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Berlin often defines itself in opposition to the rest of Germany. The capital city overwhelms visitors with 20th-century history, immerses them in contemporary art and intoxicates them with a legendary nightlife scene. But it rarely conforms to the popular image of Germany embodied in Bavarian icons like lederhosen and half-timber framing. The big exception comes in December, when the city's public squares fill up with Christmas markets, or Weihnachtsmarkts.
The Christmas market originated in Germany in the 14th century, and today there are dozens that pop up every winter in Berlin, some running for only a few days, while others stay open daily from late November until New Year’s Day. Vendors set up tents and wooden stalls in public squares in the afternoon to sell comfort food and handmade goods, and revelers mingle and warm their hands around hot mugs of mulled wine (or glühwein) long into the evening.
A good Weihnachtsmarkt will have plenty of delicious food and interesting gifts, but it should be more than the sum of its parts. The main reason to visit is the general festive atmosphere: the smell of roasting almonds and mulling spices, the hum of Christmas carols, the kaleidoscope of tree lights and decorations. It is hard to find a better setting for it all than the Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s most beautiful and central squares.
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This Christmas market unfurls between two 18th-century cathedrals and a concert hall, and is a good place to sample classic German fare like roast bratwurst, cheese spaetzle and quark balls (sweet, melt-in-your-mouth balls of dough). On the southern side of the market, you will find Neuburger rahmbrot—boats of hot sourdough bread filled with sour cream, bacon and green onions—and an unmarked stand that roasts whole turkeys over a spit (served sliced with bread and coleslaw for 5.50 euros).
Good German Christmas markets draw vendors from all over central Europe, so save room for the savory fried Hungarian breads at a stand called Langos near the northern entrance. Then finish up with Austrian kaiserschmarrn, a pillowy pancake broken into pieces and covered with toppings like vanilla sauce, stewed cherries, applesauce and almonds.
The Palace's setting rivals Gendarmenmarkt: It's the former residence of the Prussian royal family, and its grounds host one of Berlin’s largest Christmas markets, with some 250 vendors. It is a good opportunity to branch out from glühwein and try other popular hot alcoholic drinks, like a Lumumba, the chocolate and rum drink that takes its name, ironically, from a Congolese politician.
The market at Charlottenburg Palace is also one of the best markets to load up on stocking stuffers. Schloss Warlitz sells exotic honeys (for seven euros, the Winter’s Dream honey is a diabetic’s nightmare, a mixture with walnuts, marzipan, cinnamon, ginger, chile, chocolate, sea buckthorn and vanilla). At the market’s southeast corner, you can buy lebkuchen, a classic German gingerbread, and at Bäckerei Bärenhecke, you can buy different varieties of stollen (German fruit bread), including one sweetened with marzipan.
The Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt is located in the courtyard of a former brewery in posh Prenzlauer Berg, and it is one of the hipper Christmas markets in town. It is Scandinavian themed, so instead of German glühwein, you can drink Swedish glögg, Finnish glögi or Icelandic jólaglögg. The best drink, though, may be hot cherry beer from Frannz near the southern entrance.
Despite the Scandinavian theme, you can also find local Berlin products like mustard from Berliner Senf Manufaktur and sausages from Gut Hirschaue (work up your courage and try a liverwurst or blood sausage). You can also eat potato pancakes in the traditional Bohemian preparation, with garlic and marjoram, at Omas Kartoffelpuffer; and raclette, a popular Swiss dish of melted cheese served on bread, at Leopold’s.
Unlike the Christmas markets at Gendarmenmarkt and Charlottenburg Palace, there is no full-service restaurant at the Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt. So if it gets too chilly, get cozy with a hot drink inside a Mongolian yurt. Finish the evening at the green-lit Absinthbar, which sells a variety of absinthe drinks—and may just get you in the mood for one of Berlin’s famous all-night, non-holiday parties.
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