A Tale of Two Cities: Paris and Berlin

by Reagan Payne

Paris is romanticized in countless novels, songs, and films like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. As a world audience, we have formed an inflated idea of the city, the sites, and the culture. Subsequently, as travelers we roam The Avenue des Champs-Élysées with the highest expectations of being inspired by our surroundings, but the truth is, some of us find it lacking. No offense Paris, you're beautiful, but there are a few issues that have arisen in the famous city of lights and romance.

The Louvre in Paris, France
The Louvre. Photo by Jonathan Miers

Where's the New?

Travelers admire the wide avenues and Parisian architecture, much of which can be attributed to Haussmann’s renovation of Paris … in the 19th century. Old art fills The Louvre. Les Miserable, and the spirit of the revolution (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!) is now over 200 years in the past. This history is still a treasure to be admired, but it is incredible that Paris has managed to maintain an image of a romantic center of intellects and thinkers with so much of this reputation rooting back over a century. 

Today, Paris is no longer the creative center it was in the past. For one, it is far too expensive a city. As a student, especially a traveling student, it is nearly impossible to afford a proper meal in Paris. How are painters, novelists, philosophers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs expected to survive in such an expensive city? The answer: they don’t. 

Paris Capitalizes On Its Past While Creative Minds Move to Berlin 

Everyone, from every walk of life, can be found on the streets of Berlin. The sidewalks are shared by blue-haired punk-rockers, young German yuppies in suits, dreadlocks, piercings, skin covered tattoos, the elderly in greyscale simple clothes, fashionistas, big thick framed glasses, and more. It is an organic city – filled with thinkers and alive with new opportunities. Berlin is a city in transition, a city regaining an identity after its long, turbulent history. It is a city where people can make an impact, and where people go to be impacted. 

Down With the Wall, Up With the Culture

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the city seems to have been in constant flux since. For 28 years, Berliners were heavily controlled, and now – Berliners control themselves. The pendulum of history has swung from the tightly controlled Berlin under the Third Reich and the Soviets and is now on the opposite side of the spectrum of total and absolute freedom of expression.

Street Museums. Graffiti covers nearly every square inch of the city, but the graffiti in Berlin has an identity that is entirely different from the graffiti you see in other large cities. Often, especially in times of economic struggle, graffiti marks a city as a desperate cry for political reform or marks buildings as a testament of outrage. Berlin graffiti is not vandalism, it is true art: surrealist paintings, incredible 3D images, and poignant political statements. City streets are like walking through a museum with the artists walking right next to you. 

Berlin is a blank canvas, a massive blank canvas, with endless space for people to create and leave their mark. That is what Berliners do – create, and then create again. Think, and then think some more. One person’s graffiti art is covered by another artist, and an endless cycle of creativity ensues. The graffiti in Berlin is just a small snapshot of the giant web of creativity and ideas that define the city. Ideas are almost self-destructive in Berlin – one idea leads to another and everything changes, rapidly. The Berlin you saw yesterday is not the same Berlin you see today. 

It's Affordable

The openness of ideas in Berlin is a direct response to the Berlin Wall. East Germany is still regaining an identity. While history might be the catalyst behind the now creative identity of the city, the prices make it possible. Berlin is unbelievably cheap. Housing prices are student affordable, and a nice meal won’t cost more than 4 euros. This insanely affordable city attracts people from all over the world, and these ex-patriots quickly become Berliners. There is no definition of a Berliner; the Berlin community is like an island of misfit toys that, taken as a whole, have a bizarre but welcoming charm.

And the Winner Is...

Berlin has something for everyone. If you want to open a business – head to Berlin, real estate is affordable. If you want to sit in a cafe and think with other intellectuals – you can do so on every street corner of Berlin. If you want to visit a destination that is perfect for young travelers on a budget, save Paris for a later time and visit the dynamic Berlin instead. Entrepreneurs, artists, thinkers, lovers of ideas, creativity addicts and impactors – Berlin is your city. But most importantly, students, consider studying abroad in Berlin.

To travel to Berlin, is to be inspired.