Reflections on Berlin: A Non-Resident Resident Exploring the Tech Scene

Berlin has been my home for almost 6 months of the past year. I was drawn to Berlin because of my fascination with Berlin’s history and culture, its reputation as a startup hub in Europe, and the low cost of living. While I am sure I will return to Berlin, locals have told me that the city is constantly changing and neighborhoods can be rapidly different in just a few short years.

To this end I wanted to write down my thoughts over what I have experienced in the city, having lived with various people in three trending districts in the city: Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, and Neukölln.

General thoughts on the city:

  • Safe yet gritty: The city is quite safe even though a number of districts are neglected (some would say they look like a dump). You can find a lot of trash and dog poop on the streets as well as lots of graffiti (mainly tagging). This is particularly present in the up-and-coming areas.
  • Low cost of living for a capitol in Western Europe (but prices are rising): Food is particularly cheap. You can find a sandwich for 1-2 euros and lunch menus can be as low as 4-5 euros for a solid meal. Rent is quickly rising in the trending neighborhoods due to gentrification, though it is still quite cheap to live further out. Given the increase in prices and influx of immigrants, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 5-10 years the cost of living in Berlin became comparable to most western European capitols.
  • Friendly, open, cosmopolitan residents: I have found most people to be very friendly and open, as well as coming from a diverse range of locales. It is easy to come in to the city knowing no one and develop a group of friends if you actively seek to meet people.
  • Plentiful and varied meet up events: Yoga? Take your pick of style. Beer tasting with a knowledgeable host? Got it. Language learning events? In droves.
  • German not required (but it definitely helps): Almost everyone who is under 40 speaks at least a basic level of English and many are quite fluent. There are also some areas where you’ll hear more English than German due to the large international presence.
  • Lots of green space: While Berlin is not as green as some other German cities such as Hamburg, you can find sizable and beautiful parks throughout the city, a massive park (Tiergarten), and the unique attraction of the abandoned Tempelhof airport that is available for public use. German laws allow alcohol in public, which makes it possible to have a picnic in and legally drink in a park.
  • Reliable, frequent, and affordable public transit: Driving and parking is a chaotic and best avoided in the trendy districts, but driving is not necessary for getting about the city.
  • German yet not German: Berlin is an interesting mix of stereotypical German culture with a counter-culture movement and foreign influences, similar to how Austin is to Texas. You still have German mentality on sustainability and local goods, as well as their hatred of credit cards (good luck finding a restaurant that accepts them), while there are a number of deviances from the German norm, such as people (sometimes) walking across an empty street without a walk sign.

Regarding the tech community:

  • Large and enthusiastic tech and startup community: There is a constant stream of tech meet ups and hackathons, neat co-working and hacker spaces, as well as workshops to learn various things. The city is full of startups but the community is quite young with no real presence of large tech companies and there is a lack of mentorship and senior personnel to be found here. Due to the city’s reputation, it attracts a number of well-known individuals in the tech community that visit or live in the city and will be present at events and conference.
  • Deflated tech salary: Due to the influx of tech workers from other regions, the average salary for tech workers is lower than other German cities (e.g. Munich, Hamburg) even when the cost of living is taken into account. However, I have met many people who have jobs in the city that are also working remotely, which is a terrific gig.
  • Startups lacking tech innovation: There are not many tech startups seeking to make new tech innovations. They have a number of interesting startups that are innovating through other means, but I have also noted a lot of startups with the goal of copying services provided by US companies to the US / English speaking market into the German / European market (some very successfully).
  • Healthier startup life: There is a healthier attitude towards startup life in Berlin as compared to Silicon Valley. Many startup employees are working hours more akin to a full-time job than a US startup life; they are willing to end their work-day in the evening and go out and enjoy the simpler things in life. On the other hand, I notice some startup founders seem to be less invested in their company and seem to be doing a startup only as a thing to do while they’re uncertain of what to do with their life, not because they believe in their idea.

Overall I find Berlin a wonderful place and am sad to be leaving this month. I would highly recommend it to anyone as a place to live or visit, particularly if you are a tech worker who can work remotely.