Ahh Germany! A country I have always wanted to visit yet with little time and money (student problems), it’s always managed to sneak away from me. Though with Christmas approaching and a very stressful semester one out the way I decided it was time; “Hold Christmas! Hold revision! Hold everything! I’m going to Berlin.”
And boy am I glad I did.
The first thing that took me by surprise was the size. For a capital city I don’t know why I was expecting it any other way, but the vastness of the city shocked me. And I’m no country bumpkin; I live in Leeds so city life if relatively normal to me. Thankfully the train network across the city was incredibly easy to use and great value (€7.70 for all zones until 3am the next morning – bargain).
The second shock was how “un-European” it felt. Some parts of the city were exactly how I imagined; cobble stone streets, beautiful architecture and a wealth of history. But then comparing this to the crazy wide streets and tall, modern, window-covered skyline of Potsdamer Platz… the city felt like some strange European-American hybrid. But a fab hybrid at that.
And the third thing I noticed? Germany definitely knows how to do Christmas.
A three night stay in the famous avenue of Kurfürstendamm gave us plenty of time to explore the top sights the city had to offer. The festive and warm fuzzy feel of the Christmas markets; the remarkable architecture the city has to offer; the astonishing reality sparked by sites such as the Berlin Wall and the Holocaust Memorial. So through my two days of exploration comes the highlights of my trip and the must do’s for anyone venturing into the city this winter.
1. Weihnachtsmärkte (aka. Christmas Markets)
Of course this has to be first on my list. Christmas markets. Like I said: Berlin knows how to do Christmas. If the sparkling lights down every street, elaborately decorated malls and Christmas trees around every corner don’t have you feeling festive enough, the markets are bound to.
For the best Christmas markets I’d recommend heading to Alexanderplatz. Here we found two large Christmas markets. You’ll stroll among row after row of small wooden stalls garnished with festive trimmings and selling everything from hats and gloves (which trust me, you’ll need – Berlin is cold), to multicoloured arrays of sweets and treats, delicate handmade ornaments, crepes and German sausage (neither of which are to give a miss) and Glühwein; hot mulled wine with or without a shot of brandy. To which the answer should almost definitely be yes. T’is the season to be jolly after all.
If the twinkling lights and waft of delicious German food making its way to you through the crisp air is not enticing enough, the festive charm itself pulls you in before you know your feet are even taking you there. Brass bands situated around every corner make you feel so warm you almost forget that your toes went numb two hours ago and your lips have gone blue. Or maybe that’s just the alcohol jacket obtained from spending far too long in the beer tents. If you fancy it you can even try your hand at ice skating – and don’t be embarrassed to be the person scared shitless holding on to the edge of the rink as if their life depends on it – yes, we’ve all been there.
2. The East Side Gallery
I feel like this is a given – you can’t visit Berlin without making a trip to the Wall.
The East Side Gallery is the largest open air gallery in the world and offers over 100 pieces of artwork by artists from across the globe. The paintings featured bold political statements, abstract and surreal artworks and graffiti-style pieces, all of which went perfectly in check with the bohemian feel you get from wondering the streets of Berlin today. Many of the paintings were explosions of colours and patterns each radiating a joyous feeling corresponding to the relief and freedom felt when the Wall came down.
The gallery is astonishing. It’s beautiful how the Wall, a cause of segregation, separation and control, has today been transformed into a mural which symbolises hope and freedom and as one of Berlins major tourist attraction brings together people from across the world. Definitely a must see.
3. Museum Island
Nestled in the river Spree lies Museum Island. If you haven’t heard of it before, I’d ask you to hazard a guess. The clue is in the name; it is an island with lots of museums on. A student discounted day ticket (UK student ID’s are accepted) which grants access to all five museums on the island is only €9, so affordable and worth it.
That is, if you can find the island! This was the first place we tried to get to on our first day exploring and it seemed impossible to find. You don’t realise how much you take Google Maps for granted until data costs you 5p per megabyte and you’ve saved all your money for German beer (first world problems). But fear not – apparently we are just logistically inapt, which may have had something to do with the four hours sleep we’d had the night before due to our flight not arriving until the early hours, but Museum Island lies not far from Alexanderplatz. The train station Hakescher Markt is merely a 10 minute walk away.
However, for us who had taken to finding the island on foot after being pointed in the wrong direction by a non-English speaking German working in Dunkin’ Donuts (who was probably trying to help), the copper-capped roofs now tainted green lingering on the horizon never seemed to get any closer. But, after about an hours walk we came across the Berliner Dom, aka. Berlin Cathedral, which is right on the edge of Museum Island. Praise the Lord!
Even if you don’t pay to go in to any of the museums, I’d thoroughly suggest going to look at the buildings. The architecture on the island is amazing. Delicately carved pillars and intricate sculptures make up the exteriors. We only gave ourselves the morning to have a mosey around, so we only made our way into the Neues Museum boasting treasures of Egyptian times and the Altes Museum which held history of the Greeks and the Romans, though I’m certain the others would be equally as interesting. Free audio guides were also included in the entry fee.
4. Reichstag Building
This was bound to make the list somewhere. And it is magnificent; a truly outstanding piece of architecture and it holds so much history. The glass dome you can see protruding from the top of the building is actually surrounded by a roof terrace open to free the public and gives beautiful panoramic views of the city. The downside is – and no surprise here – it is incredibly popular. Advance bookings are required, so unfortunately we did not get to venture up.
We simply marvelled at the building for a good twenty minutes attempting to capture the perfect snap; I feel no one really appreciates the length of time stood there nor how numb my fingers became waiting for the wind to blow the flags up in the exact right direction.
Anyway, whether up to the roof terrace or merely viewing it from the ground, the building is definitely worth a stop. And while you’re out this way be sure to stop at the Brandenburg Gate, probably view-able from the top of the Reichstag and only couple minutes walk away.
5. Potsdamer Platz
Last but not least, make sure you stop by Potsdamer Platz. This is what I can only describe as Berlins version of a mini Times Square. It’s a huge traffic intersection not far from the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial and was my lieblingsplatz (aka. favourite place – trying my hand at German). It is also home to another Christmas market (yay), is great for shopping (yay) and has loads of lovely restaurants and coffee shops (YAY). The list keeps getting better!
Having been the heart of Berlin prior to the Cold War, Potsdamer Platz turned into a no man’s land until the fall of the Berlin Wall, but stepping into the square now this is hard to believe. The area has been transformed into a place with a 24 hour buzz and a thriving atmosphere. This ‘New Berlin’ also explains the slight Americanisation of the city, with buildings such as the Sony Centre conveying a less European feel. Sit yourself in a little coffee shop opposite the main streets and watch the hustle bustle of Berlin life pass by.
So there we have it – my favourite places to stop by in Berlin this winter. Obviously the city holds a great deal more and Berlin’s nightlife is something else entirely (though the obscenities encountered are probably not fit for discussion just yet!). It is an amazing city and one I would love to and could easily (pre-Brexit at least) move to. But then again if a city full of beer, sausage and a huge love of Christmas doesn’t make you happy, then I don’t know what will.