Each year the Botanical Gardens in Berlin is the setting for the Christmas Garden Berlin. From mid November to the first week in January, over 1.5 million light points on 30 installations are set up on a path through 43 hectares of these historic gardens. Last week as the sun set Thomas visited the gardens to see for himself, these are his impressions and photographs.
At the greenhouses looking over the main refreshment area onto the Italian Garden and beyond.
Only half an hour from the centre of Berlin is the world’s second largest botanical garden and botanical museum. Second only to Kew Gardens in London. Established at the end of the 19th century, the garden now covers some 43 hectares and includes over 20,000 individual species of plant from all over the world. Attached to the gardens is the Botanical Museum, the only one of its kind in central Europe. The museum is, however, closed until late 2022 due to much needed refurbishment.
Although part of the Free University of Berlin, the gardens and the museum actively encourage a wider participation in the historic and world-class facility. From the outset the first director and designer of the Gardens, Adolf Engler, said he wanted to create “the world in a garden.” The sheer number and diversity of plants here is a testament to his and his successors efforts to achieve this. As is the fact that the gardens receive over half a million visitors each year from all over the world.
One might be forgiven for thinking given the weather in Berlin, particularly in winter that the gardens would only be worth seeing in spring and summer. Besides offering a range of options for guided tours (in German and English), on the website you will find set trails for each of the four seasons.
Rhododendrons and wild cherry trees in flower at the Japanese Pavilion in spring.
The Christmas Garden
But it is from mid November to the first week of January that the Botanical Gardens and the stately Victorian greenhouses take on a totally different look. Christmas Garden Berlin is inspired by the popular ‘Christmas at Kew’, which takes place each year at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Over one and a half million light points and 30 individual luminaire installations create what has become a popular festive attraction in Berlin. Visitors follow a two kilometre circular trail that passes by each of these installations.
Each installation is named and has an obvious association with the festive season. For example there is the Field of Lights, the Firework Trees and Snowfalls. Next to each installation is a sign that tells you what you are looking at with an associated inspirational quote. At the entrance you are given a map of the trail through the gardens. This not only indicates where each of the installations is located, it also marks the positions of the various facilities such as WCs, ice rink, refreshment stalls.
As a circular route through the gardens, I should point out once you start the tour at the Italian Gardens (there are guides in place to ensure people take the path in the correct direction of flow) there is no stopping. You can not choose which installations you want to see. You see them all on the two kilometre trail. At some points the flow of ‘foot traffic’ congests as people stop to take photographs and selfies. If you prefer to go at quieter times, a weekday after 18h30 is your best option.
Some of my favourite installations are in the photographs below. The order is not, however, as you would encounter them when you visit.
The changing colours of the large tropical greenhouse, seen here from the formal Italian Garden, is like a beacon throughout the trail. When you can see it through the trees that is. The trail starts and end in the Italian Garden, and the main concentration of food and drink stalls and the ice rink are at the greenhouses.
Striking tall trees that were planted when the Botanical Gardens were first laid out at the end of the 19th century take on an entirely different look when light up like this. As if seeing the tree from the inside out.
Snowfalls: tall trees bathed in brilliant blue light have white luminaires strung between them. This is either the first or the last installation you will see, as it is near the northern entrance/exit.
Simple but captivating, Starry Night was one of my favourite – crystal clear red stars suspended over a pond are in sharp contrast to their shimmering reflections in the water.
Ropes of LED lights that change colour and rapidly turn on and off to give the impression of movement are everywhere at Christmas. In this installation hundreds of meters of rope lighting create a vast blanket of light covering a field, the fast moving patterns of colour look quite magical in the darkness as it stretches away from you.
This photograph of the field was taken soon after I entered the Botanical Gardens at 16h30. The photograph of the Tropical Greenhouse bathed illuminated in purple, was taken about and hour and a half later when it was much darker. The blue haze on the trees in the far distance is avenue of trees use for the Snowfalls installation, pictured above.
Following the trail I was struck at the range of lighting effects used. Not having been to something like this before, I had no preconceived ideas of what to expect – other than a few artfully arranged lights. There are a few of those, but the 30 installations are all quite different and some more complex than others. It really is amazing what you can do wiith lights!
At this stop, a very popular one, laser lights were projected on to a row of pine trees across a lake. Razor sharp images of Santa riding his sleigh, log cabins and ringing bells on the trees, with their reflections on the water, were quite enchanting to watch.
Every now and then, stars and snowflakes are projected on to the path of the trail, which makes a surprisingly wonderful dynamic visual effect as you walk through the forest in the darkness.
A number of the installations have been specifically created for people to take photographs at. Here a picture frame created with lights provides the perfect prop for taking ‘portraits’.
Not all installations involve visitors looking passively on. Here, in the ‘Cathedral of Lights’ the trail passes through a tall arch covered in lights, which looked every bit as wonderful from inside as it did as you are approaching it.
Having walked through the ‘Cathedral’, you then get to walk through the ‘Glockenspiel’. And the experience goes up a notch. Here dangling threads of light bulbs turn on and off, change colour and bump into each other as you walk through the tunnel. The sound the bulbs make is not that dissimilar to the high pitched sound of a glockenspiel (carillon), hence the name.
This is one you really have to experience for yourself – a photograph does not do it justice.
Tips for Visiting the Christmas Garden in Berlin
Dates: 15 November 2019 to 5 January 2020
Opening Hours: daily 16h30 – 22h00 with last admission at 20h30
Closed: 18, 19, 25, 26 November, and 2, 3, 24, 31 December
The Botanical Gardens are open during this period, but they close at 16h00, first entry for the illuminations is 16h30
Entry to the gardens is controlled to maintain the flow of visitors, once inside the garden you are free to move at your own pace. You are strongly advised to buy a timed ticket in advance.
Book online for skip-the-line ticket, that can be cancelled up to 24 hours before the start of the activity, through GetYourGuide
The busiest times are at the weekend and before 18h30 during the week. Not surprisingly, a popular time for young families is the first few time slots on a Saturday evening.
The trail through the garden is about 2 kilometres, and once you start there are no options for getting off the trail. There are, however, benches at regular intervals should you need to take a break and stalls selling refreshments. The path is uneven at places. Comfortable walking shoes are essential.
The evening temperature in Berlin at this time of the year is low – especially on a clear night, so wrap up warmly. And be prepared for drizzle and/or rain.
Also available is an ice rink, definitely appealing to visitors of all ages.
Warm up at a log fire with a Christmas favourite: mulled wine and hot chocolate, bratwurst and crepe.