Can Berlin compete against London as a great capital city?

The Local Germany
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Can Berlin compete against London as a great capital city?
Photos: DPA

They might be the capitals of two European powerhouses, but London and Berlin couldn't be more different in style and attitude. Julius Haswell and Jörg Luyken squabble over which is better.


London pubs vs Berlin bars

Julius: It's long been known that a cool pint in a good British pub is one of the most enjoyable drinking experiences known to man. And as the capital city of the home of the pub, London has a vast variety of traditional English taverns. Old, new, large, and small, you name it, you'll want to drink there.

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Some pubs in London can date their existence back to the 17th century, like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in The City, although there have reportedly been pubs on the site for much longer. Have you ever seen a better looking alehouse?


Kicking it #pints #LONDON

A post shared by Jen (Stenstrom) Veitengruber (@jennierose22) on Apr 14, 2017 at 10:59am PDT

Many would argue that London isn't worth drinking in because of the cost of alcohol, but I would have to disagree here. Yes, there are some pubs that will charge you outrageous prices just for a pint of beer, but there are plenty of places that don't charge much at all, and they often tend to be the classic ones.

It's beyond doubt that Germany makes the best beer in the world, France the best wine. But alcohol is pointless if not drunk in the right surroundings, which is why London trumps Berlin in this category. Cosy pubs just don't seem to exist in Berlin. While I'd love a Maß of German Bier, I'd much prefer to drink it in London.

Jörg: If you think cosy pubs don't exist in Berlin you've obviously never been to Schöneberg. Berlin is bigger than the trendy I-found-these-sofas-in-my-Opa's-attic bars of Neukölln.

Two great Schöneberg taverns to recommend are the Leuchtturm and Möwe im Felsenkeller. Both are as cosy as they come, serving what you admit is superior German beer - and at prices that are affordable to someone on an average income.

Actually, if you look at the pubs industry in London and the UK in general, you'll see that it's a dying one, with dozens of pubs closing every week. Beer sales in British pubs slumped by a massive 54 percent between 2003 and and 2013 as beer prices shot up by almost 50 percent. Interestingly, the smoking ban has also been blamed for the slow death of the English pub.

In Berlin you can still buy a 0.4 litre beer for under €2 in an Eckkneipe (old man's pub), and you'll get your eyes stung by clouds of smoke as you do it. And contrary to the UK, Germans are still happily punishing their livers with little thought for the consequences. A recent Health Ministry report noted that the average German drank 9.6 litres of pure alcohol in 2015, a figure that was "especially high" in international comparison.

A further attractive feature of the Berlin drinking scene is a lack of closing times. On the weekend it isn't hard to find a bar or pub that stays open till 6am, and there are two near my house that have literally never closed their doors for decades.

A Berlin Eckkneipe. Photo: DPA

Parks vs lakes

Julius: London is covered in green space. There's hardly a street without a tree on it - in fact, 12.7 percent of the city is populated by trees. One of the best things about the city is that wherever you go, you're never far away from a park or public gardens. The World Cities Culture Forum actually reports that London is 33 percent green space, whereas Berlin is only 14.4 percent. Poor show, Berlin.

But London is a sprawling, over-polluted, unforgiving urban landscape though. Surely it's just barren fields that they call a park? Well, meet Kew Gardens, just one of London's many beautiful parks. And I didn't even include the incredible Richmond and Hyde Parks.

Richmond Park in London. Photo: DPA

Jörg: First of all, the number of trees in London is wholly unimpressive in international comparison. 21.5 percent of Frankfurt is covered in trees, according to the data you cite (there is no data for Berlin).

Berlin has 438,000 trees on its streets, a number that would no doubt be higher if it wasn't for the city's tough history. The bombing of the Second World War decimated the tree population of the capital and it has only just recovered.

The fact that so much of London is green is impressive, but I'd argue that Berliners still have some critical advantages when it comes to nature on their doorstep.

Firstly, in Germany swimming in lakes is not a sport with an adventurous sounding name (wild swimming), it's just something people do. So it's just as well there are seven sizeable lakes in Berlin (and many more just outside the city.)

Müggelsee, the city's largest lake, is 7.4 square kilometres of water. The crowded ponds of Hamstead Heath hardly compare to that.

Secondly, just beyond the city boundaries there is a barren wilderness stretching all the way to Poland - much better than the urban sprawl of southeast England. Take a regional train to a stop just outside the city and you can trek through kilometres of undisturbed forest.

Summertime at the Müggelsee. Photo: DPA


Julius: London has been a Goliath in the world of culture for years. It has bred and played host to some of the biggest names in the world of art for centuries, and nurtured many an artistic movement.

The city offers a range of high-quality culture that Berlin simply cannot match. Don't believe me? Just take it from these traveller surveys, here, and here, which both put London towards the top of their rankings for culture, and don't even feature Berlin!

There are of course some areas where Berlin has an impressive CV. While the German capital may have once been a cultural power, in the present day, London wins in so many ways.

London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is undoubtedly one of the greatest in the world. The Royal Ballet is the same, rivalled only by a handful of other companies. 

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With orchestras, what London has here is strength in depth. While many other cities will have one or two major orchestras, London can boast many more than just a handful. The sheer number of stunning ensembles in London is where Berlin falls behind.

London can boast a wide-range of world-class art galleries and museums. The British museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, the list goes on. Berlin has just as many amazing galleries and museums. But London has one very key attribute over Berlin: all galleries and museums are free!

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner at London's Royal Opera House. Photo: DPA

Jörg: It is bordering on the absurd to claim that Berlin has not been a "Goliath" of Western culture over the previous three centuries.

The Prussian Academy of Arts, established by Prince Elector Frederick III in 1694, was directed by some of the most influential artists in the German-speaking world, including Johann Gottfried Schadow and Max Liebermann.

Berlin was home to the expressionist movement, one of the most important developments in early 20th century art. Renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei currently has a studio in the city. The Berlin Philharmonic is perhaps the most celebrated orchestra in the world. The Berlin State Opera has had many famous directors, prominent among them Richard Strauss. Meanwhile, €3 euro tickets for concerts for the unemployed and refugees ensure that high culture is open to everyone.

And if you want to start comparing surveys, the Ultimate Fun City Ranking 2014 named Berlin as the most fun city in the world, just ahead of London.

The truth is that London can afford several world class orchestras because it is rich.  But Berlin's poverty is what makes it "sexy", as its former mayor once said.

Festivals like 48 Stunden Neukölln - when artists open their studios non-stop for 48 hours - show just how many creatives live in the grungier parts of the city. Nightclubs dominate whole buildings in central parts of town.

The city also allows the anarchy to flourish. On May 1st, during the Carnival of Cultures, and on Christopher Street Day, large parts of the city turn into a huge street party. London has little to compare to that.

Berlin's world-famous Philharmoniker orchestra. Photo: DPA

Good looks

Julius: London is beautiful, there are no two ways about it. Many people see the city as being old, stuffy, and traditional, but really there are so many different styles of architecture in the city that whatever floats your boat, we have it.

And let's face facts: Berlin is not good-looking. Dominated by Soviet apartment blocks and drab office buildings, grey is a word often used to describe it.

In London, however, there are just so many beautiful buildings in every style. We have everything from old 15th century pubs, to state-of-the-art skyscrapers, and from age-old cathedrals to the Victorian townhouses of Kensington.

London's skyscapers. Photo: DPA

Jörg: I'm not sure everyone agrees that the bloated towers that have started sprouting up over in central London are pleasing on the eye.

London may have grandeur, but Berlin clearly has the more interesting architecture. From the wave-like symmetry of the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 'floating' New National Gallery, to the reconstructed New Museum, where the bullet holes of the Second World War have been left on display, Berlin is a city prepared to challenge and provoke with its architecture.

Yes, Berlin is not always beautiful. It is full of the scars of its past. But the fact that it stares unflinchingly into itself, most notably with the ghostly Holocaust memorial in the centre of town, means that what it has is something more meaningful than good looks.

The New National Gallery in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Money and investment

Julius: London is widely recognized as one of the best cities in the world for business. The hot debate that has raged for years among business leaders and economists about which city is the financial capital of the world, New York or London, doesn't look like it will be solved any time soon. At the very least though, London is the financial capital of Europe.

But so what? Who cares if a few posh bankers get richer? Without wanting to get political, rich people living in your city means taxes, and lots of them.

London used its economic prosperity for investment, and this has created one of the best cities in the world for nurturing startups, making it the capital of Europe for new businesses. The 2015 Startup Ecosystem Ranking ranked London as the sixth best startup “ecosystem” in the world, and only second behind Tel Aviv for cities outside the US.

Business-friendly laws, accompanied by schemes to foster entrepreneurship, have led to the rise of thousands of startups. And because of its world-class competitiveness, second only behind New York, London attracts the brightest and the best from around the world to the city.

Jörg: While it's probably true to say that many people who live in or move to Berlin are more than happy that Germany's finance is conducted in Frankfurt, the city is undoubtedly a tax drain on the rest of the country.

But despite its relative poverty, Berlin just seems to work better than London. That might be because it is half the size in terms of population, or it might be because the city is better planned. And quality of life surveys consistently back this up, with Berlin (and a whole host of other German cities) consistently trouncing the British capital.

Getting around Berlin is a breeze, thanks to the Ringbahn, the circular train line which brings you to all the important districts in no time at all. It is also perfectly affordable for even students to live close to an underground station - meaning no taking the bus just to get onto a relatively efficient means of public transport. You can tax London's banks for all they have and you still won't get you're creaky old Underground up to the same level.

And Berlin also proves you don't need a huge financial centre to be a successful start-up hub. In the 2015 report you cite, Berlin comes in ninth. Meanwhile after Britain leaves the EU, Berlin is likely to overtake London as the "startup capital of Europe", according to industry experts.

The Berlin Ringbahn. Photo: DPA

Closing statements

Julius: There is limited evidence that I can give here because it's only a relatively short article. But I can reassure you that I'm definitely not the only one who rates London much higher than Berlin. An extensive survey done by Ipsos MORI ranks cities of the world in various categories from best city to live in, to best business city. London features in the top five in each area. Berlin only comes fourth in the "Europe's top city" category. London is even rated as the world's second favourite city, after New York.

Berlin is wonderful, and may well have a couple of things that it does better than London, like cheap beer, or a quicker public transport system. But overall it is clear that London is the better all-round city.

Jörg: In the end these debates come down to taste. If you have it you're likely to agree with my arguments. If not you probably live in London.


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