1. JOIN A FREE WALKING TOUR
Berlin ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to culture. Described as a creative and capital hub, bohemian and cool, Berlin has a unique offering that goes beyond most capital cities. Throw in the wealth of history and you’ll soon be immersed in all that’s fascinating about this European city. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the many things on offer when when it comes to what to do in Berlin, a walking tour is the perfect way to introduce yourself, learning about it’s story while getting your bearings for the rest of your stay. Even if your historical knowledge of the Cold War and it’s impact on Berliners is up to scratch, the walking tours enthusiastic Berlin guides – paid purely on your donation – will bring everything to life with their passion for the past, present and future as well as teach you something you didn’t know before your arrival.
We took the New Berlin Tours, which departs 4 times a day, 7 days a week from the Brandunberg Gate. Over the 2.5 hour tour, you’ll wind through the city and past it’s most iconic landmarks including Checkpoint Charlie, Pariser Platz and the site of Hitler’s former bunker.
2. EXPLORE THE CHRISTMAS MARKETS
This one is seasonal of course, but if you’re thinking of visiting Berlin in Winter then I’d definitely recommend you wait for the festive ambiance that is Christmas to fully take hold of the city. We arrived the first week of December and were looking forward to warming our hands and bellies with the famous Glühwein, currywurst and gingerbread at some of the 100 odd traditional German Christmas Markets available in and around the city.
Many of the locations for these wintry wonderland markets are beautiful landmarks that can be enjoyed all year round like Alexanderplatz, Gendarmenmarkt and Charlottenburg Palace, the latter hosting Berlin’s most romantic and grandeur Christmas Markets which ended up being one of my favourites. Full of festive cheer, roasted almonds, hot spiced alcohol and it’s own fairytale castle backdrop, it was well worth the small journey west from the city centre.
There are similarities to many of the markets, each providing a warm and friendly atmosphere for visitors during the cold winter evenings, where irresistible offerings of traditional German delights can be enjoyed. There are numerous variations of Glühwein, steins of beer, Eggnog and delicious treats any foodie would be content with, plus you’ll always find a rich selection of gifts, crafts, music and more but each one held their own special characteristic. We toured as many as we could in the 5 nights we were there and found something for everyone.
Thrill seekers can immerse themselves in fairground fun by heading to Wintertraum am Alexa, complete with exciting roller coaster rides and Ferris Wheel as well as the famous Coca Cola truck. Or if you’re after a bit of disco and fairy lights, head to Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church where sweet waffles await and merry men dance under pink feathered lampshades. For a souvenir shoppers paradise with plenty of indoor space to sit back and observe your surroundings, Gendendermarkt is the one and comes with some festive live music on the outdoor stage too. If an awesome backdrop with lots of fairytale magic is on your Christmas wishlist, visit Charlottenburg Palace where an elaborate light installation bathes the market. For nostalgia and tradition, away from the commercial sellers and tourists then make your way to Opernpalais.
3. SEE THE BERLIN WALL
The system of walls reaching 3.6 metres high and stretching 155km, is possibly Berlin’s most iconic symbol of the Cold War. A reminder of the 28 years that East and West Berliners were separated under leadership of the GDR. A commemorative section of the wall still stands today, painted head to toe for 1.3km with the feelings expressed by artists following it’s fall, and is the largest open air gallery in the world. The East Side Gallery forms part of the Memorial to Freedom for the 136 who lost their lives trying to cross into West Berlin and is one of three places you can see the remains of the wall. At the Topography of Terrors Museum, located where the Gestapo headquarters once stood, you can see part of the wall that was never demolished or if you want to catch a birds eye view of the wall with it’s preserved ‘death strip’ then head to The Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Center.
It’s an experience you need in your life, not for it’s beauty or happiness it brings like so many other travel experiences, but for the division it symbolizes and the realisation that the world hasn’t always been so free and in many ways still isn’t.
4. Try Berlins Best Kebab
A kebab might not be the first dish that springs to mind when you think German cuisine but this really is a must. It’s far from your typical greasy doner meat edition you’re used to devouring after a drunken night out and actually comes with classier, not to mention fresher, ingredients like feta cheese and black olives but is all still served traditionally by one guy from his street van. Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap van is located just outside the Mehringdamm stop on the U6 or U7 U-bahn lines.
It really is tasty, so much so that James ordered a second. We even made the journey from the North West of the city just to try it and it was well worth it but I think we were lucky to not have to endure the 2 hour long queues I had read about (bonus of going mid week at 11pm!). Succulent pieces of chicken in a warm bun full of all my favourite Greek salad delights. But I’ll let you try it for yourselves. We were too drunk to worry about a picture so I’ve pinched one….
5. STEP BACK IN TIME
About 35km north of the city in Oranienburg is Gedenkstatte Sachenshausen, a memorial site and museum on the grounds of the former concentration camp built in 1936. While this might not appear on many blog posts for top sightseeing in Berlin, especially geared towards those looking for the fun loving, laid back tourist activities, it’s a must for mine. While I was at school, the curriculum for History focused heavily on Hitler’s rise to power following World War 1 and the subject quickly became a favourite of mine, leading me to choose GCSE History and wanting to learn more. During an Inter railing trip around Europe one summer at Uni, I visited Auschwitz in Krakow, Poland and although a harrowing experience it definitely reminded me of my passion for History and how important it is to understand how the past shaped our present and will impact our future too. This is why we chose to visit Sachenshausen while in Berlin, the very city in which Hitler would establish his dictatorship and begin the Nazi revolution following his appointment of Chancellor in 1933. The camp aimed to set the standard for all concentration camps, both in it’s design and treatment of prisoners and offers visitors a glimpse into how the 30-35,000 victims spent their days there but even when visiting on a cold winters day you can’t begin to relate to the devastation that took place and what those prisoners suffered though you can feel it’s eeriness all around.
Oh…and one little extra just for fun – how many bears can you find?