Christmas markets, glühwein, lebkuchen, nutcrackers and chestnuts – just a few things that spring to mind when I think about Christmas. The thing, or rather the place, that connects them all being Germany. Having spent a year in the Vaterland whilst at university, I had managed to visit and tick off a number of Christmas markets across Germany but there was one place in particular that had somehow escaped me. Berlin. So with some time off, and money to spare, plus a handy expat-friend living in the city, I booked myself a festive break in Berlin.
Let me tell you about my trip..
Touching down in Berlin’s Schönefeld airport, my lovely friend Rebecca met me off the plane, and together we navigated our way back into the city centre. After dropping my suitcase off in her flat we decided it was time to grab something to eat and so we set off towards Burgermeister in the hipster neighbourhood Kreuzberg, which Rebecca promised me would provide one of the best burgers of my life.
Located beneath the railway tracks close to Schlesisches Tor and between two busy roads, Burgermeister is certainly one of the most unique burger bars I have ever visited and it is so very Berlin. The burgers are pretty damn good too..!
After filling ourselves up with burger, we decided to burn off some calories by exploring the neighbourhood. With plenty of street art, alternative bars, boutiques and eateries, Kreuzberg is right up my street, and I could have spent hours taking pictures of the grungy-chic streets and artwork stencilled onto walls and doorways.
It was not long before my art appreciation could continue, as back across the River Spree we arrived at the end of the famous East Side Gallery, a 1.3km length section of the Berlin wall which nowadays displays politically loaded artwork from various global artists.
Having strolled the length of the gallery, and taken in the many pieces, we hopped aboard an S-bahn bound for the centre of town. We exited the train at Hackescher Markt, a square in the Mitte area of town which is surrounded by all sort of cafes and restaurants, as well as a number of high street shops.
It wasn’t the shops or restaurants we were looking for though, but instead, a rare example of art nouveau architecture which I had stumbled across when researching my trip. Just across the street from the S-Bahn station we found what we were looking for through the arched entrance at Rosenthaler Straße – Hackesche Höfe.
Although there isn’t a great deal to see, Hackesche Höfe is a collection of eight connected courtyards, and home to various shops and galleries. The main attractions are the Chamäleon Variety Theatre housed in the original wine tavern, and an original ceiling from one of the banqueting rooms in the large Hackescher Hof Restaurant immediately to the left of the entrance.
Whilst wandering through the courtyards we came across a lovely little chocolate shop and couldn’t resist being drawn in to salivate over the delicious goodies inside!
We eventually made it out of the courtyard-maze and emerged into Sophienstraβe, which was lined with a number of festive stalls selling everything from the tradition Glühwein to less traditional woollen figures.
By this time our stomachs were beginning to rumble, and so after a little bit more walking, we began the search for a quirky café where we could indulge in a slice of cake and a warm drink. Our wish was soon granted as we spotted an artisan coffee shop less than one hundred metres down the road. Once inside, and defrosting from the minus temperatures outside, we ordered our afternoon treat – between us we enjoyed a fresh mint tea, a latte and a slice of hazelnut cake.
Following our coffee stop,, we continued on our stroll with no particular destination in mind and eventually found ourselves at the far end of Unter den Linden, which was beautiful decorated with white fairy lights entwined around the trees. We decided that, despite the walk, it would be rude not to do a little sightseeing, and so headed ever onward to the iconic Brandenburg Tor.
To finish off our evening, and to get into the Christmas spirit, we visited two of Berlin’s Christmas Markets. The first was my favourite, Gendarmenmarkt, nestled between three of the city’s most impressive buildings – the German and the French Cathedral and Schinkel’s Konzerthaus – and located in what is often described as Berlin’s most beautiful square. We spent a good hour or so wandering around, looking at the stalls bursting with goodies and stopping for a glühwein and a Nutella pancake along the way to warm up.
Our final stop of the evening was the markets at Potsdamer Platz. Despite the market’s location, the organisers do a great job at making it feel traditional, basing it on an Austrian-style market, with log cabins and a crafts market. Along with plenty of Christmas stuff and foods, visitors can also enjoy a large toboggan ride and a 500 square metres open-air ice rink.
My second day in Berlin was to be one of historical sightseeing. My friend was off to work and so I decided to do a few things I had not yet done in Berlin, despite having visited the city several times.
To start off my morning, I made for the Brandenburg Tor once again which looked as magnificent as ever, even on a grey and cloudy morning.
From the gate, I made my way to the Reichstag building. Despite the bitterly cold temperatures, the green spaces out the front were pretty packed with tourist groups, and I had to wait quite some time to take a photo, uninterrupted by fellow visitors.
On my way back toward the Brandenburg gate, I stopped off at the Sinti and Roma Memorial on the edge of the Tiergarten. The monument is dedicated to the memory of the 220,000 – 500,000 people murdered in the Porajmos – the Nazi genocide of the European Sinti and Roma peoples.
From the Tiergarten I veered right, and soon arrived at my next stop, the Holocaust Memorial. I had seen the memorial a few times on previous visits, but had never actually spent any time walking through the huge labyrinth of grey stone columns. It is not until you enter into the memorial itself that you really take its size and magnitude into consideration.
Feeling a little sombre I decided it was time for a pick-me-up and bee-lined for Potsdammer Platz, just down the road. A wander through the festive markets, and a cup of coffee inside the beautiful decorated shopping centre, did the trick and I was soon ready for action.
My afternoon was then spent inside two of Berlin’s many museums – Topography of Terror, which chronicles the horrors and atrocities of the Nazis, and is located on the site of the SS Headquarters, followed by the Jewish Museum, which documents Jewish history, and also features collections of Jewish art.
My final cultural stop of the day was Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War.
After a small bite to eat, I began to make my way across the city to Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s version of the Champs Élysées, where Rebecca and I had planned to meet. The huge avenue is lined with shops and restaurants, and at Christmas time, its many trees are lit up with fairy lights and a number of brightly coloured Christmassy figures appear.
Rendez-vouzing outside KaDeWe, the city’s iconic department store, we made up way up along the boulevard as far as Breitscheidplatz, the location of yet more markets and of course the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. We spent some time in the surrounding markets before hopping on the bus and heading for a more traditional location – the markets of Schloss Charlottenburg.
The beautiful and festively-lit Baroque setting gives the market an almost magical atmosphere. The market offers high quality handicrafts as well as historical rides like swings, carousels, and swing-carousels for children and vintage fans alike. Whilst we didn’t try out any of the rides, we spent a good hour or so enjoying the different stalls along with the festive music supplied by a small brass band.
It was soon time to call it a night and so we jumped aboard a bus back in the direction of Rebecca’s flat. Our final stop of the evening was a typical Photoautomat, as I was determined to return back to England with a vintage souvenir! The analogue photo booths and hipster-souvenir-suppliers were reintroduced to Berlin back in 2004 and are now scattered around the city – we managed to stumble across one just across the street from the East Side Gallery.
Part Two coming soon!
For more on Berlin, check out these posts: