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 take a look at the most famous part of Berlin: Mitte.
In the heart of the capital
Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag, Museum Island and Alexanderplatz with the iconic TV Tower, Holocaust Memorial and Gendarmenmarkt – when thinking about Berlin, most people actually think of Mitte. The historic town centre of the German capital is popular due to the many sights, tourist attractions, and shopping opportunities. Those who are willing to leave the beaten track and look beyond the shiny facades of the polished new capital will find a world of art and subculture, interesting communities, and off-mainstream venues though. It is worth it digging a little deeper here in between Alexanderplatz and Tiergarten.
Where it all began
It was almost a millennium ago, when a community of fishermen settled on a bank in the river Spree. Historic “Fischerinsel” – now right in the centre of the pulsating metropolis – is where it all began. Over the years, two separate little towns emerged: Cölln on the river island and Alt-Berlin on the opposite shore. As early as 1307 the two towns shared a common town hall. The newly born town of Berlin kept growing and became an important hub in medieval Brandenburg. New quarters emerged like Friedrichswerder, Dorotheenstadt, Spandauer Vorstadt and Stralauer Vorstadt, as well as Luisenstadt. Other districts like Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf, or Schöneberg, now all part of the city centre, where still separate towns then. Numerous significant buildings like royal palaces, opera houses and theatres, but also educational institutions like Humboldt University and the museums on Museum Island are proof, that Mitte has always been the centre of the Prussian capital Berlin. After the partition of Germany, Mitte was part of East Berlin and thus part of the capital of the GDR. Many a historic building had been destroyed in WWII, so entire quarters were constructed anew, featuring mostly high-rise concrete blocks. The area around modernist Alexanderplatz is an impressive example of the social housing efforts of the GDR. Only the northern part of Mitte was mostly left intact – nowadays, you can still find many grunderzeit style buildings here. When the wall came down a great number of citizens left the GDR for West Germany, leaving apartments and entire buildings behind. Squatting culture shaped the face of early 1990s Mitte considerably. Creative project like Tacheles – a formerly squatted mall-turned-art centre, unfortunately sold and cleared a few years ago – offered artistic freedom and anarchic spaces.
Much splendour and a little punk
And these days? It seems as if Mitte has become somewhat of a pawn in the hands of powerful players. Luxurious hotels for the rich and famous, international embassies, head offices of big money corporations, and upper-class entertainment make for the kind of flair you’d expect in a capital’s city centre. The density of world-famous sights and museums is enormous, attracting millions of visitors every year. Shopping paradises like Alexanderplatz or the boutiques between Hackescher Markt and Rosenthaler Platz round out the picture. But Mitte has a lot more to offer than that: Take the vibrant art scene surrounding gallery mile Auguststrasse, where in the last 25 years some of the most influential art galleries in Europe have been established. Or the Jewish community in the neighborhood around New Synagogue. A real gem are Hackesche Höfe, an ensemble of jugendstil architecture backyards, now packed with boutiques and cafés in Scheunenviertel borough. Right next door is Haus Schwarzenberg, a run-down cultural hotspot covered in street art, and living proof that creative anarchy still exists, even here in Mitte. If you want to go out at night, nightlife district Oranienburger Strasse is a safe bet, obviously. But you’re missing out on a lot if you don’t check out the bars and pubs of Torstrasse and Rosenthaler Platz, too, where you’re mostly among locals and expats – and few to no tourists. East of Alexanderplatz, along Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin suddenly starts looking like Moscow, with massive concrete blocks and impressive residential buildings of finest Russian gingerbread style (“Stalin-Buildings”). Also, some of the GDR’s finest architecture can be found at popular spots like Café Moskau or Kino International.
Take your time
So if you want to really explore Mitte, where should you start? Your best option is the Free Walking Tour by Sandemans, starting at Brandenburg Gate several times a day. Three hours later you will have seen most of Mitte’s classic sights and you’re practically an expert on Berlin history. And then? Go for a walk! Mitte can be explored really well on foot, so start from Reichstag towards Friedrichstrasse and Oranienburger Tor, all the way to Hackescher Markt. From there to Rosenthaler Platz and following Torstraße to Alexanderplatz. And on the way, make sure to peek into every art gallery and backyard, café and boutique. The soul of Mitte is hidden here behind the shiny facades.
Pictures: Datei: #179691275 | Urheber: netsign – fotolia
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.