Once tiny villages scattered along the Spree river, later an illustrious metropolis in the golden twenties; destroyed, divided, reunited, and now a cultural hotspot in the heart of Europe. The appearances of Berlin are as manifold and varied as its history. Those who know the city well still struggle to capture it in a single image, to tell a single story about what makes Berlin ‘Berlin’. Fact is, Berlin is unique and special, and full of contradictions – a short stroll through the streets of the town will reveal contrasts between the old and the new, East and West, between splendour and decay. As the German capital once consisted of numerous little villages that have grown together it is difficult to point out one proper city centre. Rather, the many faces of Berlin are found in the different districts and boroughs, and even there within every single Kiez – Berlin’s small neighborhoods with a strong sense of community and identity. If you want to understand Berlin, you have to understand its boroughs, thus we want to introduce you to the unique history, flair, and spirit of each of Berlin’s boroughs in our newest series Berlin Boroughs. Make Industriepalast Hostel Blog your starting point for an exciting and interesting journey across the German capital week by week. This week we’ll explore the most notorious part of West Berlin: Kreuzberg.
A little different
A greengrocer of Turkish background praises his wares at Kottbusser Tor while just a block away a group of long-term students in hipster outfits dig through a pile of vinyls at the vintage record store. Long lines of people queue patiently outside Mustafas Gemüsedöner and Curry 36 and at Görlitzer Park a few quads of weed change hands quickly, while some yuppie investors in suits up in a luxury loft apartment discuss potential sale opportunities. Look around the charming street cafés on Bergmannstraße, the Arabic betting shops on Kottbusser Damm, the coworking spaces at Schlesisches Tor, or the street-food market at Markthalle 9 – everywhere people hang out, drink coffee, share a laugh. People seem so laid-back and relaxed here, you might start wondering if anybody actually works in this town.
Welcome to Kreuzberg, one of Berlin’s most well-known yet also notorious quarters. Kreuzberg stands for alternative lifestyles and subculture, for a multicultural mix and diversity, for art, music, open-mindedness, and freedom, yet also for poverty, neglect, and dirt. Media coverage varies from panic about street crime to hymnes about the hipster paradise. And while some rave of the borough’s subcultural avantgarde flair, others spread horror stories about drug abuse and anarchists throwing stones at police. But what of these things is Kreuzberg really?
The answer: it’s everything and much more. There’s hardly any other place in the world where such apparent extremes and contrasts make for a harmonious and coherent whole like here in Kreuzberg. And just like the people who live here are so diverse and different, there are a thousand possible perspectives onto this fascinating space – and each one is as valid as the other. The best thing to do is to take a bit of time and go for a long walk on a sunny day in the streets of Kreuzberg and to paint your own picture of this unique space.
Decades of subversiveness
Like so many other boroughs that lie now in the city centre, Kreuzberg used to be more of a suburb outside the walls of Berlin. Only when the town’s population grew massively in the 19th century it became a part of the city. In the last days of World War II, many buildings here were severely damaged due to heavy fighting in the streets. One of the constructions that were irreparably damaged was train station Görlitzer Bahnhof, the ruins of which were later turned into the foundations of Görlitzer Park. After the war, Kreuzberg was attributed to the sector occupied by the US, with its easternmost part extending far into Soviet East Berlin. This area, enclosed by the Berlin Wall on three sides was usually referred to as SO 36 (the old postal code) or simply Kreuzberg 36. Urban developers did not really care about this part of the borough as its location was anything but prime. Buildings were often dilapidated, rent was low, and there was a lot of space, so it was mostly people with low income who moved here: gastarbeiters, students, artists, musicians, and hedonists. An exceptionally diverse mix was formed where alternative lifestyles could be explored far away from the judgemental eyes of society. Most people belonged to the political left, were critical of society, and open to new ideas. Political or cultural movements like the student protests of the 60s, free love and peace movement of the 70s, or the punk scene of the 80s emerged here – Kreuzberg was different, subversive, alternative, and wild. Conservative circles in politics and society were not exactly fans of the boozy nightlife, drug excesses, and forms of anarchy in the borough, which resulted in regular and often violent clashes between Kreuzberg’s freethinkers and riot police – especially during annual workers’ day protests.
After the fall of the wall it seemed for a while, as if the creative minds of Kreuzberg would move on to the practically lawless open spaces of Eastern boroughs Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, and Mitte, but they never really left: Kreuzberg has kept its unique flair of art, creativity, freedom, and diversity up to this day. Obviously, things have been ‘normalized’ a bit, violent protests have turned into charming street festivals like MyFest, former squatters are now regular tenants, and the streets aren’t much dirtier than elsewhere. But still, Kreuzberg (or as it’s sometimes spelled: Xberg) has stayed true to itself and is one of the most fascinating places in the German capital.
A world to explore
You can see all that first hand: A walk through Kreuzberg reveals beautiful Gründerzeit architecture, fascinating graffiti art, cozy pubs, trendy bars, and leftist nightclubs among small fashion boutiques, indie music labels, a multicultural mix, and long summer nights with beer and a spliff at Görlitzer Park. If you’re open-minded, you’ll appreciate this paradise of individualist freedom.
On Kreuzberg’s westernmost end, you can find charming green spots Gleisdreieck Park and eponymous Kreuzberg hill (Viktoriapark), as well as hidden gems like blues bar Yorckschlösschen. Right next door, on Mehringdamm, two of Berlin’s most famous street food joints await you: Curry 36 and Mustafas Gemüsedöner. Neighboring Bergmannstraße is popular thanks to charming little street cafés and restaurants with a Parisian flair. Towards the northern end of the quarter, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, and Jewish Museum are three of Berlin’s most famous sights. A very fascinating area is old Kreuzberg 36 surrounding “Kotti” (Kottbusser Tor), Oranienstraße, and “Görli” (Görlitzer Park), where subculture and underground scene are the driving force still. Further to the east, Wrangelkiez neighborhood around Schlesisches Tor is full of life and hipsters with coffee shops, pubs, eateries, and lifestyle stores.
And two insiders’ tips: Landwehrkanal on the border to Neukölln borough is one of the most charming places in town – especially in summer when countless people roam the canal banks, street markets take place here, and buskers play a lullaby for the setting sun. Also check out Kottbusser Damm for a glimpse into Turkish and Arabic life in the capital – and some of the best falafels, kebabs, shawarmas, and baklavas in all or Europe.
In short: Kreuzberg is worth a visit for so many reasons! Bring enough time, a cold beverage from the späti and some friends or travel buddies and explore this fascinating place on foot or by bike.
is Berliner by choice and a passionate backpacker himself. As a receptionist he knows the real hostel life; as a blogger he's been writing for Industriepalast Hostel's Berlin blog since 2014.