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Berlin, with its thriving art and fashion scenes, is one of Europe’s most exciting and vibrant capitals of contemporary culture. The city’s creative scene is permeated by an uncanny sense of exploration and risk-taking—perhaps one of the reasons that Berlin is often likened to New York City circa 1985. But Berlin is not 1980s New York. It’s something entirely unique, shaped by a complex history and a current urgency to prove itself as a contemporary capital. It’s a massive place to explore, both geographically and emotionally. It’s also a city whose stereotypes precede a visit—some warranted, others not—and whose nuances are hard to grasp from abroad.

Cheat Sheet

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Lay of the Land

“Berlin was charismatic in the roguish way of a love... It was a lover who was a little dangerous in ways that didn't always show, keeping you a bit on edge, a bit in love and endlessly forgiving because he made her feel that she was exactly where she was meant to be... Berlin made you like who you were when you were there, as if everything worth being a part of in the world - all those modern ideas about sex and art and women; all that possibility - was right there, in its dark, beating heart.”
~Whitney Otto

Officially, Berlin has just twelve districts, but it’s a massive sprawl made to feel even larger by the fact that each district seems to have myriad neighborhoods all totally different from one another. Most of the major sites—including the Museum Island, Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Berlin Wall Memorial —are located in or close to the Mitte district, in the former East, which also has some of the city’s best restaurants and shopping neighborhoods. Choosing where to be based is key: residential Charlottenburg, in the former West, is a lovely district but far from most of the major sights. Two hotels with excellent central locations are the Hotel de Rome and the Regent Berlin. Alternatively, one could also plan a trip with two-to-three nights in the former East and another two in the former West (a lovely small luxury hotel is the Brandenburger Hof), from which such day trips as Potsdam and the Wannsee are easily accessible.

Here are some of the most important neighborhoods:

FORMER EAST

Mitte: Commonly dubbed the SoHo of Berlin, this neighborhood has a mix of new and established contemporary-art galleries, fashion shops and fun restaurants. Of all the areas in East Berlin, it’s the most developed (particularly between upper Friedrichstrasse and Hackescher Markt Square).

Prenzlauer Berg: If Mitte is SoHo, Prenzlauer Berg is the East Village. Popular with hipster families, it’s filled with cafés and shops. Most interesting are Kollwitzplatz, a lovely park, and the landmark Wasserturn (Water Tower), both surrounded by funky restaurants and cool little stores.

Friedrichschain: Southeast of Mitte, this area is the edgiest of the three and home to dive bars, alternative stores and the ateliers of aspiring artists. Look out for iconic Communist-era architecture along the Karl-Marx-Allee, which is lined with huge Socialist apartment buildings.

FORMER WEST

Charlottenburg: Berlin’s chicest residential district is also where you’ll find upscale shops (mainly on lower Kurfürstendamm, known locally as Ku’damm). Skip the upper Kurfürstendamm and Tauntzienstrasse with their chain stores and Zoo Station with its fast-food joints, and head directly to Savignyplatz for charming cafés and restaurants.

Kreuzberg: Located south of Mitte, this is East Berlin’s most colorful and multicultural neighborhood, thanks to its many Turkish and Greek residents. There’s a burgeoning mini-culinary scene here, with such gourmet hot spots as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Horváth.

Potsdamer Platz: Bisected by the Berlin Wall and effectively a wasteland during the years of the DDR, the Potsdamer Platz became a symbolic development project after reunification. Numerous big-name architects were tasked with developing buildings here, some more successful than others. Today, it’s a buzzing, commercial area—Sony and Daimler both have headquarters here—with lots of traffic and tourist crowds. Hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, the Grand Hyatt and Mandala are located in gleaming multi-use buildings here.

Tiergarten: Not quite as big as Central Park but still a hefty 520 acres, the Tiergarten is Berlin’s major green expanse with numerous lakes, monuments and jogging and walking paths. It’s best explored on a bike. Design hotel Das Stue is located on its northwestern edge, which is also where the Berlin Zoo sits.

Dress Code

Berlin has a fashion code all its own. You’ll see women who seem straight out of Billy Wilder films in trench coats and high boots strolling arm-in-arm with handsome men dressed in rumpled blazers as well as matronly women with electric pink hair and tattoos carrying pocketbooks from the 1950s. It’s a cocktail of vintage and edgy and studiously laid-back. Bling, unless it is a reference to 1980s discowear, is out. “People who look like they spend money on their look are viewed as too self-conscious to be fun or interesting,” explains one native. “If you want to be accepted in the clubs or by the cool people, you have to look like you would party on the tabletops until 5am with your shoes off.” To get a quick understanding, pick up Angela Taschen’s Berlin Style Guide, which deconstructs the rules and lists some of the best sources. Among them are: Wald, Rianna in Berlin and Das Neue Schwarz.

Cash is King

Many Berliners have family members who have lived through desperate times, so there is an ingrained distrust of credit. “We like to keep our cash close,” explains one local. That may be one reason that quite a few shops and restaurants insist on cash payment (especially the hip, new ones).

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