Since the Berlin wall came down, Prenzlauer Berg has been transformed into a happening hub of hip bars, cool boutiques… and trendy young families
With its handsome cobbled boulevards, refurbished Altbaus and multitude of modish cafes, bars and boutiques, pretty old Prenzlauer Berg has come a long way from its humble working-class roots. Though certain sections of this Eastern Berlin district were hotbeds of creative rebellion during the fading years of the GDR, gentrification of the area began in earnest when the wall toppled in ’89.
As an embittered GDR population fled west, disaffected West Berliners moved in. Dilapidated buildings were sold off at bargain prices, interiors revamped, and the blank spaces begat by WWII bombs were magically transmogrified into innocuous playgrounds and leafy parks.
Luckily, the bombs didn’t fall as heavily in Prenzlauer Berg as they did in other districts of the city, meaning many of the lovely townhouses and picturesque churches remain intact. Indeed, this area is arguably one of Berlin’s prettiest, calmest and most gemütlich (congenial). Not only is it a great place to stroll, shop and café-hop, its laidback, bucolic charm has made it the number one hotspot in Europe to raise a family, according to recent EU demographic surveys.
The regeneration began around Kollwitzplatz, a gorgeous square named after prominent wartime artist/sculptor Käthe Kollwitz. Nowadays, Kollwitzplatz and the surrounding streets are some of the most developed (and pleasant) in the area, boasting everything from organic food markets (weekends only) to fashion outlets and restaurants like the esteemed Gugelhof (00 49 (0) 30 442 9229, www.cafe-liebling.de), where President Clinton once chowed down.
The Wasserturmplatz, named after the 19th-century circular water tower that makes the area so distinctive, is a particularly popular area, boasting a slew of popular cafes like the simple yet stylish Anita Wronski (00 49 (0) 30 442 8483) and the revered Russian hangout Pasternak (00 49 (0) 30 441 3399; www.restaurant-pasternak.de), which offers the most incredible Russian buffet brunch at weekends.
Saunter north across Danzigerstrasse, past the wealth of independent shops selling everything from ethnic furniture to baby clothes and books, and you’ll arrive at Helmholzplatz, another up-and-coming Kiez (neighbourhood). Once a seedy meeting point for drugs dealers, today this lattice of streets – Lychenerstrasse, Dunckerstrasse, Stargarderstrasse, Pappelallee – are a Mecca for young families and latte macchiato connoisseurs, who come to browse the kinder boutiques, sip frothy coffees and sooth their hangovers in cafes like Liebling (00 49 (0) 30 41 19 82 09 www.cafe-liebling.de), Duckwitz (00 49 (0) 30 41198882) and Wohnzimmer (00 49 (0) 30 4455458; www.wohnzimmer-bar.de).
Though this area is generally low on sights – many of them are a short tram ride away in Mitte – there is some culture to absorb if you know where to find it. The Jewish Cemetry (Jüdischer Friedhof) on Schönhauser Allee (22-23; 00 49 (0) 30 441 98 24; www.jg-berlin.org) contains the graves of Expressionist painter Max Liebermann and composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, among others. And there’s a beautiful Jewish synagogue on Rykestrasse (53), which was rebuilt after suffering damage during the infamous Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom.
On a larger – and more commercial - level is the Kulturbrauerei (00 49 (0) 30 443 5260; www.kulturbrauerei-berlin.de), a converted 19th-century red-brick brewery complex, complete with original red-brick chimneystacks, that now contains bars, restaurants, clubs, galleries, even a cinema, and regularly hosts cultural events.
Nearby Kastanienallee is the place to head for a more edgy ambiance. Home to funky fashion stores, legendary cafes like Schwarzsauer (00 49 (0) 30 4485633) and hipster hangouts aplenty, this is the street that informs Berlin’s savvy style press. If you take a right off Kastanienallee along Oderbergerstrasse, you can drop into colourful café Kauf Dich Glücklich (00 49 (0) 30 443 52182; www.kaufdichgluecklich.de) for waffles and ice cream, before checking out some of the original Berlin wall further down at Bernaurstrasse.
Directly opposite is the Mauerpark, a kilometer-strip of no man's land between the West Berlin district of Wedding and East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg that was turned into a park after the Wall fell. As parks go it’s fairly nondescript, but there’s a great flea market near the Bernaurstrasse side every Sunday.
Continuing along Kastanienallee, you’ll arrive at yet another charming Prenzlauer Berg square - Zionkirchplatz. Dominated by the eponymous Zionkirche, this area boasts attractive venues like Café Kapelle (00 49 (0) 30 443 41300; www.cafe-kapelle.de) and community-minded hangout Weinerei (00 49 (0) 30 440 6983; www.weinerei.com), where guests pay a Euro for a glass, help themselves to a selection of wines, then pay what they feel is fair when they leave. Clearly some ideologies die hard in the former East.
Talking of alcohol, Prenzlauer Berg also comes into its own in the evenings thanks to funky 70s ‘throwback’ bars like Wohnzimmer and Scotch & Sofa (00 49 (0) 30 440 42371), sophisticated cocktail bars such as Saphire (00 49 (0) 30 255 62158; www.saphirebar.de) and Fluido (00 49 (0) 30 440 43902) and trendy bars like FC Magnet (www.fcmagnetbar.de) and Gorki Park (00 49 (0) 30 448 7286; www.gorki-park.de). If you get carried away you can head to Klub der Republik or Ballhaus Ost (00 49 (0) 30 440 49250; www.ballhausost.de), both on Pappelallee, which host serious house and techno parties. Mellow and baby-friendly it may be; but Prenzlauer Berg is still part of the ‘party capital of Europe’ after all.
One thing Prenzlauer Berg is short on: decent accommodation options. Fortunately, there are some. Local hostels like East Seven cater for the backpacker brigade, as does Circus, which has both a hostel (on Weinbergsweg) and a more upmarket hotel (on Rosenthaler Strasse). Ackselhaus & Blue Home rents funky mid-range apartments, and the Myer’s Hotel is suitable for a more romantic stay. And if all else fails you could always stay in nearby Mitte, just a pleasant stroll (or tram/train ride) away…