Berlin is one of those cities that will exceed any expectations you may have of it. It’s a city that you can't help but feel will be different each time you visit because it is modernizing and changing so quickly. The city has done a great job of preserving and remembering its history while still feeling new, modern and ever evolving. It's cool, urban, hip, and modern, and there is so much to see, do, and experience.
Berlin's Christmas Markets are simply magical, with around 60 to choose from around the city! Christmas markets originated in Germany centuries ago and have set the standard for all that have followed around Europe and beyond. Wander through traditional markets to modern, finding beautiful Christmas decorations and handmade goods, listen to festive music, enjoy the scent of delicious pastries and hot mulled wine wafting through the air, and walk through the chilly air under canopies of twinkling lights. Berlin's markets are beautiful to explore and a special experience. Here are some of my favourites in the city:
· Gendarmenmarkt: This is my favourite market in the city because it is set in one of the prettiest areas of Berlin. The market is surround by the Franzosischer Dom, Konzerthaus, and the Deutscher Dom. There is something truly magical about climbing up the steps of the Konzerthaus to get a view over the entire market and admire the star-topped Christmas huts sparkling in the night. This market feels a bit more traditional due to the goods being sold, music being played, delicious food being offered (including from Michelin-starred chefs!) and atmosphere. Admission is 1 Euro.
· Alexanderplatz: This large open square in the heart of the city and at the base of the TV Tower has many different Christmas huts to wander around and explore. There are also small rides and attractions to enjoy. It is open from November 21 - December 26, 2016.
· Berliner Weihnachtszeit: Located just behind Alexanderplatz, this market is in the historic Neptunbrunnen. Between the Rotes Rathaus and Marienkirche, you can enjoy skating on the rink, a ride on the carousel or ferris wheel, or enjoy some hot mulled wine under a blanket at one of the beautiful wooden huts and people watch. Join in the fun in the pavilion with dancing and drinks. Complete with rows of long tables and benches (which end up with many people dancing on top of), the atmosphere is fun, lively, and festive! Open from November 21 - December 29, 2016.
· Potsdamer Platz: One of Berlin's largest historic squares hosts a huge wonderland with everything from a toboggan hill where you can see the Brandenburg Gate from the top, an outdoor skating rink, curling, and a Christmas market. The market is open from November 21 - December 26, 2016. In the evening, enjoy dancing and a party in an apres-ski environment. Open from November 4, 2016 to January 1, 2017.
See / Do:
There is so much to see and do in Berlin. These are some of my favourites below, especially for a combined Christmas market / city break (though a few are dependent on the time of year, such as the river cruise):
· The Reichstag is the large beautiful glass dome which sits on top of the German parliament (the Bundestag), which can be seen from inside the dome. It is a must-visit when in Berlin. If you go in the winter, the colours filtering through are especially beautiful, whether icy greys and whites from snow, or crystal blue winter skies glittering in. There are 360 views as you ascend the gentle sloping spiral ramp, and a roof terrace to enjoy as well. Note though that to visit, you have to pre-book. It’s free but you need to reserve a slot and enter in your identification information. Do this as soon as possible so you don’t get disappointed by not being able to visit. The dome is open daily from 8:00 - 24:00 (last admission is 22:00), with admission every quarter of the hour. Definitely check ahead though in case of closures due to maintenance work or security issues.
· See the Brandenburg Gate, which is close to the Reichstag and German Parliament. One of Berlin's most iconic landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate symbolizes German reunification, when it previously stood as a symbol of division. The arch was completed in 1791 as the royal city gate and stands over Pariser Platz. In Pariser Platz, you will find embassies, the famous historic Hotel Adlon (perfect for afternoon tea), numerous tour group departure points, and numerous costumed individuals.
· Visit Berlin's TV Tower (or Berliner Fernsehturm as its official name), Germany's tallest building. This iconic building offers spectacular 360 degree views over the Berlin cityscape. In addition to the observation deck, there is a cafe and bar to enjoy a drink while you admire the views, as well as a restaurant. My advice is to book ahead to avoid having to wait in long lines and any disappointment if you can't get in.
· Visiting the Berlin Wall is a must-see. Having only fallen in 1989, the very recent history of the wall and division of the city must be remembered. When you stand at a section of the wall, it is incredible to imagine what life must have been like for people living on both sides Berlin, but East Berlin in particular.
- The wall began to be built by the National People's Army during the night of August 12, 1961, when they began closing off streets and rail lines running towards West Berlin. The wall cut through the city to prevent citizens of East Berlin and East Germany from escaping to the West. The wall was subsequently fortified, creating multiple layers where the gaps between them became known as the 'death strip', as people who attempted to flee were killed. It is estimated that between over 200 people were killed trying to escape through the wall. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. There are various sites that remember the wall and its victims throughout the city:
- East Side Gallery: This is the longest surviving continuous stretch of the inner Wall. You can find it running along the River Spree at Friedrichshain. Here, you will find a long series of murals in this open air art gallery that is more than a kilometre long. The murals have been painted by 118 artists from 21 countries commenting on political events between 1989 - 1990 in over 100 pieces of art. One of the most famous paintings to see is Dimitry Vrubel's 'My God, Help Me Survive amid This Deadly Love', which features the Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a kiss. It is based on an actual photograph taken in 1979 during Brezhnev's visit to Berlin. Another key piece of art to look out for at the East Side Gallery is a Trabant car coming through the Wall by Birgit Kinder called 'Test the Rest'.
- Berlin Wall Memorial: Located at Bernauer Strasse, this section of the memorial features a section of the inner and outer walls in East Berlin so you can see the division of the city and the death strip. There is a Visitors Centre, Documentation Centre, and Chapel of Reconciliation built on the former death strip. You can also see the foundations of a former apartment building, the facade of which was built into the border wall until the early 1980s.
- Checkpoint Charlie: This famous former checkpoint site was the East / West German border crossing where allied soldiers from the British, French, and American armed forces registered prior to travelling to East Berlin from September 1961. It was also the site in October 1961 where there a tank stand-off, commemorated in a piece of art by Frank Thiel and plaque at the former border. However, this site has become tragically touristy, crowded and filled with tourist traps and tacky attractions. At the most, it's worth a walk through to see it.
- Don't forget to look down as you walk through the city as Berlin has created a path of a double row of cobblestones tracing the foundation of the Berlin Wall over 5.7km.
· One of the most fascinating and moving museums in Berlin is the Topography of Terror museum. This is the site of the former SS (Secret State) Police, one of the most feared organizations during the second world war as a central Nazi organ of persecution and terror. Between the years of 1933 - 1945, the SS Police Office, SS leadership, and Reich Security Main Office during WWII, were based here. The building was torn down at the end of the war. Now, an open, glass building on its foundation, surrounded by rubble and remains of the Berlin Wall, stands featuring exhibits that focus on the SS and police during the Third Reich and the crimes they committed. The documents, photographs, and stories are incredibly moving, and so important to remember. There is free admission to this museum and is highly recommended.
· A must-see in Berlin is the Holocaust memorial, or Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as it is formally known. Located in the Mitte area of Berlin, it is very close to the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. This large and sprawling memorial will take your breath away by the sheer size of it. It consists of 2711 grey concrete blocks of varying sizes and heights, is approximately the size of a football field, and is located on a former death strip where the Berlin Wall once stood. It took 17 years to complete and is a memorial to the estimated six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust during WWII. There is much debate about its symbolism, but the architect, Peter Eisenmen, envisioned them as symbolizing tombstones. As you walk through to the centre through the rows and rows of blocks, they begin to soar above your head. This, combined with the uneven ground, starts to block out the light and makes you feel a bit disoriented in this maze-like environment. Visitors are not allowed to climb on the blocks, but you will no doubt see this happening. If I can plead with you on something, please do not be one of them. Remember what this memorial is symbolizing and be respectful by not climbing on them. There is an Information Centre located on the south-eastern end of the memorial, which is accessible by stairs or elevator. It features moving information and stories of the victims as a way of remembrance to complement the memorial. If you go to one of the cafes or restaurants alongside the memorial, you can get a higher view to overlook the entire memorial and get a good sense of its size and scale.
· Hitler’s bunker: Strangely (or not, depending on who you ask), the former site of Hitler's bunker can be visited just a few blocks away from the Holocaust memorial. At the end of WWII, this is the site where Hitler and his partner Eva Braun, committed suicide. The only indication of it now is a sign detailing the map of the former large bunker as it was destroyed and a car park now covers it.
· For something a bit lighter, visit the beautiful Schloss Charlottenburg. This gorgeous baroque palace was the home of the royal Hohenzollern family, who ruled from 1415 to 1918. It was originally built as a summer palace for Sophie-Charlotte, the wife of Elector Friedrich III. It later grew into an estate rivalling that of Versailles after he became King. The rooms inside the palace are opulent and grand, and make you feel like you're walking into a different century of old world glamour. After you're done exploring inside, don't forget to visit the stunning Baroque gardens. Before you go, check opening days and times. Also, go either earlier or later in the day to avoid tourist crowds and have the palace more to yourself.
· There are so many great neighbourhoods in Berlin to check out to discover great restaurants, coffee culture, galleries, shopping, street art, and take in hip Berlin life and culture. Head to Prenzlauerberg, Kreuzberg, or Friedrichshain.
· Museums: Berlin has some incredible museums, with some of the giants located on Museum Island. Five grand museums sit on Museum Island, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for the priceless and unique collections located on this island in the middle of the city. Its roots date back to the Enlightenment period, with the buildings demonstrating the evolution of modern architecture design. The museums located here are the Pergamon Museum (classic antiquities, ancient near east artefacts, and Islamic art), Bode Museum (sculptures, Byzantine art, and Numismatic collections), Neues Museum (ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections, Europe and Asia archaeological finds over the past 6000 years), Alte Nationalgalerie (sculptures, Romantic and Impressionist artwork), and Altes Museum (classical antiquities).
· River boat cruise: During the summer, take a cruise on the river and enjoy the sunshine, sights, and a glass of sparkling wine. You can get on the boat from the pier near Museum Island.
· KaDeWe: Short for Kaufhaus des Westens, this is a large, iconic department which a seriously impressive gourmet food floor. Definitely worth checking out.
· Bikini Berlin: A very cool concept mall filled primarily with independent retailers and designers. One of the best parts though is the comfortable lounge area where you can watch the monkeys in the Berlin Zoo play at eye level.
· Berlin's nightlife is pretty epic! Note that Berliners go out really late to party - think at least 1 or 2am.
Eat / Drink:
· Neni. Delicious food, incredible food, beautiful décor. The views over the city are wonderful, but particularly magnificent at sunset. The food is best described as a mixture of Israeli, Persian, Arabian, and Mediterranean. You can find it at the top of the very cool 25 Hours Hotel Bikini Berlin.
· After dinner at Neni, or if you’re just looking for a great place for drinks, one of the coolest places to go is Monkey Bar, located just across the hall on the same floor as Neni. Cool décor, great cocktails, but the real showstopper is that you can watch the monkeys play below inside the Berlin Zoo!
· Take a break while shopping and pop into Galeries Lafayette (if you aren't shopping there already!). Head to the gourmet food hall and enjoy some delicious food at one of the many different stalls available. A good option for lunch.
· A Berlin favourite is Currywurst (sausage seasoned with curry ketchup), found at many street food stalls available around the city.
· Don't forget to try the tasty food at the Christmas markets, along with a hot cup of mulled wine!
· Berlin Airports (Berlin Tegel and Berlin Schonefeld): Berlin is well served by two international airport, albeit quite small ones in comparison to other major city airports. For many long-haul flights, you will likely have to take a connection in a city such as Frankfurt or Munich.
· Metro: Getting around Berlin is incredibly easy by an efficient metro system. There are also trams running through the city that can be a bit confusing to take at first, but also efficient to get you where you want to go.