I didn’t have much in the way of expectations for Berlin before we got there – it was kind of just a standard big European city in between the interestingly-Scandinavian Gothenburg and the edgy ex-Eastern-bloc town of Riga. Neither of us had even really had much of a look into what we might do while we were there.
So we landed in the dark, in terms of our local knowledge as much as the time of day. We were staying in the Mitte district, right in the middle of the city, and it was actually a lot harder to get there than I’d expected – it was only after a bus ride and two separate trains that we made it into town.
This was due to the fact that Berlin is actually a very large place, second only to London by population in Europe. There is also a huge amount of things to see and do in this city, which I’ll confess now we did absolutely not do justice to while we were there. This leads to a good piece of advice – if you wing it on a trip, you’ll miss things. A little planning goes a long way.
After checking into our hotel (Hotel Gendarm-nouveau – an average hotel at a well above average price, but the location is perfect), we went straight back out and got our first taste of what we’d come for – Christmas markets. I’d picked the hotel based almost entirely on its proximity to Gendarmenmarkt, and the markets it holds each year over the winter. As it turned out, it was about to close, but we still managed to find a glühwein (mulled wine) stall outside to relax at for a while.
The next morning we set off in search of Checkpoint Charlie. CPC, as I’ll call it to save me valuable typing time (I generally only use two fingers, so economy is important), was the Allied name for the crossing between West and East German during the cold war. I’d never really given it a huge amount of thought previously, but I found it fascinating to consider how relatively recently CPC and the rest of the Berlin Wall were actually in use – the wall itself only came down in 1989, well within what I consider ‘modern times’ (i.e. my lifetime). The information area around CPC was super crowded, so we didn’t stay long.
A short walk directly west from CPC, beside a stretch of the old wall still standing, is the Topographie des Terrors. This is a bright and airy building on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, which now houses a museum documenting some of key events which took place in Nazi Germany during WW2. We spent a good couple of hours there, and I found it to be engaging, informative, honest, brutal, horrific, slightly terrifying and above all, incredibly sad. It also needs remembering, so make time to see it if you ever visit Berlin.
Slightly in need of a bit of cheer after all that, we went to a beer hall for lunch. Back near where we were staying, Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt was a great time – it looks very traditional (or at least, what tourists like us might imagine to be traditional. I’m unsure whether that’s the same thing or not), has great beer and delicious food. It was an excellent lunch, although it did lead to us discovering a little hint we can now share with you all.
Tipping in Berlin is optional. You can if you want, but it is worth noting that service staff don’t rely on tips anywhere as much as they might in the US, for example. It is more just a reflection on your meal and service. Our waitress, however, made it seem like the worst of offenses not too, basically just demanding one. We paid one, a little begrudgingly. I read later that putting heavy pressure on tourists in this way is quite common, but just remember this: you don’t have to tip unless you feel the meal merits it.
That night we went to see the local Christmas markets. Like I mentioned, one of the key criteria for our trip was picking cities which would still have Christmas markets running after Christmas had actually passed, and the one next to where we were staying looked like one of the best in Berlin. And the reality? We had an excellent few hours there, loved it. One of our favourite parts was seeing a show which appeared to be equal parts acrobatics and German slapstick jokes – we didn’t get the jokes, of course, but the rest of the audience loved them.
On our second day, we basically just went on a big walk around the central city. We started with a thorough wander around the Mitte district, taking in some shops, a cafe, some of Museum Island and then lunch at another beer hall, before heading up north east towards Prenzlauer Berg. I can’t remember why we picked that direction to head, and while the walk was nice enough, I’d probably recommend trying a different direction if you’re ever at a loss for things to do on a holiday to Berlin (or even better – do a little bit of research beforehand. There’s a lot to see in this city).
For dinner, we tried another beer hall (just to be different). This time it was the Lowenbrau brewery hall, near where we were staying. Lowenbrau was a bit more casual that the other couple we’d been to, which was ideal given we were actually quite tired after our walk. The beer was delicious, food was hearty and needed, and the atmosphere very nice (though we did get asked for a tip again at the end – Bridget just said no).
And that was about it for our first trip to Berlin. We had a nice time there, though we may need to go back someday given just how much I realised we missed out on after we got back home to London. Lesson learned, though – a little planning goes a long way sometimes.
Next stop – Riga, in Latvia.
Until then, B & A.