A Christmas Weekender in Berlin

View over the River Spree to Nikolaiviertel and Alexanderplatz. The Nikolaiviertel is the reconstructed historical heart of the German capital Berlin. The neighbourhood was named after Nikolaikirche (Saint Nicholas Church).
View over the River Spree to Nikolaiviertel and Alexanderplatz. The Nikolaiviertel is the reconstructed historical heart of the German capital Berlin. The neighbourhood was named after Nikolaikirche (Saint Nicholas Church). | Photo by S. Widua on Unsplash

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Straddling east and west Germany, Berlin is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Here’s what first time visitors can expect and why Christmas is the perfect time to explore the colourfully ‘grey’ city.

Berlin has earned a reputation as a cultural and financial hub in the heart of Europe. Its known as one of the party capitals of the world today and has an unquestionably turbulent past which it declares everywhere you look. Growing up in the 1980s it was a place we would constantly see referenced as the edge of the Iron Curtain, a key location in the Cold War.

How the city has transformed since the famous night in 1989 when the Berlin Wall began to be dismantled before a live TV audience is a remarkable story for another time, but what stands here now is an intoxicating mix of progressive, referential and international influences.

Where to stay in Berlin

Although Berlin was a city divided in two by the former Soviet Union and the USA (along with her allies), it was actually in East Germany. This meant that it was overseen by Moscow and looking around the influences from that region are still obvious. The history of the city obviously dates far beyond that, stretching deep into the last century when Central Europe emerged as a global superpower.

Revamped and relaxing

I know all of this thanks to the hotel I stayed at when I visited Berlin, or rather thanks to the central location of Courtyard by Marriott Berlin City Center, a property which has recently undergone an extensive renovation. The hotel has lush wooden features throughout the lobby and into the rooms, a distinctive design choice which I also experienced when I arrived at Berlin Brandenburg Airport.

Reimagined by interior design group, Living Design Sweden, Courtyard Berlin City Center is the first Courtyard by Marriott property that brings the brand’s new design approach to life following an extensive renovation. As travellers arrive, they are welcomed into the airy lobby with a neutral colour palette, accented by a mix of natural materials such as marble, oak and brass to give the space an enveloping warmth.

The drive from into the centre of town only takes 40 minutes and it was an easy arrival (and subsequent departure) process, but locals aren’t that enamoured with the recent replacement of their beloved Tempelhof airport. There are a few bottlenecks if I’m being picky, but as a frequent flyer I found this to be one of the best new airports I’ve been to in years.

As the name of the hotel suggests, you really are in the heart of the city. It’s surprisingly quiet here in the Mitte District, which isn’t like other urban locations, but is in keeping with Berlin in general. It’s obviously got an excellent nightlife scene but when it comes to getting a good nights sleep, it seems like Berliners like to take that seriously too. The restaurant here serves great local cuisine and there’s a well-equipped gym to keep you active. I wanted to take my exercise via exploration of the city, but I was delighted that I had such a great base close to all the major attractions to start from. Who knows where the night would end though?

Things to do in Berlin

Thanks to an excellent public transport network – known as the U-Bahn – and an underground station less than five minutes walk from the hotel, I knew it would be easy to get around. As I was spending a weekend here, essentially giving myself two days to explore, I set aside the first day to getting to know the local area by foot. This meant I could also buy a 24 hour transport ticket for the latter part of my trip, giving me access to trains, buses and trams across Berlin. You can pick this up for just under 10 euros, and if you’re planning on taking more than 3 separate journey around the city, its cheaper to opt for this.

Saving my money for the evening activities and foodie delights of the city, which are all heightened during the run up to Christmas, I started with a free walking tour with a local guide. If you’ve done one of these before, you’ll know how much fun they can be especially if you are on a tight budget or travelling solo. There’s still a tipping system in place, but you genuinely pay what you think is right for the experience. For a three hour, information-packed tour with a charming host and his equally charming dog, 10-15 euros is about right.

The Christmas markets in the centre of town are all excellent and some of them look particularly lavish. The Berlin City Wall market is the one with a colourful funfair vibe and the one at Alexanderplatz is the one tourists flock to. Of the attractions in the heart of the city, you might want to opt for Gendarmenmarkt as it has a great location and fantastic atmosphere. There is a small entry fee of 2 euros but its worth it.

We visited a few of these but the highlight was actually a little further out of town in Prenzlauer Berg. This is the one locals raved about and they weren’t wrong about Lucia Christmas Market at Kulturbrauerei. The Nordic-themed market is perfect for trinkets and general festive vibes, and I got the bratwurst and mulled cider I was craving right here. As this is a family-friendly area there are plenty of options for everyone and I was really impressed by the vegan options across the city in general.

This was actually where we ended up spending our evening out in the city. With the reliable transport system available we found a cheap bar with plentiful pool tables and ended up potting till we could pot no more at Pool & Cigars. Book early if you want to guarantee a table on arrival or just turn up, grab a drink at the bar and put yourself on the list. Even on a Saturday night we only had to wait 30 minutes for a table to become available.

Its worth remembering that cash is still king here, so many bars, shops and even restaurants still don’t accept cards. Nearly all stalls in the the markets also operate on this system, so get those coins and notes out.

The potted history of Berlin, as we picked up on our walking tour, will invariably bring you to pivotal moments from the last century. The Berlin Wall once ran through the city and when it was torn down in 1989 many Germans understandably wanted to remove all signs of it. There are still a few areas where parts of the original 155 km long wall still stand, and if you head to East Side Gallery you’ll see a long section covered on one side in modern murals. This is about 45 minutes from the Courtyard by Marriott Berlin City hotel, but if you don’t want to travel that far then stroll 10 minutes down the road and visit the iconic Checkpoint Charlie crossing station.

The other two places you must see for yourself are back in the centre of the city. The Brandenburg Gate was constructed in the 18th century but has a close connection with images we all remember seeing from WWII. Today many protests and rallies are held here and it is a popular landmark which can get busy. If you really want to experience something more sombre then walk a few minutes away to the Holocaust Memorial. Officially known as The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, this stark reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazi party is a place for contemplation and is impeccably preserved.

Berlin is an important city which has done a remarkable job in modernising whilst never forgetting its own past. Many other major destinations around the world could learn a thing or two from the German capital.

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