Berlin is a city of contradictions.
New and old; beautiful but gritty; sprawling yet local; it is a city that changes with the turn of every street corner. It is a capital with an addictive feel and one that keeps you exploring; stumbling across both sombre war memorials and warming Christmas markets, set just streets apart. A little like that sprinkling of salt on a German pretzel, it’s overwhelming and intense, but once you’ve had a taste, you’re hooked.
Arriving at Berlin’s Tegel airport on an unexpectedly sunny morning, we made our way into the city (I’d recommend taking the incredibly easy Airport Express bus, for just under €3). We were staying close to the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt at the NH Berlin Mitte Hotel. Staying fairly central (or in the ‘Mitte’ district) is definitely recommended, allowing you easy access to the U-Bahn and placing you nearby to Berlin’s most popular sites.
After a horrifically early start, we didn’t know where to start with Germany’s big capital. We therefore did the one sensible thing we could: we set off with absolutely no idea of where we were going. This meandering ‘first walk’ is something that always seems to happen on our city breaks, but is a brilliant way to start to get an idea of a place (provided you don’t get lost and aren’t a little over-tired. As we were).
After getting to grips with Berlin’s impressively long boulevards and having vaguely understood the map, we arrived at ‘Unter den Linden’. One of the grandest and longest streets in the city, this broad boulevard features beautiful buildings and is crowned by Germany’s most iconic landmark: The Brandenburg Gate. A symbol of both Nazi Germany and German Unification, the Gate has been a central prop in German history since its construction in 1788. I can understand why. As we arrived, the setting sun lit the gate up in a warm and yellow glow, silhouetting the chariot and horses that sat proudly at its top. It’s an impressive sight. An enormous, glittering Christmas tree sparkled in front of the Gate and tourists quietly walked around, taking photographs and watching the last of the sun set behind the monument. I was already feeling a little in love with this city.
As we walked back, the glittering Christmas lights of Berlin appeared, lining Unter den Linden and filling the winter trees. Despite all its grandeur, Berlin felt an incredibly warm and friendly place. We walked until we reached the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt Square, dominated by a duo of striking churches and the infamous Konzerthaus. This square is lovely on a normal day, but at this particular time of year it’s made even better by the arrival of the prettiest of Christmas markets. If there is one thing Germans know how to do well, it’s a weihnachtsmarkt.
With row upon row of stalls of twinkling lights; tiny hand-crafted ornaments; carved wooden decorations, and filled with the smell of roasting chestnuts; cinnamon nuts; Glühwein and plenty of sausages, the German Christmas Market is a slice of Christmas joy, wrapped up in one big festive tent. We were in our element. I would definitely recommend not only having at least one (or five) bratwurst, but trying the steaming cheesy dumplings and famous ‘noodles’, which in reality is a dish of gorgeously soft pasta covered in mountains of melting cheese. I was 99% carbohydrate, but it was worth it.
The Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt is probably the prettiest we saw and an absolute must if you’re visiting Berlin over the festive period. If you have time, also make the journey across to West Berlin to visit the market at Charlottenburg Palace. West Berlin had a very different feel to the centre of the city, featuring streets lined with trees and softly coloured townhouses. The Palace, sat handsomely amongst carefully crafted gardens, is beautiful – particularly when surrounded by the illuminations and lights of Christmas.
No trip to the city is complete without visiting the Berlin Wall and East Side Gallery. After taking the long way round on the tram, we eventually arrived in East Berlin. Unsurprisingly, this side of the city also possessed its own unique character. Filled with boutiques, cafes, hipsters and beards, East Berlin is cool. It felt a lot like East London, but maybe without the extortionate property prices. We spent an amazing afternoon in Friedrichshain, moving from boutique to boutique, café to café, exploring vintage clothes and little trinkets. The neighbourhoods around here are quiet, leafy and friendly, and filled with achingly cool mums and their equally cool babies.
We also ensured we visited the East Side Gallery, where much of the omnipresent Berlin Wall remains, covered in the brilliantly bright street art of artists from across the globe. It also features work from lesser-talented artists, in the form of the millions of tourists who have added their own scribbled additions to the wall. Thankfully, much of the wall is now being professionally and meticulously cleaned, removing decades of casual graffiti to reveal the street art in its original form. 1.3km long, this gallery is an international memorial for freedom and neatly sums up much of what Berlin is about: a city with distinct and contrasting histories, bought together by a twist of creativity, liberalism and a sense of humour.
That evening, we headed to perhaps one of my favourite places in Berlin: Markthalle Neun. If you like street food, then visiting here is a must. Set within a market hall dating back to 1891, this glittering hall of food and fairy lights serves up some of Berlin’s best street food, every Thursday night. The atmosphere was fantastic: filled with Berliners enjoying drinks and sampling snacks from across the world, ranging from Japanese sashimi to traditional German dishes. We sat high up on rows of old wooden benches, eating and people watching. We saw first dates, friends meeting up after work, families taking their kids out for dinner and couples enjoying a meal out together. I could honestly have spent all night there.
By the time our last day came around, we had walked endlessly, eaten endlessly and had started to get a better feel for this brilliantly cosmopolitan and welcoming city. Before we left, we had just enough time to visit every chocolate-lovers dream: Fassbender and Rausch’s Schokolandenhaus. One of the oldest chocolatiers in Berlin, this is a shop brimming with truffles; tortes; cakes; chocolates and even a chocolate Brandenburg Gate. Aside from buying everything, we also ate at the restaurant, experiencing for the first time chocolate with steak and sweet potato. I’m still unsure how I felt about that.
By the time it came to leave Berlin, after three very short nights, I could understand why so many people love this city. This isn’t a place that immediately hits you with its beauty, or welcomes you with a big hug. Don’t expect endless stunning vistas or rolling landscapes. However, Berlin is also a city you won’t want to leave. An unapologetic mix of contradictions and paradoxes, it’s this unique blend that makes this city so interesting and ultimately, so much fun.