Berlin Suburbia: An Expat Guide


View of the Fensehturm from Mauerpark in Prenzlauerberg

We decided against buying a fancy coffee machine when we moved to Berlin because right downstairs from our flat is a cafe which serves a good espresso; the coffee in the cafe two houses further is even better. At the end of our road is a gloriously big park and at the other end the full spectrum of food shops – from Lidl to a high-end organic deli. 10 minutes from Alexanderplatz, 15 minutes from Mitte and its world-famous museums, 20 minutes from Kreuzberg and 20 minutes from Hauptbahnhof (Berlin’s central station): we live centrally and happily so. But friends who used to live nearby have upped sticks and moved to the suburbs. Missing them and curious to know how it has changed their lives, we ventured out to visit at the weekend. It was a lovely spot – green and quiet. Their flat is much bigger than their old one and they have something near unheard of in the city – a garden. Their children will be able to walk to school along quiet tree-lined streets; no tram-tracks, heavy lorries or police sirens to contend with. Because living as centrally as we do is not typical for most major cities, especially with a family, got us thinking about what life might be like if we too were to consider Berlin suburbia – useful knowledge for any expat considering a move to Berlin.

1. Zehlendorf

Main features: South west Berlin, formerly in the American sector, now part of the administrative district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, less ethnically diverse than many other parts of Berlin, votes predominantly CDU.

What you might like: The small but bustling high street right next to the S-Bahn station reflects Zehlendorf’s earlier history as a separate village on the outskirts of Berlin – it has everything from arthouse cinema to H&M, from fancy cake shop to rustic bakery.

It’s home to the John F. Kennedy School (founded in 1960 and a legacy of when the area was occupied by the Americans). This is a non-fee-paying, public bilingual school – one of only two in the city; the rest you have to pay for. Combining American and German educational tradition, it takes children all the way through elementary and high school. At the end of their school careers, students will leave with either a German Abitur or the American High School Diploma. 55% of the students are German, 40% American and 5% other nationalities.

Zehlendorf is a stone’s throw from some glorious lakes: Wannsee, Nikolassee, Schlachtensee – perfect for summer bike rides, Sunday walks and swimming. The neighbourhood is very pretty: tree-lined streets consist of garden-surrounded villas (some posher than others), interspersed with the odd settlement of low rise apartment buildings. The S-Bahn connection on the S1 is perfect it you work very centrally (just under half an hour to Brandenburger Tor and less to Potsdamer Platz). The S1 is said to be one of the most reliable lines, rarely affected by strikes because all those government employees would never stand for it …

What you might not like: If you don’t work close to either Potsdamer Platz or Brandenburger Tor or you want to visit friends in the former East (e.g. in Prenzlauerberg or Friedrichshain), Zehlendorf feels very far away. First, you have the half an hour on the S-Bahn and then you’ve still got to change to go to wherever you want to go. For most journeys you could be  travelling for an hour, which seems a lot when you’re used to living more centrally.

Excessive neighbourliness … Our friends were both charmed and astounded at how quickly familiar their new neighbours were with the intimate details of their lives. Neighbours talk to each other and about each other, which is lovely, but if you’re seeking the true anonymity of the Großstadt, Zehlendorf is not for you.

2. Spandau

Main features: Another leafy suburb, the British Sector’s larger, even more self-contained answer to Zehlendorf, less exclusively wealthy, more socially diverse, marginally CDU (though only just ahead of the SPD).

What you might like: It used to be its own city and its picturesque and vibrant old centre reflects this. The Citadel (the oldest non-Christian building in Berlin and now used for exhibitions) is magnificent. Located where the Havel and the Spree flow together, this is another watery spot; as in Zehlendorf, you’re never far from a lake in summer (or in winter for ice-skating, if it’s cold enough!).

Berlin British School (a fee-paying independent private school combining British and international curricula; students complete IGCSEs and then the International Baccalaureate), on the edge of Charlottenburg, is just around the corner.

With its greater choice of public transport (U7, U2, S5, and S75) Spandau is better connected to the East and centre than Zehlendorf. It also has a mainline train station – Berlin Spandau – from which you can get all sorts of trains (including the ICE) to all sorts of parts of Germany. Tegel Airport (which will not stay open for too much longer – UPDATE: or not) is also very easily accessible.

What you might not like: Being so close to a major airport has its disadvantages. In certain parts of Spandau, noise from airplanes is a significant pollutant. This will get better when the new airport in place of Schönefeld finally opens, but this being Berlin, who knows when that might be …

Along with greater social diversity come more typical big city problems. Though a far cry from inner city parks, Spandau is not free from break-ins, homelessness, and open drug dealing. If it’s entirely peaceful, prosperous, leafy suburbia you’re looking for, then you might seek a flat on the outskirts of Spandau rather than the centre.

3. Köpenick

Main features: another historically separate town, this time in the far south-east of Berlin, formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, resoundingly votes for Die Linke (successor to the GDR’s SED).

What you might like: Covered by forests, fields, lakes and rivers, Köpenick is beautiful. The mostly Prussian architecture is grandly elegant. There are fewer villas with their own gardens here, but plenty of lovely apartment buildings, whose insides are bound to ooze with Altbau charm. Schloss Köpenick (first built as a hunting lodge in 1558 and then made more spectacular by Frederick 1 of Prussia in 1677) is wonderful to look at and interesting to visit.

FEZ at Wuhlheide, a children’s outdoor play area, with vast swathes of woodland, adventure playgrounds and an indoor pool, is not far away, and Müggelsee – Berlin’s largest lake – is another central point; great for boating, bike rides, swimming and water sports.

Transport links are good. Köpenick is on the S3 and there is an excellent tram network which will take you all over the area itself and far beyond into the rest of East Berlin. Perhaps because we live in the former East, Köpenick does not feel nearly so far away, especially not by car.


Boating on the Spree close to Köpenick

What you might not like: For all its architectural grandeur and history, there is nothing cosmopolitan about Köpenick. Apart from its close proximity to central Berlin and easy transport routes, you may as well be in any small town in Brandenburg. This is certainly not the place to find exotic, high quality restaurants or an interesting array of Bio-Essen at the supermarket.

Politically, Köpenick is distinctly left-leaning. For years, Die Linke has been the major political force in the area. Gregor Gysi, the party’s key politician, has been the Bundestag member for the area since 2005. This is certainly not to say that everyone in Köpenick thinks the same or is in some way directly connected with the murkier aspects of East Germany’s political history, but you may find more sympathy here for this aspect of the past than in many other parts of Berlin.

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