Last December I wrote about two fairy-tale Christmas markets on the outer edges of West Berlin. For this year, here are four city centre markets with great atmosphere and historic charm. The setting is a key factor and even without the merest sprinkling of snow, these markets have backdrops that make them special. They are most magical after dusk, when the stalls and trees are strung with lights. Look out for the traditional ‘Herrenhuter Sterne’ (Moravian stars) which originated in 1830; they hang outside stalls and shops all over Germany and have a unique glow.
Traditional Herrenhuter Stern
The market in the grand courtyard of Schloβ Charlottenburg has a tempting variety of food stalls on offer, many of them in festive-shaped constructions. Try the venison goulasch, the suckling pig or the fried green cabbage, as well as any kind of sausage imaginable. Mulled wine comes in different flavours with extra shots and the mug only costs an extra two euros as a souvenir.
Magical skyline at Charlottenburg
Every kind of ‘Wurst’
The Charlottenburg market has plenty of Christmas decoration and craft stalls too. Here the traditional wooden ‘Weihnachtspyramide’ and carved figures are better value than in the shops, but make sure they originate from the ‘Erzgebirge’ (Ore mountains) if you want the genuine article. The huge wooden nativity scene and the musicians playing Christmas carols add to the nostalgic feel, but there’s an element of the modern fairground in the mix.
Carols and the ‘candy train’
Another popular market laid out in front of beautiful historic buildings is the ‘Weihnachtszauber’ market on Gendarmenmarkt, where the Konzerthaus, flanked by the impressive twin French and German churches, provides a dream setting. There’s a charge of one euro to enter this market, although it doesn’t seem to keep the numbers down. Last Friday evening it was extremely full and we had to fight our way through the crowds. In the middle of the market is a stage for the live entertainment and many of the stalls are crammed into large tents. It’s all very jolly, especially in the food tents with their Bierfest atmosphere and cheerful service. The Gendarmenmarkt market runs until New Year’s Eve.
In front of the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt
If you are looking for something more low-key and smaller-scale, take a stroll along Sophienstrasse, just a couple of minutes from the Hackescher Markt. This an ‘Ökomarkt’, where all the goods have ecological or organic pedigree and are generally hand-crafted. Sophienstrasse is lined with beautifully-restored buildings, including the oldest baroque church in Berlin, Sophienkirche. The shops have traditional medieval metal signs hanging outside and the old-fashioned street lamps and metal railings of the church cemetery contribute to a Dickensian atmosphere. This market is only open on Advent weekends until 7pm. No Easyjet revellers here.
The Advent scene on Sophienstrasse
You can also escape the tourists at the ‘Lucia market’ in Prenzlauer Berg, named after the Nordic goddess of light. Set up in the ‘Kulturbrauerei’, a former brewery complex from the 19th century, the market stalls feature traditional Scandinavian handicrafts, food and drink. The historic brick buildings form a spectacular backdrop and there is a family feel to this market, with its carousels and children’s art gallery. The Glühwein flows for the adults, including several unusual Scandinavian varieties. Next to one of the drink stalls is an added attraction; a wood-fired stove where market-goers can sit on benches warmed by electric radiators and slip their arms into a thick sheepskin coat.
Something for all the family at the Lucia Markt
Saturday is a great time to do a Berlin market. The largest ‘Wochenmarkt’ (‘weekly market’) is the Winterfeldtmarkt in Schöneberg, the district where Christopher Isherwood of ‘Cabaret’ fame used to live and still the soul of the Berlin gay and lesbian scene. It’s an area of the city with lots of great cafés and interesting shops – and plenty of edge and style. This market takes place twice weekly, on Wednesdays (8am to 2pm) and Saturdays (8am to 4pm), on Winterfeldtplatz – a large square, only a short walk from Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn Station (Lines 1 and 2). It’s a very colourful affair, with scores of stalls to wander around.
Locals come to buy fresh supplies and stop to talk to favourite stallholders and friends. Visitors to Berlin just love the buzzing market experience; the sights and smells are an assault on the senses. You can stop for a portion of exotic street food or settle for a traditional German sausage. If you only want a taste, most of the produce stalls offer samples before you buy.
The craft stalls are wonderful. None of the goods seem banal or commercialised; even the soaps shaped like the Brandenburg Gate are scented with real lemon grass. We tasted the honey made from the pollen of nearby linden and chestnut trees and bought a couple of jars of Rolf’s golden nectar. The cardboard models of retro German cars were also a great hit as gifts for vintage friends.
Hand-made jewellery and clothes made of natural materials such as wool, felt, fur and cotton, are another temptation. The stallholders are passionate about their products and are happy to explain more about them – in English, if necessary. German markets specialise in leather goods, pottery and traditional kitchen utensils made of wood and metal. They all have ecological pedigree and hippy Berliners of all ages would much rather buy the real thing than a mass-produced item. You can sometimes haggle about the price, but a Wochenmarkt is not the same as a ‘Flohmarkt’ where bric a brac and antiques never really have a fixed price.
Winterfeldtplatz is surrounded by streets packed with cafés and bars. Berlin Unwrapped has several recommendations listed under Schöneberg in the ‘Café Society’ chapter and you can explore the streets of this neighbourhood in greater detail in ‘Small Worlds’. But here’s a new discovery for a perfect lunch stop. Leave the market at the top end of the square, by the church, then turn right, walk about 100 metres and ‘Mutter’ is at 4, Hohenstaufenstraβe. Although the word ‘Mutter’ usually translates as ‘mother’, here it refers to a ‘nut’ – as in ‘nut and bolt’ – as is obvious from the large logo over the front door.
Mutter’s website explains the Indo-European derivation of the restaurant’s name, but leaves us to guess why they chose it. A clue may be in its warm embrace and the heavenly Thai dishes at reasonable prices. The restaurant lighting is from dimmed chandeliers above wooden tables and an illuminated bar with considerable style. There is another bar area for drinks only and in summer, tables spill out onto the street. Mutter is open seven days a week, from 11am until late. ‘Blue Hour’ is from 8pm until 10pm and ‘all night long’ on Sundays, when cocktails cost just €6.50.
There’s nothing like a pretty square in a busy city – a place to sit and chill, take a break from the rush and linger over a meal or drink. Savignyplatz in Charlottenburg offers all this and more, yet remains far from the madding crowd, despite its central location. Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain may be ‘on trend’, but the nightlife around Savignyplatz is just as buzzing, with less hype and more substance. And by day, it’s perfect for lunch at a pavement café and a starting point for a stroll around local shops off the Ku’damm. It’s easy to get to as well – only one stop from Zoo Station on the S-Bahn.
Arriving at Savignyplatz by S Bahn
Like many other places in Berlin, Savignyplatz has French origins in its design and its name. The square was originally laid out in 1862 as part of the Hobrecht Plan for urban Berlin, based on the boulevards and squares of Hausmann’s renovation of Paris under Napoleon III. In 1887, it was named after Karl Friedrich von Savigny, a well-connected lawyer who played an important role in Berlin political and academic life in the mid-19th Century. In French, the pronunciation of the word ‘Savigny’ puts the stress on the last syllable, but Berliners resolutely call it ‘Sav-ee-gny’.
Savignyplatz in 1902
Savignyplatz is dissected by the broad avenue of Kantstraβe which runs east-west, and a total of seven streets fan out from the two halves of the square. In 1892, it became a public park and four years later, Savignyplatz S-Bahn station was opened, with the overhead railway running atmospherically along the south side of the square. Herbaceous borders and shaded arbours were added in 1926 and two identical bronze sculptures of a ‘Knabe mit Ziege’ (‘Boy with goat’) were placed on the northern part of the square in 1931. When they were replaced after the war in 1955, only one was an original – the other is a copy.
Views of the square today
For much of the post-war period Savignyplatz remained rather neglected, although the surrounding area of Charlottenburg was one of the hubs of West Berlin’s nightlife. This area was also the centre of the student demonstrations in the 1960s. It still attracts students, as well as the ‘Alte 68er’ – a term Germans give to what we call loosely describe as ‘ageing left-wing intellectuals’. In 1987, it was given a facelift for the celebrations of the 750th Anniversary of Berlin. The original kiosk designed by Grenander, the architect responsible for many of Berlin’s U-Bahn stations, was rebuilt and is now a popular currywurst stand. The brick cabin dating back to 1926 wasn’t reconstructed until 2007 and features an eye-catching contemporary art installation illuminated at night.
The modernised kiosk and cabin
Savignyplatz has always had an alternative vibe. In the 1920s it attracted scores of artists, writers and celebrities. The Expressionist painter, Georg Grosz, lived at 5 Savignyplatz, before he emigrated to the States in the 1930s and the poet Mascha Kaléko was just around the corner in Bleibtreustraβe. When she also left in 1938, she published these haunting lines in the ‘Aufbau’ journal of German emigrés in America. They translate literally as: “I travelled around the world a lot before those ‘thousand years‘. Foreign lands were beautiful, only a substitute. The name of my homesickness was Savignyplatz.”:
“Ich bin vor jenen ‘tausend Jahren’, viel in der Welt herumgefahren. Schön war die Fremde, doch Ersatz. Mein Heimweh hieβ Savignyplatz.“
There is indeed something nostalgic about Savignyplatz, which finds its echo in many of the surrounding restaurants and bars housed in grand Wilhemine-style buildings. My favourite is the café that never sleeps – Schwarzes Café (‘Black Café’) at 148 Kantstraβe, two minutes from the square. It’s open round the clock and epitomises laid-back, dimly-lit Berlin café society. David Bowie and Iggy Pop hung out there in the late 1970s when it first opened. The more upmarket Paris Bar, a little further along Kantstraβe, has a glitzy cult following and a degree of egotism. Glossy photos on the walls bear witness to all the actors and film stars who have dined there. This was once the West Berlin restaurant to be seen in. By contrast, the wonderful Florian, tucked away at 52 Grolmanstraβe, is where the illustrious go to escape attention. Unsurprisingly, both the food and the service are both outstanding. Everything is organic and the menu has a South German accent. It’s open every day from 6pm and the kitchen serves food until midnight. Booking is essential.
Looking into the Schwarzes Café and Florian
For a traditional German meal in a cosy pub atmosphere complete with wooden panelling and curios, a visit to the Die Dicke Wirtin (‘The Fat Landlady’) on the north side of Savignyplatz is a must. This Berlin institution has been going strong for over 80 years and has the ‘quaint’ factor, and tends to attract group bookings by tour bus companies, so a table reservation is recommended here too.
The quaint interior of the Dicke Wirtin
For a retro feel though, I prefer the Zwiebelfisch (‘Onion Fish’) a café bar at 7-8 Savignyplatz, open from midday until six in the morning and still frequented by aspiring bohemians. Time stopped here in the 1960s and it’s still a perfect place for putting the world to rights in the early hours, surrounded by old posters and photos from West Berlin days. The Spectator magazine seems to agree with me. It describes the Zwiebelfisch as simply the best bar in the world.
Chilling in the Zwiebelfisch
While on the subject of bars, the cool Hefner Bar on the corner of Savignyplatz and Kantstraβe, serves first-class cocktails to start or end the evening. It has that slick lounge bar quality that comes at a price. By contrast, the Gainsbourg le Club Americain, which has now moved to the south side of the square in the Jeanne-Mammen-Bogen, is an old Savignyplatz haunt with all the smoky Parisian hip and great cocktails its name promises, but in a Berlin setting under the S-Bahn arches. There’s live music from Thursdays to Saturdays.
Inside Hefner and outside Gainsbourg
But the most well-known music venues in this area are the A-Trane and Quasi Modo. A-Trane has a good restaurant as well as being a great jazz club. Quasi Modo, nearer Zoo Station, is a basement club under the Delphi-Filmpalast cinema and next to the Theater des Westens. It opened back in 1975 in what used to be a student pub and has a wide programme of live music as well as some cabaret and comedy. Both A-Trane and Quasi Modo have websites giving details of their music events in English.
The A-Trane entrance
Facing Savignyplatz itself there are about 10 restaurants to choose from. They all spill out on to the pavement and even in colder weather, people sit outside to enjoy the prospect of the square, huddled under the blankets provided. It’s always fun to walk around the square studying the different menus. I love Brel for its total Frenchness and the AndaLucia tapas café for its Spanish warmth. There are several perfectly good Italian restaurants to choose from, but nothing to beat the pizza at the 12 Apostel in the passage leading to the S-Bahn station. If you like Vietnamese food, I can recommend both Mr Hai and Friends and Pho Nguyen.
Pavement café society
Finally, you can browse for hours in the shops on and around Savignyplatz. Bücherbogen has beautiful art books and Marga Schoeller in Knesebeckstraβe stocks a large range of books in English. Kantstraβe is well known for its design shops and galleries and there are boutiques up and down Bleibtreustraβe and Knesebeckstraβe. Berlin Unwrapped has all the details in the Charlottenburg section of ‘Buy, buy Berlin’. But here are two additions; at 88 Knesebeckstraβe is Berliner ZInnfiguren, a collector’s dream shop selling antique tin soldiers and cake enthusiasts should head for the colourful Der Kuchenladen (‘The Cake Shop’) at 138 Kantstraβe. This shop and café has one of the best selections of cakes in Berlin and with over 50 to choose from, you may have to go back time and again. It’s open every day from 10am until 10pm.
Books, cakes and tin soldiers
I’m not a great fan of shopping malls. In fact, quite the opposite. But curiosity eventually drew me to the crassly-named ‘Mall of Berlin’, the largest and newest shopping centre in Berlin. It opened last summer to great razzamatazz and also some controversy, as the Rumanian construction workers claimed they had not been paid and dubbed it the ‘Mall of Shame’.
Construction workers on the march
My main reason for seeking it out was its location on Leipziger Platz. Before the war, this was the site of the biggest department store in Europe. This jewel in the crown of the ‘Wertheim’ chain was built in 1896 and featured 83 lifts and a glass-covered atrium. Georg Wertheim, the owner, was Jewish and his stores were expropriated by the Nazis in 1937. The Jewish workers lost their jobs and the Wertheim family was forced to sell all their holdings. They tried to avoid losing control of the company by making Georg’s ‘Aryan’ wife, Ursula, the principal shareholder. But in the end, this was unsuccessful, even though the couple divorced to keep the shares in purely ‘Aryan’ hands.
The Wertheim store in the 1920s
The Leipziger Platz building was badly damaged in the war, its ruins were demolished in the 1950s and then the site ended up in no-man’s land between East and West Berlin when the city was divided. After reunification, the area soon sprang to life again and in 1991, one of the world’s most famous techno clubs, ‘Tresor’ (in German, ‘safe’ or ‘vault’) opened in the only remnant left of the Wertheim store, its giant underground vault. The club closed in 2005.
‘Tresor’ in 2003
In the meantime, the Wertheim site had become embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute between the family’s descendants and several German companies and was finally settled out of court in 2007. For many years there were two remaining stores in Berlin which operated under the Wertheim name, even though they were owned by Karstadt. The flagship store, built in 1969-1971, was on the Kurfürstendamm and converted into a Karstadt store in 2008. The other store, in the West Berlin district of Steglitz, was demolished in 2009 for construction of the glitzy new Schloßstraße shopping mall.
The Wertheim store (lower right) on the Ku’damm in 2003
The €1bn ‘Mall of Berlin’, an entire new quarter of the city centre with 270 shops, a Hard Candy fitness centre owned by Madonna, a hotel, offices and flats, marks the spot where the grand Wertheim store once stood. At the opening ceremony in September 2015, the then Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, paid tribute to its original Jewish owners. “It’s really great that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve finally managed to close the gap where the great Wertheim store once stood … Leipziger Platz has a historic importance in Berlin. Wertheim stood for quality and innovation and we’re looking forward to continuing that tradition.”
Grand opening of The Mall of Berlin in 2015
Harald Huth, developer of the three-storey structure, has also paid tribute to the Wertheim store by including giant pictures of it on the walls of the mall and modelling the glass-covered arcade on the one in the original building. These historic touches are, for me, the best thing about the ‘Mall of Berlin’.
Old photographs of the Wertheim store on the walls and around the top of the escalators
I also like the political sayings embedded into the flooring; they literally make you stop and think. Barak Obama’s words in the photograph below translate as: ‘Peoples of the world, look at Berlin where a wall fell and a continent united, And the course of history has proved that no challenge is too great for a world that stands together.’ Little did I imagine when I read these words that the United Kingdom was about to vote to leave the European Union.
The Barak Obama quote, in German
Once you are inside the ‘Mall of Berlin’, you could be anywhere in the world. There are all the usual international high-end brands alongside the high-street chains and the layout is pretty predictable too. In general, the ground floor and the first floor are all about fashion, the second floor is dedicated to shoes, children, and a food court and the basement is home to various stores selling sporting goods, electronics and food. I found a couple of shops selling something unique to Berlin and then we headed to the highlight of the mall – its elegant and airy piazza.
‘I’ve looked around and we are the trendiest people here’
This open space, with its perfect view of the front façade of the Bundesrat (German equivalent of the House of Lords) has hosted two fantastic classical music flashmobs. There was one last September and another only a couple of months back when 1,000 amateur musicians joined the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester to play Wagner, Verdi and Berlioz under the baton of Kent Nagano. Follow this You Tube link to hear how they sounded.
Flashmobbing in the Mall of Berlin
Another good thing about the Mall of Berlin is its central location on Leipziger Platz, so close to many of Berlin’s historic sites – only a ten minute stroll from both the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. The main entrance to the mall is just by the exit of Potsdamer Platz U-Bahn station, while the Wilhelmstraße entrance is very close to the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station. Buses M48 and 200 stop in front of the mall at ‘U Mohrenstraße’ or ‘Leipziger Straße / Wilhelmstraße’, while all the S-Bahn trains and buses stopping at Potsdamer Platz are only a couple of minutes’ walk from the mall. The Mall of Berlin also boasts 1,000 underground parking spaces, open 24 hours a day.
A view of the Bundesrat from the piazza
People often ask me where to go for ‘good shopping’ in Berlin. If you are short of time and want to find everything under one roof, then the Mall of Berlin is the obvious choice. But this cathedral of consumerism, beautifully-lit and with classy shop fronts, lacks any true Berlin feeling, other than the fact that it stands on such a historic site. We emerged from its bright lights into the early evening sunshine, and contemplated its essence from a pavement table at a great little Italian café on Leipziger Platz. The verdict was ‘decidedly dull’.
Restaurant tip on Leipziger Platz
But the scene outside had its merits. The sleek, high buildings of Potsdamer Platz punctured the blue sky and there were groups of locals setting up picnics on the grass in front of us. On the face of it, life felt good; the wasteland of the Berlin Wall death strip has almost disappeared. But I worry that these areas have now been filled up with ministries, embassies, office blocks and hotels. And lots of shops – too many of them. On the plus side, no armoured vehicles on the streets and a United Europe……
Remnant of the Berlin Wall on Leipziger Platz
For Christmas markets with authentic atmosphere and fewer tourists, it’s best to escape the city centre and head for the Berlin ‘countryside’. Public transport links are so good that most are easily accessible by train or bus. Last weekend I visited two of my favourites which have a more traditional feel.
Stalls at the Grunewald and the Dahlem markets
There are still two more weekends of Advent to catch the market at Domäne Dahlem, an open-air agricultural and food museum with a focus on ecology. The former manor house there dates back over 800 years and the estate provides the perfect backdrop for a traditional Christmas market. Take the U-Bahn (U3) Dahlem Dorf and the Domäne is practically opposite the station.
Pretty Dahlem Dorf station in the snow
The market stalls offer all manner of handmade products from wooden and straw Christmas decorations to beeswax candles, stationery, clothing and food. Permanent arts and craft workshops specialise in gilding, weaving, pottery and furniture restoration and some have their wares on sale. You can dine on goose or waffles under cover of the large shed and warm up with Glühwein or mead as you stroll around the market to the accompaniment of the brass band quartet playing seasonal music. The entrance fee of €3 also includes the Manor House and the Culinarium exhibition in the newly renovated stables.
A stall selling handmade Berlin souvenirs
An even more fairy-tale destination is the annual Adventmarkt in the courtyard of the Jagdschloss Grunewald – the fabulous 16th Century Royal ‘Hunting Palace’ in the Grunewald forest, Berlin’s oldest surviving palace. This market only takes place over the second weekend of Advent and it’s worth planning a trip to Berlin to visit it; the lake-side forest setting is magical – better than any film set could dream up. The 115 or X10 bus routes take you within a 15 minute walk of the Jagdschloss, on forest paths. Alight at Pückler Straße (115) or Königin-Luise-Straße (X10) and take a torch if you are walking back after dark.
The Jagdschooss courtyard after dark
Apart from dozens of market stalls selling hand-made gifts and toys and a variety of tempting food and drink, the Grunewald market is full of music and drama. A small brass band plays by the courtyard entrance and characters from fairy-tales mingle with the crowd. There’s also a central stage set up in front of the Renaissance Jagdschloss and families gather round to listen to carol-singing or a performance of Hansel and Gretel.
Wicked Frau Holle introducing the play
If the market gets crowded, there’s plenty of room down by the Grunewaldsee behind the palace. With a glass of ‘Feuerzangenbowle’ (German Fire Punch) in one hand and a Bratwurst in the other, you won’t feel the cold and the views are stunning, especially with sunset over the lake.
A lakeside stall selling traditional ‘Blaudruck’ (‘blueprint’) dyed cloth products
As an extra treat, the Berlin ‘Weihnachstmarkt für Hunde’ (Christmas Market for dogs!) is only a five minute walk from the Jagdschloss at the Forsthaus Paulsborn. The Grunewald is a popular destination for dog owners as there are not only miles of walks but in summer dogs are allowed to swim in the Grunewaldsee (see post ‘If you go down in the woods today…’ from 16 August 2014). The annual Christmas Market for dogs started in 2012 and has proved a great success. It’s worth the entrance fee of €1.80 just to catch the canine festive spirit.
Choosing a Christmas gift
Then finish Grunewald Advent experience at the stately Forsthaus Paulsborn before walking back through the forest to the bright city lights. For full details of all Berlin Christmas markets, the Visit Berlin website has a comprehensive list.
The scene outside and inside Forsthaus Paulsborn after dusk
I always head to KaDeWe if I need a new pair of shoes. There is a vast selection, the staff are really helpful and the prices are no higher than anywhere else. In fact they are considerably lower than in some of the innocent-looking little boutiques in trendy Mitte. For the uninitiated, KaDeWe stands for Kaufhaus des Westens (Store of the West) and is the flagship department store of Berlin, an equivalent of Harrods or Selfridges in London. It has a wonderful food department on the sixth floor and a conservatory-style restaurant under the glass dome above – both great places for Saturday brunch.
But back to shoes… I chose a couple of pairs I liked and sat down to try them on. As I stood up to look in the mirror I was confronted with a familiar figure walking towards the display stands behind me. It was Angela Merkel, completely on her own. For a second, I thought I would have to say something, but she cleverly averted my gaze and an eager sales assistant rushed to her side to offer help. A couple of men in suits were strategically placed a few yards away quietly observing everyone’s movements and all the customers nearby were surreptitiously smiling at each other and reaching for their mobile phones to record the moment in a text message. No photos were taken though. I was struck by the calmness of the situation. Frau Merkel had defined the atmosphere in her own quiet and unobtrusive manner. It was 5.30 p.m. and apparently the German Chancellor often pops into KaDeWe after a busy day at the office. When I told some Berlin friends I had seen her they weren’t a bit surprised. ‘We saw her picking up asparagus in the food hall only a couple of weeks ago’ they said.
A new addition to Tauentzienstrasse, only a stone’s throw from KaDeWe on the other side of the street, is the first Uniqlo store in Germany. It opened to the public on April 11th to a considerable amount of hype including huge street posters (see below) featuring Daniel Brühl, a ‘Berliner since 2001’. I don’t suppose Angela will shop here though. The bright red flashing neon city names along the steps of the main staircase freaked me out. Just not Angela’s understated style, even if the assistants are über helpful.