The historic centre of Berlin, Mitte kept its name even when the city’s division made it East Berlin’s western frontier, ending at the Brandenburg Gate. On and off the boulevard Unter den Linden, Mitte represents grand and royal Berlin but equally Mitte is the messy maze of streets to the north and east where you can eat, drink, shop, get lost and bump into the chic Berliners who redefined the neighbourhood after the Wall fell.
The hub around the redbrick Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station was the first area of East Berlin to boom. Restaurants nestle between the arch supports of the station and each has a huge swath of outdoor tables. Musicians take turns serenading the crowds in the evenings. There’s more formal entertainment in the nearby Hackescher Höfe (Rosenthaler Str. 40-41) where bars, restaurants, theatres and shops inhabit courtyards numbered I to VIII. Dating to 1907, the first courtyard’s white ceramic tiles and coloured mosaics are an example of industrial art nouveau architecture. The boutiques on Rosenthaler, Neue Schönhauser, Alte Schönhauser and Gormann streets feature young designers and big name brand stores but this part of Mitte was once the humble stamping grounds of farmers and horses, then artisans and tradesmen.
By the late 17th century, Jews settled in after being invited to Berlin by the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620 - 1688). In the 1940s, a few Jews living in this area survived the Holocaust under the protection of Otto Weidt, who ran a workshop for the blind and deaf, now the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt (Rosenthaler Str. 39, open 12:00 - 20:00, Sat & Sun 11:00 - 20:00, admission €1.50). It’s in an unrenovated courtyard that’s shedding layers of concert posters and half its plaster. This time capsule is what Mitte looked like for the first few years after reunification. Mitte would still be full of quaint half-timber houses and ornate turn-of-the-20th century architecture if Hitler had succeeded as an artist and stayed put in Austria. But World War II destroyed Berlin’s core and the city’s true medieval quarter – the Nikolaiviertel between Spandauer Straße, Rathaustraße and Mühlendamm – was left to the Communists to rebuild. They did an excellent job on the twin-spired Nikolaikirche (Nikolaikirchpl., open 10:00 - 18:00, closed Sun, admission €1.50) that dates to 1230, but their use of pre-fabricated concrete slabs for the rest of the Viertel leaves one cold.
For a look at turn-of-the-20th century street life, check out the cartoons of artist Heinrich Zille at his museum (Propststr. 11, MI, open 11:00 - 18:00, admission €3). Whatever hasn’t been restored or renovated, either by the old East German government or the united Federal Republic of Germany, is often put to avant-garde use, but creative types know it’s only time before their ramshackle space might become a Starbucks. Shops, galleries, restaurants and clubs in Mitte close, move or reinvent themselves faster than international magazines with three-month lead times can keep up with. Though chic Mitte has certainly become “Westernized,” don’t worry about missing the slow-paced, uncommercial “East” here. Some areas can be so quiet that it seems no one living there realizes they’re in the centre again.