We can’t travel right now, but I can take you to some of my favourite December trips. Starting with good old Berlin.
From visiting a Christmas market in an abandoned theme park to queueing for the saddest burger and seeing the city from above. Here is what I saw, did and ate during my December evenings in Germany’s capital.
Seeing the Berlin landmarks – Alexplatz, TV Tower and the Brandenburg Tor – in a different light.
Finding the Alternative Christmas Market at Spreekpark was quite the adventure, including a muddy walk through woodland paths with just a mobile phone light for guidance. But it was all worth it in the end. All the other Christmas markets we visited afterwards seemed just basic after this.
I love writing my (Almost) Free Things To Do in X posts but they tend to focus on destinations that are known to be a tad expensive. Because of this, I never really thought of writing one for the rather cheap to enjoy Berlin, but you know … since nothing is cheaper than free and we can never turn down extra chips/ice-cream/beer-money here we go…
Walk along the East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is a wall. Not grabbed your attention yet? Well, aside from being a well ordered pile of bricks, it’s also the largest standing remaining section of the Berlin Wall, but you’ll probably know it for its graffiti art. This last piece of the original wall has been turned into the largest open-air gallery in the world, displaying more than 100 paintings, you’ll probably only recognise a few and don’t worry you won’t miss them as there is big group of people snapping in front of them.
In the lobby of Radission Hotel in Mitte you’ll find the the world’s largest free standing aquarium. Sadly, ‘free standing’ doesn’t mean the water is held without glass (like with lasers or a force field), but don’t let that get in the way of enjoying this 25m tall fish bowl, and with some 1500 fish from different species – there’s some serious fin-watching to be had. This swimming pool for the fishes is part of the SeaLife Berlin underwater attraction. You need a ticket to SeaLife but you can sneak in the lobby and have look at the aquarium itself.
Visit the Berlin Wall Museum
Since we are on this topic: The Berlin Wall Museum is a must. The East Side Gallery might be the longest standing bit left but the Berlin Wall Museum just outside Nordbahnhof is actually more impressive and gives you a great impression of how the border developed to keep people from trying to go to the other West Side. It gives you a proper insight into what living in this strange place and time would have entailed, families seperated by a mere street or block – it’s hard to imagine nowadays. There’s also history, politics and the rest to keep you clued up plus a viewing spot from the top floor if you want to see rather than look at maps and drawings.
Explore the city’s free street art
Berlin has one of the greatest street art scenes in the entire world. You don’t have to more than move your left and right legs in unison and hey presto! You’re walking. Then head down the streets, grab some 10k steps and spot some famous and less famous pieces.
Go up to the Reichstag’s Dome for free
Constructed for the use of the German Empire back in the 1890s, the Reichstag is the traditional seat of the German Parliament. Then a century later, in the 1990s, it was reconstructed and they weren’t content with just cleaning it up, so they slapped a giant glass dome on the top. You get to walk up the spriral walkway that’s part of the dome to reach a rooftop terrace which shoves an incredible view of the city into you eye holes for FREE. Do register for a time slot though or you’ll have to queue up and that’s just wasted viewing time.
Go Urban Exploring
Love peeking in places? Then Berlin is the perfect place for you. Because of its history Berlin has more abandoned buildings then you can shake a selfie stick at and has become the unofficial capital city for Urban Explorers. An abandoned hospital, an abandoned theme park and an abandoned listening post to name a few are some of the places you can get your gritty photo award.
Visit Free Art Galleries
The area Auguststrasse and its side streets really spoke to me. On Thursday/Friday evenings, you can even catch some opening shows, which basically means free alcohol and finger food. I had luck as mine was a gallery opening / Christmas party / birthday. Jackpot!
Pay As You Want At Weinerei
While we are on the free(ish) food, Weinerei has an interesting concept where after 8PM you pay €2 to rent a glass and enjoy as much good wine as you can handle, have some simple dinner from the buffet (think pasta or meal salad and bread) and at the end of your visit pay what you think it was worth. Don’t be a total D and leave €5 when you have 4 glasses of wine and refilled your plate. They offer a similar concept in their Perlin and Forum, their other two locations. And yes, you pay the €2 even if you bring your own glass, you alcoholic *hic*.
Alternatively drinking outside a Späti (basically the German equivalent of an Off Licence, the good ones often come with a little table and chairs outside the store) and getting some late night kebabs would cost you the same and can be a gem for people watching.
Last year I was in Berlin and as I was going through my photos I realised I haven’t milked it enough and that there are tons of places I haven’t talked about on the brilliant city, so here we go.
Several people recommended K’UPS Kebab Gemuse in Prenzlauer Berg to me as the best place to get that late night delicacy, and damn they were on the money. I’m not going to pretend it’s some high class or life changing kebab, but they’ve managed to attain the perfect ratio of meat to vegetables, and their sauce is a like a sloppy kiss from god/buddha/[insert diety]. Plus, the hip interior of the place definitely shines above the usual place you stumble upon in a stupor.
While we’re on the subject of kebabs, let’s talk about the Reichstag. Yes there’s a link, Merkel apparently enjoys a mean kebab and when she’s not chowing down she can be found at Germany’s parliament, which has a quite remarkable glass dome on offer to explore. You walk up a spiral walkway along the glass wall to reach a rooftop terrace giving you a lovely view of the city for FREE. Don’t forget to register for a time slot though or you’ll have to queue up and that’s just wasted viewing time.
If you want to see the creme de la creme of the 1950’s classical Socialist ‘wedding-cake style’ houses then Karl Marx Allee has to be on your architectural radar. It’s one of the few places where the grand flair of the East still remains intact enough for you to get lost in an imagined past. My top tips, aside from just walking around and looking up are the Cafe Moskau, which once was DDR’s biggest cafe and restaurant, and Kino International – a cinema where one day my film about a Balkan girl who visits her relatives in the West but ends up in 1970’s East Berlin will première (2025).
When in Berlin you will see a lot of Photomats throughout the city, so make sure you have enough Euro coins and poses because they are the best souvenirs, even the ones that don’t quite work (way better than filters!).
Maria Bonita (named for a Brazilia folk hero) is nothing fancy but the food is simply delicious and gets two thumbs up from me. Although I was very hangry that evening and would have given anything two thumbs, but this little spot deserved it as the dishes were some of the best Mexican offerings I’ve had (though not too photogenic) and for one hour I had a feeling I was in little pink Mexico heaven as the cute place was full with Mexicanos having shots of tequila.
Berlin is Valhalla for vintage and flea markets enthusiasts who want to score some hidden treasures. Most ‘flea markets’ in big cities – I am looking at you Portobello Market – are aimed at the tourist trade with lots of souvenirs but it’s the opposite in Berlin where the junk is actually worth delving into.
Check out other things I loved (and a few things I didn’t) in Berlin.
Did you have any missed shout outs for cities you’ve already blogged on?
Before I talk about more of the awesome things I did in Berlin, I want to take a look at the less awesome or disappointing things I’ve done, because everyone runs across those. Just the things that weren’t for me.
If you are a frequent reader you might have noticed that I do like a burger. So when I heard about Burgermeister – a place that’s set in old public toilets under U-bahn tracks, I could not wait to see what the fuss was about! I soon found out the place had as many assholes as when it was a public toilet. First was the queue, then I got hangry, after that fellow customers started to annoy me by being rude about tables and then when I finally got my drink it turned out their bottle opener didn’t work. But all of that would have been ok if the burger was good, but it wasn’t, it was pretty much like a Burger King patty: dry and tasteless and the melted cheese didn’t even taste like cheese (it was the worst). Eva said she had it at 5 AM which actually makes sense because to me it was nothing but post-clubbing comfort food.
When I read the description about the Red Berlin Tour I imagined it would be an interesting walk highlighting the life, architecture and culture of Berlin during the Cold War, but it was not as advertised. Instead, it was essentially a Berlin War Tour – which wasn’t bad at all, as our guide knew everything about that, but just not what I’d had in mind. And I think I was thrown off by the fact there was also a ‘Berlin Wall Tour’ from the same organisers. Afterwards, my own self made tour around Karl Marx Allee provided me with what I was looking for.
I wasn’t a big fan of the Christmas Markets to be honest, they were packed, all were same and the sellers were rude (it was Christmas, isn’t everyone supposed to be a tiny bit jolly and all?), the overpriced stoll was hard as stone and I paid €1.50 for what was supposed to be a butter pretzel but of course there was no butter to be found. I did enjoy the alternative Christmas Market in an abandoned theme park because it had a different atmosphere and their langos was great.
Sometimes you end up in an area where you’re really hungry and didn’t have anything prepared for and you walk into a random restaurant that looks slightly busy, Block House turned out to be a chain like Aberdeen Steakhouse in London and it wasn’t particularly bad or good, just you can get tastier food that will cost you a lot less. So not an recommendation for people who enjoy food, or, as importantly, are on a budget.
Schonefeld Airport was so sad, they can’t handle the amount of people and they probably are not upgrading anything because they are building a replacement airport – this was supposed to open in 2010, but apparently it’s not expected until 2017. Thankfully I didn’t get here too early.
Here are some more awesome things I’ve seen and done in Berlin.
Teufelsberg – Teufelsberg is a hill home to a former US Listening Station which was used in the Cold War. The S7 to Potsdam will take you to Berlin-Grünewald and from there it’s a 20 minute walk through the forest up to the hill. Guided walks are available daily every full hour from noon until dawn and do book ahead as the place can only be visited with a guide. The tour is around one hour and will take you around the abandoned complex, where you will find graffiti and street art adorning everything, but you’ll really just want to enjoy the view over the Grünewald from atop the listening tower, it’s like nowhere else in the city (or at least I haven’t found it). There’s a history tour available too, which describes the workings of the listening post from the 1960s onwards while you wander around.
Aunt Benny – I was lost somewhere in Friedrichshain, it was cold, it rained and when I saw the lights I just rushed inside. And to my surprise I stumbled upon this cute spot and decided to go inside. I was welcomed with a cosy and Pinterest worthy interior and got myself (what turned out to be) delicious carrot cake and fresh mint tea to warm me up. They also have a selection of sandwiches, bagels and soups which makes it a great place for a lunch.
Berlin Wall Memorial – When it comes to the wall everyone is talking about the East Side Gallery (the longest standing bit left) but the Berlin Wall Memorial outside Nordbahnhof is much more impressive. The memorial contains the last piece of Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it and gives you a great impression of how the border developed to keep people from trying to go to the other West Side. On November 9th 2014 (the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall) the permanent exhibition “1961 – 1989. The Berlin Wall Memorial opened in the renovated documentation center. It’s dedicated to the history of Berlin’s division and explains the political and historical situation that led to the Wall’s construction and fall. It’s opened daily from 10.00 to 18.00 and free of charge.
The Bird – there are a lot of burgers places in the city and it was hard to pick one. This confusingly-named place (cow, rather than bird was the main animal on the menu, though some chicken options were available) in Prenzlauer Berg was a good pick and their American style burgers are approved by Tea. Next to burgers you will find steak, a selection of beer and whiskey on the menu. I did miss milkshakes though.
Sofortbild-Shop – heaven for polaroid fans. Here you will find a hidden cavern full of of old polaroid cameras (prices range from €50 to €90) and a wide range of films by the Impossible Project. Plus they sell Fuji instax cameras and film. Mulackstrasse, where the shop is located, is generally a nice alternative street you need to check out too.
When I go travelling I usually have a daily budget in my head, but I don’t always manage to stick to it. I like to look back and think of travel expenses I could have avoided if I had. Today I am sharing my Berlin mistakes.
Travel ticket – I wanted a 7 days ticket, but you can only buy those at U Bahn Stations and there were none near where I was. So I had to spend €1.70 to get to one way.
Day card – I also spent €6.90 on a day ticket and ended up just taking 4 trams. The weather changed – and so did my plans.
Water – A lot of stores sell ‘still’ mineral water when it in fact still has some bubbles/fizziness. This type of water just makes me thirsty so I don’t drink it. Gone forever are the 3 euros.
Tour – I have only had good things to say about all the free New Europe tours I did (when you pay what you think it’s worth at the end), so when I read Red Berlin description I thought I could give their paid tours a chance. While I thought it was going to be a look at life in communist Berlin it was more of a Berlin Wall Tour. It was bad and €10 is what I usually give at the end of the tour, but it just wasn’t what I expected.
Starbucks – I mean it wasn’t essential, but it was mere laziness. You know when you arrive at the start of the tour and decide to get a drink and something on the side so you can sit down and make use of the Wi-Fi (that for some reason never works for me). I did that and €9 faded into oblivion.
Food – Germans tend to put meat into everything and it isn’t always obvious on the packaging. When I bough a sandwich that read mozzarella and spinach on the front I did not expect to find pork in it. Since I don’t eat pork I pretty much threw away €4.50.
Pretzel – Pretzels are good, but butter pretzels are soo much better – and I don’t mind paying an one euro extra. But at a Christmas Market I was sold a normal pretzel for a butter one. There went my €1.
So, that’s just over €35 (£28 or $42) wasted.
PS – don’t skip paying on transport – I saw an unfortunate girl get caught on the train by the plain-clothes inspector and handed a €40 fine – now that’s a money mistake!
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