Having spent the second half of 2018 desperately simulating beckoning motions towards the New Year; January could not come quick enough. I felt strongly about embracing 2019 with new goals, new visions and new ambitions, with a plan to do more of what I love and less of what I don’t. What I love most is travel so I supposed the most perfect expression of starting as I meant to go on was to see in the New Year somewhere that required air travel, my passport and a jam-packed itinerary of sightseeing and shenanigans. That turned out to be Berlin… a City renowned for its history, culture, beer and sausage. What more could you want?!
To push my excitement levels even further, this trip also featured a brand new pair of cold weather boots and my trusty travel buddy & pro-photographer Hannah Young.
With 4 days to kill and no real agenda, it’s definitely fair to say we did this City justice. Clocking up a whopping 60k steps, 12 Uber journeys and 3 Tram rides, we accomplished 2 Christmas Markets, whizzed up the TV Tower, strolled along the East Side Gallery, got lost in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, hot footed through the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, took in the sights of the Sony Center, Brandenburg Gate, the Victory Column, Berlin Cathedral, Museum Island, Check Point Charlie and the Reichstag Building, experimented with Tram travel and strolled through the Tiergarten.
I’ve highlighted the major tourist attractions above in bold because I probably won’t write a blog about the top things to see in Berlin. I wanted to take my chances at filling you in from a different perspective so, here it is…
The thing about Berlin is, it’s not a pretty City.
Architecturally, it’s absolutely incredible – I can’t argue with that. What lets it down is the grime. When I say ‘grime’ I largely mean infinite layers of graffiti, posters and chewing gum that cake almost every visible surface of every high street door way, bridge and lamp post. Including remnants of the Berlin Wall by the way. That’s 30 years of chewing gum build-up on one slab of concrete. There’s no emoji to depict how that made me feel.
Some of the graffiti was more attractive than other parts but still its not exactly what i’d call ‘street art’ although it did provide some cool photography backdrops.
Most of the beautiful historical buildings like the Cathedral and Bode Museum are dirty too. I mean, so dirty they’re virtually black. I felt quite disheartened looking over the water at Museum Island and realising that the stunning pictures I’d seen on Instagram had been heavily edited. Aaagh Berlin!! You could be as pretty as Florence or Seville if you just had a wash. Alfred Kärcher would have an absolute field day.
Anyway, the other thing is cranes. If you like cranes, you’re in for a treat – they feature in almost all of our landscape photography.
I’ve read several travel bloggers define Berlin as ‘a vibrant city’ and I can’t understand why. Frankly, it’s not vibrant (apart from the East Side Galley which is undoubtedly colourful). But as a defence to anyone who describes the City as anything other than bleak or dreary, I admit that it is difficult to articulate the exact vibe of Berlin. Bleak is a pretty accurate description in my opinion.
But, keep reading because as they say you should never judge based on looks. Behind the grey Edinburgh-esque dullness Berlin is urban, street, arty, and grungy. These aren’t words that would typically encourage me to visit a City and at one point I did wonder why we chose Berlin but, stay with me, it gets better.
Berlin is rated the world’s third most livable city. Not that I’m considering alternatives at present but if I was, a City that consumes 127 tonnes of sausage per day is likely to make my short list.
The food and drink scene is nothing short of awesome. Total heaven for foodies, coffee lovers, gin enthusiasts and vegans. So much so, I wrote a post called Eating in Berlin. Check it out for my top 10 F&B recommendations and a heartfelt testimony on my vegan doughnut discovery.
I found that the higher you get in Berlin, the better it looks (a reference to actual altitude). There are some really cool places to check out the skyline views including the iconic TV Tower (Berliner Fernsehturm) with a bar, observation deck and revolving restaurant at 207m above the City. There’s no better view while you eat!
If you want the TV Tower itself to feature in your City view, check out the Panoramic Terrace at the top of the Park Inn at Alexanderplatz. You can actually see a live view on their website here. Also, you can take the fastest elevator in Europe up to the Panoramapunkt in the Kollhof Tower at Potsdamer Platz which was especially cool over the Christmas period to see all the festive lights of the shopping malls and Christmas markets.
On the subject of Christmas Markets, I had previously read about Berlins efforts to renew its seasonal appeal after past events and as a huge fan of the festive period, I was really excited to see what was on offer so we headed to Gendarmenmarkt – a historical market square nestled between the Konzerthaus and two churches. It was everything you could want from a Christmas Market – a wonderful atmosphere, live music, beautifully decorated stalls and the most incredible smells of Glühwein, sausages and nuts! It was classy, graffiti free and really magical. One of the best I’ve been to in Europe and I highly recommend visiting Berlin over the Christmas period to catch the festivities in full swing.
Aside from the amazing architecture, gastronomy, city views and Christmas markets, there are three noteworthy things that intrigued me endlessly while I was in Berlin; Bears, the Amplemann, and vintage photo booths.
I’ll start with the bear thing. Basically, a street art project called ‘Buddy Bears’ kicked off in 2001 and now there are over 100 bears scattered around Berlin including ‘United Buddy Bears’ which were designed to represent countries acknowledged by the United Nations and they now form an integral part of Berlin’s cityscape which personally I really enjoyed, I genuinely got excited every time I spotted a crazy painted bear.
The next thing is Amplemann. So, this is the traffic light man who has become an iconic brand in Berlin. From a marketing point of view, I found this fascinating. There is a genuinely interesting story surrounding the history of Berlin’s traffic light symbol and how the little striding green man achieved cult status which you can read about here. You can buy absolutely every conceivable souvenir and accessory with the Amplemann on it from t-shirts and mugs to biscuits and coffee, it’s crazy. I loved it!
The last thing is the Photoautomat. These booths are scattered around the City and for 2 Euro’s you can have your very own retro strip of vintage mug shots. Amazing!
All things considered, I would highly recommend a visit to Berlin for history buffs, graffiti lovers, foodies and Christmas market enthusiasts. It’s definitely a quirky alternative to your every day City break and if you’re looking for something deeper than a pretty picture, Berlin’s hidden charm is well worth discovering.