Our idea of a Christmas in Berlin was in jeopardy on Friday 15th December when we realised that the airline Nikki had ceased trading. We scoured all the various options of how we could connect with Berlin from Lanzarote for our original dates, including connections in UK and the Spanish mainland. Eventually it came down to either bringing our departure forward or cancelling our entire holiday.
We rebooked departing from Fuerteventura with Ryanair, taking a gamble that their pilot strikes wouldn’t go ahead. Our new journey involved catching the first ferry of the day from Playa Blanca to Corralejo, it was lovely driving through the sand dunes of Corralejo as the sun was rising to catch our flight at 11:00.
It’s a 5 hour flight from the Canaries to Berlin, so it was already dark when we landed at Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF). The train station is accessed by a 5 minute walk, along a covered walkway on the left as you exit the airport terminal. We had a choice of trains to reach our destination of Alexanderplatz in the city centre. The S-Bahn (urban railway) S9 train and the regional railway Airport Express (RE 7 / RB 14) runs twice every hour from Berlin city centre. A 1 way ticket costs €3.40 per person.
Outside the Alexanderplatz station, we stood under the impressive TV Tower waiting for the next M4, 5 or 6 tram to come along, to complete our journey. We hadn’t quite worked out the transport ticket system. The ticket machines were easy to find, it is still a paper based ticket here, which should be validated before travelling. This is done at the platform, there’s a yellow device where you feed your ticket in to be stamped.
We were staying at the Hampton by Hilton Berlin city hotel in Alexanderplatz, we didn’t need to use the tram stop at the front of the hotel for transport on a daily basis, as we were only a few minutes walk from the centre.
Berlin Transport & Welcome Card
The daily transport ticket is €7 for zones AB and €7.70 for zones ABC, or a 7 day ticket is €30. We purchased the Berlin Welcome Card which is aimed at tourists and includes transport as well as discounted entry to attractions. The price ranges from €19.90 to €46 depending on the zone and duration. Don’t be tempted to travel without a ticket, the fine is €60 even if you have one but didn’t stamp it, and the inspectors are in plain clothes, no exception is made for visitors.
Hampton by Hilton Hotel City Centre Alexanderplatz
We liked the location of our hotel, the M4,5 & 6 trams stop directly outside, and it’s only a couple of minutes walk to Alexanderplatz. This Hampton by Hilton Hotel only opened in May 2017, we had a city view room on the 8th floor. The staff were friendly and efficient. Breakfast is included and there was enough variety of hot dishes and continental to enjoy throughout the week. Some TV channels in the room could be changed into English language so we weren’t restricted to just the BBC World Service. We also had tea and coffee facilities in the room. There is a fitness room available free of charge to guests, and a bar situated in the lobby.
Alexanderplatz in Mitte
Alexanderplatz is the perfect base from which to explore the capital city of Berlin. Known locally as Alex, this is the biggest and one of most recognised squares in Berlin. Lot’s of tourist attractions are within walking distance, and it’s an important transport hub to reach those further away.
We visited the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) at Alexanderplatz on our first evening. There was a fantastic atmosphere around the base of the Christmas Pyramid, which is the largest in Europe and has a panoramic view over the market from the first floor. There’s a beautiful double decker carousel in this area too. We tried the Glühwein (warm red or white wine) and Eierlikör punsch (which is kind of like an alcoholic warm eggnog) to warm us up from the inside. There were two log burning tables with seating around, as well as many counters to lean on whilst enjoying your drink. They operate a glass deposit system, so if you don’t want to keep it as a souvenir, take it back at the end for a refund. We snacked at a couple of stalls for our evening meal, enjoying our first taste of currywurst, where the cooked sausage was fed into a slicing machine and served with a spicy tomato ketchup and bread roll. My favourite was the crispy nest with potato wedges in the bottom and then a portion of sausage and mushrooms added on top.
The following morning we decided to treat ourselves with some retail therapy in Alexanderplatz. The Alexa indoor shopping centre has 180 shops to choose from, it’s one of the best in Berlin. We also liked the department store Galeria HaufHof in this area. We explored a little further in the afternoon and visited the Berliner Weihnachtszeit (Christmas Market) near the base of the TV Tower which is dominated by a big wheel ride. The aroma at the markets is one of sausages sizzling on the BBQ, spices from the currywurst, gingerbread & glühwein mixed with smoke from the wood & charcoal burners.
In the evening we visited the Brauhaus Lemke in Alex, this craft beer brewery & restaurant was packed, we were lucky to find a table for two amongst the patrons. You can also book a brewery tour of the premises here. We wanted to try a beer flight, however not all of the beers were in stock. Our waitress recommended that we try the beer brewed especially for Christmas, which we liked, it was dark and a little bit sweet. I ordered the crispy pork knuckle, one of the traditional dishes to be found in Berlin, it was served with crispy potatoes and sauerkraut.
On our second full day, we wanted to take in some cultural history of Berlin, our first stop was the DDR Museum set into the bank of the River Spree, opposite the cathedral. The DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, this interactive museum delves into the everyday life if the former East Germany, to portray the lives of those living in this socialist state behind the Iron Curtain.
It’s a fascinating museum, very hands on, visitors are encouraged to rifle through the cupboards and drawers in a replica of the state provided “full comfort” apartments, which were uniform in fixtures and fittings. Information covered life under socialist rule, from all different perspectives, including citizens, Stazi officers and government.
Displays are interactive, with touch screens, voice recordings and film footage. You can even test drive a Trabant, which was produced from 1957 to 1990 by the former East German car manufacturer VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau.
It was interesting to understand the reason behind the walk going up in 1961. The GDR were losing up to 20% of it’s population across the border, the people that escaped were the young and intelligent ones contributing to a “brain drain”.
East Side Gallery
Our next stop was the East Side Gallery which is the name given to the 1.3km section of the Berlin wall left standing on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. The wall is open to the public and the space has been dedicated to artists from around the world. The images are dedicated to messages of peace and freedom, portraying the hopes and dreams for a more humane society.
Street Food Thursday
We loved the vibe at the Street Food Thursday event at the Markthalle Neun, at Eisenbahnstrasse 42 in the Kreuzberg district. This is a must do for foodies if you are in the city on a Thursday evening. This indoor market hall is packed with individual stall holders with cuisine from around the world. We browsed all the stalls before making a decision about which ones to try, as we didn’t want to miss out by something better around the corner! The market operates a deposit system, so that you can take drinks and meals from different suppliers and sit in communal areas, simply return the plate and glass to their origin for a refund. The event is open from 17:00 to 22:00, it’s best to go earlier rather than later as it gets really busy so you can struggle for seating, plus the food can run out, it’s that popular!
This Turkish Market is held every Tuesday & Friday from 10:00 to 18:30 on Maybachufer in the Kreuzberg district. This was another foodie delight that we stumbled upon during our stay. Had the weather been warmer, we would have bought a selection of produce to enjoy on a picnic. We didn’t have a fridge in our hotel either, otherwise a room picnic would have been in order! The stalls line both sides of the street along the bank of the Landwehr Canal, they are beautifully laid out and very colourful. The fresh produce was displayed with tasting samples to try before you buy. There was a mixture of food, clothing and craft stalls to browse. We tasted the Spicy Börek which is a stick of pastry stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeños, it was delicious, the chilli warmed our insides too. We also bought Turkish coffee, brewed fresh in hot sand.
We visited the Potsdamer Platz a few times during our stay. The Winterwelt & Weihnachtsmarkt made for an interesting contrast of traditional stalls and winter world activities (toboggan & ice rink) situated at the base of modern tall buildings.
If city views are your thing, then you can take the “fastest elevator in Europe” up to the Panoramapunkt on the 24th & 25th floors of the Kollhof Tower for a view of the Berlin skyline. The price is from €7.50 per adult for this attraction.
There are two indoor shopping centres in this location, The Berlin Mall and the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden. We watched a movie in original version at the CineStar IMAX in the distinctive Sony Center. There are remnants of the Grand Hotel Esplanade which was the focal point for society before 90% of it was destroyed during the Second World War. The Breakfast Room was dismantled by restorers into 500 pieces and the 2 storey Kaisersaal was moved in it’s entirety 75m to the West of it’s original location, during construction of the Sony Center to preserve what remained of the Grand Hotel. It’s quite fitting that these rooms are now used for hosting social events.
Before World War II and the construction of the Berlin wall, Potsdamer Platz was a busy intersection which took up to 11 policemen at any one time to control the traffic. A 5 sided traffic tower was erected in 1924, which was shipped from America and similar to one erected on Fifth Avenue in New York. A replica of this tower can be seen today in Potsdamer Platz. It’s reported to be the first traffic light to have been installed in Europe.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Field of Stelae is a construction of 2711 concrete slabs of the same size but differing heights, to create an illusion of instability in an apparent system of order. This understated and sombre monument is situated between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate. The memorial is open to the public, you can walk freely through the columns of concrete from one side to another, there are 13 pathways. The information centre which has free entry, was closed when we visited over Christmas.
As you walk into the 4.5 acre site, you go lower and lower, and lose contact with the busy street and outside world, and it somehow conveys a feeling of despair and of being isolated. The blocks are at different heights and odd angles, and it’s very disconcerting.
This one piece of real estate has so much recent history – it was the site of the buildings from where the Nazi killing machine was run, the bunker where Hitler ended his life is there, and then post war, it was the area that came to symbolise the division of Europe, of Germany, and of course, of Berlin in 1961.
Then finally, in November 1989, it was here that the first checkpoint was opened, allowing Easterners to cross into the west once again, and there followed the literal tearing down of the wall and the process of reunification had begun.
On Saturday we caught the train to visit the old town area of Spandau, where Berlin began. The cobbled streets were filled with festive stalls from the Spandauer Weihnachtsmarkt and children were enjoying the little fairground rides. We walked to the Spandau Citadel which is one of the best preserved Renaissance military buildings in Europe. This 16th century fortress which is located on an island 10 minutes walk from town, is now a cultural centre with regular events. Visitors to the Citadel can visit a section of the fortress to see the bats during the summer for a torch lit tour, they hibernate during the cold winter months. For those willing to climb the circular staircase of the 30m high Juliusturm tower, there is a great view over the fortress and surrounding district.
The weather wasn’t great during our visit, it was drizzling and with a cold wind, so we decided not to seek out the quaint area known as Little Venice on this trip.
We probably visited this iconic department store on it’s busiest day of the year, Saturday 23rd December. The Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDaWe) occupies 60,000m2 of floor space and is the second largest store in Europe, after Harrods. You can find this department store on Tauentzienstrasse 21-24 where the Schöneberg district adjoins the Charlottenburg district. The windows were beautifully dressed, attracting crowds taking photos.
We made our way straight to the 6th floor, to find their legendary delicatessen department. There wasn’t a single seat left at any of the 30 food bars where 150 chefs create fabulous international cuisine for shoppers. We were lucky to find two places available at the Moët & Chandon champagne bar, it would have been rude not to enjoy a glass of bubbles, or two!
We visited some lovely Christmas markets, however the Weihnachtsmarktes vor dem Schloss Charlottenburg was superb. By night the palace is beautifully illuminated making a stunning backdrop for the largest of the Christmas markets we encountered. The stalls were superior from anything we’d seen previously, immaculately set out, and with lots of places where you could browse or eat inside. If you can only make one Christmas market in Berlin, it would have to be this one.
One of the tips we were given was to eat at the Asian restaurant Jolly, situated in Mitte opposite the Museuminsel with a view of the Bode and Pergamon Museums. We were lucky to get a table when we called without making a prior reservation, the restaurant was full of Asian clients, which is always a good sign. The crispy duck with vegetables had been recommended, this dish was included on their standard menu for two, which we ordered. We weren’t disappointed, the food was fabulous and the crispy duck dish was the best I’ve ever tasted. There’s a reason that this restaurant is one of the top listed for Berlin on TripAdvisor, and it’s not because Angela Merkel is known to dine here.
We noticed the distinctive pedestrian traffic symbol on arrival in Mitte, Berlin. This character is known as the Ampelmann and was created by the traffic psychologist in the GDR, Karl Peglau. This chubby man was nearly lost in the 1990’s with the reunification of the East and West. The East version of the traffic lights was being replaced by the West and the Ampelmann was fading into the history books. Supporters protested and the an Ampelmann company was founded creating products featuring the go and stop figures of the Ampelmann. This company now has 8 shops, over 100 employees and more than 600 products on sale. The government finally permitted the return of the Ampelmann traffic lights, today they can be found not only in the East but also the West of the republic.
By Christmas Eve we had walked over 70km during our exploration of Berlin so far and that was using the public transport of trains, metro and trams available to reach our points of interest. We were feeling the pace, and also very aware that Christmas Eve was the main event for residents. We had been warned that restaurants and shops would be closed, but we didn’t know to what extent.
I’m not sure if the day would have been different if Christmas Eve hadn’t fell on a Sunday this year, but it was like a ghost town in the usually bustling Alexanderplatz in the morning. The Alexa shopping centre and Christmas Market were closed. We decided to go to the cinema, as we don’t often get a chance to see current movies in English at home, it took a couple of attempts to find one open, and showing films in original version, but the IMAX at Potsdamer Platz had a choice of options suitable for us.
After the film, dusk was falling and we began to wonder what to do about dining that evening. It was a little earlier than we had planned to eat, however when we spotted the Amrit Indian Restaurant at Potsdamer Platz which was buzzing, our decision was made. It was a good choice, the Bans Brothers Bitu and Bunty opened their first AMRIT restaurant in 1996, the family have since expanded with 5 more restaurants. We both ordered house specials of Batak Murchi & Chicken Malabari Masala, we especially liked that the dishes automatically come with basmati rice and a crisp salad to share.
We thought it apt to visit a Christmas Market on the 25th and hadn’t been to the Weihnachtsmarkt Zauber as yet in Gendarmenmarkt, which is said to be the favourite market for Berliners. There is a €1 entry fee here, which covers the stage performances and a charity donation. Gendarmenmarkt in the Mitte district is arguably Berlin’s most beautiful square, surrounded by three impressive buildings, including the German & French Cathedrals and Schinkel’s Konzerthaus. The food stalls were of a higher gourmet standard and Veuve Clicquot champagne was offered at the bars. We listened to BlechZauber, an ensemble of 2 trumpets, 2 euphoniums and a tuba who were playing a mixture of festive tunes from around the world, including Feliz Navidad which put a smile on our faces. We found the perfect place for our Christmas lunch, serving a roasted turkey roll with cranberries, and maple flavoured bacon – which we washed down with champagne, it was delicious!
We had booked in advance for a tour of the dome on the Reichstag Building for Christmas Day, I had timed it with sunset for 15:45 although we hadn’t seen the sun since our arrival in Berlin! We arrived at the West gate of the building and cleared security with a group of other visitors. We were escorted to the roof terrace of the Reichstag where we were at liberty to tour the dome at our own pace. The audio guide headsets were great, timed with your walk up the dome to point out and give information about the landmarks visible. The Reichstag Dome is a stunning place, I’d highly recommend doing this on a visit, so don’t forget to request your security clearance before you travel. I really enjoyed the 360 degree panoramic view over Berlin from this location, and what’s more it’s free.
The other place we had planned to visit on Christmas Day was the Christmas Garden at the Botanical Gardens in Berlin. The Christmas Garden Berlin was inspired by Christmas in Kew in the UK. There is a 2km footpath which is illuminated by 30 light installations with more than 1,500,000 light spots. It was a very popular place to be that evening, we queued at the entrance, paid €19 each and followed the crowd. On reflection it was the only thing that I was disappointed with in Berlin. It was a lovely setting, and we enjoyed our stroll through the gardens, but I wasn’t wowed by the Christmas themed 3D lights in respect of the entry fee paid.
Our last meal was a kebab recommendation from a foodie living in Berlin. The Doyum Grillhaus in Kottbusser Tor doesn’t look much from the outside, and was packed full of diners inside when we arrived on Christmas Day. Doyum is recommended as serving the best Adana kebab in Berlin, luckily a table was just vacating and we sat down quickly. The interior has a massive charcoal grill with an open kitchen at the front and bright blue Turkish tiles decorating the walls. We ordered Adana & Iskender kebabs which were really good, we still had food envy with some of the dishes arriving at other tables close by.
That was the end of our last full day in Berlin, we had an early start in the morning to make our journey back home via Fuerteventura. Having visited this capital city for a week, we agree with their motto which is “No time for boredom”. Berlin is welcoming, affordable, mesmerising and also just a little bit weird!
We have trained as Berlin experts and have first hand experience in this destination, so please do get in touch if you’d like help booking a city break.
Things we learned:
Some shops and attractions only accept German debit cards, so carry cash as well as your cards when visiting.
Public toilets generally attract a 50 cent fee per person, including those in shopping centres.
You can find our photos from this trip here: Christmas in Berlin