Digging Deeper in Berlin

By Cameron Hewitt

Spending time in Berlin (working on our new Rick Steves Berlin guidebook), I enjoyed getting to know several Berliners. And what really struck me is that almost none of them was originally from Berlin…and each one had a different story of how they came here. They also all spoke fondly about their loyalty to their own little micro-neighborhood, or Kiez. And they all expressed concern about Berlin’s recent surge in gentrification, which is changing the character of various Kieze virtually overnight.

Hearing all of these observations, I came to realize that the city-state of Berlin is practically its own organism. Like London, Paris, New York City, or other multiethnic, cosmopolitan cities, Berlin has its own strong and unique culture that’s distinct from the rest of the country. I wrote up these two new sections for Rick Steves Berlin, which ponder intriguing aspects of Berlin’s unique makeup. While people rely on guidebooks mostly for tips on where to eat, where to sleep, and what to see, at Rick Steves’ Europe we also like to provide readers with cultural context. I hope you enjoy this sneak-preview excerpt of our newest book (which hits bookshelves in September):

Berlin’s Kiez Culture

Berliners have a strong sense of community. They manage this in a big city by enjoying a strong neighborhood identity. Your neighborhood is called your Kiez (“keets”). This doesn’t refer to a large swath of the city (like Prenzlauer Berg or Kreuzberg), but a microscopic sub-sub-sub-neighborhood. A Kiez can be just a few blocks, barely big enough to contain a smattering of key services (grocery store, school, park), and typically named for a major street or square. People tend to live lives very focused on their Kiez, and rarely stray. Some Berliners venture to other Kieze only when entertaining out-of-town visitors.

Each Kiez has its own personality — but things are definitely in flux. As a traditionally low-rent district, once surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, Kreuzberg used to be thought of as being home to two types of people: draft-dodging, alternative-lifestyle German squatters and hardworking, lower-middle-class Turkish immigrants. And to an extent, you’ll still see both groups in Kreuzberg. However, over the last decade or so, several Kreuzberg Kieze have gone through a predictable life cycle of gentrification: Artists and hipsters, lured by the Kiez’s low rents and ramshackle funkiness, move in. They open up gourmet ramen shops and fair-trade coffee houses, stoking a buzz. As these areas become hip and desirable, rents increase — often forcing out long-time residents and ultimately changing the face of the Kiez.

As you talk to Berliners, you’ll learn that these issues of class, gentrification, and socioeconomic stratification are a huge preoccupation. Some make a hobby of chasing the latest trendy neighborhoods around town before they “go mainstream.” Others grow disgruntled at having to move farther and farther from the center, priced out by über-rich yuppies. Throughout its history, Berlin has been a city in transition. And, I imagine, for just as long, the local pastime has been complaining about those changes…and today is no exception.

The Many Faces of Berlin

Like any cosmopolitan city, Berlin has relatively few born-and-bred “original Berliners” — many of the people you meet here aren’t from Berlin, or even from Germany. As you get to know the locals, you’ll come to understand Berlin’s melting pot.

Many Berliners are “internal expats” from elsewhere in Germany. The first wave of these came to West Berlin back when the Wall was up — lured by draft deferments and tax breaks designed to keep this little outpost of the West vital. West Berlin became home to an edgy combination of granola peaceniks and tattooed-and-pierced punks, squatters, and graffiti artists. Still others came to West Berlin for business.

A second wave of “internal expats” arrived immediately after the Wall fell — when East Berliners flocked to the West, abandoning their homes. East Berlin in 1990 enjoyed an “anything goes” anarchy that attracted German artists, students, recent graduates, and unattached singles eager to live on their own terms. This was the heyday for squatting in — and eventually renovating — abandoned apartments.

A third wave of expats — both from inside and outside of Germany — came in the 2000s and 2010s, as Berlin put behind the chaos of reunification and blossomed as a 21st-century cultural capital and all-around cool place to live. You’ll meet many Americans and Brits who came to Berlin as backpackers, fell in love with the place, and decided to stick around. One told me, “People move to Berlin when they want to live in an exciting, international city but can’t afford London.”

And, of course, Berlin is also home to a vast number of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. In the post-WWII years, with a decimated population, West Germany needed help rebuilding. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the government invited Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) from poorer nations to live and work in Germany. With approximately 200,000 residents of Turkish descent, Berlin is considered the largest “Turkish city” outside of Turkey. These families — some now in their second or third generation — are an integral part of Berlin society.

More recently, refugees have formed another strand of Berlin’s cultural tapestry. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered asylum to people fleeing war-torn Syria — and 1.1 million took her up on it, in that year alone. While many have since resettled elsewhere, hundreds of thousands remain in Germany. Syrian Berliners have opened Middle Eastern bakeries and restaurants, and the Pergamon Museum actively recruits Syrians as tour guides — allowing them to proudly show off the masterpieces of their homeland’s ancient culture.

If you really want to understand Berlin…take the time to get to know some Berliners. And be sure to ask about their own personal story. You’ll never hear the same one twice.