Living like a Local in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

I’ve been to Berlin three times, and my visits could not have been more different: My first trip there was with my parents when I was fifteen. We stayed in a gross basement apartment somewhere in the suburbs, and I barely saw Berlin, because I constantly had my nose in a book. And to be honest, at the age of fifteen you have different ideas of a vacation than visiting churches with you parents.

It took me forever to get myself back to Berlin. Last summer, eleven years after my first visit, I came to my country’s capital for a second time. I hardly recognized the city — the buildings my teenage self had taken photos of were gone, but the construction sites had grown even bigger.

This time, I stayed in a 4 star hotel (thanks to a cheap last minute deal, obviously) in Mitte, the center of everything, with my boyfriend. We met up with his little brother who lives in Potsdam and thus knows Berlin really well. I didn’t look at one single map or subway plan during my July weekend in the city, because I could rely on being shown around by someone who knows their insider tips and shortcuts. But even though this trip brought me closer to understanding the artsy, ugly, creative, intoxicating Berlin, it didn’t feel real. Following a (n almost) local around, staying in a fancy hotel, and staying in Mitte, where all the tourists are, in general — it just didn’t feel like the Berlin I heard people rave about, the Berlin that makes people move across half the world because they want to be a part of it.

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Luckily, I had the chance to travel back to Berlin in early March — and I knew this was my chance to experience more of the actual Berlin, to see beyond the surface, to dig a little deeper.

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Ever since driving through Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood last summer, I’ve dreamed to live there one day. It was only a short glimpse from the backseat of a car driving out of the city, but it was enough to enchant me: There was a young good-looking dad with a beard and a stroller walking past a big graffiti mural carrying his organic veggies in a jute bag. I know, this is an almost disgustingly cheesy cliché of Berlin, but I adored it: Young parents with tattoos, stylish coffee shops next to fucked up subway stations, organic supermarkets and vintage boutiques — the perfect mix of urban and residential. I could totally see myself living in Prenzlauer Berg.

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

That’s why I was thrilled to learn that GowithOh offered me to stay in one of their apartments in Prenzlauer Berg a few weeks ago. It was the opportunity I was waiting for! I had the chance to stay in a real Altbau apartment — in the hippest residential neighborhood!

Altbau apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Why was I so excited about “Altbau”? You see, Altbau is what Germans call the city houses built around 1900. The apartments in those houses are usually enormous, have three to four meter high ceilings, often with stucco, and beautiful wooden art deco doors. They show the urban glamour of a long-gone time. However, many of them where destroyed during World War Two. And even though I’ve lived in several German cities in various states, was never lucky enough to live in a real Altbau apartment, because in most German cities, Altbau is rare and pricey.

GowithOh apartment, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

But Berlin still has a lot of Altbau buildings, some even still quite affordable. That’s why whenever you see a German movie or TV set in Berlin, the characters will ALWAYS live in an Altbau apartment. It’s the image of living in Berlin I grew up with; it’s how the locals’ life in Berlin looks like in my mind. And seeing one of these real Berlin Altbau apartments from the inside and calling it my home for a few days, was a little dream come true.

GowithOh Altbau apartment, Berlin, Germany

GowithOh apartment, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

In fact, sometimes it really felt like I was starring in my own little Berlin movie: The house entrance door was three times my height and rough-running. It lead into an entrance hall paved with cobblestones, which was formerly used to enter the house with horse-drawn carriages. Pretending to climb off my carriage, I ascended the dark wooden stairs, which made a faint squeaking sound on every step. When I reached the apartment, the door opened up to parquet floors — only once interrupted by the big chessboard tiles in the kitchen. There was so much space (even the bathroom was bigger than most rooms I’ve lived in!) and the light falling through huge windows… sigh. The only thing I was sad about was that I couldn’t move in there for good.

GowithOh apartment, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Even beyond the gorgeous Altbau apartment, living like a local in Prenzlauer Berg was everything I hoped it would be: I passed world-famous street art by ROA on the way to “my” subway stop, and I saw more inviting coffee shops than I could possibly try during my stay. I drank a an Australian flat white while listening to theater students discussing their newest play. I sipped cappuccino in a café with hip retro interior, where the locals popped in asking for their usual. Strolling through Prenzlauer Berg, I saw restaurants with food from all over the world, art installations and graffiti, and a never-ending abundance of strollers.

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Retro coffee shop, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

German breakfast, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

ROA rats, Schönhauser Allee, Berlin

I still only scratched the surface of Berlin. It might take years of living there to really understand it — given it is possible to ever fully understand city that keeps reinventing itself. But of all my visits to Berlin, I feel like staying in an actual apartment and shopping for groceries in a less touristy neighborhood has brought me so much closer to slowly getting what Berlin is all about. And yes, I still totally want to live in an Altbau apartment in Prenzlauer Berg someday.

Flat white in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Would you like to experience Berlin like a local?

Note: GowithOh kindly offered to host me in Berlin, but all opinions and the over-excited Altbau enthusiasm are entirely my own.

  • I visited Berlin a few years ago and really loved Prenzlauer Berg. I’m going back to Berlin in April and looking forward to revisiting it too!

    • JulikaSarah

      It’s such a great neighborhood, isn’t it Laura? I can’t wait to go back!

  • That apartment sounds like a dream! I think Americans have that view of Europe – not the modern construction that also exists everywhere.

    • JulikaSarah

      The apartment was really great, Alex! I loved the air of an older Germany in there!

  • Agness

    You certainly know how to live like a local in Germany! Eating like one of them, working with Germans and appreciating their hospitality. I’m off to Berlin in less than 4 months to see my family there. I will try my best to live there like a local as well :)!! Are you going to be there in early July? We might meet up for a coffee!

    • JulikaSarah

      Looking forward to hearing about your experiences in Berlin in the summer, Agness! I’m afraid I won’t make it there though!

  • Mariella

    Hehe – as always, beautifiully written and very much to the point. It is strange for me, now having been a Berliner for three years, to look back through your eyes on how I felt when I forst moved here. I don’t identify much with Prenzlauer Berg anymore, but when I first lived in Berlin for 3 months in 2005 I rented a place in Mitte and I felt the same way about it that you describe it now (although it was a lot less hipster back then!). Next time, come and stay in Neukölln. I’m telling you it’s the place to be (Kiezpatriotismus und so, du weißt bescheid :))

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks so much Mariella! I will definitely spend more time in Neukölln next time I’m in Berlin, I promise! 🙂

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  • Corinne Vail

    I think it the way you did it is best. It’s so nice to try and live like a local, that’s why I’ve really been into the apartment renting as we go more than hotels.

    • JulikaSarah

      Living in a rental apartment in Berlin was a really great experience! I will definitely rent more apartments abroad in the future!

  • Ohhh we miss Prenzlauerberg too! And the great time we had during ITB! So happy that you enjoyed your stay with us Julika!

    • JulikaSarah

      I loved the apartment and I adored living in Prenzlauer Berg! Such a wonderful experience!

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  • Christian Baker

    Hi Sarah, I’m from Australia and I’m glad you enjoyed a flat white :-).
    I am moving to Prenzlauer Berg in 4 months time (April 2016) and would like to know the best way to go about finding an altbau apartment to rent vs other apartments, are there any insider tips you can give me?
    I’m spending my first month in an Air BnB apartment while I search for a place to live.
    I’m a dual Aussie/German citizen and will be moving there long term.
    Cheers
    Christian