Christmas 2016: What to do in Berlin over Christmas
Berlin can take on a bit of a weird vibe in the lead-up to Christmas. It can be a little odd to watch drunk people wearing tacky reindeer antlers stagger past memorials to the holocaust, giggling madly. Christmas markets seemingly pop up on every public square, where tourists mingle with the locals and the club kids who are on their way to a chemically enhanced all-nighter at a Berlin club. The city largely retreats indoors during the winter months, meaning if you want to savour the delights of the capital, you have to know where to look.
Where to Stay
Berlin authorities are clamping down on short-term apartment rentals, meaning you might need to do a bit of digging before you can find your ultimate Berlin pad if you don’t want to do the hotel thing. This move has been criticised as being harmful to tourism, but these things happen. After all, aside from tourism, Berlin has many other industries such as… Um… Wait a moment… If you are in the mood to party during your Christmas in the city, stay in Friedrichshain. It’s within staggering distance to the key clubs, such as Berghain, About:Blank, Salon zur wilden Renate, and Sisyphos. Prepare for ridiculously subjective door policies and cease loud English language conversations before you get to the front of the queue, as there is a bit of an anti-tourist backlash. If bars and hipster cafes are more your thing, stay in Neukölln. It’s the ultra-hip Berlin that many expect, and while it still has credibility, it’s rapidly gentrifying, with old bars and junk stores being replaced with vegan cafes. Travelling with kids? Opt for the subdued charms of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s home to a lot of young families (meaning it can be less rowdy than the rest of the city), and is in fact nicknamed Pregnancy Hill.
Where to Eat
Each kiez (locality) in Berlin has its own primary spots for shopping and dining, which gives the city its sprawling feel. This means that your best dining options are rather spread out across the city. If you’re self-catering on your Berlin Christmas getaway, head to the market that sets up along the Landwehrkanal (U-Bahn Schönleinstraße) on Tuesdays and Fridays (10am until approximately 6pm), which is ludicrously cheap. There are also a lot of Turkish food stalls here. There’s nowhere to sit, but you can fill up on the go. If you like to take a stroll and decide where to eat, you will find a wide selection of restaurants on and around Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg (U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor), as well as Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg (U-Bahn Eberswalder Straße), and Rosenthaler Straße in Mitte (U-Bahn Rosenthaler Platz). For traditional German fare (which usually is found in Bavaria), try Lokal (Linienstraße 160, right next to U-Bahn Rosenthaler Platz). There’s a wonderfully obscene amount of meat on offer, served with hearty German sides (this country loves the potato). In Kreuzberg, head to Henne, as JFK once did (Leuschnerdamm 25, close to both U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor and U-Bahn Moritzplatz). They don’t do much other than roast chicken and a few sides, but they do it well (and quickly).
What to Do
A stroll around a Christmas market is about all you need to do to soak up the Christmassy vibe of the city, ironically or not. If it’s your first time in Berlin, don’t be tempted to go up the TV Tower (Fernsehturm) for a view of the city. The sights are good, but the lines are long and the prices are high, so wander into the Tiergarten (the central park) and climb up the Victory Column (Siegessäule). It’s cheap, fairly uncrowded, and wobbles slightly in the wind for a bit of extra festive excitement. From here you can wander to the cavernous Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station), which you’ll pass, and make your way to Hamburger Bahnhof, the former end of the Berlin to Hamburg train line, which is now a thoroughly enthralling modern art museum and a great way to escape the cold. It’s a bit of a hike, but then you can make your way through the Mitte neighbourhood to Alexanderplatz (keep within sight of the elevated rail track and you won’t get lost). Alexanderplatz is the geographical heart of Berlin, and on Friday and Saturday evenings it hosts legions of bewildered tourists who come to the centre of town, only to be dismayed that there’s not much to do here – so don’t bother to seek out any nightlife in this part of town. This changes during the festive season, and the area becomes home to a delightfully amusing Christmas market (go to S-Bahn or U-Bahn Alexanderplatz). A lot of Berliners with kids enjoy these stalls, but many residents do the Christmas markets “ironically”. Wooden shacks spring up on Alexanderplatz (and everywhere else), selling the sort of festive junk you’ll find anywhere. The food and drink stalls are more promising, and you should treat yourself to a warm Glühwein (a spiced mulled wine) or two, or seven. A slightly tacky amusement park also springs up next to Alexanderplatz where you can ride a ferris wheel in sub zero temperatures if you feel so inclined. Again, many Berliners do this “ironically”, although it’s barely worth the cost.
What to See
The city ticks along as per usual over the festive period (waiting for it to be over), although the trains become disconcertingly crowded as with any major city. Key sites such as the Brandenburg Gate and the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall (the East Side Gallery, S-Bahn and U-Bahn Warschauer Straße) are open 24/7 at all times, so you can still take in the highlights of the city without any issues. Shopping along key thoroughfares such as Friedrichstraße and the Kurfürstendamm takes on a frantic urgency. On the Kurfürstendamm, you should try the food hall at the KaDeWe Department Store once the Christmas crowds have disappeared after the 25th. It makes Harrods look like a charity shop. The festive season is actually a weirdly fun time to go the zoo, since most locals will be out shopping, and you get to see the animals up close in their winter enclosures. Getting drunk and wandering around the zoo is an oddly common group activity for many Berliners. Exercise caution, and don’t try to cuddle a bear after too many beers. Since it was a divided city, Berlin has two zoos. In the west is the Zoologischer Garten (S-Bahn and U-Bahn Zoologischer Garten), and the larger East Berlin zoo is the Tierpark (U-Bahn Tierpark). But when it becomes intolerably cold (and it will), you can retreat to a bar for a relaxing evening drink – there’s no shortage of them. Try bar-hopping along Weser Straße (U-Bahn Hermannplatz), or for a more authentic Berlin experience with elderly alcoholics and skinny-jeaned hipsters (who are almost all certain to be “artists”), try Bäreneck (Hermannstraße 37, U-Bahn Boddinstraße).