What to do when you live in London and have no plans for Christmas? Go to Berlin! For all the things I love about living in London, the fact that it completely shuts down on Christmas day certainly isn’t one of them. There is no way to go anywhere, save spending lots of cash on a minicab or lots of energy on a Boris bike. And while cycling might be a good idea given my normal December diet, since everything is closed, there’s nowhere to go anyway!
This year my Christmas plans fell through at the last minute but I was determined not to let it scupper my Christmas spirit. And so how lucky to find a last-minute holiday package for flights & hotel through British Airways, on exactly the days I had off work! Even better, Berlin is a city that allows its residents and visitors to make the most of the festive period by keeping its transport running, and many of its shops and attractions open.
I arrived in Berlin on Christmas Eve, the day Germans celebrate Christmas, and when everything closes early. But the transport links were running, and several tour companies still gave their free walking tours—the perfect way to get my bearings and see several major sites on day one. The walk by Original Berlin Tours conveniently started just 90 minutes after my flight landed, and I reached the meeting point by an easy bus ride straight from the airport to the city square Alexanderplatz.
Getting off of the bus at Alexanderplatz brought me up close and personal with the television tower (Fernsehturm) which dominates Berlin’s skyline—the tallest structure in all of Germany.
The tour meeting point was just a couple blocks further by foot which gave me the first real impression of post-war East Berlin architecture. Combined with the rain, I can’t say it was the most inspiring of journeys! But soon our tour began and the city’s rich history began to come to life.
Berlin Cathedral on Museum Island
Humboldt University Library where book burnings took place.
Once the tour was finished I made my way back to the hotel, and on the way passed Marienkirche, one of the churches we had walked by earlier on the tour. People were streaming in—it turned out that the Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) service would begin soon, so I stuck around to kick off the Christmas festivities in local fashion.
Heiligabend at Marienkirche
The church was packed by the time the service started, with people standing behind and around the pews. It was really special to celebrate with lots of people and sing hymns and Christmas songs in German!
The next day—Christmas Day—the festive fun continued. But first, I went to visit the Reichstag building, where the German parliament sits.
The Reichstag building is one of Berlin’s landmarks that was restored after World War II, and in the restoration a huge glass dome was added to the top. The dome is open to the public and gives visitors a chance to get an aerial view of the city and learn about the history of the building and German parliament.
Rain put a damper on my visit (pun intended)—what could have been a sunset view of the Berlin skyline turned out to be a cold and windy squinting session, trying to make out the city’s landmarks through the overcast skies. The free audio guide provided excellent context and historical information, but with the glass covered in raindrops unfortunately there wasn’t much to see. But it wasn’t a complete wash (the puns continue)—the dome itself is a beautiful piece of architecture and with sparse crowds, I was able to make the most of the visit.
Reichstag Building Dome
Next I visited the Gendarmenmarkt WeinachtsZauber Christmas market, which many websites and news articles named one of the most picturesque in Berlin. And they were right!
Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market
It was a beautiful site, and more Christmassy than any Christmas market I’d visited before. The glüwein (mulled wine) was extra delicious (throw a bit of kirsch in there—yum!), the market stalls had unique, festive items, and there was even live entertainment in the form of a crooner band and a Christmas panto with juggling and acrobatics.
Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market
I could have stayed for hours, but I had to make my way across town for the one thing I did book in advance: a chance to watch the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic perform their annual Christmas concert.
The Berlin Philharmonic Hall
It was a beautiful performance and I got to hear some of my favorite pieces performed live for the first time: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet, and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C-minor, Op. 18. They also played some selections from Mendelsohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (including the famous post-wedding song made popular in every movie with a wedding in it, ever) and finished with an encore of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker.
It was a unique experience sitting behind the orchestra—not something I would recommend to be honest, as the percussion was much more prominent than it should have been, and the piano was almost completely missing during much of the piano concerto. But for a last-minute ticket for what turned out to be a sold-out performance, I couldn’t complain. Plus it made for some great pictures!
The Berlin Philharmonic Hall from behind the orchestra
On my last full day to explore I started at one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The East Side Gallery is a long stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been decorated with murals full of striking images, peace messages, and political commentary.
The Berlin Wall
I walked a long section of the wall and then doubled back, thankful that on the way back it had stopped raining. Although the lack of rain seemed to bring in busloads of other tourists, so in hindsight maybe the rain wasn’t so bad!
The Berlin Wall
After visiting the wall I took a train over to the other side of town to Breitscheidplatz to visit another Christmas market, which surrounds the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was bombed in World War II and left standing as a memorial.
A week earlier someone had committed a terrible attack, stealing a truck and driving through the market, killing and wounding many visitors. But people were determined to carry on with the Christmas spirit, and the market was reopened with the addition of several memorials and extra security. It was a tragic event and the tributes and memorials around the site were touching.
And I was really glad for the visit, because it was at this market that I discovered one of the best Christmas traditions: Schokoküssen! A Schokoküsse, or “chocolate kiss,” is a beautiful feat of German sweets-making: a chocolate covered cloud of frothier-than-marshmallow puff sitting on a wafer cookie which comes in many flavors from plain white chocolate to whiskey. I tried the mulled wine flavor, which was almost better than mulled wine itself!
Mulled Wine Flavored Schokoküsse
After leaving Breitscheidplatz I made a stop at the Topography of Terrors, a free exhibition built on the site of former Nazi administration buildings, which shares an in-depth history of Hitler’s Third Reich from beginning to end. While the legacy of the Third Reich is very well known, it was interesting to read about how they came to power in the first place, and how millions of normal people went along with its propaganda for all sorts of reasons. Although the subject matter isn’t pleasing, the exhibition does a great job in documenting what happened so that history isn’t forgotten, and hopefully isn’t repeated.
One of the only remaining government buildings of the Third Reich, next to the Topography of Terrors. The building is used today as the German Finance Ministry.
Later on in the evening, I visited my final Christmas market of the trip, Berliner Weinachtszeit near Alexanderplatz. After visits to the other markets most of what was on offer here wasn’t anything new, but I was glad to have another chance to try some more Schokoküssen (After Eight Mint and champagne flavors—both delicious!) and to compare the glüwein (the Gendarmenmarkt glüwein was more delicious and €0.50 cheaper!). But it wasn’t all repeats—the Berliner Weinachtszeit holds its own with a beautiful free ice skating rink, and Santa Claus flying overhead in his sleigh with the reindeer! You can’t get more Christmas than that.