Berlin is a striking city of edgy art, modern architecture, friendly culture and unfortunate history. It is different to any city I’ve ever been to and it actually might be one of my favourites. It doesn’t have the consistent perfect terracotta roofs of Florence or the quaint cobbled streets of Kotor, it doesn’t possess the great ruins of Athens or the skyscrapers of New York, but what it does have is a unique unapologetic character of its own and I would like to introduce you to my new friend – Berlin (at Christmastime).
My first impressions of Berlin were at 3am and consisted of a bleak night and scary train system. Thankfully I was staying with a good friend who now lives in the city so she came to my rescue and I stayed with her. I quickly realised the train system is actually very simple, as are the buses, and I had no issues here on out. I had 4 full days in Berlin, which I feel is perfect for this time of year, but in summer I feel I could stay much longer. I read a statistic that Berlin is 46% green space or water of which I explored only a tiny part of due to December temperatures and foggy skies.
Parks, airports, galleries and markets
On my first day, my friend and I ventured out into the city and began in Victoria Park. I can imagine this would be stunning in summer (as would most of the places I went so I will only say it this once) but it was lovely when we went as well. We walked up to the Prussian National Monument for the Liberation of Wars which had lengthy views down the streets leading to the centre and also down what I believe would be a waterfall. It was foggy but lovely.
We then walked to an abandoned airport. Yes – that’s the kind of stuff you’ll find in Berlin. This monumental Tempelhof field, which was once used by the Americans to transport supplies to those in need in the city, is now left to runners, dog walkers and wildlife. The curved terminal building remains empty and looks onto a green square with a memorial to the Berlin airlift. This was my first introduction to the history of Berlin. (Took no photos so you best go visit…)
As the weather was less that ideal we decided to take cover in an art gallery, and chose the Hamburger Bahnhof for the occasion. The modern art exhibits are situated in this 19th century railway station which is both bizarre and wonderful. I really loved this museum and considered returning – but there’s too much to see in the city for that. We sat watching a film about a family running an illegal abortion clinic in Austria for an hour (called The Impossible Picture, by Sandra Wollner), saw some impressive metal structures that we didn’t understand, walked around a life size house seemingly constructed using scraps, entered a recreation of a South American shopping mall by Sol Calero and watched a strange Latino TV show. It was a very cool museum.
In the evening we headed out to get Christmassy. We went to Gendarmenmarkt, which is sandwiched between to stunning churches (which I only appreciated fully when I returned in daylight) for the huge Christmas market, but stopped on the way when a littler one caught our eye. Wow. Berlin knows how to do Christmas. I can only imagine what the markets are like in other cities, like Frankfurt and Cologne. We scowered the stalls and leisurely drank prosecco and mulled wine around a wood burner listening to festive tunes. What a lovely Christmassy evening.
Berlin wall, colourful streets, Christmassy malls and the river
My second day began at the East Side Gallery, one of Berlin’s top attractions – and for good reason. The whole area is eye opening and beautiful in the strangest way. However, the art begins way before the wall does, from the other side of the stunning bridge actually. Public art installations grace both sides of the river bank and then the long stretch of the dividing wall of 20th century Berlin begins and is a complete beauty.
I then decided to wander to one of the main roads of Friedrichshain called Karl-Marx Allee, known as a socialist boulevard with striking architecture of the 50s. I walked most of the way down enjoying the massive amounts of space and the towering tenements either side of the lanes.
I then veered off to the more residential parts of the area where I came across colourful apartment blocks, cosy cafes and small tree lines squares.
Even with the dull weather I took a stroll around Friedrichshain Park which surprised me a great deal. It had some pretty ponds, more public art and a lovely path steeping up to a vantage point (where I could actually only see trees). Fog and cold can’t dampen my spirits.
As it was lunchtime I did a typical ‘budget backpacker’ meal and popped into aldi to pick up supplies and then headed into a shopping centre near Alexander Platz to sit down and eat. Germany do shopping centres right and have plush comfy seats amongst sparkling surroundings of Christmas trees and decorations (note: do not expect this in summer – go sit in a park).
After a couple of hours sitting, reading and shopping (for chocolate) in the shopping centre I ventured out again to have a last wonder around Alexander Platz before meeting my friend. The markets here were charming and a short walk led me to the very picturesque riverside (which I returned to the next day). I loved the smaller streets and squares and it felt like an alien part of the city compared to what I’d experienced so far.
The last stop on this jam-packed day was KaDeWe, an enormous department store. One of my favourite things to do in London is wander around Harrods, so I was excited about this. It exceeded expectations with it’s beautiful festive decorations, indoor Christmas market and spellbinding food hall. We spend a while in this particular part of the store.
So that was my first couple of days in Berlin. I found this city so different to anywhere I’d been before and was excited to see more. It has a way of slowly revealing itself to its visitors and making you want to understand the history and the people. At first I thought it would be a tough place to crack but it quickly warmed on me. I began to love it – and this was only the start of my trip!
Stay tuned for days 3 and 4…