Berlin Christmas markets and sites
Day 1: A day of two halves – History and Christmas markets
An early start saw us leave the house at 4am. I slept from take-off to landing. Once in Berlin getting train tickets was straight forward and our hotel was a couple of minutes from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof station. We were checked in and ready to rumble in no time.
A short walk from our hotel saw us at the Reichstag building. Unfortunately, none of our research warned us that tickets needed to be purchased in advance so we postponed our visit. Although never got round to going back!
Between Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building we came across a moving memorial to the Sinti and Roma people. Panels around the memorial told the harrowing story of the genocide of thousands of ‘gypsies’ during World War 2.
We continued to the Brandenburg Gate, a tall 18th century structure that symbolised division during the cold war, but is now often seen as a symbol of unity and peace.
The next stop was another stark reminder of Germany’s sobering history, the holocaust memorial. It is impossible to describe the scale and feeling as you walk through the memorial. The varying heights of the concrete blocks, the undulating ground and the long crypt like maze created a sombre oppressive feeling. Although that didn’t stop a few people old enough to have known better from jumping around the columns and taking ‘duck face’ selfies!
The final site seeing part of the day was to Hitler’s Bunker. The place the evil Fuhrer decided it was all over and ended his own life by shooting himself. My advice would be to skip this part of the trip as it was just a sign on a car park!
After a heavy day site seeing, for the evening we went to Gendarmenmarkt Square to frequent the fantastic Christmas market. Whilst most of the markets in Berlin are free this one costs €1 to enter, but it is well worth it. The location is great as the market is between three impressive buildings – the Deutshe Dom, Concert Haus and Französischer Dom. The market was a perfect introduction to the traditional German Christmas markets – live entertainment, okay priced beer (about €4.50), Gluhwein and food. The wares of the various stall holders were expensive but fantastic quality. This is not somewhere to bag a bargain piece of Christmas tat; but if you want to bring home something lovingly crafted and worth spending a little (or a lot) extra on then you could find yourself a little treasure.
Day 2: Sightseeing, more Christmas markets and ice skating.
We grabbed a quick breakfast from one of the many food options at Hauptbahnhof train station. Hopped on the train to our first port of call for the day – Checkpoint Charlie. During the cold war this was the gateway for foreigners to travel between West and East Berlin. The area was full of tourists, but interesting. Plenty to see and a lot of interesting history to read about. We had a quick whizz around the museum and visited the open air exhibit which illustrates milestones of the cold war.
The next pin point on our map was a Watch Tower. On the way we passed by a few segments of the original Berlin wall where a few people dressed as German soldiers stood trying to exploit money from tourists taking photos – but all in the name of fun. We took a few snaps of the colourfully painted sections of wall then continued to the East German watchtower on Potsdamer Platz – an austere looking structure. During the cold war the observation tower was used for border guards to monitor the area. Now it is the only watchtower still standing.
As we were passing we had a quick gander around the huge and impressive Mall of Berlin, resisting the temptation to spend any of our precious beer drinking tokens (Euros). For lunch we headed to Potsdamer Platz for our second helping of Christmas markets and a couple of refreshing Steins in a warm wooden chalet.
Next a trip to the aptly named Topographie des Terrors, located on the site of buildings which were the headquarters of the brutal Gestapo and the SS during the Nazi regime. The first sight is a large section of the Berlin Wall which gives some scale to the divide. Then we entered the building. An art exhibition filled with imagery and words depicting the atrocities and horrors inflicted by the SS and Gastapo between 1933 and 1945. Whilst emotional, sombre, upsetting and stark contrast to the joy of the Xmas markets, the visit was well worthwhile. It gives some perspective to the terrors inflicted on people persecuted due to race, religion, sexuality and disability.
We headed back to Potzdamer Platz to a restaurant called ‘Alex’ and thoroughly enjoyed our first ever currywurst and a stein of Berliner Pilsner.
Then back to the Christmas markets where we spotted an ice rink. After a short and blunt conversation with a grumpy vendor we swapped our shoes for ice skates. For the next 15 minutes or so we glided around the ice effortlessly like Torvill and Dean. That is assuming Torvill fell comically on her arse!
After hanging up our ice skates we wandered around the market with Laura complaining about her bruised bum. We stumbled across Mommsenecke, the home of 100 beers! Ironically we wanted a bottle of wine so didn’t even get to try one of them. Instead we chose a bottle of Reisling and enjoyed it sat on the terrace. A heater kept us warm as we watched the world go by at the adjacent Christmas market.
Our next discovery was a cocktail bar called ‘Posh.’ It was strange to see people smoking inside the building – something we are not used to in the UK these days. It was a friendly place with a good if a little too smoky atmosphere.
Finally, we went and had a couple more pints at a beer house before heading back to the hotel.
Day 3: Alternative tour, graffiti, street art and Bavarian beer house
For our third day we got up a bit late, had breakfast then headed to the meeting point for the Alternative Berlin walking tour under the TV Tower at Alexander Platz.
The tour started at 1pm. While we waited we had a leisurely coffee at Starbucks served by a moody girl that didn’t seem happy with our non-existent grasp of the local language.
As people gathered outside we joined them for the tour. Our guide was Stefan, a pleasant local chap that was helpful and passionate about the city he loved. We were guided around the less tourist parts of Berlin including Kreuzberg and Stefan kept us entertained with personal and non-personal stories about the city. The focus was around the city’s graffiti and street art culture and we were shown some fantastic art and places on route. A particularly pleasant story was one of an infamous Turkish bloke who lived on the border of the wall. Taking a huge risk during the cold war, the guerrilla gardener adopted some no-man’s land that was East German territory but on the wrong side of the wall. He grew his own garden on it and later built a unique two storey house that was made entirely from recycled materials and constructed around a tree he didn’t want to uproot. He is 90 years old now, still lives in the area and can occasionally be seen in his garden.
We ended the trip near the East side gallery. Laura and I walked the length of the wall and marvelled at the great and not so great art on display.
I haven’t gone into too much detail as I don’t want to give too much away. But if you are in Berlin for a few days this trip is well worth a go. It is free although a discretionary tip is advised. http://alternativeberlin.com
That evening we decided to get our fill of traditional Bavarian merriment and visited Hofbräuhaus. The giant beer hall is filled with 2km of wooden benches. A brass band plays traditional music and the litre steins of beer are served by staff in Dirndl Dresses and Lederhosen. The atmosphere was top notch and the evening was over before we knew it.
Day 4: Aerial view of the city, walk along the river and then home
For our final day we got the train back to Alexander Platz, had some breakfast then went to join the queue for the TV Tower, or Fernschturn, as it is called in Berlin. A super-fast lift (6m per second) took us to the top. Well not quite the top, to the viewing platform which is 203m up the 368m tower. From there we got 360o views of the city. It is impressive, and once I got overcame my fear of heights really enjoyable. It was a little misty, but we still got great panoramic of the city scape.
We made the final part of our trip a pleasant, leisurely stroll along the River Spree where we saw a few areas we thought would have been good to visit if we return.
All in all, Berlin is a fantastic city full of history, atmosphere and culture. There are a lot of sombre memorials and remnants of a difficult past, but there is also a lot of life and soul to the city and plenty to see and do from happier times. Our visit was in November and the Christmas markets had started. They added a great extra dimension to the city break; so visiting this time of year is recommended. If you get a chance Berlin is definitely worth a visit.Tags: Berlin, Christmas Market, City Break, culture, Germany, travel, Xmas Market