BERLIN — If you don't believe that Berlin has made the move from Cold War hot spot to coolsville, ask one of the estimated 14,000 Americans who've flocked there to study, work and live in recent years.
"The New York Times runs a story every month about how everybody should move to Berlin," said Charles Beasley, 26, an American graduate student whose Berlin digs come with hot water, shower and monthly rent of just $230. "I want you to say it's really dirty and violent and dangerous. Keep it quiet. Keep it a secret."
Too late for that, dude. Berlin is so buzzed-about in some circles that one American dubbed its Kreuzberg neighborhood "the sixth borough of New York."
Although many still think of it as the dark heart of the Third Reich, Berlin is now nipping at Paris' heels as an international meeting destination. It supports an estimated 21,000 professional musicians and visual and performing artists, and spends $700 million a year on its cultural institutions. Berlin also boasts about 400 galleries and countless live-music venues, plus symphony orchestra performances that many consider superior to New York City's — and cheap seats. And because there's more housing than people — the population is still lower than it was in the early 1940s — rent is cheap, too. In fact, some young residents just squat in unused buildings, which in some cases have unresolved ownership issues dating back to World War II.
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Admittedly, a lot of the young residents who enliven the city are living low on the food chain. But like Mayor Klaus Wowereit said, Berlin is "poor, but sexy."
To be sure, life here is not a nonstop cabaret. There's no industry to speak of, and Berlin lacks Rome's architecture, Paris' fashion panache or New York's and London's shopping options. But Berlin does boast a notable museum of erotica, so maybe Wowereit's onto something. And whether you're an all-night clubber or the early-to-bed type, it's worth noting that while Berlin has 3.4 million residents, it's not only relatively laid-back, but accessible, with round-the-clock public transit. That means that non-driving visitors can easily join the crowd.
Virtually everyone in Berlin under age 50 seems to speak some English, so asking directions is easy. And some things don't need translation.
Take the Frida Kahlo retrospective that's currently packing the Martin-Gropius-Bau. A recent Friday afternoon saw it thronged with Germans who left work early to stand in line to see, for the first time in Berlin, what all the fuss was about.
Or the spectacular Turkish food market that fills the street and sidewalks along the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg with bargain-hunters shopping for fresh fruits, vegetables and cheeses all afternoon Tuesdays and Fridays.
Or the thousands of spectators who turn out each Sunday to watch an English-speaking master of ceremonies host an outdoor karaoke contest next-door to an outdoor flea market. Or the sight of two bare-chested young gentlemen in shorts with muzzles over their mouths being led down a quiet Sunday-morning Berlin sidewalk on their hands and knees by a middle-age woman.
Or the once-grand townhouse where the city's comic opera was recently selling off old props to raise funds. Peeling green and gold paint-covered drawing rooms could have swallowed a small orchestra. There was a carved wooden swan the size of a speedboat, as well as a ceiling full of old chandeliers. It didn't take much imagination to picture the galas and intrigues the place had seen. Thirty minutes later, you're back on the street, shaking your head. It didn't cost anything to look.
Berlin also offers some regularly scheduled spectacles. There's often a political march or demonstration when the weekend weather is warm. In spring, tourists can count on the annual May Day march/ riots/ celebration.
Preceded by an evening of Walpurgis Night parties, drum circles, rock 'n' roll and animal-head costumes, the May Day scene is street theater at a rarely seen level.
You'll see broken glass, bristling neo-Nazi skinheads in leather and tear-gassed babies. Don't bother asking the mother why she brought a toddler to a riot — or whether you may take their photo. In a city where many residents were spying on their neighbors for state security not that long ago, it's no surprise that some locals don't want cameras trained on them — and they'll make it clear in no uncertain terms.
Still, it's hard to resist popping off a few photos, or wondering if the cute girl marching down the street is related to someone who marched the same boulevards to help put the Nazis in power. History keeps happening here.
Fortunately, it comes with beer. Young guys quaff it on the subways and old dudes sip it in smoky corner bars on Sunday afternoon while soccer plays on the TV, or in the parks.
The best spot might be the sidewalk place by the canal that serves pizza under a canvas awning. Or maybe Tangs Kantine, a Chinese restaurant in the Neukolln neighborhood, where there's also sidewalk dining and Donald Duck — that's right, they named the roast duck specialty after Mickey's fellow cartoon character — on the menu.
If you're feeling flush, or on an expense account, you can hit KaDeWe, the city's most famous department store, for a drink. Of course, even beer takes a champagne budget here. Up the escalator, a pair of small Perriers will set you back $7. But you're paying for ambience and proximity to the real high-rollers at the nearby champagne and lobster bars. Also on tap: some of the most overpriced American junk food on the planet. If you're thirsty for home, a 12-ounce Dr Pepper canned in Reno, Nev., is $2.75. Pair it with a $4.95 can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, and you're as good as home.
But sticking to the local products isn't a hardship. There's insanely good bread everywhere. Just grab a loaf at Aldi, same as at home.
And you can pull over anywhere for a cup of coffee. You won't get the bottomless refill Americans are used to, but it'll be good. And there's also the fabulous world of German wine.
If there's one thing not to like, apart from the risk of being run down in the sidewalk bike lanes, it's the fact that dog-loving Berlin hasn't discovered pooper scoopers. Also: If you didn't know better, you might believe that smoking is not only permitted, but mandatory. And forget about stepping into little stores that offer Internet access and checking your e-mail — nonsmokers will choke.
But the public transit is smoke-free and the trains roll all night on weekends. That's a big help, since some of the bars are open all night, too. Of course, you've got to be wary. One young American visitor who stayed up late and then passed out in the U-Bahn on the way home rode the subway around the city at least twice and woke up to find her BlackBerry gone. But Berlin's civil thieves had put her SIM memory chip safely in her coat pocket, leaving her names and numbers intact.
Knowing that even the crooks have a conscience can turn casual visitors into confirmed fans. Kerri Mullen, a 26-year-old University of Illinois alumna, lives in an updated Soviet-era East Berlin apartment, teaches English and attends graduate school while writing a novel. The cost of a semester's tuition is about $250.
"I came here for a six-week program," Mullen said. "That was three years ago."
Her buddy, Adam Goldmann, a 25-year-old freelance writer who also guides tours of the city's historic Jewish sites, likes the city on the Spree River, too. The Columbia University graduate has been in Berlin since 2007.
"People are comparing Berlin to New York in the '70s or '80s or Paris in the '20s. I thought I'd find Joel Grey and the Kit Kat Klub," the New York native said, referring to the Berlin-based musical "Cabaret." "I write about movies and culture — that was one of my reasons for moving out here."
Grey's gone, but the opportunity to hear a choice of symphony orchestra performances at affordable prices or stand up and try out some jokes at a local comedy club isn't. Not that Goldmann is blind to Berlin's faults. He notes the little "stolpersteine" or brass sidewalk plates commemorating the final residences of many of Berlin's Holocaust victims. Some pedestrians avoid the markers, others walk on them without a thought.
"People mindlessly walked by while their neighbors were being deported," Goldmann said. "The point is showing how deeply ingrained in everyday activity the Holocaust was. Brass has to be polished or it gets dull."
You'll also see marks of war on the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church spire, hit in a 1943 air raid and left as a memorial, and neighborhoods where bullet holes still mar the walls. But gallery owner Ulf Saupe finds an upside that other cities don't offer.
"What I really like about the city is you don't have a hierarchy of class," said Saupe, who recently ran into film director Quentin Tarantino at a nearby club. "It's very different to what I experienced in London or Madrid."
Philip von Mentzingen, 33, is one of Saupe's artists.
"I think Berlin is the last city the younger people have left where they can live in a big art center and still be affordable," Mentzingen said. "There's lots of reasons to be here. It gets a lot of attention."
Of course, he's got access to a place in Portugal for the winter, when, he said, there's no more depressing place to be than Berlin.
"It's very singular, this place," he said, "and I've been around a bit."
For those without a place in the sun who want some fun, there are little joints like Room 77, packed with Americans for its regular comedy night.
"I miss New York," comedian David Deery said. "And $17 cappuccinos."
But he knows how to cure that New York state of mind.
"I just take my mattress and put it in the bathroom," he said, "and invite five of my friends."
Helmut Newton museum: Black patent-leather heels and a Beretta pistol from photo shoots, walls and walls of prints, his own outfits mounted on mannequins — the images and many of the props that helped make world-famous Berlin-born photographer Helmut Newton a household name are on display here.
A five-star ground-floor collection of photo and art books, many from Germany's Taschen publishing house, is just the start at this accessible, bite-size stop. Located in what appears to be a former townhouse and centrally located around the corner from the big Bahnhof Zoo train station, the Newton museum is a great way to get yourself into the decadent, kinky state of mind that gave the world "Cabaret" and a museum of erotica that's one of Berlin's biggest tourist attractions. The Beate Uhse Erotic Museum, incidentally, is just minutes away.
Great practical/cheap souvenir: A pair of felt slippers from Junemann's Pantoffel Eck, Hausschuhe & Pantoffel-Manufaktur at 39 Torstrasse in the Mitte neighborhood. About $15, in bright red, blue, green or plaid.
Hit the parks. Hang out. Drink beer. World-class people-watching.
Visit the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery. It's a long section of the wall that divided the city. Covered with paintings from artists from around the world and billed as the biggest outdoor gallery anywhere. Near the Ostbahnhof. Free.
Follow the Landwehrkanal. It cuts through several neighborhoods. Stop and get a drink, a pizza or a latte along the way. You'll see people playing games, sunbathers and bicyclists. A place at the table buys you the right to chill to your heart's content. Scratch the waitress's dog. Write a postcard, or get to work on that novel. Ponder which side put the bullet holes in the wall. Speculate on just who has marched these streets. Pretend you're a spy. Pretend the waitress is, too. Establish contact. Or not. Either way, you've got something to write home about.