The charms of Berlin's Scheunenviertel

The Scheunenviertel, or 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. The odd name, by the way, harkens back many centuries to the days when the area was home to highly flammable hay barns.

Strolling the Scheunenviertel, it's hard to imagine that this web of crooked lanes was a down-at-heel East Berlin barrio until 1990. Now a buzzy shopping, eating and entertainment zone, it has also become the darling of the city's creative class, its cafes and bars filled with iPad-toting media execs, black-clad fashion designers and bespectacled actors. A slew of hip new hotels such as Casa Camper and member-only Soho House also contribute to an increasingly cosmopolitan vibe.

Plunging In

A good spot to start exploring the Scheunenviertel is at the wonderfully ornate Hackescher Markt S-Bahn (city train) station, where the quarter is at its most vibrant. In good weather, tables spill from cafes and bars onto a carfree square ensconced within the red-brick railway arches, creating light-hearted Italian piazza flair. A sprightly farmers' market sets up here every Thursday and Saturday.

Across the street looms the Hackesche Hofe, the largest and most famous of the restored courtyard ensembles punctuating the Scheunenviertel. Take your sweet time pottering around this tangle of cafes, an old-fashioned varieté theatre, an art-house cinema and unique stores like Berlinerklamotten, a platform for local designers.

Shopper's Delight

In fact, when it comes to fashion, the Scheunenviertel is retail nirvana for indie spirits who refuse to take their cues from the high street chains. Alte Schönhauser Strasse, Münzstrasse and Neue Schönhauser Strasse are all promising hipster strips, but fans of local avant garde labels 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 east of the Hackesche Höfe, art is the name of the game on Auguststrasse and Linienstrasse north of the complex. This is where Berlin's gallery scene first took root after the fall of the Wall. Key pioneers such as Eigen+Art and Neugeriemschneider still shepherd emerging artists to international fame, while nearby Kunst-Werke is an exciting lab for radical new trends in contemporary art.

Private collections too are making a splash. Sammlung Hoffmann, 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 whose stunning collection has taken over a WWII bunker. The newest kid on the block is Me Collectors Room, which showcases both established names and tomorrow's art stars.

For contrast stop by the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a graffiti-slathered artists' squat in a war-ruined department store on Oranienburger Strasse. Founded within months of the fall of the Wall, it is today a much-beloved, if anarchic, warren of studios and galleries and a stubborn beacon of anti-establishment sentiment surrounded by capitalist gentility.

Jewish Renaissance

And speaking of beacons: across from Tacheles sparkles the gilded dome of the Neue Synagogue (New Synagogue), the most visible symbol of Berlin's revitalised Jewish community. The 1866 original was once Germany's largest synagogue but its modern incarnation is not so much a place of worship as 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 12000 six-feet-under residents.

A good place to wrap up your Scheunenviertel tour is the riverside Monbijoupark, where you can relax over coffee or a cold beer in Berlin's first beach bar, the Strandbar Mitte.