The Scheunenviertel (‘Barn Quarter’) is one of Berlin's oldest and most charismatic neighbourhoods. Embark on an aimless wander and you'll find surprises lurking around every corner: here an idyllic courtyard or bleeding-edge gallery, there a chic boutique, cosy watering hole or 19th-century ballroom.
Strolling around pretty Scheunenviertel today, it's hard to imagine that this web of crooked lanes was actually rather down-at-heel until 1990. These days, it is ground zero of the city's creative class, its cafes and bars filled with iPad-toting marketing execs and bleary-eyed bloggers. A slew of hip hotels such as Casa Camper, The Weinmeister and members-only Soho House also contributes to the cosmopolitan vibe.
The odd name, by the way, goes back centuries to the days when the quarter was located outside the city walls; it was home to barns storing the hay and straw needed to supply the nearby livestock market on Alexanderplatz.
A good spot to start exploring the Scheunenviertel is at the richly ornamented Hackescher Markt S-Bahn (city train) station, one of only two stations preserved in their original red-brick glory. In the warmer months, locals and tourists crowd around tables spilling onto a car-free square from cafes and bars ensconced within the railway arches. Street performers create the atmosphere of a light-hearted Italian piazza, while a sprightly farmers' market sets up every Thursday and Saturday.
Across the street looms the ornate facade of the Hackesche Höfe, the largest and most famous of the interlinked courtyard complexes so typical of the Scheunenviertel. Take your sweet time pottering this potpourri of cafes, local design boutiques, galleries and quirky stores like the Ampelmann Galerie, where you can stock up on knickknacks emblazoned with Berlin’s endearing pedestrian traffic light figure. After dark, the Weimar era gets a revival at the Chamäleon Varieté, while there’s dancing at Sophienclub (www.sophienclub.com) and movies at an art house cinema.
Flashback to pre-1990
For a sense of what much of the Scheunenviertel looked like before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, duck next door into the courtyard of the nonprofit Haus Schwarzenberg, an unrenovated and unpretentious space where art and creativity are allowed to flourish beyond mainstream and commerce. Decorated with street art and festooned with bizarre metal sculptures, the courtyards lead to studios, offices, a subterranean ‘monster cabinet’, an edgy art bar, an indie cinema and a trio of exhibits dealing with Jewish persecution during the Third Reich.
When it comes to fashion, the Scheunenviertel is retail nirvana for indie spirits who refuse to take their cues from high street chains. Alte Schönhauser Strasse, Neue Schönhauser Strasse, Münzstrasse, Rosenthaler Strasse and Torstrasse are all promising strips, but fans of avant garde local designer labels (for example, Claudia Skoda, C’est Tout and Lala Berlin) should also venture into quiet side streets such as Mulackstrasse or Almstadtstrasse. And if you listen carefully, you'll even hear the steady hum of sewing machines spilling out of design studios hidden behind stylishly minimalist showrooms.
If fashion dominates the lanes around the Hackesche Höfe, art is the name of the game on Auguststrasse and Linienstrasse, a bit further north. This is where Berlin's gallery scene first took root after the fall of the Wall. Key pioneers such as Eigen+Art (www.eigen-art.com), neugeriemschneider (www.neugerriemschneider.com) and Kicken (www.kicken-gallery.com) still shepherd emerging artists to international fame, while nearby KW Institute for Contemporary Art (www.kw-berlin.de) is an exciting lab for radical new trends in contemporary art.
Private collections, too, have made a splash. Sammlung Hoffmann (www.sammlung-hoffmann.de), in a converted factory in the romantic Sophie-Gips-Höfe courtyards, was the first to open in 1997. The boldest space is the Sammlung Boros (www.sammlung-boros.de), whose stunning collection from contemporary hotshot artists has taken over a WWII bunker. Me Collectors Room (www.me-berlin.com) presents curiosities and art from the 16th century to today.
Sparkling above the Scheunenviertel is the gilded dome of the Moorish-style Neue Synagogue (New Synagogue), the most visible symbol of Berlin's revitalised Jewish community. The 1866 original was once Germany's largest Jewish house of worship but its modern incarnation is actually mostly a place of remembrance. Climb the dome to gaze out over the quarter's rooftops. Nearby, on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, is Berlin's oldest Jewish cemetery, the Alter Jüdischer Friedhof, which was destroyed in WWII. A replica of Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn's tombstone now stands as a lone representative for all 12,000 of those interred here.
From snack shacks to a Michelin-starred dining shrine, the Scheunenviertel has plenty in store to stop tummy rumbles. Regionally hunted-and-gathered ingredients steer the seasonal menu of modern German fare at Pauly Saal, while Kasbah takes your tastebuds on a magical carpet ride to Morocco and District Môt transports diners to the streets of Saigon with steamy soups and colourful decor. Nearby Muret la Barba does a roaring trade with earthy Italian fare and also doubles as a wine shop and bar.
In summer, a fabulous place to wrap up your Scheunenviertel saunter is over at the riverside Strandbar Mitte, Berlin's first beach bar, where you can relax over coffee or a cold beer with a full-on view of the ornate facade of the Bodemuseum on Museum Island. At night, there’s dancing under the stars.
This article was first published in July 2010 and was updated in May 2015.