Berlin is a shape-shifting urban animal. It can be as wild as it is tame; as warm-blooded as it is bitingly cold. Hind legs in history and snout in the future, it’s a crossbreed of countless nationalities with a German name tag. Culture, creativity, curiosity, controversy are its best friends. It may be big, it may be daunting, but it’ll make a best friend of you too, once you break it in.
Whether you’re joining dBs Berlin (yaaaaas!), or you’re keen to further explore the city, this one’s for you. We polled our students on where they live in Berlin, and the results are in. Get a tether on the city of the bear with our ultimate guide to our students’ top five areas – walking through lifestyle, history and hidden gems. Hint: Mitte doesn’t get a look-in.
Best for shopping: Boxhagener Platz Weekend Market. Saturday: farmers’ and organic market. Sunday: cheap furniture and treasures.
Best for eating: Pomodorino for great value Italian pizza
Best for relaxing: Volkspark Friedrichshain
Best for partying: Berghain
Best for socialising: RAW Gelände
Best for students: HUMANA second hand and vintage store
Under the radar: Dog Shit Spot skate spot
With a direct tram connection to dBs Berlin and the standout student accommodation Neon Wood, it’s no wonder that most of our students live in Friedrichshain – that and it’s an incredible part of the city to call home. Located in former East Berlin, the area has been described as “an art gallery turned inside out.” Not only because it’s home to the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall – now the East Side Gallery – but because there is boundless creativity wherever you turn.
Friedrichshain forgoes social norms in favour of squatters rights (centred around the punk-tastic Rigaer Straße) and boisterous bars and clubs on the Techno Strip (the areas along Warschauer Straße, Revaler Straße and Simon Dach Straße). Follow the wide railway tracks past the DIY “Dog Shit Spot” skate spot, and the legendary Berghain looms ahead in all its industrial glory. Cross the fortress-like Oberbaumbrücke, taking in the River Spree views and a busker’s tunes, and arrive in the beating heart of Kreuzberg. Head back to Frankfurter Tor and the imposing former Socialist boulevard Karl-Marx-Allee (previously Stalinallee) will greet you with its two lighthouse-like towers.
Friedrichshain, meaning Frederick’s Grove (after Frederick the Great), is just as much about community as it is party, industry and history. The beautiful Volkspark (People’s Park), with little lakes, hills (demolished wartime flak towers) and its own open-air cinema, is the perfect place to relax with friends. To discover more traces of World War II Friedrichshain – which was one of the most badly damaged parts of Berlin – head to the peaceful Georgen-Parochial II Cemetery, where you’ll spot bullet holes on walls and gravestones.
RAW Gelände, a former rail yard, is full of interesting establishments – including the Urban Spree gallery, Suicide Circus and other clubs and beer gardens, a vintage furniture shop, a climbing hall and an indoor skate park. All of that together with Friedrichshain’s many independent shops, eateries for all tastes, and the weekend market around Boxhagener Platz will have you wiling away your weekends.
Best for shopping: Kollwitzplatz market
Best for eating: Lia’s Kitchen for 100% vegan fast food
Best for relaxing: Mauerpark
Best for partying: Anomalie Art Club, an arty day-to-night venue tucked inside an industrial estate
Best for socialising: Kulturbrauerei
Best for students: Saint George’s Bookshop for Berlin’s largest collection of English new and second-hand books
Under the radar: Liese Park, a former cemetery that makes the perfect contemplative corner or eerie filming location
If you were looking for a gentrification case study in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg would be it. The vibe of the area used to be quite similar to that of Kreuzberg or the neighbouring Friedrichshain. After the reunification of the East and West, many of the old worker buildings were squatted by young bohemians and Prenzlauer Berg became an artist hub with a lively nightlife scene. Inevitably, some of the properties were renovated, and those who kept their apartments had families. Nowadays, the central Prenzlauer Berg, as trendy as it is pricey, is the epitome of family-friendly, with cute boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and children wherever you turn. Maximum quaintness can be found at the weekend market in the heart of green Kollwitzkiez.
Still, there are remaining pockets of the OG Prenzlauer Berg spirit; namely the lively Mauerpark, taking its name from the little stretch of the Berlin Wall within it. Unlike the curated format of the East Side Gallery, this part of the Wall is a graffiti free-for-all which, lined with benches and the odd adult swing, is a cool place to chill on weekend afternoons. That’s not to mention the lower level of the park, where you’ll find talented buskers, bands, mini festivals and food stands the whole year through. There’s also a weekend flea market, where you can buy everything from food to furniture.
For a dose of culture, do not miss the nearby Kulturbrauerai. Once they brewed beer here; now the sprawling complex consists of a cinema, an integrative theatre, a free-entry GDR museum, restaurants, clubs, and an amazing seasonal weekend market – the place to be on festive evenings.
Best for shopping: Dong Xuan Center, a Vietnamese market hall with cheap fresh produce, street food, store cupboard essentials, clothes and much more
Best for eating: Viet Pho
Best for relaxing: Landschaftspark Herzberge, a former rail yard turned urban agricultural area with orchards, meadows and sheep
Best for partying: Sisyphos
Best for socialising: Stadtpark Lichtenberg
Best for students: Nadia + Kosta, an unpretentious cafe with amazing coffee and cakes
Under the radar: BaristaCats cat cafe
Home to House of Nations accommodation, well-connected and great for student budgets, Lichtenberg is up there with the most popular locations for dBs Berlin students. Dominated with Communist tower blocks and industrial cityscapes, the residential area may not be as happening as other Berlin hoods, but that makes it the perfect peaceful corner to retreat to when the craziness is over – if you don’t live around the corner from Berliner-favourite club Sisyphos, that is.
That’s not to say, however, that Lichtenberg doesn’t have its gems. Stadtpark Lichtenberg is a beautiful green oasis with a big lake, barbecue areas and gigantic benches. As far as landmarks are concerned, you can’t miss the 40-metre-high Schrotkugel Tower behind the colourful houses of the Kaskelkiez neighbourhood. Love animals? Not only is the area home to Europe’s largest animal adventure park, Tierpark Berlin, but the super-cute BaristaCats cat cafe and the Landschaftspark Herzberge park, where agriculture meets recreation.
If you’re a fan of Asian food or you’re on the hunt for cheap spices or garms, you’ll find a second home in the Dong Xuan Center, the gigantic local Vietnamese market hall. And for those interested in learning more about Berlin’s history, the Stasimuseum, located on the former grounds of the headquarters of the GDR Ministry for State Security, offers free guided tours.
With Berlin housing prices rising faster than you can say where’s my money?, Lichtenberg could well be the next up-and-coming area for young creatives. Watch this space.
Best for shopping: Grober Unfug, one of the oldest comic book stores in Berlin
Best for eating: Burgermeister at either Schlesisches Tor or Kottbusser Tor for wow-worthy burgers
Best for relaxing: Landwehr Canal
Best for partying: SO36
Best for socialising: Turkish-run Cafe Kotti, a hidden gem of a cafe-bar with a living room vibe
Best for students: Markthalle Neun indoor market for international food vendors and shops
Under the radar: Farbfernseher (translating to Colour TV), a tiny, incognito club in a former TV shop
Everyone wants to live in Kreuzberg – and that’s no overstatement. It’s arty, it’s punk rock, it’s hipster, it’s edgy – the east side, especially. It’s a 24/7 party, basically. With such swelling demand comes rapid gentrification and soaring rents, but as The Guardian put it, the area still manages to hold onto its “revolutionary streak.”
Kreuzberg’s unique spirit can be attributed to the melting pot of immigrants, hippies, artists and squatters that lived in the West Berlin area while it was still enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. Oranienstraße, full of hip boutiques and bars including the legendary SO36 (a punk favourite of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and more) and Kottbusser Tor (affectionately named Kotti), a vibrant Turkish hub, are perhaps the good old days’ last bastion.
There’s more fun to be had around Görlitzer Park (Görli), a cool place to chill out in the sunshine – especially on the crazy, ravey May Day street festival. Disclaimer: dealers are part of the furniture here. Then there’s the beautiful Landwehr Canal, perfect for evening beers with mates, or relaxing in your own dinghy boat. On Sunday, don’t miss the Nowkoelln flea market, which sells art, second hand, fresh produce and street food on the Neukölln side of the canal every fortnight. As for cafes, restaurants, clubs and bars in this hub of techno tourism, there are way too many to mention. But for something a little different, head down Schlesisches Tor towards the canal and encounter a pocket of popular open-air venues.
Of course, we have to mention the west side of Kreuzberg too, which is a little more posh and put-together. The pretty Bergmannkiez and Graefekiez have a relaxed, family vibe. For some of the best views of the city, head to Viktoriapark, which has its own artificial waterfall on Berlin’s highest natural hill. Venture further west and find the upmarket showcase district, home to Checkpoint Charlie and the Jewish Museum.
Best for shopping: CALYPT vintage store for amazing ’80s and ’90s men’s and women’s clothing
Best for eating: Konditorei Damaskus, a charming Syrian bakery with fresh authentic sweets
Best for relaxing: Hasenheide park
Best for partying: The candlelit bars of Reuterkiez and Schillerkiez
Best for socialising: Klunkerkranich
Best for students: Al-Andalos Lebanese restaurant for huge, cheap, tasty plates and 1.50€ sandwiches
Under the radar: Open Mic Sunday at Kindl Stuben
Welcome to Little Istanbul! Together with the eastern edge of Kreuzberg, Neukölln is dominated by the Turkish community, who originally made Berlin their home when they were recruited by Germany as workers back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Full of traditional Turkish establishments of all kinds, as well as pockets of other cultures, the area has been described as “the cherry on the cake of German multikulti.” Wandering Neukölln’s bustling streets, you’ll probably hear more Turkish, English and Spanish voices than German.
As with all ghettos, living all the way over in Neukölln used to be cheap – not least because the area was right next to Tempelhof Airport. However, when the airport closed down in 2008, to be reclaimed as a 386-hectare recreational public park, rents started to shoot up, and all the hipster cafes, bars and restaurants we now associate with the area popped up with them. Touched, like the rest of Berlin, by fast gentrification, it can be as expensive to live here as it is in Kreuzberg. All the more reason to make use of the numerous Turkish mini markets, where you can shop fresh groceries at a fraction of the cost of supermarkets, or the myriad of vintage and second-hand stores.
Hasenheide, which translates as Hare Willow from its Prussian roots as a rabbit enclosure, is the perfect park for weekend chilling. Here you’ll find an open-air cinema, a free farm animal enclosure, a rose garden, a small lake, a sports area and even a miniature golf course. If you prefer your green spaces more manicured, definitely check out the palace garden-esque Körnerpark. And if your idea of urban beauty is sunset views over the rooftops, Neukölln’s worst-kept secret Klunkerkranich is just your kind of hangout. Find the bar and beer garden tucked inconspicuously on top of the Neukölln Arkaden car park and enjoy live music and DJs till late.
For more Berlinspiration, check out our students’ top tips for settling into Berlin.
Photos by Dominic Blewett Photography.