Well, 2013 is finally winding down. I’ve just dropped off my parents at Berlin Tegel airport, the sky is strangely blue (unusual for this time of year) and the weather, while cold, isn’t actually that bad. Christmas came and went and everything is good. A far cry from last year’s winter in Berlin when I distinctly remember a dark & dreary (and wet!) December. Maybe though, that’s because I was enrolled in an intensive German course and was still struggling to feel settled in my new expat life in Berlin.
This year was different. The Weihnactszeit (Yuldetide) season started off much better than 2012. I’ve got an apartment, a more stable career (oh hey! freelancing is actually quite manageable!) and, thanks to a surprising amount of good fortune (and hard work, yeah?), things seem to be going my way. It’s the year of Adam!
But with the ups and downs of the holiday season, I greeted my family in Berlin with a bit of trepidation. Would they love Berlin as much as I do? Will I be able to entertain them and wow them with the sights and attractions of Berlin? Will they be bored to death of Christmas markets, or find them cute and quaint? Ahh…Christmas in Berlin. ‘Tis the season, eh?
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Why visit Berlin over Christmas?
Turns out that Christmas in Berlin was a total success. The weather was unusually awesome, it was pretty spectacular to have my family around and there were plenty of great things to see and do during the week. It was my first Christmas in four years that I was celebrating with my family. My previous Christmases have been with CouchSurfers in India, with other solo backpackers in Jordan and then, last year, alone in Berlin. This Christmas was different.
Berlin might not be the typical destination to visit over Christmas — even in Germany. Most tourists head to the more famous Christmas market at Nuremberg this time of year, but if you visit Berlin, you won’t be short of Christmas markets or other (more exciting) things to do.
What to Do & See
Berlin is never boring. And even in December when Berliners head home for the holidays, the city is still alive. Here’s a selection of my favorite things to do in December. (And the things I did with my family when they came to visit!)
- Christmas Markets — This one’s an obvious choice. Here’s a rundown on the best for first-time visitors:
- WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt — Set in-between two churches and a concert house, this is one of the prettiest
- Weihnachtsmarkt vor dem Schloss Charlottenburg — Also one of the prettiest, this is my favorite recommendation for tourists because it’s a little less crowded and has more interesting items for sale if you’re shopping
- Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt in der Kulturbrauerei — Easy to get to, this one’s on the grounds of a former brewery. It’s the Scandinavian market so some of the food & drink options are a bit different than in the other markets — plus it just feels more “local” if you’re going for that whole “live like a local” travel experience
- Spandauer Weihnachtsmarkt — At the end of one of the metro lines, this Berlin suburb has a medieval-themed Christmas market. It’s pretty scenic and is also one of the largest markets in the area
- Free Reichstag Tour of the Dome — This is one of my favorite places to take visitors in Berlin and we were lucky that the tour was still running over the holidays (even on Christmas day!). The Bundestag is
Shopping — Not particularly my favorite European city for shopping, there are definitely some great places for tourists to check out over the holiday season:
- Alexanderplatz — The main central square of Berlin, it’s not really the coolest place in the city, but you’ll probably pass through at some point during your holiday. We ended up here about a gazillion times because my parents’ hotel (which was pretty sweet, BTWs) was in the area.
- Potsdamer Platz — There’s a mall & shopping center (and a Christmas market) here but the real appeal is the cinema. Head to the Sony Center even though it’s touristic. The roof is its own version of a Christmas light show.
- Hackescher Markt — This area of central Berlin is one of my favorites for shopping. Tons of boutique stores. I generally prefer the streets closer to Rosenthaler Platz which seem to be cool shop after cool shop.
- Ku’damm — KaDeWe and Karstadt are the two big department stores on the Ku’damm (that’s short for Kurfurstendamm) but this entire street is full of clothing shops and my favorite brands. Visit the Käthe Wohlfahrt store for a bit of a Christmas overload. They sell anything and everything that might be associated with Christmas in Germany — from nutcrackers to designer ornaments. Be warned: it’s easy to get lost in here! Just make sure you’ve got a tolerance for glitter.
- Day Trip to Potsdam — When you’re in the Christmas spirit, you might as well go all out! While I’ve previously visited Potsdam over the summer when it’s nice for bike-riding, but in the winter, the palatial city (often compared to Versailles) is just as pretty. Plus, like everywhere else in Germany at this time of year, there’s a Christmas market.
TRAVEL TIP: I recently wrote a bunch of my best Berlin tips as part of an online guide for AFAR Magazine. Check out my itinerary for a 3-day trip to Berlin.
What to Say
With my improved knowledge of the German language this year, I was able to handle the holiday much better than the previous year. Germany at Christmastime is a pretty special place. The country seems like it was almost made for the holiday. Heavy German foods from the south such as spätzle or knödel are the perfect foods to eat on a cold winter night. The challenge for tourists to Germany over the Christmas holidays? It’s the words. Here are a few of my favorite German Christmas words which you should almost definitely know about if you’re planning a winter holiday.
der Glühwein — it’s hot, alcoholic and delicious. You don’t need to know much more than that.
- der Weihnachtsmarkt — this is probably the reason why you’re visiting Germany at Christmas. These markets (also sometimes called a Christkindlmarkt) are where you’ll find yourself in the evenings. It’s pretty much impossible to avoid eating a sausage at one of these, though there are plenty of other foods to try.
- die Feuerzangenbowle — it’s another drink you’ll find at the markets. Unlike your basic Glühwein, however, this one’s got some extra rum and should be on fire. Just wait for the flames to die down before imbibing.
- das (Weihnachts) Geschenk — something you’ll find under der Baum…but only if you’re good!
- die Ente — what you eat for Christmas dinner. Hint: it’s not turkey like the British nor a roast like the Americans.
- die Gans — Goose seems to be another popular option for Christmas dinner in Germany.
- der (Weihnacts) Baum — ♪ O Tannenbaum ♪ O Tannenbaum ♪ — You’ll find die Geschenke under this on Christmas morning.
- der Schnee — If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas…
- der Kranz — Made from the leaves from a Tannenbaum, in America we hang these up on the front doors of our houses. In Germany, you set them on tables and add die Kerzen. This year I even went to a party dedicated entirely to creating the typical German Adventskranz.
- die Kerze — If you’re Jewish, you light these babies on fire each night during Hanukkah!
- der Adventskalender — A pretty popular tradition, it’s pretty much the same as in America. You open little doors on a box and get a sweet—hopefully chocolate.
Where to Eat
Finding the perfect place for a Christmas meal was the biggest challenge for my holiday, though we ended up just cooking a turkey in a rented AirBNB apartment. Plenty of restaurants were open on Christmas day, but it was just much more fun to have a day in playing card games and enjoying a home-cooked meal (even if it wasn’t our home).
The Christmas markets throughout Berlin are also open on Christmas day, so if you don’t feel like cooking your own goose, you can always opt to get some original German sausages or other traditional market foods. In the markets you’ll find everything from Hungarian langos (fried dough with sour cream & cheese), German-style pizza called flammkuchen (flat-bread with onion, fresh cream & bacon) and just about everything potato (kartoffelpuffer is my favorite—fried potato pancakes).
Where to Stay
Over the holidays I’d recommend two main areas to be based. Many of the hotels are located around Alexanderplatz which is also where you’ll find some of the more popular (and touristic) Christmas markets. From Alexanderplatz it’s really easy to get around Berlin. Rather than the big-box hotels in the area, I really liked the style and design of the Hotel Indigo. Each room is individually styled, the staff was super-friendly and the location can’t be beat.
For those wanting to do more shopping in Berlin, then I’d definitely recommend staying near the Ku’damm. The new Waldorf Astoria (a Hilton property) opened in 2013 offers some of the best views over west Berlin. Alternatively, I’m a big fan of the Concorde Hotel. The rooms at the Concorde are large and spacious (and with free wifi, no less). Also be sure to check out the French restaurant at the Concorde.
TRAVEL TIP: If you want to save a few Euros, consider staying in an holiday apartment over Christmas rather than a hotel. Find a neighborhood you like (In Berlin, I’m partial to Prenzlauer Berg or Kreuzberg) and browse through sites such as HomeAway or AirBNB to find a cozy apartment. You’ll be able to cook your own Christmas meal, hopefully saving a few Euros because while most hotels offer Christmas dinner specials, they can be expensive. Use this code (click here) to get $25 off your first AirBNB booking.
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Christmas in Berlin — not so bad! I think I’d even do it again. Just don’t tell my Mom because she wants me home in America for the next one…