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
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 Jagdschloss 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 traditionally-dyed ‘Blaudruck’ (‘blueprint’) 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 doggy 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
The Advent atmosphere is in full swing in Berlin. Bright white lights sparkle in the trees and shop windows glitter with gold and silver. Over 60 Christmas markets are on offer. From the grand and gaudy, to the fairy-tale or funky, the urban or eco, there is something for everyone. The scent of roasted nuts and Glühwein fills the air and all that remains to complete the scene is a light dusting of snow. But it’s not cold enough yet…
Christmas lights on the Ku’damm
This is where the Deutsche Oper comes to the rescue with their lavish and beautiful production of La Bohème, originally created by Götz Friedrich in 1988. This romantic opera is a Christmas treat to rival The Nutcracker. Snow falls on the rooftops of Paris and the young Bohemians are freezing and starving in their garret, drinking wine and warming their hands to a fire stoked with burning poetry.
Rodolpho falls in love with Mimi, as snow lightly falls in the background
The Christmas Eve café scene is a riot of people, children with toys, a marching band of soldiers, flame-throwers and fireworks. The entire opera seems to come straight from a Lautrec painting brought to life. The audience only need to focus on the era and the music without any directorial distractions, just as Puccini intended.
The entire cast take a bow at the end of Scene Two
It goes without saying that the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra are all sublime. The Deutsche Oper never falls short of the mark and last night in a full house the applause was thunderous. There are seven more performances of La Bohème this December, so catch it if you can – or next time it comes round. The Deutsche Oper is such a fabulous, welcoming place to be. Wonderful, easy to read surtitles are provided in both English and German for every production and the technical effects are always superb. For tickets and further information in English follow this link.
A German Christmas is something special and Berlin rises to the occasion every year. Throughout December thousands of trees across the city are bedecked with sparkling white lights and the two grand avenues of East and West Berlin, Unter den Linden and Kurfürstendamm, compete for first prize in the illumination stakes. The iconic department store KaDeWe features dazzling decorations and smaller shops make a huge effort with their window displays. At a total of over 80 Christmas Markets the scent of mulled wine and spiced nuts lingers in the air. The only thing missing last weekend was the snow. (more…)