Today I’m walking across the Spree from the Old East to Kreuzberg, arguably Berlin’s most hip and dynamic neighbourhood. With its large immigrant population, vibrant nightlife, and ‘grunge scene,’ between the mid 60’s and the late 80’s this was an area enclosed on three sides by the notorious Wall. Scruffy and somewhat anti-establishment, for years it was a natural home to artists, hippies, immigrants and squatters. After unification, change inevitably crept up on the area. Today, however, whilst certain parts of the city (such as Bergmannstrasse) are pretty bourgeois, other parts like Kottbusser Tor are still somewhat seedy (with nearby Gorlitzer Park notorious for the junkies who deal and score there after dark).
Still, the area has a lot of character, beautiful architecture, and a vibrant nightlife (particularly in the summer, when people spill out into the streets). With its punk rock vibe, small independent stores, endless art galleries and array of cheap eateries (in particular Turkish restaurants) it’s popular hasn’t really waned. Students gravitate here (since the rents are still pretty cheap), artists love it (lit’s hard to miss the street art and colourful graffiti on every other corner) and young Americans and Europeans still seem to be flocking here to ‘live the dream’ (whatever dream that may be!)
There’s plenty to see in Kreuzberg just by wandering the streets aimlessly but if I have to mention a few places then here they are. The prize for best coffee in the area has to go to the “Five Elephant” - specialty coffee roasters with a great bakery to boot. Their fairtrade beans are purchased from small farms across the globe and their homemade cakes are simply mouth-watering (I recommend the cheesecake but I’ve heard their scones aren’t bad either). Located at 101 Reichenberger strasse, it’s the perfect place to spend a rainy winter afternoon…and however crowded it is, people always scooch up for you! Artisan coffee at its very best.
As for bars, I can’t help but rave about Ora - a former pharmacy that’s now serving as a brassiere and cocktail bar. With its beautiful wooden stairs, antique medicine jars and old-world cabinets, it’s cocktails and small food plates are excellent. As the evening wears on, they lower the lights - which makes it an excellent place to bring a date. As it was, I spent a long afternoon there, curled up on a sofa and luxuriating in the atmosphere. It doesn’t get more stylish than here.
In terms of nightlife, whilst I’m not a big clubber I was a fan of punk rock in the late 70’s so it would be remiss of me not to mention ’SO36’ - a nightclub that, in the 80s, arguably rivalled the New York scene, with performers such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop frequenting the scene./ Today, it’s still pretty eclectic, so I’ve been told - whether you’re looking for techno, punk or electronic music you’re bound to have a good night if you rock up here.
In terms of ’top’ Kreuzberg attractions, the big three that come to mind are the Jewish Museum, Tempelhof park and Checkpoint Charlie. The first I would recommend a visit to, not simply for the exhibits but because of the building’s design (architect Daniel Liebskind believed that the building should be as much a statement of German-Jewish history as a modern work) and in that sense I think he’s achieved his aim. The second is Tempelhof park (previously an airport and now turned into a huge public space - larger than New York’s Central Park in fact!) Perfect for kite flying in the winter, or picnicking in the summer, it’s a wonderful feeling to ride your bike on a former airstrip. Look out for the historic hanger and the radar tower, and soak up the local atmosphere (this place is more for locals than tourists).
Finally, Checkpoint Charlie. Sure, it’s an huge attraction but I cant bring myself to recommend it - for me it’s an embarrassing tourist trap, complete with German actors dressed up as US soldiers (you can be photographed with them for the cost of a euro!) and a overpriced museum, haphazardly laid out (so I’ve heard) Totally tasteless, the ‘Checkpoint’ is an embarrassment to Berliners and frankly, I think, an insult to the many who lost their lives in an attempt to flee the DDR. To be avoided at all costs.
In conclusion, Kreuzberg might be changing to an extent but there’s still a lot that’s stayed the same - the dingy cafes, the Turkish market that’s held each Tuesday and Friday of week (bring cash and get ready to haggle) and the fact that long-time residents are still (deep down) a bit revolutionary, this time protesting gentrification in the form of AirBNB rentals. Kreuzberg may not have quite the glamorous ‘alternative’ image it once had, but I for one still get a kick out of walkings its streets, and feeling that there’s still a bit of ‘edge’ in the ‘hood…
So has Kreuzberg changed dramatically since the early 1990s, when I was living in Berlin? To a certain extent, yes, of course it has, and that's inevitable. Still, as I wander around I note that there's still a lot that's stayed the same - the dingy cafes, the Turkish market that’s held each Tuesday and Friday of week (bring cash and get ready to haggle) and the fact that long-time residents are still (deep down) a bit revolutionary, this time protesting gentrification in the form of AirBNB rentals. Kreuzberg may not have quite the glamorous ‘alternative’ image it once had, but I for one still get a kick out of walkings its streets, and feeling that there’s still a bit of ‘edge’ in the ‘hood…