A decade ago, when Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described his city as ‘poor, but sexy,’ he might well have added that it was in a state of mad flux. The Wall had fallen 15 years earlier, and Berlin had emerged at the forefront of Europe’s avant-garde scene: gritty, cheap, and home to a thriving youth culture. Much of its energy pulsated out of Mitte, a district located right in the middle, as its name suggests, of the reunified German metropolis. Before 1989, this was East German territory. After the Wall came down, Mitte (or at least the part of it lying east of the River Spree) became the hub of a bohemian art movement.

Shabby and derelict after years of stringent communist rule, Mitte attracted throngs of young artists who moved into the empty buildings that had been confiscated by the East German government and left unclaimed by their original owners after reunification. Teamed with the new government’s open, if not accepting, attitude toward squatters, Mitte’s low cost of living and strong, edgy liberalism proved to be the perfect ingredients for a creative surge.

‘Mitte was just going off,’ recalls Australian architect Wesley Hindmarch, who lived there in 1995. ‘There was a raw, pure energy fueled by this incredible youth culture flooding in from around Europe. Berlin was about freedom and affordability, values that allowed artists to thrive and be part of the recuperation of the city.’

Mitte’s art movement continued to flourish right through to the aughties, helping to reinvent Berlin as one of the most dynamic cities in Europe. Between 2006 and 2010, I lived in Mitte for three months of each year. My scientist husband worked in Berlin and we had an apartment on Münzstrasse, one of Mitte’s main shopping streets. The neighborhood was filled with dark bars, graffitied walls, and buildings riddled with bullet holes. We would spend our weekend days visiting art exhibitions and film screenings, and our nights in seedy watering holes. Our local haunt, which we dubbed the Russian Bar after its Slavic theme and cheap vodka shots, thrived on Saturday nights with impromptu gigs. Sometimes we would brave the 20-minute walk to Tacheles, a decrepit multistory building that was constructed in 1907 as a department store and later used as Nazi Party offices. Communes of squatting artists took over after the fall of the Wall, filling it with graffiti and broken bottles. We came to hang out at a bar with glassless windows and mismatched chairs that heaved with the social misfits who had successfully resisted eviction and made Tacheles their home.

Then, almost overnight, it all started to change. Boutique hotels began taking up space in Mitte’s prewar apartment and office blocks; one opened in the former KGB headquarters. Fashion and accessories designers flooded in from around Europe and opened little shops. Organic grocers multiplied. Wine bars opened. Hugo Boss moved in. Rents went up, up, up.

Last year, Tacheles was sold to a bank with plans to convert it into luxury residences. The street opposite our old apartment, Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse, which was named after the Marxist theorist and socialist darling, and which I used to be too afraid to walk down alone at night, now boasts modish shops that sell Fendi jackets for almost US$8,000 a pop. Our Russian Bar has been replaced by a designer hotel called Mani.

Mitte the edgy has become Mitte the chic.

One of the most visible changes is in the standard of restaurants. Food has never been Mitte’s- or Berlin’s- strong point. The district’s arty and proletarian spirit kept prices low and the essence of its cuisine firmly rooted to Soviet stodge.

‘Mitte is having a food revolution,’ confirms Henrik Tidefjärd, a tall, dashing Swede who has lived in Berlin for three decades and who runs Berlinagenten, an agency specializing in bespoke city tours. ‘The communist shackles of big greasy meals are loosening their grip!’

Tidefjärd and I are having lunch at Pauly Saal, a Weimer-era-inspired restaurant that opened early last year in a former Jewish girls’ school on Auguststrasse, a building it shares with art galleries and a New York style deli called Mogg & Melzer. The dining room is overseen by two stuffed foxes with bandaged limbs and feathered alpine hats, with a room-wide rocket sculpture mounted just above the kitchen window. The service is crisp, and the food- well-crafted dishes like piglet and black-pudding tortellini with wild garlic and mushroom- is astronomically priced. Tidefjärd, who includes it in his ‘Gastro-Rallye East’ tour, considers Pauly Saal to be the epitome of the new Mitte.

Also on his list is Mani Restaurant, a moody tapas bar on the ground floor of the Hotel Mani. Its menu pays homage to Berlin’s former Jewish population, with simple and affordable sharing plates like velvety roasted beetroot with pomegran-ate; a gorgeous hummus topped with dry-aged beef and garlic chips; and deep-fried calamari topped with quail eggs and a spicy dipping sauce.

A few notches more upmarket is chef Tim Raue’s eponymous restaurant, which opened in late 2010 near the site of Checkpoint Charlie. Raue is greatly influenced by China, and while I have long been dubious of both Asian food in Berlin and ‘Asian-inspired’ food everywhere, our meal at this hushed, elegant spot doesn’t disappoint. There’s dim sum made from guinea fowl and truffle; langoustine teamed with lobster and mango; Raue’s take on Peking duck, presented on an applesauce-filled waffle alongside foie gras and a rich duck soup; and an extraordinary wine list headlined by 40-year-old Austrian rieslings. Authentic? Not particularly. Delectable? Absolutely.

Gazing out raue’s spotless floor-to-ceiling windows, it takes some effort to recall that just around the corner is Checkpoint Charlie, the once infamous border crossing between East and West Berlin. These days, all that’s left is a wooden shack with a stack of burlap sandbags and an American flag drooping from a flagpole. Tourists line up to have their passports stamped with fake East German stamps.

A more moving memorial to the dark days of the Cold War lies a dozen blocks to the east along the banks of the River Spree. Constituting the longest standing section of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery is a 1.3-kilometer stretch of concrete that was painted in 1989 and 1990 with murals by dozens of international artists. Among the best known of the 100-odd images is Dimitrij Vrubel’s depiction of Leonid Brezhnev giving his East German counterpart Erich Honecker a passionate kiss. Near another, less visited section of the Wall is the Topography of Terror museum, which opened in 2010 on the site of the former headquarters of the SS, Gestapo, and Reich Main Security Office. The grim exhibition attempts to understand the crimes against humanity that were committed by Nazi Germany, the propaganda they used, and how dictators wield their power.

Berlin is clearly not a city that shies away from displaying the horrors of its past, and Mitte is full of reminders of the terrors of the Third Reich, from the interpretative displays periodically set up at Alexanderplatz, the area’s Soviet-style central square, to plaques on houses commemorating their erstwhile Jewish inhabitants and the somber concrete blocks of the Holocaust memorial near Brandenburg Gate, below which an underground gallery painstakingly documents the lives of Jews who died in the war.

The Holocaust Memorial was one of many reunification projects that took place in Mitte during the aughties. Another is the ongoing restoration of Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, an islet in the Spree where five museums were built by royal decree beginning in the 19th century as a ‘district dedicated to art and antiquities.’ The buildings were badly damaged during World War II and further neglected under Soviet rule, and their restoration, says curator Julien Chapuis, represents the most expensive public investment in art and culture in Europe.

With a soaring cupola and a marble-clad entrance hall overseen by a bronze statue of Duke Frederick William astride a handsome steed, the neo-Baroque Bode Museum re-opened in 2006 after a US$200 million restoration. Among its priceless holdings is the world’s most extensive collection of Byzantine sculptures. A stone’s throw away, the Neues Museum, best known for its bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, followed suit in 2009 after a similarly extensive facelift by British architect David Chipperfield. The Pergamon Museum, which holds archeological relics unearthed during German excavations in Anatolia and Mesopotamia at the end of the 19th century, is currently undergoing a multimillion-dollar upgrade of its own. It treasures include a reconstruction of ancient Babylon’s Ishtar Gate.

The stately museums are in stark contrast to Mitte’s earlier life as a commune for squatting artists, who have since moved out to the grittier precints of Neukölln and Wedding. But art is still Mitte’s biggest asset, particularly in the form of nonprofit galleries. One of the best of these is the Boros Collection, which opened in 2008 in a former bunker designed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer. The five-story fortress, its reinforced concrete walls two meters thick, has since had several incarnations: as a jail for West German soldiers, a depot for Cuban fruit, and as a venue for hard-core dance and sadomasochism parties. Bought by Polish advertising executive Christian Boros a decade ago, the building now houses his vast collection of contemporary art.

Unassuming and un-signposted, the 80-room Boros Collection offers a rich and varied encounter with the obscure and extreme. There is a set of Olafur Eliasson’s Icelandic driftwood logs plonked haphazardly in the twisting entrance tunnel. Ai Weiwei’s Tree crowds a concrete cubical, its sturdy blackened limbs collected from dead camphor trees and bolted together using ancient Chinese joinery techniques. A statement against the breakneck speed of development in China- and how the environment pays the highest price- the gangly piece of art appears even more ominous being claustrophobically squeezed between three concrete walls. Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno’s Flying Garden nets illustrate what he believes cities would look like if they were detached from the ground. A popcorn machine, powered by a hair dryer, spills roasted popcorn onto the floor of one room while the humming and ticking of a train-station clock resonates through the concrete walls downstairs. There are no curators; artists are encouraged to install their works in the bare gray rooms as they feel fit.

A few blocks over, the excellent Me Collectors Room, founded by former Wella chairman and obsessive collector Thomas Olbricht, features rotating exhibits on its first floor and Olbricht’s very own cabinet of curiosities upstairs. His Wunderkammer is fascinating, in a macabre sort of way: a coconut-wood chalice adorned with carvings of Brazilian cannibals; a shrunken skull from Ecuador; and a miniature 17th-century anatomical model of a pregnant woman, complete with removable organs and fetus.

On my last night in Mitte, I meet up with some old Berlin friends for dinner at Der Hahn ist tot! (‘The Rooster is Dead!’), a local haunt that Tidefjärd recommended as proof that in Mitte, the bohemian spirit lives on. Run by an amiable group of gay friends, the cute little restaurant serves four-course country-style meals for the bargain price of about US$25 a head. In true Berlin style, the food could do with some work- portions are big, meaty, a trifle stodgy. But it’s reassuring to know that something of Mitte’s old flavor still survives.

The details

Where to stay

Boasting 63 compact but smart rooms, Hotel Mani (136 Torstrasse; 49-30/5302-8080; doubles from US$93) is located close to Mitte’s arts district and has an excellent tapas bar downstairs. The Hotel Adlon Kempinski (77 Unter den Linden; 49-30/22-610; doubles from US$288) began life in 1907 as Mitte’s first luxury hotel and it shows in its period furnitureand sky-high view of Brandenburg Gate.

Where to eat

Head to the Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule (literally, Former Jewish Girls’ School) to experience one of Mitte’s most talked-about dining rooms, Pauly Saal (11-13 Auguststrasse; 49-30/ 3300-6070). Next door, deli-café Mogg & Melzer has the best pastrami sandwiches in town (49-30/3300-6070). An elegant alternative for Asian-inspired cuisine is Restaurant Tim Raue (26 Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse; 49-30/2593-7930).

Museums and Memorials

Explore all five museums on Museum Island for just US$19 with a one-day pass. The Holocaust Memorial (1 Cora-Berliner-Strasse; 49-30/2639-4336) and the Topography of Terror (8 Nieder-kirchnerstrasse; 49-30/2545-0950) are both free to enter, while the Boros Collection (20 Reinhardtstrasse; 49-30/2759-4065) requires bookings in advance, with tickets priced at US$13. And save at least a couple of hours to explore the diverse collections of Thomas Olbricht’s Me Collectors Room (68 Auguststrasse; 49-30/ 8600-8510; US$8), especially the curiosities of the second-floor Wunderkammer.

Inside Track

Henrik Tidefjärd’s Berlinagenten offers bespoke tours of Berlin’s most creative spots.

This article appeared in the October/ November 2013 issue of DestinAsian Magazine.