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Why Berlin is the Arts and Culture Capital of Europe

Berlin is a city of dichotomy. It’s West and East, gritty and elegant, historic and modern. But woven through Der Stadt is an appreciation of art, culture and life which makes it Europe’s most talked-about city.

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Charlottenbug Palace, a tourist historic hot spot.

 

I’m taking Dusty Springfield out for a spin on the streets of Berlin. On the cushy seat of a cruiser bike named after the Brit soul singer (a quirk of a Fat Tire Bike tour—you get to know your bike by name), bundled up against the cool fall temperatures, I’m hitting all the high points (the Reichstag), low points (Hitler’s bunker) and memorable points (a beer garden in the Tiergarten)—on a slow-paced whirl around the city that’s meant to get my feet under me, so to speak.

Dusty harks back to the mid ’60s, but it was really the late ’80s when everything changed here—which, no matter how old I get, continues to be just a few years ago. Post-Wall, the city is in the constant throes of rapid-fire renewal: heritage buildings crouch alongside the brutalist constructions built during the Russian occupation. And then the starchitects came: Sir Norman Foster imagined the glass dome that sits over the Reichstag; I.M. Pei created a glass spiral staircase on a new wing of the German Historical Museum; Daniel Libeskind designed the moving Jewish Museum.

Hackeshe Hofe Berlin
Berlin’s architecture thoughtfully blends ancient with modern, including the restored vibrant ceramic tiles of Hackeshe Höfe.
Reichstag Berlin
The Reichstag, Berlin

What have really shaped the city, though, are its people. Berlin after 1989 was (and still is) surprisingly affordable; 20 years ago, artists and creative types snapped up the dilapidated flats that lay behind the Wall. It’s do-it-yourself, hipster and cool. A place where all-night parties—the bars literally never close—still rage, where tweens and octogenarians alike swirl in ballroom dances past the tinselled walls in Clärchens Ballhaus, just down the street from Kaffee Burger, which still hosts an infamous Russian Disco night.

The result is a city that seems permanently, happily, on the verge—well down the path to gentrification, but still growing up. Not enough jobs, but high on fun. “Poor, but sexy,” as the city’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, famously quipped. As one friend said to me before I arrived, “You get the sense there’s always something going on, just under the surface.”

Pergamon museum Berlin
The historic Pergamon museum on Museum Island.
Brandenburg Gate Berlin
Brandenburg Gate, site of the ecstatic moment when the Wall fell.

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