Christmas is closely approaching, and I have been dreaming about German Christmas markets for at least three months. Sure, I’ve been to three Christmas markets throughout France, but the Germans invented the Christmas tree…and when I was in Munich a few years ago, they had whole (year-round) stores dedicated to nutcrackers and smoking men. As such, I knew we had to check out Germany before heading stateside for the holidays and my research told me the best city with the best markets was Berlin. Fast-forward to last weekend, and I think we chose wisely.
Berlin has been on my to-visit short list since we moved. That was mostly in part because I had two friends (Andie & Drake) who were living there back in April. As such, I started my trip planning by shooting both a note for recommendations. Not surprisingly, Andie was better than a guidebook or travel agent, and her recommendations had us staying in one of the coolest hotels in a fantastic neighborhood (just a block or two from her apartment) with tasty food/drinks. If you’re planning a visit to Berlin, I highly recommend a stay in the Prenzlauer Berg (neighborhood) and more specifically at the Hotel Oderberger. It’s a great location, but it’s also just a really cool hotel, as it’s a former public bathhouse that was renovated and re-opened in January of 2016. I think you can also go swimming in the indoor pool (we didn’t).
We were all set for our weekend in Berlin when the morning of our flight I got a text from our friend, Rebecca, letting me know both she and Mike would be in Berlin over the weekend. I practically jumped for joy and announced to Jim, “It’s a real Christmas miracle – we’ll get to see Rebecca and Mike this weekend!!” We hadn’t seen them (I don’t think) since our wedding back in October 2015. I’ve also only (ever) been in Germany with Rebecca, so I was happy for the tradition to continue.
We flew into Berlin on Friday night, arriving close to midnight, which was a little later than planned, so we just checked into our hotel and opted for a night of good rest before starting our weekend of explorations.
We really started our trip by meeting Andie for breakfast on Saturday morning. This was a real treat for a number of reasons – it was Andie’s first time meeting Jim, and I believe it was also the first time I’d seen Andie since (maybe) 2012. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. Worlds colliding in the best way. We met up in the hotel and walked to a lovely neighborhood spot down the street called Engelburg. We’d met up around 10am, and Andie had pointed out how much she enjoys mornings in Berlin as hardly anyone is up/moving around before noon. It wasn’t until she mentioned that that we noticed the streets were pretty deserted aside from us. Once at the restaurant I opted for some fresh squeezed OJ as well as a herb/goat cheese scramble. Jim got a ham/bread/jam plate. Both were the perfect amount of food and reasonably priced.
Andie then made a friend in Jim for life when she introduced him to a flat white (I think this might be his new, favorite coffee to order…as he ordered it twice more while in Berlin) at the coffee spot across the street – Bonanza Coffee Heros. Jim was in heaven – similar to how he felt in Helsinki. If you’re looking for phenomenal coffee, this place is legit.
Andie had invited us to join her and some friends/coworkers at a Christmas Market at Charlottenburg Palace. We texted with Rebecca/Mike and coordinated arrivals to enjoy our first Christmas Market in Berlin. This one is a little more off the beaten path (though you probably wouldn’t think a palace location would be off the path), but it was out in the west district, featuring about 250 vendors with handicrafts and foods. We browsed around a little and found ourselves by the giant windmill, sipping on our first mugs of gluhwein (mulled wine). Similar to the steins at beer gardens, you also can keep the mugs or return them for your deposit. We opted to keep ours (cheapest souvenirs around). One mug of gluhwein was all I could muster, so I switched to hot chocolate after that and we began to explore the market in more detail.
It should be noted that this was one of THE coldest days I’ve experienced in a long time. Maybe since my winter days in Philadelphia or my first Christmas in Cleveland. Suffice it to say, we needed those hot beverages. I think I lost all feeling in my toes about one hour in. I don’t think anyone bought anything (aside from wine/donuts/cookies/hot chocolate), but we enjoyed the live music, roasted nut smells, and general holiday cheer.
We parted ways with Andie, as she was scheduled on a flight to London in the evening. So we got a ride with Mike and Rebecca back to our hood. We weren’t scheduled to eat dinner until 9:30pm, so we had some serious time to kill, but we’d all decided that time needed to be spent indoors. So, we found a bar not too far from Mike and Rebecca’s hotel (name escapes me) and enjoyed a couple beers and really had a chance to catch up. It was great.
Andie had recommended dinner at Dottir, so I’d made a reservation maybe two months ago and the four of us set off for an Icelandic dinner in Berlin. I wanted to like the food here more than I did. I blame all the wonderful Scandinavian meals we had – it got my hopes/expectations WAY up. It’s not to say it wasn’t a great restaurant, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. I suppose I wanted some sort of meat (beef, lamb, reindeer, pork) in addition to the seafood (and I love seafood). It might’ve been more that a lot of the wines paired with the food were sweet (or sweeter than I like), which started to make me feel a little gross. But, I might’ve been the only one with that opinion. Jim said it wasn’t as good as Host in Copenhagen (what we were imagining it’d be), but it was OK. I think I might still recommend this place, though, as the menu changes frequently. Easily the best dish was the vegetarian option (carrots & parsnips in a herby/creamy broth/sauce).
Due to the temperatures from Saturday, we had a lot of exploring to do on Sunday. I was most interested in seeing the Brandenburg Gate. Let’s just take a moment to talk about how badass this statue is. Also how surprising it is that it was kept, even while in the eastern sector. We quickly made our way from there to the Reichstag Building. We didn’t go inside, but we were told (with advance planning) that you could go to the top and there there would be lots of good photo opportunities. I liked the “Dem Deutschen Volke” or The German People.
We then wandered about and made our way to the Soviet War Memorial as well as Tiergarten and ultimately the Holocaust Memorial. Jim had mentioned he’d read a book, In the Garden of Beasts, which spoke a decent amount about the Tiergarten and how it used to be a spot for hunting within Berlin. I thought it looked like it’d be a beautiful spot in the spring/summer/fall.
We were starting to get a bit hungry and decided we’d check out what had been billed as the best market in all of Berlin and walked over to the Weihnachts Zauber Gendarmenmarkt. It’s situated alongside the Concert Hall and is bookended by two churches (at least on one side there’s a church). This was a gorgeous venue with many stalls, eventhough I’d say the majority of the offering was food (we had lunch at a beer hall within the market – it was perfect). I found a cashmere hat, but didn’t want to pay 85 euros. We also found some really lovely handcarved ornaments and bought one for ourselves. I’d been hoping to find a cuckoo clock and/or some smoking men/nutcrackers. We found a few but none were Steinbeck, so we didn’t buy any. Now I’ve decided I just need to plan another trip to Strasbourg/the Black Forest 🙂
We met up with Rebecca and Mike on our way over to Checkpoint Charlie. This is the first place where we saw a lot on the Berlin Wall. However, the wall is ever-present throughout the city. There are plaques that denote where it was as well as bricks in the street. We were a little amazed how haphazard the wall seems as well as how we couldn’t really seem to escape it. It was (honestly) quite difficult to imagine the city with the wall in tact.
From there we walked over to Museum Island and decided to climb up to the top of the Berlin Cathedral. This is one really gorgeous cathedral and the climb to the top affords some pretty views of the city. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend giving it a see.
We split once more with Mike and Rebecca and decided we’d like to seek some warmth in the evening. Jim decided he’d waited long enough and now was the time to see Rogue One. So, we made our way over to the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz (I overheard someone say it was the only movie theater in Berlin that plays OV movies). Jim loved the movie, and I indulged him. I munched on popcorn with a large wheat beer while Jim opted for a “large” pretzel (when he found out he could get a large, he was ecstatic) with dark beer. Out of all the International movie watching we’ve done, we think the least “American” experience was in Oslo.
After the movie, we walked back to Potsdamer Place and looked around a little at the “Winter Wonderland” market. This place also had a “hill” with kids/adults sliding down in inner tubes. We decided we wanted to do it and were glad we did – it was a lot of fun sliding down a “hill” with Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want for Christmas” playing in the background. I’d say give this a shot if you’re close by or in the area. It was lighthearted and a general good-time. They also have an ice-skating rink there.
We left on Monday morning, in what seemed like the worst/most hectic airport experience, ever. German efficiency? Definitely not at this airport.
All in all, Berlin was wonderful. I’m curious how different it would be if we went back in the spring/summer. We’re told there are amazing lakes around the city that beg for a visit. It’s also a vibrant, artsy city, which feels like we could wander for hours and always find something new/interesting. We’re really glad we made it out to Berlin and even happier we got to share so many memories with people we love. I was already in the Christmas spirit, but now I’m 100 percent there!