Berlin Is the ‘Post-Tourist’ Capital of Europe

Visitors attend the Hipster Cup on August 3, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.  This is the third year for what has now become an annual event. (Photo by Christian Marquardt/Getty Images)
Visitors attend the Hipster Cup on August 3, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

On a recent Tuesday night in Berlin, Ulla Ziemann is watching a well-kempt Scandinavian man drink shots in front of a half-dozen people with laptops. “These people are so well styled and slick,” she complains in German, before the man yells, “This is how we party in Berlin!” and plops down onto a couch. Ziemann, a curly haired TV writer, is sitting in the lounge of the Michelberger Hotel, in the Friedrichshain neighborhood. Outside the window, the Warschauer Brücke is teeming with tourists heading to the city’s main party mile. In the early 2000s, the bridge was surrounded by empty buildings — including the train depot that housed Ostgut, one of the techno clubs that made Berlin nightlife famous — but these derelict spaces have been bulldozed and paved over, a stadium erected, and the area given over to the visiting masses.

Since it opened in 2009, this lounge has become a popular destination among expats and tourists, and, as Ziemann points out, it is superficial, generic, homogenous — the opposite of what Berlin once stood for. “Dear lord, those hideous lamps,” says Ziemann, pointing at an enormous, gaudy ceiling fixture. “It didn’t used to be like this,” she sighs.

After a decade of being known as the coolest city in the world, Berlin is awkwardly shifting into a new phase: It's the center of European power, sure, but also one of the continent’s fastest-growing tourist attractions. Though it's a relatively small city of 3.5 million people, it recently surpassed Rome to become the third-most-visited city in Europe, after London and Paris; according to estimates, Berlin has about three-quarters as many Airbnb listings as New York. The influx has heightened tensions enough that, this fall, local politicians considered imposing a code of conduct on visitors, and, more bizarre, the local tourism association just announced an initiative to shame tourists into behaving themselves by posting strategically placed mimes.

"I feel like the kinds of visitors here are not what they used to be. Each successive wave has become more mainstream, and I'm worried about what's next," says Ziemann, who has lived in the city since the year 2000. "I think a lot of these tourists who are staying here for longer periods — they want to be part of the hype, they want to do the things they think locals do."

Irritating as this may be, this blurring between the local and non-local is likely to continue shaping the future of Berlin – and the future of tourism itself. Johannes Novy, an urbanist at BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg, one of the country's top technical universities, argues that Berlin has become a test case for what some academics and journalists are calling post-tourism. “Many of the tourists we see here don’t fit the conventional image we have of tourists in Rome or Paris,” he says.

Novy has reservations about the term, but here's the idea: “Post-tourists” tend to avoid staying in hotels, they aren’t as interested in major tourist attractions, they combine work with travel, they’re looking for unconventional experiences, and they prefer to hang out in residential neighborhoods. Because Berlin is cheap, fun, and accessible, it's attracted an unusually high number of these types of visitors, who can spend months here before moving on.

A group of visitors dance on the lawn during the Hipster Cup on August 3, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. This is the third year for what has now become an annual event. Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

"When I first came to Berlin, I didn't really like it here, the whole hipster thing," says Rachel Martin-Austin, a 31-year-old freelance graphic designer from New York. "But then I 'got' Germans — they're so thorough." She's eating a knoedel, a German version of a dumpling, at an event called Street Food Thursdays in a Kreuzberg food market. Before the weekly event launched two years ago, the market was known as a place for locals to buy produce. Now, every Thursday, it fills up with vendors selling Brooklyn-style street food to a crowd of largely expats and tourists. Most of the signage is bilingual — above Martin-Austin's head, a poster advertises "beef balls" in English. 

For the past three years, Martin-Austin has been spending several months a year in Berlin, working remotely for her design clients in New York and hanging out. Like a growing number of Americans, she works from her laptop and can easily telecommute. "I can just Skype into meetings," Martin-Austin says, "and I use Google Wallet to transfer money." Berlin's cheap enough to begin with, and because she gets paid from New York, where salaries are higher, her money goes a lot further than it would back home. “Being broke in Berlin is more fun because everyone in Berlin is broke,” she says. (It doesn't hurt that the euro's value has dipped dramatically in recent weeks.)

Martin-Austin is subletting an apartment near Weserstrasse, in Neukölln, an area that has recently become ground zero for young Americans spending time in the city. For decades, the area was known for its large Turkish population and comparatively high crime, but thanks to the rise of Airbnb it has filled up with temporary residents. Over the past few years, countless bars with names like Herz and à have sprung up, catering to English-speaking visitors. On weekend nights, the streets fill with tourists doing their approximation of the Berlin style — black pants, black shoes, Stevie Knicks hat — and some of the area's restaurants have become notorious for having only English-speaking staff.

Among many long-term residents, this demographic shift hasn’t gone over well. Some have blamed the post-tourists for everything from rising prices — Neukölln's average rent went up 55 percent over the last five years — to the watering-down of Berlin nightlife. In 2012, a Neukölln gallery posted a "Sorry, no entry for hipsters from the U.S." sign in its window, and this fall, the owner of a popular expat hangout, Freies Neukölln, shut it down because, as he told a local newspaper, "This is no longer my Berlin." Cocktail D'Amore, a roving gay party held in a post-industrial Neukölln club, has become so popular with visitors that its Facebook page recently turned into a prolonged argument about whether non-German speakers even know how to wait in line.

Martin-Austin, who doesn’t speak German, gets around using her Google Translate app — "you have to hold it really steady, but it's pretty cool" — and doesn't have any patience for locals trying to confront her about her lack of German skills. “I can tell when it’s going to happen, and I just become super aggressive,” she says. "It's the New York in me."

A woman smokes a cigarette at the Alt Berlin (Old Berlin) bar on April 22, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

In many ways, the debate about post-tourism in Berlin echoes the one about gentrification everywhere else. In both cases, formerly sleepy neighborhoods become more upscale and exciting, while long-term residents and businesses are forced out and replaced with laptop-filled coffee shops. But in Berlin it also taps into a host of other resentments — about American entitlement, about being required to speak English, about a calm neighborhood being hijacked for the sake of someone else’s cliché idea of Berlin hedonism. “Berlin is the kind of place where people go if they want somewhere that is messy and complicated in ways that aren’t messy and complicated,” says Jason Clampet, the co-founder of Skift, a travel news site. “You can go to the orgy, but on the way home people will still wait for the light to change.”

Uli Hannemann, a Neukölln resident who recently wrote a novel about the area’s transformation, says, “At a certain point the number of visitors reaches a tipping point, and it becomes just like a film set.” He's sitting in Sankt Oberholz, a polished café in Mitte that largely caters to the city's growing number of tech workers and wouldn’t look out of place in Williamsburg. In recent years, as artists have increasingly been priced out, the start-up crowd has become a more prominent element of the city's expat scene. "The aesthetic is becoming smoother, slicker, a part of the international-hipster-atmosphere industry,” Hannemann says, adding, “I don't know where people buy groceries around here.” But he also points out that the city’s transformation has been far from entirely negative: "West Berlin was a super provincial place. Do we really want to go back to having corner bars filled with psychopaths?"

According to Novy, the notion of “post-tourism” doesn’t represent a change in the way we travel so much as a change in the way we think about travel – and it primarily shows the extent to which technology and heightened mobility have helped obliterate categories like “work” and “vacation,” “local” and “visitor.” “The idea of this new tourism puts into question a lot of fundamental things about the kinds of lives people live these days,” he says. “We are in a world of endless mobility, and so we are all tourists all of the time.” Although many of these post-tourists come to Berlin looking for an “authentic” Berlin experience, that experience may never have existed in the first place, outside of their imagination.

At Clärchens Ballhaus, a century-old dance hall not far from Sankt Oberholz, Nicole Teeny, a visitor from New York, is staring nervously at the crowd. Built in 1895, the club has operated almost uninterrupted through two world wars and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, and remains, for the most part, untouched by the city's tourist hordes. The dance floor is packed with middle-age couples and conspicuously fedora-d men enthusiastically dancing salsa to europop.

Teeny has been in Berlin for three weeks, freelancing and staying in an apartment in Friedrichshain, and this is the kind of authentic experience she’s been looking for. The major attractions in Berlin, she argues, have been so overexposed that it’s become more thrilling to have low-key local experiences, spread out over a few weeks. “I can Google a picture of the Brandenburg Gate, but I can’t Google a picture of the smoky bar in the Berlin street.” After a flailing woman in a black poncho nearly knocks a plate out of a waiter’s hand, she asks again, “But I just want to make sure ... this isn’t a tourist place, is it?”