I hated Berlin at first glance. Arriving on a rainy day, the cab I took from Tegel Airport to the Penzlauerberg neighborhood cut through a massive expanse of industrial streets filled with the sorts of factories, warehouses and square concrete residential slabs you’d expect from the Soviet’s Cold War frontline.
Berlin wasn’t on my original itinerary for this trip. I left the States planning on relaxing in Spain, but tickets from JFK to Germany proved much cheaper than flying NYC to Madrid. I felt certain I’d hightail it to Seville after just one or two days in Berlin.
I ended up staying a month.
Wandering around that grey city, waiting for check-in at my hostel, I decided to pass the time taking a few pictures. Taking a hundred pictures of some of the developed world’s ugliest architecture didn’t seem too appealing so I started to focus on the city’s ever-present street art. Even in this relatively unhip neighborhood there was some good graffiti. And as I walked further into the city I saw how the seemingly unbroken lines of Soviet residential buildings often made way for magnificent centuries-old archways that lead to gorgeous courtyards that somehow survived the war.
By the time I set my bags down at my hostel, Berlin had me hooked.
I eventually made it to Spain and while spending time with a friend from home I encountered a traveler from Berlin. We talked about his home for a couple minutes and during our conversation he referred to his city as “half-finished,” a casual comment that really gets to the heart of why Berlin is so special.
West Berlin occupies just about the same boundaries it ever did, but the Soviet’s couldn’t stop expanding East Berlin. Most likely as a narcissistic show of power, the Soviet Union kept building new factories and new residences on their side of the wall, well beyond Easy Berlin’s 20th century capacity.
After the Wall fell all this mindless industrial muscle flexing resulted in lots and lots of perfectly functional, totally vacant buildings. Since the 1990’s Berlin has experienced a veritable flood of young, broke, creatively minded individuals itching to fill them up.
Or, at least, cover them up.
Berlin’s abundant street art caught my interest before any of the city’s other virtues made themselves apparent, and to this day these tags, murals and flyers adorn the most cherished memories of my time there.
At first I assumed street art was legal in Berlin, seeing as it covered pretty much every available surface of every populated corner of the city. I didn’t learn until later that getting caught producing graffiti, tagging, and any other form of street art that involves painting or otherwise semi-permanently defacing a building carries with it a hefty fine of 1,000 Euros for each offense.
Rather than buckle under the fine, Berlin’s street artists got creative with the law. As they argued- if businesses and clubs could flyer the city every day with their advertisements, then there’s nothing illegal about posting paper wherever the hell you want. The law had to agree. Berlin street artists began to focus on creating intricately designed and precisely cut flyers displaying their skills, and these street art flyers quickly appeared everywhere.
I’d be lying to you if I told you Berlin was nothing more than a wonderland of anarchist artists creating a new hyper-localized world within city limits. Berlin also provides Starbucks franchises, American Apparel outlets, and lots and lots of cheesy tropical themed restaurants complete with fake palm trees and drinks slurped out of plastic coconut shells. But Berlin’s wealth of abandoned Soviet-built projects means whenever a neighborhood gentrifies the artist squats just shift a couple blocks over to the next stretch of virgin concrete blocks.
The Soviet Union clearly didn’t create these neighborhoods and factories with an eye towards enabling a ruthlessly creative global party culture, but twenty years after the fall that’s what their utilitarian designs house, often hidden behind dark doors left blank to maintain the scene’s “underground” aesthetic. Just a few of the repurposed locations I loved include:
The international character of Berlin struck me my first night there when I had dinner at a Korean restaurant close to my hostel. I wasn’t explicitly looking for Korean food, it just happened to be there, and the price was right.
This scene repeated itself multiple times of the following month. I felt hungry, grocery stores were closed, and every popular street food cart, deli or restaurant I stumbled upon served decidedly non-German cuisine. I had lots of sausage, ham and sauerkraut in Berlin, but I always sought it out explicitly from old-fashioned eateries. The city’s street-food scene is dominated by foods that owe much, or all, of their origins to other corners of the world.
Consider the two most popular street foods in Berlin:
Berlin has gained one of the most exciting and most liberated artistic movements in the world. You’ll need to dig below its Soviet-designed surface to find the excitement, and if you’re looking for Romantic passion you need to search elsewhere. But with a little looking, and a local guide or two, Berlin will unfold before you in consistently surprising ways. It’s one of the most exciting experiences around.