Berliners are worried. For more than two decades, they have lived in the least expensive capital city in Western Europe and one that has been at the cutting edge of alternative culture.
Berlin’s “coolness” and bargain prices are not unrelated: With low prices for real estate, particularly in postcommunist East Berlin, came an influx of artists, bar owners and restaurateurs, and finally, cool kids, not only from other parts of Germany, but from around the world, who descended on the city to eat up its culture. Berlin’s relative homeliness, as compared with other European cities, became an advantage in an age of irony and nostalgia.
But the low prices that keep Berlin cool are rising. The European financial crisis has sent rents soaring. Last year, real estate prices jumped on average about 20 per cent in the city’s central neighbourhoods. That number is expected to climb, as the euro zone debt crisis has pushed foreign investors, such as Greeks and Italians, to put their money somewhere safe – namely, Berlin real estate. With property prices climbing, the price of goods, drinks and entertainment goes up with it. This year, may be the last chance to enjoy Berlin as a hip affordable European capital.
Mitte is where every visit to the city should begin and where Berlin’s tumultuous history from Prussia to Nazism to communism played out. But Berlin’s real treasures lay just outside the centre, where the city’s post-historical period unfolds.
I start my day in Prenzlauer Berg, the prettiest part of East Berlin and the first suburb to have gentrified. The gentrification was so swift that 80 per cent of preunification residents have been displaced since 1989 because of skyrocketing rents.
My first stop is the Barn, a charmingly pretentious coffee shop that has banned not only computers and tablets, but also baby strollers. If you happen to be in Prenzlauer Berg on Sunday, the farmer’s market at Kollwitzplatz has some of the best grilled mackerel to grace a picnic table. Alternatively, the Sunday brunch at the Russian restaurant Pasternak is luscious and a steal at €13 ($18) all-you-can-eat.
Sundays are also a perfect time to see the giant flea market at Mauerpark. A Berlin ritual, Mauerpark attracts thousands every Sunday to browse endless stalls, eat grilled sausages and listen to ear-piercing karaoke in the “bearpit.” The latter gets going around 3 p.m. and is the most bizarre but often rewarding free entertainment in the city.
Any other day of the week, I head to Neukolln, formerly part of West Berlin and not long ago considered one of the most dangerous and derelict parts of the city. Things have changed and the neighbourhood is now Berlin’s cutting edge of cool. Prices there are rising fast, though, and Neukolln’s reputation as the city’s hippest ’hood won’t last much longer. A remnant of the area’s heavy immigrant background is Rissani, a bustling Middle Eastern restaurant that serves towering plates of hummus, falafel, shawarma and delicious fried halloumi cheese for €5. Nearby, Huhnerhaus, a takeout shack for slow-roasted chickens, sells huge portions for tiny prices.
Take your plate of chicken to Gorlitzer Park just next door and picnic on a grassy knoll. Gorlitzer Park has been described as the “anti-park.” Despite the graffiti and lingering young men asking you suspiciously if “you’re okay?” the green space is a treat to relax and enjoy the sun or enjoy a drink on the terrace of Das Edelweiss.
I’ve recently come to love spending afternoons at the community gardens at Moritzplatz. Not only do they serve a shockingly cheap and delicious lunch – a few weeks ago I had smoky chocolate chili with vegetables for about €5 – but it’s also a great place to pull up to a table of strangers and join in a game of cards. The Prinzessinnengarten’s mission is sustainable food and urban improvement and it’s striking to see such an open community space free from development in the centre of a major European capital. While sipping fresh mint lemonade on a warm and sunny day in the garden, I couldn’t help but wonder when someone would decide that this prime land would make the perfect condominium tower.
To sample classic German food – apart from the ubiquitous but flavourless currywurst – Spatzle and Knodel in Friedrichshain is the closest thing you’re going to get. The gastropub serves spatzle – a kind of German mac and cheese – and an excellent wiener schnitzel for just over €10 – a bargain compared to what you pay in Vienna or other parts of Germany.