As the gritty capital of tech, techno and Currywurst, Berlin has much to offer first-time visitors and new residents. A sprawling metropolis of 3.5 million people, it somehow manages never to feel cramped or stressful – quite a feat for a capital. One reason for this luxurious sense of space is the way Berlin is comprised of distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own centre and unique character – not to mention bunch of characters.
Where you’ll feel at home depends on what you’re into. Is peace and quiet essential? Or is 24/7 hubbub more your vibe? Green spaces and seasonal markets or clubs you can roll home from? Whatever floats your boat, Berlin has it – but it’s important to do your research before booking accommodation or deciding in which neighbourhood, or ‘kiez’, to set up home. There are 12 administrative districts (Bezirke) in total, but here’s our guide to the ones you’ll probably see most of.
Literally translating as ‘middle’, this swanky central borough houses most of Berlin’s famous historical landmarks, with Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag and Checkpoint Charlie all within walking distance of each other. It’s also where you’ll find the stunning Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the River Spree home to 5 renowned museums and galleries – not to mention the Nefertiti Bust.
Once you’re done sightseeing, take a stroll through the former royal hunting ground that is Tiergarten, marvelling at the sheer scale of the park and its dazzling gold Victory Column. As Berlin’s commercial hub, Mitte is also the place to soak up the slick high-rises of Potsdamer Platz and indulge in some designer shopping, but it’s also home to some of the city’s finest galleries, from Hamburger Bahnhof and C/O to the Sammlung Boros Collection housed in a WWII bunker.
What’s there: Landmarks, political headquarters, museums, fancy restaurants, shopping, opera, theatre
Perfect if you like: Seeing the sights, history, feeling like you’re in a capital city, spending money
2. Prenzlauer Berg (Pankow)
This former East Berlin district has come a long way from its post-unification days as a squat capital. The squatters and party animals have grown, mellowed and opened baby boutiques and yoga studios in their now gentrified neighbourhood. Clean, civilised and full of cake and coffee opportunities, Prenzlauer Berg is a fine place to explore if you’re on the lookout for gentle thrills.
Highlights include Mauerpark, with its weekly flohmarkt and karaoke session, the Wasserturm, Berlin’s oldest water tower, and Kulturbrauerei, a bustling cultural centre housed in a former brewery which also hosts a charming Christmas market each year.
What’s there: Middle-class families, toddlers, restaurants, cafes, trams, well-kept green spaces
Perfect if you like: Middle-class families, toddlers, yoga, organic food, a civilised pace of life
As the former heart of West Berlin during the city’s divided years, Charlottenburg evolved as an affluent borough under British jurisdiction. That legacy remains today, with the area known for its upmarket museums, galleries and all the fancy shopping opportunities you’d expect from a European capital. Most notable are Kurfürstendamm, an elegant boulevard lined with tasteful boutiques, and the legendary Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe, a seriously large department store boasting over 60,000 square metres of shopping.
There’s also the genteel Schloss Charlottenburg with its beautifully maintained gardens, the historic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the Museum für Fotografie, with the famous Zoologischer Garten und Aquarium nestled at one end.
What’s there: Upmarket shopping, real Berliners, a palace, galleries, museums
Perfect if you like: Department stores, West Berlin history, peace and quiet, a lack of international hipsters
This former East Berlin neighbourhood has perhaps the most distinctive character of them all. Despite the encroaching tide of gentrification, Friedrichshain retains its graffiti-covered, anarchic heart and comfortably boasts the highest number of mohawks you’ll see anywhere in the city.
Alongside the remaining squats lie some of Berlin’s most striking GDR highlights, with the epic Karl-Marx-Allee carving a dramatic Soviet artery direct to the city centre. There’s also an abundance of art and culture, from the colourful murals of East Side Gallery and lively markets of Urban Spree to the world’s most famous techno temple: Berghain. Wear black, don’t smile and you might just get past the bouncers.
What’s there: Punks, activism, GDR architecture, tourists, tourists clubs, restaurants, bars
Perfect if you like: Soviet boulevards, squats, drunk tourists, vegan food, live music
The magnificent Karl-Marx-Allee (Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Although technically part of the same borough as Friedrichshain (and boasting similarly countercultural, if a little gentrified, vibes), Kreuzberg has its own reputation for edgy nightlife, cool galleries and cutting-edge foodie options. Separated from its former Eastern counterpart by the River Spree and a surviving stretch of wall, this neighbourhood has become a magnet for immigrant communities and hip young things who want to be close to the cultural action.
For the ultimate Kreuzberg experience head to Markthalle Neun, a collection of street food stalls focusing on fresh, seasonal produce which hosts regular events and pop-ups. If you’re in need of contemporary art, photography, architecture or history, check out the Berlinische Galerie and Jewish Museum for some arresting sights and sobering stories, while Viktoriapark is the perfect sunbathing and people-watching spot.
What’s there: Contemporary art, bars, fashion, cultural festivals, food halls, canals
Perfect if you like: Knowing what’s going on, exhibitions, clubs, park socialising
Frequently labelled as Berlin’s ‘up-and-coming’ or ‘hipster’ neighbourhood, Neukölln certainly has a gritty buzz all of its own. Shaped gastronomically by the established Turkish and Middle Eastern communities, it’s an A-list destination for cheap falafel, döner and hummus, while recent waves of English-speaking immigration have brought an influx of bars with a distinctive concrete-and-candles ambience.
Nestled in Neukölln’s heart is Rixdorf, a historic Bohemian village that’s all quaint little homes and cobbles, while the nearby network of leafy canals and parks teems with beer-drinking locals all summer long. For a brief taste of the sublime in this notoriously grubby neighbourhood, take a dip in the steamy waters of the Stadtbad, or sip cocktails atop a multi-storey car park at Klunkerkranich. How very Neukölln.
What’s there: More canals, green spaces, Turkish food, hipster bars, expats, arts scene
Perfect if you like: Dirty pavements, laptop-friendly cafes, kebabs, new stuff, food markets