Berlin is a popular destination during Advent, and one of the main attractions are the Christmas markets. There are said to be over 70 Christmas markets in Berlin. Some of these are open throughout the Advent period, others only a few days over a single weekend. One of the ways to enjoy the Christmas markets in the city, particularly if you want to know more about their history and the traditions associated with Christmas in Germany, is to take a walking tour with a knowledgeable local guide. Thomas did just this last week, this is his review.
Changing colours of Charlottenburg Palace’s Baroque façade provide an atmospheric setting for a Christmas market.
The principle of a walking tour is quite simple. Essentially it is following a knowledgeable guide on foot from one point of interest to another. Having taken a number of these in various cities around Europe, I have often wondered what a walking tour of Christmas markets would be like. Certainly it would only work well in a city such as Berlin where there are over 70 Christmas markets to visit over the course of the Advent season. My curiosity piqued, I signed up for a four hour walking tour advertised on GetYourGuide.
The tour costs €14 per person. For this you get an English tour guide who lives in Berlin. Not included is any public transport to get to any of the markets on the tour, which is a good thing as most people already have their transport solutions in place. And so excluding this keeps the costs down.
The meeting point for this tour is a popular coffee shop at the central situated Hackescher Markt train station. After introductions we walked to the square between the historic St Mary’s Church and Berlin’s City Hall. Before entering the Christmas market our guide gave us an introduction to the celebration of Christmas in Germany, including of course where the tradition of Christmas markets fits in. The annual year-end festivities observed today around the world may be something that many of us now take for granted, but the story of the origins of these celebrations is a fascinating one. A story that explains some of the many things you will find for sale on the markets.
After ample time to explore this relatively new addition to the Berlin Christmas scene, we took a short walk to the train station at Alexander Platz to get the U-Bahn to Spandau. Here we visited the biggest Christmas market in Berlin, with over 250 stalls during the week and as many as 400 over the weekend. This market is chosen not only for its size, but also its charm. After an hour in Spandau, we took the U-Bahn to Charlottenburg Palace for the final Christmas market on this tour. A case of saving the best for last.
St Marienkirche and Fernsehturm overlooking the Berliner Weihnachtszeit.
Our first stop was the Christmas Market at Berlin Town Hall, called the Rotes Rathaus (the Red City Hall). Although the town hall was only built in the 1860s, this is very much the historic centre of Berlin. On the edge of the market place is the oldest church in Berlin – the Marienkirche, St Mary’s church, first recorded in history in the mid 13th century. Here too you are a stone’s throw from Museum Island, the Berliner Dom and the nearly complete Humbolt Forum – the site of the city palace of Berlin. Towering over the market is the Berlin Fernsehturm, which attests to a more recent period of the city’s past. Built in the second half of the 1960s by the East German government and still the tallest human made structure in Germany, it was more than just a TV tower. The Fernsehturn was intended as a symbol of the power of Communism and the East.
Traditional, handcrafted Christmas decorations.
Rostbratwurst and glühwein.
The theme of this Christmas market certainly draws its inspiration from the history of the location. Fresh bread is baked in a Medieval bakery for Medieval style meals, while historic carousels over one hundred years old provide amusement for children. A 50 metre high ferris wheel allows its passengers a bird’s eye view of the festive square, at the centre of which is an ice rink encircling the famous Neptune Fountain.
A great start to the walking tour, as this market provides a good experience for what this quintessentially German tradition is all about. With many stalls and tempting traditional produce from around Germany, my advice is definitely pace yourself but do try something. You could always start with two staples of German Christmas markets, rostbratwurst in a bread roll and a mug of glühwein.
The feuerzangenbowle stall in the centre of Spandau’s historic town square.
From the Berliner Weihnachtszeit its a short walk to the station at Alexander Platz to catch the U-Bahn to Spandau Altstadt. At the foot of the imposing bell tower of St Nicholas church our guide gave us a brief introduction to Spandau. Although part of Berlin today, Spandau has a separate history of its own. It was first mentioned in 1197 and the city charter given in 1232. Despite being heavily damaged during World War II, the old town centre has retained a Medieval feel, something lacking in Berlin. And this is one of the reasons why the Spandau Christmas market is very popular – even for people living in and around Berlin. With over 250 stalls, this is the largest Christmas market in Berlin.
Stollen from Saxony.
A mug of feuerzangenbowle.
In the centre of the town square stands magnificent decorated fir tree. And right next to that tree is a more elaborate stand than most that offers another traditional Christmas drink, feuerzangenbowle. Like many, I have always associated German Christmas markets with glühwein, mulled wine that is usually red but also increasingly made with white wine. But Feuerzangenbowle, which literally translates as fire-tongs punch in English, is just as typical for Germans – in part because of the 1944 film Die Feuerzangenbowle.
The drink is not that dissimilar to mulled wine, perhaps a bit sweeter. A rum-soaked sugarcube is set on fire and is allowed to drip into mulled wine below. Do try it. And then explore the market, which in 2019 boasted stalls selling produce and crafts from four continents.
The central cupola of Charlottenburg Palace through the entrance gates decked with Neoclassical sculptures.
By the time we arrived at our final stop on the walking tour, Schloss Charlottenburg, it was dark. Consequently, the beautifully lit façade of the Baroque palace had maximum impact as the backdrop to the market stalls and tents. Thankfully the drizzle had stopped.
Again our guide gave us a history of the palace, pointed out the features of the market and some of the traditional foods and crafts here, before we all went our own separate ways. Visually, this is the best market to end the tour with as it really should be experienced in the dark. As the tour ends around 18h00, you might be considering where to eat. Not only are there a number of stalls selling traditional foods, savoury and sweet, this Christmas market is also well known among local for its outdoor restaurant offering Austrian cuisine.
As good as the menu looked for the restaurant, I chose instead to try some traditional foods. The Kartoffelpuffer are a softer version of the potato rosti I have had elsewhere. Here you can get them with either a herb sour cream or apple purée. Then there is the dampfnudel, a light steamed sponge served with a vanilla sauce and cinnamon.
Time for another glühwein.
Kartoffelpuffer served with apple purée.
Traditionally smoked pork.
Dampfnudel, a steamed sponge with custard and cinnamon.
Is the Walking Tour Worth it?
I have been visiting the Christmas markets in Germany for a few years now. And it really is true, each one does have its own unique character. Of course the physical setting is largely responsible for this. Red and white canopied stalls in the vast picturesque town square in Nuremburg couldn’t be more different to the market stalls that line the seemingly haphazard Medieval lanes in the Hansestadt of Lübeck.
The same is true for the many Christmas markets in Berlin itself. So at the start of the tour I was more than curious about which ones would be included in the itinerary. Although I have not visited each and every single market in the city, I have visited many of them a number of times. From my experience, I think the organisers of this walking tour have made the right choice. The three Christmas markets we visited are definitely in my top five for Berlin: the history and charm of the Berlin City Hall and surroundings; the size and Medieval setting of Spandau’s Old Town; and the exquisite backdrop provided by Charlottenburg Palace.
Anyone who knows the geography of Berlin might question including Spandau given it is a 30 minute train ride. The Christmas market in Spandau is widely regarded as the best in Berlin, even by Berliners. And not just because of its size. Because the centre of the old town has retained some of its Medieval character it has quite a different feel to it compared with the centre of Berlin. And this gives the Christmas market here an ambience that is unlike that at many of the markets in the rest of of Berlin itself. After walking for about 10 minutes through the market one lady in our group said “Now this is what I imagined a German Christmas Market to be like.” The difference truly is that noticeable.
And because it takes a bit more effort to get out to Spandau, this Christmas market is rarely one chosen by visitors to Berlin. As is the Christmas market at Charlottenburg Palace. These are both a it out of the way, and visitors tend to stick to the concentration of Christmas markets in the centre of Berlin. The Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt is one of my favourites, but these are the popular ones. Ones that most people go to. This walking tour takes you to markets that involve a little more finding.
Being taken ‘off the beaten’ path is one advantage of having a local guide. Another is having a knowledgeable guide. Standing in the square in front of the Berlin Town Hall you are surrounded by all sorts of interesting buildings and landmarks, from the 14th century to the present. Some you would miss if they were not pointed out. Having someone give you the historical background to these makes the experience all the more enjoyable. Well, it does for me.
Our guide not only introduced us to the tradition of Christmas in Germany, but also the history of each locale we visited. Seeing the beautiful façade of the Charlottenburg Palace is one thing, but hearing about the history of the palace and the fate of the statue of Friedrich Wilhelm enables a deeper appreciation. Even if only at that moment in time. Not only was our guide knowledgeable, she was also very engaging. During our train journey to and from Spandau she gave us many anecdotes about her time in Berlin, answered our questions and offered numerous suggestions and recommendations.
There is so much more to these Christmas markets than a few stalls selling grilled sausages and mulled wine, decorations and gifts. They have a character, a history and are part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. What better way to explore this than with someone who knows this past.
The bell tower of the 15th century Saint Nikolai church in Spandau.
Book This Walking Tour Online
This tour is available to book online via the GetYourGuide platform. There are many reasons why we recommend GetYourGuide, they have an incredible range of activities and tickets available for historically minded travellers. Their prices are very competitive, but perhaps the best reason is you can cancel most if not all bookings up to 24 hours before the start of the activity and get a full refund. In the interests of transparency, as we have partnered with GetYourGuide if you book a ticket using the links on this page, we will receive a small commission for introducing you. This does not mean you pay any more, it means the commission comes out of the cost of the ticket. More information and Book this Walking Tour Online >>
Tips for Taking the Walking Tour of Christmas Markets in Berlin
December in Berlin can be both cold and wet, so be prepared. Dress warmly and unless the forecast is very good, make sure you bring rain gear.
The walking tour itself lasts four hours, with two breaks while getting the U-bahn to and from Spandau. While there are always places to sit, it goes without saying comfortable shoes are a must.
Travel on the U-Bahn to Spandau is not included in the cost of the tour, partly because most people who join the tour already have their transport solutions figured out for the duration of their stay in Berlin. If this is not you, come prepared with tickets for two trips in zones A and B.
When buying a mug of glühwein, usually €3, there is also a €2 deposit on the mug. For the fancier feuerzangenbowle mugs the deposit is €5! Either keep the mug as a souvenir or return it to the stall for your deposit back. Some stalls use different mugs, so do remember which stall you visited. This also applies to plates used for food.
Christmas markets in Berlin and Germany are not just tourist attractions. They are popular amongst locals too. After all they are a great place to meet friends and socialise, buy gifts and get something to eat. For this reason the markets are much busier at the weekend than during the week. For a less crowded experience, I recommend taking his tour on a week day.