Where should I live in Berlin? In this post we break down the city quarter by quarter (just scroll down).
But first some background…
WHY YOU SHOULD LIVE IN A KIEZ
There was a time when, if you looked for the centre of Berlin, you would not find it. In fact, Berlin had two centres: the area around Zoo station in the West and the area around Stadtmitte in the East. The latter eventually exerted more influence, and pulled some former-Western neighbourhoods (such as Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Schöneberg) into its orbit. The Berlin most young people wished to experience, historically, was this new center and its closest surrounding hoods. But these days, people are increasingly exploring the Old West as well.
You may be perplexed by the number of desolately empty parts of town. You will turn a corner and the busy city you know disappears and you are in a broken-down lot, or tree-lined street that seems more like a provincial town than a capital. If silence and depopulation frighten you, then you must live in a Kiez.
A Kiez is an island of life in a sea of vacant post-Soviet blocks and industrial sites. These neighbourhoods are named usually for the principle street from which streets of restaurants, bars, supermarkets, everything you need… radiate. Hence: Graefekiez, Kollwitzkiez, Bergmannkiez… etc. Some Kieze are located quite close to one another, but between them one usually finds a real absence of city life. The character of the Kiez are radically individual, making Berlin a constellation of small villages.
A Kiez should not be confused with a Bezirk, or Borough. Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, etc., are all large administrative divisions which contain within them often extremely different Kiez. The Kiez in Kreuzberg for example have less in common with one another than parts of Kreuzberg do with parts of Mitte. It’s worth keeping this in mind when reading the following (opinionated) description of Berlin neighbourhoods.
Prenzlauer Berg is the gentrified family neighbourhood that by now closely resembles wealthy neighbourhoods in the Old West. It is full of strollers (so many kids!), yuppy couples in their 40s and 50s, organic food stores, yoga studios. A lot of people moved here from Southern Germany in the last twenty years and the original residents are mostly gone. Apartments are also very expensive. Its draw card is that it has old buildings that look like ‘old’ Europe and it is well served by U-Bahn. Many complain, however, that Prenzlauer Berg is one of the city’s most expensive places to go to a restaurant or shop. Many cafés and restaurants now have prices on par with places like Paris or Rome. Although the restaurant scene is becoming very good here, the neighbourhood more or less dies in the evening. Many complain it’s become ‘boring’. All this is true. Even formerly affordable areas near Volkspark Friedrichshain in the East, and around the S-Bahn line in the North, have become expensive. But there are some positive recent developments: for a time, the influx of tourism had a large influence on the real neighbourhood feel (and still does in the area around Kollwitz Platz and up and down Kastanienallee), but since Prenzlauer Berg has become ‘uncool’ much of the tourist attention has moved South to Kreuzberg. And if you want to live somewhere family-oriented, that is central, leafy, politically reasonable, feels relatively safe from urban problems, and you have the budget to do so, Prenzlauer Berg might be balm for your bourgeois soul. For those interested in a Prenzlauer Berg ‘feel’, but at lower prices, and a more village vibe, then you can check out Weißensee.
Mitte is the historic centre of the East. It has been completely gentrified for a long time now; it is also full of tourists to the extent that most commerce in the neighbourhood caters to them. It was once known as the ‘first stop’ of internationals, drawn to the old-world buildings, cool cafés and art galleries before they moved on to less expensive and more neighbourhoody digs elsewhere in the city––but increasingly, it’s too expensive and you’re more likely to start out your Berlin adventure in Wedding or Treptow. That said, Mitte continues to be one of the most urban and cosmopolitan parts of the city.
Rosenthaler Vorstadt / Scheunenviertel: The area around Rosenthaler Platz in Mitte might be all hotel building and currywurst fast food (an object lesson in how tourism can take over a neighbourhood). But other parts (notably just south of Torstraße, around Alte Schoenhauser Straße or along Auguststr.) have an old-world feel, with their 18th-century buildings, and have become very swish indeed, to the extent that tatty tourist venues can’t afford the rent. You find boutiques and expensive Michelin restaurants instead these days. Grocery stores here are very thin on the ground. The northern half of this neighbourhood, around Zionskirchplatz is more residential. The area around Hackescher Markt has many high-street brand stores mixed with boutiques, with a few delis selling 9 EUR gourmet sandwiches thrown in.
Around Friedrichstraße: Once you get into the old monumental city, around Unter den Linden, and south of Friedrichstr., residential life gets thinner. It’s mostly embassies, office buildings, and tourist venues here. For a long time, I wrote in this guide that “only the truly unlucky end up living in this neighbourhood that becomes completely dead at night.” But this description is not longer entirely accurate. A great deal of upscale apartment building has happened in the last couple years around Kochstraße and Checkpoint Charlie, meaning that there’s more life in this part of Mitte than there used to be. And the public transport connections are excellent: you really do feel in the ‘middle’, even the middle still feels like the hole in a donut. But who knows, maybe in a few years this will a high-density residential core.
Regierungsviertel and Spyland: The area around Reinhardtstraße north of Friedrichstraße is replete with temporary furnished flats, functionaries in suits, and journalists eating their lunches too quickly. This is the ‘government quarter’ very close to the federal ministries and has an institutional vibe. This atmosphere has been spreading too farther north of the river, near Naturkundemuseum., Nordbahnhof, and Schwarzkopfstr.. The neighbourhood has recently seen a real change of atmosphere because of the arrival of Germany’s central spy agency.
Märkisches Museum: The ‘other’ Mitte––which is a jumble of chain hotels and emerging gentrification––is south of the river around Märkisches Museum U-Bahn, on the border of Kreuzberg, is an intriguing and still affordable neighbourhood that has yet to acquire a clear identity or much ‘Kiez’ life. But the areas that are closest to Kreuzberg, near Engeldamm, are increasingly becoming a popular extension of Kreuzberg SO36 (see below) and a good choice for those looking for that increasingly elusive Kreuzberg-esque Altbau flat.
Friedrichshain can be rather industrial and hard on the eyes. The continued ‘greening’ of rather un-vegetated streets has improved things optically. But the fact that the areas along Revaler Straße and Simon Dach Straße have become the party mile (the ‘Techno Strich /Strip’ continues across the bridge to the Wrangelkiez in Kreuzberg) make it less attractive to residents not wishing to battle drunk 20-something tourists on the weekend. Nonetheless, Friedrichshain is not all the ‘Techno Strich’, and if you get away from it, you’ll find it’s full of resident young people, and well connected by the U5, or by S-Bahn. The answer is to look for an apartment farther East, towards Ostkreuz, or north, where new Kieze have developed. Friedrichshain is slightly fashion conscious in its alternativeness… It’s is often the first choice of 20-somethings. There are also complaints about restaurant quality here, as if Berliners feel students don’t care how good their cuisine is. Many said ‘Friedrichshain is the neighbourhood that didn’t deliver’ because great hopes were pinned on it that it would become like Mitte. I don’t think this is true anymore: with property demand in Kreuzberg booming, this has inevitably spilled over into Friedrichshain, which increasingly seems like a Kreuzberg extension. The area along the old East German monumental avenues (Karl-Marx Allee) offers some intriguing Communist-era property, although it can be a little windy, cold, and feel far from services, in the winter.
Lichtenberg was only once on this neighbourhood list in the past. The Don Xuan Center (Vietnamese shopping warehouses, touched a few years ago by devastating fire) is well known to many Berliners, but Lichtenberg otherwise has a reputation for industrial cityscapes, Communist block housing, and, a Neo-Nazi presence (right-wing crimes, however, have plummeted in recent years, although Lichtenberg is a Bezirk that voted about 25% for the right-wing AfD in 2017). Despite its bad reputation, it appeared briefly at the No. 11 spot (of 96) in Zitty‘s neighbourhood ranking in 2015 because of its excellent S-bahn transport links to the rest of the city (before plummeting back down to No. 45 in 2016). I have recommended Lichtenberg to friends to check out. One woman even moved there, stayed for six months, and quickly moved to bourgeois Chalottenburg as a kind of therapy. There are signs of change that include artist studios and a funky canteen at the industrial HB55. The riverside developments in Rummelsburg are surprisingly innovative (and here they vote Green), and there’s a developing club and outdoor party scene. Prices are low and while Lichtenberg might not immediately be that next frontier of gentrification, it could be in five or ten years. Off of most foreigner’s radar, the areas of Lichtenberg that abut Friedrichshain already provide good transport along with affordability.
Kreuzberg was originally a mix of family, eco-, arty, low-key, radical, bourgeois, gritty, international, Turkish, Punk… It has since been discovered and by now thoroughly gentrified. Apartments which, on the whole, used to cost approximately 2000 EUR per m2 just a few years ago now normally go for somewhere between 4000 and 6000 EUR. Wow. It’s as expensive, or more expensive, to rent here as in Prenzlauer Berg, although daily costs are still lower. Kreuzberg continues to exude a bohemian air and is not entirely conformist. It’s the kind of place where people who wear ties to work in the morning immediately change when they get home, because they wouldn’t be caught dead in a suit walking around East Kreuzberg in the evening. And while tourists have discovered areas like the Wranglerkiez near Schlesisches Tor for its nightlife (en masse, to the ire of residents who have organised anti-tourist meetings), the areas around Schönleinstraße, Mariannenplatz, or Eisenbahnstraße continue to be very neighbourhoody. Some looking for deals are delving South of Kreuzberg to Alt Treptow, a neighbourhood in the former East.
Although entirely in the West, Kreuzberg is divided into West (Kreuzberg 61) and East (SO36) sections. Both contain a real diversity of Kieze worth exploring here.
Kreuzberg 61: The Western side (Bergmannkiez) is beautiful, with many trees and Altbau (old buildings). It is expensive and has a slightly provincial, bourgeois feel to it, but with good restaurants and food shopping possibilities. Many Berliners feel, with some justification, that it’s altogether too pretty and calm, and why didn’t you just move to the ‘alternative’ neighbourhood of some other West German city? U-Bahn connections are a little lousy near Bergmannstr. The Graefekiez, which is a gentrified neighbourhood of gorgeous buildings south of the canal and north of Sudstern U-Bahn, and West of Schoenleinstr. U-Bahn is now more expensive than the Bergmannkiez. It has all the bourgeois and residential comfort but with more urbanity and better U-Bahn connections. It’s close to an excellent Turkish market along the beautiful (and gentrified) canal twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). There are many good restaurants here.
West Kreuzberg is located at the following U and S Bahn stations: on the U6 between Platz der Luftbrücke and Hallesches Tor. On the U8 between Mehringdamm and Hermannplatz. On the U8 between Hermannplatz and Schönleinstr. (the Graefekiez).
SO36: The area around Oranienstraße, Kotti, is still the beating heart of Kreuzberg, and its mix of anti-establishment folk, great bars, and a large immigrant Turkish presence. Some find Kotti a little aggressive and urban. Others thrive off a feeling that was for a long time like the Lower East Side of yesteryear. But things are changing here too: prices are going up and the back courtyards of the main street, Oranienstraße, are filling with boutiques and high-end next generation coffee bars. On Oranienplatz, there’s even a new five-star hotel, although this has been attacked by left-wing activists.
Towards Görlitzer Park, and the Spree, there’s a larger tourist presence and budgeoning hostel and bar scene in the Wrangelkiez, where it melts with Friedrichshain across the river. Görlitzer Park is known as a ‘problem area’ with petty drug crime and confrontations with the police, in particular around the U-Bahn station. When the police are at ‘Görli’, then much of the drug trade moves to ‘Kotti’ (or Kottbusser Tor). That said, you need only walk a few blocks away from those U-Bahn stations for things to change dramatically.
The pocket around the Markthalle 9, the Eisenbahnkiez, is one of the nicest parts of East Kreuzberg, with good restaurants and a booming foodie scene in the fabulous (popular with hipsters) market. There has been a recent influx of elegant cocktail bars here. But the Markthalle 9, with its expensive foodie events, has also become a hot topic for those concerned with gentrification.
So36 on the whole is complex and alive day and night.
For East Kreuzberg: U1 line: Köttbusser Tor, Görlitzer Bahnhof, Schlesisches Tor. U8 line: Köttbusser Tor, Moritzplatz, Heinrich Heine str.
Finding an apartment to rent in Kreuzberg is by now difficult and they are expensive.
Schoeneberg has emerged as a favourite neighbourhood for people looking to get away from ‘Berlin cool’, and simply live somewhere neighbourhoody, international, with mixed-incomes, and a less transient population. But even here you’ll find it difficult to find an affordable Altbau or old building. Although, as one friend told me, it’s a neighbourhood with every kind of person: petit bourgeois, immigrant, young professionals, artists and senior citizens and alkies. The population is generally older than in Kreuzberg or, certainly, Neukölln, but this is changing. Musician friends tell me that Schoeneberg is great except it’s less ‘live-and-let-live’ than Kreuzberg, and that if you are playing your instrument late at night, the elderly neighbours are more likely to call the police (obviously this is anecdotal evidence).
There are good subway connections (U7 and U2 lines). Around Nollendorfplatz is the traditionally gay neighbourhood of West Berlin, popular with young tourists but most of the resident gay men here are slightly older (many of the younger Berliners are farther East now). The southern part, near Akazienstraße, itself a lovely Kiez, is very gentrified. There are nice places to live around U-Bahns Eisenacher Str., Kleistpark, and in the area south of Yorkstraße known as the ‘red island’. A very pretty, but very quiet, neighbourhood is located near S-Bahn Friedenau.
CHARLOTTENBURG AND WILMERSDORF
The rediscovery of the Old West is a phenomenon of the past couple of years. I used to think of Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf as expensive, bourgeois, neighbourhoods full of old people. Have you seen the film City of Men? But this has changed. The pressure on housing farther East are making the West increasingly more popular with new Berliners. Who would have thought!?: Charlottenburg––and especially down Kantstraße––is finally cool.
Note that the more urban area of Charlottenburg is rather more dynamic than more staid Wilmersdorf. Charlottenburg has a bevy of good restaurants, art bookstores, beautiful old buildings and good transport links. The area closer to Zoo Station has seen a recent rejuvenation: but note that much of the hip development, around the Bikini Mall for example, is decidedly corporate in character. That said, if you want to live centrally, in a part of town that is more ‘old world’––think of areas around Savignyplatz––and where you can dress up as if you were in Paris, then changing Charlottenburg might be for you. Beware: Charlottenburg-Nord (up towards Tegel Airport) is a totally different neighbourhood from the one described above, voted one of Berlin’s worst by Zitty.
THE WESTERN SUBURBS
Zehlendorf / Grunewald: Lakes and trees and suburbia. I could imagine living in a beautiful villa near a lake in Zehlendorf and going between the good grocery stores and the summer waters. If you have children and want something semi-suburban, residential, and ‘Western European’ and ‘safe’ in feel, you are looking at the right place. Grunewald is where big money lives, full of trees and huge houses. Note these are expensive neighbourhoods with older populations, where it’s hard to meet people, and have a more ‘staid’ feeling, apart from the area around Dahlem, where the Free University is located. But the students tend to live as far away as Friedrichshain, preferring an hour commute to living in this part of town.
Wedding, along with Moabit, is the new ‘it’ neighbourhood, in the throws of gentrification. Zitty (Berlin’s City Magazine) voted it the 7th best neighbourhood in Berlin in 2016. It’s where many young new Berliners are moving. Originally, a poor workers’ neighbourhood north of Mitte––there’s still plenty of old-world grit in the corner bars––with plenty of Turkish immigrant families, Wedding has become a place with an emerging arts scene and a particular neighbourhood vibe that’s rather unique. The area around Leopoldplatz, the Sprengelkiez, around the Nordufer, are just a number of the places that have seen real urban change. Müllerstraße is now the home to a high-tech innovation centre. You can read an older article I wrote about Wedding gentrification here that gives you a sense of the changing areas. Beware that Wedding is rather bleak architecturally and isn’t very green, and some feel it is still altogether too rough. But it’s got great public transport links, is fairly central, and is convenient to Mitte. Rents are still a relative bargain too, and buying a place here might be the smartest thing you ever did.
Neukölln is Hipsterland for the 20s-30s set. English and Spanish are often heard more often than German. The northern parts of Neukölln within the Ring already resemble what Prenzlauer Berg was like just a decade ago, just more international. As you get closer to the Ring, you get into so-called ‘problem’ Berlin (although the ‘problems’ are quickly vanishing with the ‘problem’ of gentrification). This is a traditionally working class and immigrant neighbourhood that originally filled with young artists looking for cheap digs about ten years ago, drawn by lots of lovely old-stock houses. Now, it’s increasingly a ‘respectable’ and expensive place to live (rents here are often as expensive as in Kreuzberg). It’s actually quite difficult to find an apartment in Neukölln now, and properties in the area between Hermannplatz and the canal are going for big money. Housing deals in this “Kreuzkölln” are long a thing of the past, and there are fewer and fewer students here and more and more professionals. The area South of Hermannplatz and to the East of it is now on the up and up too. The funky little Levant on Sonnenallee with good falafel and shisha, along with new business created by Syrian refugees (including an amazing bakery), exists in cohabitation with some of Berlin’s best bars. The scene around Weserstraße in Kreuzkölln has been discovered and is by now very touristy, and this is moving South towards Boddinstraße and the Ring-bahn which are now also full of tourists. The area around Richardplatz (Rixdorf) has village architecture and immigrant families are being squeezed here too by gentrification. There are still deals to be had in Neukölln, but they appear as miracles rather than everyday occurrences.
MOABIT AND TIERGARTEN
Moabit and Tiergarten: These are the neighbourhoods north (Moabit) and south of the Tiergarten, or Central Park. Moabit has seen a flurry of new high-end development recently, which distorts statistically rental prices. Average prices here now resemble Mitte’s (!), but in fact there are many deals to be had on the lower end. Moabit is a green neighbourhood (near Turmstr. U-Bahn), with a good Altbau stock, mostly safe, and now has a couple funky bars, but with lousy transport links if you live too far north and not close to the S-Bahn. Some complain there’s not quite enough to do yet in the neighbourhood, but I do think those people haven’t looked hard enough. The area around the Kulturfabrik Moabit is, for example, a real find. The Arminius Markethall is just wonderful.
South of the Tiergarten, and especially around Potsdamer Platz, is full of embassies and government buildings and corporate headquarters. It’s not a good place to live: there are few grocery stores, for example, although the profile of the neighbourhood has changed with the opening of Gleisdreieck Park and luxury apartments south of Potsdamer Platz that abut West Kreuzberg.
Unfair New York comparisons are often made for Berlin neighbourhoods. I don’t believe in mapping New York on Berlin, but it may help as an initial shorthand. But note, how things have changed! Mitte: SoHo. Prenzlauer Berg: West Village. Neukölln: Williamsburg. Kreuzberg: East Village. Schöneberg: Chelsea meets Astoria, if you can imagine that.
Here’s the index to the Moving to Berlin Guide, click on what you want to read next!