In December 2022 we went on Viking River Cruise’s “Christmas Along the Elbe” cruise from Berlin to Prague, along with a post-cruise extension into Poland. This was our first river cruise since our trip to Spain and Portugal in December 2019.
We extended our time in Berlin by arriving three days early to tour on our own before linking up with Viking, giving us five full days in the city. In this time we only hit a small fraction of the many attractions available in Berlin, but we did enough for a long post that I hope is as interesting as it is lengthy.
Our flight from Boston to Berlin was on Icelandair with a brief layover between flights in Keflavik, Iceland. Upon arrival we took the easy way out and just took a taxi to the Hilton located in the Mitte (“Middle”) neighborhood of former East Berlin. Our “dome view” room looked out at the German Cathedral, that along with the French Cathedral and the Berlin Konzerthaus bracket the Gendarmenmarkt square:
Gendarmenmarkt is usually the site of Berlin’s premier Christmas market, but since it was under renovation the market had been relocated to Bebelplatz, a beautiful square located between the State Opera building and the Law School of Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. Like many locations in Berlin, Bebelplatz was the site of a dark incident in history – the Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933, which is marked by The Empty Library memorial in the square.
This was just the first of 20 Christmas markets (six in Berlin alone) that we visited on this trip, and it was one of the most beautiful we saw on this trip or on any of the several Christmas cruises we’ve taken in the past. (The image at the top of this posting is of the entrance to the market.) The beauty and charm of the market started with their Glühwein (mulled wine) mugs:
Continued with an angelic performer:
And was complemented by the market huts with their gorgeous handmade crafts for sale, the beautiful golden lighting, and the lovely surrounding buildings:
Dinner that day consisted of bratwurst in a roll with mustard, Glühwein (of course), and a mashed potato dish topped with eggs benedict with yet more wine. After some souvenir shopping (including for a recently arrived grandson), the travel, food, and wine caught up with us so we returned to the Hilton and slept straight through for 14 hours!
The next morning we got up early for our timed entrance tickets to a tour of the Reichstag dome. The Reichstag housed the German parliament from 1894 until it was burned in an arson attack in 1933 that was blamed on the Communists and used by Hitler as a pretext for suspending civil liberties and helped to cement Nazi rule. Further damaged during the Second World War, it was partially refurbished in the 1960’s (it sat right next to the Berlin Wall in what was the edge of West Berlin) but wasn’t fully restored until after the German reunification in the 1990’s, when a large glass dome was added to the top.
It was raining that day, so the view over Berlin from the top of the Reichstag was obscured, but still provided an up-close view of the building’s corner towers:
The Reichstag is located a block north of the well-known Berlin landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, which can be seen in this photo taken from within the dome, along with the American embassy and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe further in the distance:
Within the dome a spiral walkway winds up and around the outer edge, providing a changing view of the mirrored column in its core that channels light down into the meeting chamber of the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, in at least a symbolic attempt at providing transparency to its proceedings.
After leaving the Reichstag, we walked under the Brandenburg Gate and down the Unter den Linden, the wide boulevard that travels past multiple government buildings, foreign embassies, and universities deeper into old East Berlin. Along the way a long stretch of the sidewalk was closed on one side of the the boulevard, so we had to instead walk in the pedestrian area in the middle. When we reached a makeshift memorial protesting the war in Ukraine, we realized that what we had been forced to detour around was the huge Russian embassy. This wasn’t the last evidence of anti-Putin, anti-Russian sentiment we saw on our trip. Many buildings also flew Ukrainian flags in sympathy for that country.
Later that day we decided to take a sightseeing cruise on the River Spree. Beforehand, we toured the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom), a monumental Lutheran church on Museum Island located between branches of the Spree. The interior includes a massive organ.
The hour-long cruise sailed past the Berlin Cathedral, the Bundestag’s library, and the Reichstag, among other sights:
After leaving the cruise, we came upon lingering evidence of East Berlin’s Communist history with these statues of Marx and Engels:
We followed up with a visit to another Christmas market nearby, complete with a Ferris Wheel that still seemed tiny compared with the Berlin TV tower in the distance:
This market near Marienkurche was much more commercial. It was the first we’d been to that featured recorded music which to our surprise was dominated by sound tracks from Star Wars movies!
Sometimes it must seem like all we eat and drink on our Christmas cruises is bratwurst and Glühwein. We do consume our fair share of Christmas market food, but we also enjoy a nice restaurant. We spotted an interesting looking spot for dinner near our hotel that we really enjoyed, the Gendarmerie Restaurant. The decor included four large portraits with three German actors and singers along with a certain American with a special connection to Berlin.
Our last full day on our own in Berlin involved shopping and more walking. We went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that we found quite moving in spite of (or more likely because of) its bleakness:
It’s hard to imagine how the workers at the American Embassy located across the street from the memorial react to the Memorial on their way in and out of work each day. Does it hurt every time they see it or does it just fade into the background?
One of the nearby sites that has been intentionally pushed into the background is the Fuhrerbunker, site of Hitler’s demise by his own hand at the end of WW2. Other than an informational sign, the site is now just used as a parking lot.
We continued on to check out the area around Potsdamerplatz (including its sad Christmas market) and then onto Checkpoint Charlie (with its even sadder Christmas market!) that we would also return to later on with Viking during a city tour.
Checkpoint Charlie is a bit of a touristy location, known for the guard booth that remains in the middle of the street with the photos of an American and Soviet soldier facing in opposite directions high above the booth, marking the Cold War gateway between East and West Berlin. Notice that the Christmas tree is covered in Ukrainian flags in yet another demonstration of Berliner’s sympathy for the Ukrainians.
Signs of the wall itself were rapidly removed in this area after reunification, but a discreet boundary marking the wall’s path was installed later on to help preserve its memory:
On our last night at the Hilton, I took a private nightime photography tour of Berlin with Aperture Tours. I’ll share my pictures from that outing in a separate posting.
Our next two nights were spent at the Berlin Intercontinental, which adjoins the Berlin Zoo at the western edge of the Tiergarten. The zoo was closed due to one bird being infected with avian flu so we didn’t get to go in. We were at least able to enjoy the beauty of the zoo’s entrance at night:
The Intercontinental is also located near the start of Kurfürstendamm, the city’s high-end shopping street where we made a hurried visit to shop for a Christmas present (a bear, of course) for our grandson at the Stieff store. We spent time at the nearby City Christmas market that wraps around the Kaiser Wilhem chapel and memorial and the beautiful blue stained glass interior of its modern chapel addition:
We took an Uber to the large Christmas market at the Charlottenburg palace that seemed like it was popular with the locals who were eating and drinking with their friends, though the market offered little new or different other than the backdrop of the palace and some brass bands playing Christmas music. Our final day in Berlin included two outings. On the first, our Viking bus traveled past many of Berlin’s landmarks, including yet another stop at our favorite Christmas market at Bebelplatz and a visit to a stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved and is now the canvas for a wide range of art:
Our final outing in Berlin was to the Lemke brewpub, brewery, and tasting room that’s located underneath the arched supports for a rail line and where we enjoyed a traditional German dinner and tasting a wide range of beers.
Next up – my night time photo tour and then we head for our ship on the Elbe.