A German Christmas story – Berlin – Christmas markets
It is difficult to explain how a German Christmas market smells. A bit of a heady combination of spiced red wine, cinnamon, cookie batter, sizzling sausages, damp earth from a recent rain, and baking bread – it is all of these things and more.
My first market experience was at Schloss Charlottenburg, about a 20-25 minute ride outside of the middle of Berlin. During the day, it was a good idea to explore the palace and the grounds, and by the time the lights came up and the sun went down, the Christmas market was in full swing.
The market was teeming with people by dusk, and the bright lights of the market stalls were already lit. I found the most bright and tell-tale ones were the lebkutchen stalls, where enormous bits of soft gingerbread were iced with things like “princess” and “I love you.” There were roasted nuts mixed in with the gingerbread creations, sending up a fragrance that was part bakery, part heaven. Or maybe all heaven. It smelled like everything the holidays should smell like.
The manger scenes were bright and beautiful, as were the rides for children. The most popular stands, of course, were the ones selling hot chocolate and glühwein. Glühwein, which I learned sort of means “glow wine”, was in every adult’s hand, steaming away its spiced wine deliciousness. It was here that I also learned about the 3€ deposit on the market mugs, which took a bit of sorting out because the sign was in German and I had no idea why the stall owner wanted more change than the price of the drink.
I also ordered the glühwein mit schuss, which I had idea what it meant. I figured it couldn’t be bad, so I tried my drink once it had cooled off enough.
And nearly died coughing, much to the dismay of everyone around me.
I Google translated mit schuss, which translated roughly to “with spirits” or “with a shot”. I had basically ordered spiced red wine – with an extra shot of liqueur. Alcohol on top of alcohol in a small mug. Wow. I figured it probably just killed any head cold I might be getting, so I drank it all down and the rest of the people with me under the hut cheered.
I may have winced as it went down, though. Strong enough to make you grow a beard. I didn’t really know what kind of spirit was added to the glühwein, but it got us all in the Christmas spirit, certainly!
It was here that I started my Christmas shopping, bought two heaping scoops of roasted nuts, and cheerfully ate those and a bratwurst with copious pools of spicy mustard on my walk back to the U-bahn.
I recommend the Schloss Charlottenburg for its atmosphere – it seemed more down-to-earth and folksy than the ones in the city proper, and it was highly recommended to me by a Berliner who said it was probably the most “original rustic” Christmas market in Berlin.
It’s worth the jaunt out of the city to visit the palace and then the market – and have enough glühwein mit schuss to keep you warm all night.
Getting there: U-Bahn Line 2 to Sophie-Charlotte-Platz is. Follow the signs to the palace, about a 10-15 minute walk down the pretty Schloss Strasse. There were buses as well – the 309 and M45 – which take you a little closer to the palace from the U2 station.
A second Christmas market I enjoyed, purely for the interesting people watching, was the market at Alexanderplatz. As a shopping mall haven and a convergence of U- and S-Bahn lines, Alexanderplatz was an easy stop during the day, as many of the market stalls were already open and set up for business. It was also less busy then than when I returned one evening to see it all lit up.
Alexanderplatz was easy to identify with its tall radio tower nearby called the Fernsehturm. Hotels, malls, and plenty of shops framed the square, which was pedestrianized save for watching the tram tracks carefully as not to get flattened like a crepe.
The market here was more commercial than Schloss Charlottenburg, with plenty of tourist tat like Berlin hats, magnets, and postcards. That being said, there were hidden gems of shops within the market, including one of the German glass ornament shops where I defy you to spend only a few minutes – and euros – in.
It was here that I tried currywurst for the first time – pretty amazing, to be honest – and ate a large portion of bratwurst at another stand. There was something to be said about eating a giant bratwurst out of a tiny bun. Or, at the very least, there was something entertaining to take a photograph of.
The market was large and sprawling, so it was worth a wander during the day and night. A little further off the main square was Marionkirche, an old church that was quite stunning in the evening. That part of the market was a little less crowded and a little more home-style – with yet more bretzels, glühwein, and hot chocolate than I could shake a stick at.
I visited the Alexanderplatz market in the evening two days after the Berlin terror attack, and while there was obvious caution and wariness by the market-goers, people were still out enjoying themselves and celebrating the days leading up to Christmas. Resilience aside, locals and tourists alike were not willing to give up the tradition.
Getting there: Numerous S-bahn and U-bahn lines converged at Alexanderplatz – S5, S7/75, and 9 and U2, 5, and 8. Simply exit the station and look for all the lights.
A third market stop brought me to Potsdamer Platz, the self-styled Times Square of Berlin. I had to admit – it was most impressive with its neon lights and brilliantly-lit malls full of Christmas decorations.
Potsdamer Platz was beautiful, if anything, for its light displays and picaresque shops and restaurants. Plenty of stalls with interesting crafts, including a man who made coffee mugs, serving trays, and other implements with gorgeous ceramic materials, and the enormous snowball treats were plentiful. Snowball pastries (schneeball) were made with strips of shortbread formed into a round shape, then filled with something delicious like a caramel, Bailey’s, or strawberry marzipan and dribbled with chocolate, frosting, or the traditional confectioner’s sugar. These snowballs were monstrous – and it took me two days and multiple little snacks to finish one.
With a long shelf-life of about 6-8 weeks without being refrigerated, I figured they’d make a nice treat to bring home for Christmas.
Further along the market was the beautiful Sony Center building with its flower petal-like canopy sparkling with a chameleon style lights that shifted from purple to pink to blue. It was a good place to stop and eat another bratwurst (dinner on the cheap during this season – bratwurst, currywurst, or potato pancakes) and admire the changing colors. I also discovered a bookstore with some English-language interest books (!!!), which meant I ended up buying books. Of course.
On my travels, I always buy a magnet, some kind of item that can be used as a tree ornament for my well-traveled Christmas tree, a Starbucks mug (where applicable), and, if I can find it, a book – fiction or nonfiction – with ties to the place I am visiting. Months later, when I pull it off my shelf to read, I end up with a nice reminder of the culture and the people I had visited. It’s like taking a second holiday.
Potsdamer Platz was a worthy market to visit, and, even if it had the same tourist tat as Alexanderplatz, it had some kind of charm to it that I found appealing.
Getting there: Like Alexanderplatz, multiple train lines come to Potsdamer Platz – the S1, 2, and 25 and U2. The U6 headed in near Checkpoint Charlie, so it’s not that far away. It is worth a walk around the entire area as well, especially to the Sony Center or nearby museums to see them at night.
Gendarmenmarket was the closest Christmas market to my hotel, and while I walked the outside perimeter admiring the neoclassical architecture of the square’s buildings, I did not go inside. Just seeing the golden lights of the Französischer Dom and the Deutscher Dom combined with the beautiful wooden market buildings was enough for me. After all, I had a sprained ankle by this point, so I really wanted to rest it without having to work through more crowds on my last night there.
There was a small fee to go inside – 1€ only for adults – and I heard that there are good gourmet food options there and many craftsmen and photographer stalls. It might have been the buildings around Gendarmenmarkt, but the market gave off a very classy and upscale vibe.
It would be worth checking out next time if I were to head back to Berlin at Christmas time.
Getting there: U2 at Stadtmitte or U Hausvogteiplatz, or U6 at U Französische Strasse were only a few clicks away.
I certainly was not disappointed by Christmas markets in Berlin. My trip to Germany was specifically to experience the ambiance and sights of the markets, along with soak in the insane amount of history in the city. While Frankfurt and Munich were relatively easy to get to via Hong Kong, the easy flight to Berlin and the nonstop flight back to Chicago were the keys for more.
After five days of taking in everything I could – museums and history by day, Christmas marks by night – it was time to head back to Chicago for some much-needed rest and relaxation.