‘de-motivate’? These days, Berlin cannot be called dilettantish and only established artists (or people working in start-ups) can afford to live in central neighbourhoods where, in the 90s, you paid a miraculously low rent, and in D-marks. With the end of dilettantism comes, however, also a loss of the DIY, chaotic, and non-traditional vibe that characterised those parts of the city. But fear not: you can still have a crazy night out in Berlin. It might just not be in Mitte.
There are more ‘world-class’ things to do in Berlin than ever before. It’s very difficult to keep up with everything going on and the high-level of discussion. The city feels like it is indisputably the nerve centre of the European cultural scene, but this creative work is more likely today to be channeled through institutions, such as established venues, concert halls, clubs, museums, and state-run theatres.
With the influx of money comes too more possibilities for artists to get paid for their work. Berlin is now a European hotspot for film, television, gallerists, art markets, opera, and especially classical music and theatre. With a lot of state funding, there is room for experimentation, and market concerns do not dominate artistic expression. There’s also an enormous public here still intent on engaging with the avant-garde.
The challenge that ex-patriot writers, artists, academics and others wishing to set up in this city is the nitty-gritty. What red tape is generally involved? Where should I live? How do I get established?
I have written countless emails to friends and acquaintances who are new to the city needing advice. I have brought together that advice in one place to simplify helping others as they set up in the heart of contemporary Europe’s creative scene.
I am very opinionated and make few apologies. Read on!
Here’s the index to the Moving to Berlin Guide, click on what you want to read next!
This is an independent guide to Berlin, with no ghostwritten content and no sponsored links or tips, from The Needle.
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(the author asserts his right to copyright, revised 07/2023)