How Berlin Became the World’s Coolest Capital City


The German capital has grown from political pawn to global trendsetter. By Eliot Stein.

In 1987, Berlin was a divided city, cleaved in two by a concrete wall and treated like a political pawn in the Cold War freeze separating Western capitalism from Eastern communism.

While Americans watched as President Reagan stood by the Brandenburg Gate that June and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” stories of Berlin’s industrial techno temples, bohemian squats, and sweat-driven, all-night raves had already helped to put the city on the map for hedonists everywhere.

Thirty years later, the German capital has leveraged its legendary climate of cultural experimentation, DIY creativity, and free-wheeling spirit born from repression to become one of the most achingly hip places on the planet. Even as it’s catapulted to the center of European power and faced growing gentrification woes, Berlin remains a dynamic cultural trendsetter—a place whose live-and-let-live ethos has lured artists, activists, and visitors since Berliners swarmed the Wall with sledgehammers in 1989. The numbers don’t lie: In 2015, Berlin surpassed Rome to become Europe’s third-most-visited city, behind London and Paris. Last year, it welcomed a record 12.7 million visitors—more than 3.5 times its population, six times the number that visited West Berlin in 1987, and 4.5 times the number that visited the city in 1990 following reunification.

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