"Berlin is poor but sexy," the city’s flamboyant former mayor Klaus Wowereit once declared, and the apt description became the German capital’s de facto motto. Thanks to comparatively cheap rent and government-subsidized cultural venues, this artistically rich city is also one of Europe’s most affordable metropolises–-for its denizens as well as for travelers. And it’s not only the struggling artists who've taken notice. Over the last half decade, European tech entrepreneurs have been setting up shop in the city, invigorating the nascent tech sector and helping undo the lingering economic effects of Reunification. The German capital is poised to grow even more prosperous (and expensive), but for now, the edgy, fashionable metropolis remains a great European bargain for visitors.
Forcible division, it turns out, had its advantages. For decades, East and West Berlin were locked in an artistic arms race, trying to outdo one another with cultural bragging rights. As a result, present-day Berlin boasts nearly 200 museums, three opera houses, and five world-class orchestras, not to mention some 450-odd galleries and countless alternative performance spaces. The city’s bohemian vibe continues to attract a stream of creative types from all over the world, feeding the city’s theater troupes and dance companies. The German capital’s artistic offerings are as diverse as the city’s denizens, ranging from the stupendous collections of classical art on Museum Island to street art, to world-class opera performances in the neoclassical State Opera House, to bawdy cabarets on coaster-size stages, celebrated contemporary canons at the Hamburger Bahnhof, and street art on just about every corner.
The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was commemorated in 2014 and, save for a few segments preserved as historic monuments, much of it has been demolished. Yet the differences between the two Germanys persist. According to a survey by Bild, the largest national daily paper, three-quarters of the population believe East and West Germans have different mentalities; only one in three West Germans would entertain the idea of marrying someone from the East. According to a 2013 report by the Halle Institute for Economic Research, Easterners regard West Germans as arrogant and materialistic, while West Germans think of their Eastern countrymen as whiny. Perhaps it's fitting that, because of the two different street-light systems in Berlin (gas in the East, electric in the West), the division is visible even from space.
Too Cool for School?
At the height of Weimar decadence in the 1920s, when Marlene Dietrich performed in packed gay bars in Schöneberg, Berlin was already notorious for its unrestrained hedonism. Today, the German capital’s nightlife has again reached mythical status, thanks to its acclaimed electronic music scene and a young population. Berlin’s legendary clubs, which may operate out of a decommissioned power plant or an abandoned department store, incubated some of the world’s top DJs like Paul van Dyk, Ellen Allien, and Paul Kalkbrenner. With the absence of VIP areas or ostentatious cliques, people of all ages, backgrounds, and sexual orientations lose their inhibitions in these temples of electronic music well through the night and into morning. Berlin, after all, prides itself on being the only European city without a mandated closing time for bars and clubs–-which, of course, makes this an incredibly fun city for going out.
It’s not just the nightlife that reflects the city’s live-and-let-live vibe. Neighborhoods like Neukölln, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain have emerged as hubs for international artists and young dreamers in search of inspiration (and cheap places to stay). This diversity, combined with the city’s down-to-earth working-class roots, creates an atmosphere that is cool yet unpretentious. Every coin has two sides, of course. Some locals are tired of Berlin’s reputation as a playground for slackers; others worry about the rising cost of living.
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