In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I decided to join up with some friends from uni and explore Bath, Berlin and Prague.
With frequent trains from London Paddington, getting to Bath is pretty easy. Apart from trains, coach tours stopping via Stonehenge are quite popular as well.
If you want a guide for what do to in Bath, the city has their own app – Visit Bath, which for an official tourism app is actually not bad. You can create your own itinerary within the app and plan your day quite easily.
Arriving in Bath, the Bath Abbey can be seen from the train station. During December, Christmas markets are run on the courtyards surrounding the Abbey, however for some strange reason they finish up in mid-December! Where’s the Christmas spirit?
Walking around the Abbey you reach the city centre, which is centred around the main mall, Union St. With the Roman Baths located adjacent to this, the enclosed lane ways, cobble stone streets and ruins of the old Roman buildings adapted for modern use, it’s quite easy to imagine yourself as a citizen of Rome roaming the town square.
Many people visit Bath to experience the soothing hot springs, made available to the paying public at spas across the town. Only here for a day, I was more interested in seeing the many iconic buildings scattered close to the city centre.
Following Union St all the way up the hill for around 10 minutes and you reach the first of the two most popular buildings – the Circus (Google Maps have a really cool 360deg view from the centre).
Only 5 minutes away and you reach the world famous Royal Crescent. With the parkland directly in front being only for private use of the residents who live here, you can get a glimpse of the entire building from the adjacent public thoroughfare.
Having threatened to rain all morning, showers started to fall in the afternoon, so it was time for a late lunch before heading to the Roman Baths at twilight.
I’d definitely recommend at least 2 hours to tour the Romans Baths. Audio guides are free and are really essential to give the stories behind the many Roman relics, ruins and technology in the complex.
Much of the original plumbing system is still in use today at the Baths. Although no longer functioning as a therapeutic bath, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the place fully occupied and in use. At the very end of the exhibition (apart from the gift shop of course), you get a chance to taste the natural spring water from the source.
Even if you wish to relax in the Thermae Bath centre, I certainly think that a visit to Bath can be done in a day, although a long day it will be. Definitely a good weekend trip if you want to escape London.
After a few days in London, it was off to Berlin. Securing cheap flights via EasyJet, we departed London Luton for Schonefeld Airport. In 2008, Tempelhof Airport was closed for operations. This airport, whose terminal building is one of the largest buildings in the world is located south of the main city area and was constructed to be the gateway to ‘Germania’ by Nazi Germany. During the Second World War and into the Cold War, it featured in many key moments, such as the arrival of the leaders of the allied powers for the German surrender and the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War.
Arriving in the late afternoon, we were both quite hungry! Nevertheless, we checked in at the Grand Hostel, located to the south of the city centre. As soon as we walked in, voices of Australians could be heard. Sure enough, there in the corner of the bar was a group from Sydney who also happened to be students of UNSW… It turns out that one of them was a songwriter and was playing a gig the following night. Check-in came with a free drink and a detailed information session on what to do in Berlin. Hearing our rumbling stomachs, we were directed to the famous doner kebab shop and the most popular curry-wurst store in Berlin!
It’s fair to say that Berliners love their kebabs and having sampled the doner kebabs here, I know why. Simply amazing. The curry-wurst? Well, it’s the first time I had curry-wurst but nevertheless I polished off a serve in a matter of minutes.
All around Europe in December, cities are filled with Christmas markets; many of theme billed as “German Christmas Markets”. So naturally by being in the capital of Deutschland, you’d expect to see some!
Fuelled up, we headed off to checkout the first market on the list; Weihnachtszauber am (Christmas magic in) Gendarmenmarkt! With the market screened by the Konzerthaus and German and French Cathedrals, it’s billed as the most ‘traditional’ of all the markets in Berlin. With massive crowds, cheap gluhwein, and plenty of food, arts and crafts, this was definitely worth the €1 entry fee which is donated to charity. A performing stage in the market has shows til around 6pm by local groups such as schools, community bands etc.
Across the three days in Berlin, we also visited two markets in Alexanderplatz (Wintertraum, Weihnachtszeit), the Winterwelt in Potsdamer Platz and the Weihnachtsmarkt in Gedachtniskirche. Compared to Gendarmenmarkt, these markets featured a fair as well as a market, with ice skating rinks, Ferris-wheels, merry-go-rounds and other rides and games (curling anyone?).
What all markets offered was a great atmosphere, a wide selection of German market food and snacks (the gingerbread rocks) and entertainment. If you are ever in Berlin during Christmas, it’s something that shouldn’t be missed.
The Dome and Museum Island
Whilst I certainly believe that there are only so many museums you can go to in a few days, the museums at Museum Island are worth a look. Although you can easily spend a day in each one, I was particularly interested seeing the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum and the interior architecture of the Bode Museum more than anything else.
Before you get to the island however, you might be distracted to go into and up the top of the Berlin Dome – we certainly were. With a nominal donation, you can get access to the inside and to the walkway near the top. To get to the top you have to hunch your way though the winding stairs, but once you get there, you’re rewarded with another great view of Berlin.
East Side Gallery
One of the more famous sections of the Berlin wall which still remains has been converted into a large graffiti installation and memorial for freedom called the East Side Gallery.
Over a kilometre long, winding alone the banks of the river Spree, the East Side Gallery is a short walk from Ostbahnhof or Berlin Warschauer Straße stations. Be sure to rug up in winter as it can be quite windy along the wall!
Though it was restored back in 2009, much of the art has once again been vandalised. Sections of the wall have even been removed or relocated to allow for greater public access or construction work.
On the way to Gendarmenmarkt from our hostel was, we walked through the famous Checkpoint Charlie, one of the crossings between East and West Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie. Located in down-town Berlin, this checkpoint saw a confrontation between US and Soviet tanks in what is now known as the “Berlin Standoff.”
Brandenburg Gate, Bundestag and Holocaust Memorial
Any visit to Berlin would be incomplete without visiting the Brandenburg Gate, the German Bundestag and the Holocaust Memorial – all nearby each other.
The Brandenburg Gate is a stunning neoclassical city gate, used originally for the collection of custom duties, reworked to become a symbol of peace. At evening, the area is far from busy – great if you don’t want a crowded photo!
During the day is another story with tourists everywhere and paid actors dressed in US, Soviet and DDR uniforms who you can pay a nominal fee to have your photo taken with them. They also carry around suitcases of costumes if you want to get dressed up as well…
The Reichstag building (Parliament building), is located a couple of hundred metres north of Brandenburg Gate. Pretty much destroyed in WWII, post-war reconstruction and remediation efforts by the Allied forces have restored it to its former glory with a few modern additions. One of these being the iconic dome, which you can visit for free.
The dome sits direction on top of the main parliamentary chamber and along with the glass walls of the chamber, represent the new level of transparency in government. The mirrors in the centre column are angled to provide natural sunlight and the collection of thermal solar energy is used for climate control. Hot air is also vented out through the middle.
Walking the double-helix staircase as it winds up the inside of the dome, you get stunning views of Berlin. The supplied audioguide give you commentary on the many landmarks and attractions that can be viewed from up here.
If you want to visit the Reichstag Building, you must book a time slot at their website. Getting in is relatively straightforward. Make sure you bring a copy of your confirmation letter (or have it open on your phone ready to go) as well as your photo ID. They ask you to be there 10-15 minutes before your allocated time. Make sure you’re there no earlier and certainly no later!
Note: if you’re visiting in winter, make sure you’re wearing your layers because it is damn cold up there!
Heading over to the Holocaust Memorial, you are immediately exposed to a very sobering experience. With over 2700 concrete slabs poured at varying heights across a 4.7 acre block. Walking between the blocks, much of the noise from the city is blocked out, creating an eerie silence.
Underneath the Memorial is a free museum which details the magnitude of the massacre of the Jewish people in World War II, with exhibits such as the narration of hand written letters recovered from those who died on their way and at concentration camps.
Some other things about Berlin; walking around you may see plenty of blue pipes which snake through the streets. It turns out that no, it’s not poor planning of utilities, but it’s actually a result of the rather high water table in Berlin. Therefore whenever there is construction work going on to lower the water table to allow for the setting of foundation footings. In some places, it’s almost like the old Windows 3D Pipe screensaver coming to life…
Many thanks to my friend Johanna who lived in Berlin for some time back in her uni days. Many months before heading to Berlin, she was kind enough to translate and send me her “guide” to Berlin – sights, restaurants, museums, advice on how to make the most of the time here. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to try most of the restaurants and cafe’s suggested as we had such a great time touring the Christmas markets spread throughout the city!
With her permission however, I’ve PDF’d her email and it is available for download here.
Having walked throughout Berlin in early morning, day and late evening, I can truly say that it isn’t that big, nor that busy! If I were to ever travel here again, I would probably hire a bike as there are many bike lanes and the inner city roads are quite wide. That being said, the U-Bahn and S-Bahn system works a treat and is reasonably easy to follow. Particularly if you buy a day ticket – you scan on once and you’re good to go for the day – no ticket gates to pass through.
We bought a 72hr Welcome Card with access to Museum Island for zones ABC (~38€). IF you take more than 3 trains in a day, wish to go to Potsdam and are a museum junkie, then it is definitely worth having a look into. In hindsight, I probably would have just paid for the museums I visited and bought day tickets. I think I probably broke-even in my visit.
So it’s off to the Hauptbahnhof for the intercity train to Prague. Arriving, it was a 10 minute uphill walk to the Clown and Bard hostel. As Marcus, an Irish Clown and Bard regular put it, “She’s an old girl, but she has her beauty…” The hostel had a very warm and welcoming atmosphere to it and the people there were very friendly. I’ll give a bit of a plug to Marcus’ tourism venture called “The Naked Tour Guide” – a walking tour company for Prague which aims to strip away a lot of the ‘cheesy touristy things’ and get to the roots of Prague and Czech history- customised to the tastes of the group, which is usually limited to 8 people. Though I wasn’t able to go on one of their tours this time, I’ll definitely have to take one next time I’m in Prague.
Again, as it’s not a very big place, most of the main tourist attractions of Prague can be reached in a day’s worth of walking. This includes sights such as Wenceslas Square, The Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, the Astronomical Clock, the Metronome etc.
Again, because it was December, Christmas Markets were in full swing, allowing me to sample the famous Czech dessert pastry- the Trdelnik (my mind plays games on me… I kept saying “Tradelink”). Also on offer were a wide range of meads… And no matter which one your ordered, it just happened to be the one they have warm.. and they all came out of the same dispenser… Hmm..
The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square is worth a look. If you really want, you can get a view from the top by paying a marginal fee. Be prepared for a long walk around the top as the crowd seems never ending. It’s your choice on how you get to the top – either a glass cylindrical lift or the winding stairs. By taking the stairs you can read up on the history of the clock, which seems to be a bit of a mystery in its origins.
On the hour, but not never hour (pretty much the middle hours of the day) wooden saints appear out of the clock.
Now in terms of Czech food or cuisine, I’m still not quite sure what this means. All I can say is that they love their meat, their dumplings and their soups.
One of the places we stopped for lunch was the Pradelna Cafe, famous for its soups and desserts.
Opening at 10:30am, the Pradelna Cafe is a nice and cosy little shop outside the main city area (near the TV tower). With very helpful and friendly staff, we had an excellent lunch and will definitely recommend this cafe.
Alas, no post about Prague would be complete if beer wasn’t mentioned. Taking the various local brews, they’re good but nothing too special (but then again I’m no beer connoisseur). I guess the main selling point here is the price – pretty damn cheap and literally any cafe of restaurant you go to, the hard drink menu is given out first.
Again, whilst I hear the public transport in Prague is easy to understand and use, I just loved walking around the city with the unique buildings and structures that surround you everywhere you go.
On a clear day, walking up to the National Monument gives great views. With time running out, we made a choice to go hear instead of the Eiffel Tower replica on the other side of the river.
If you’re into running or feel like a nice run through the woods, the hill upon which the monument is built on has a number of tracks and footpaths snaking around it.
On the way down from the Monument as you head North-West, we stumbled across the Czech War Museum. With free entry and a Russian tank at the front, how could we pass this up?
The exhibition inside were divided into Pre-WWI, WWI, between the wars, WWII, the Cold War and present, with a special exhibition on the Sokol movement. Many interesting artefacts were present including an Australian Imperial Force uniform from World War I, and a Czech build ZB26 7.92mm Mauser light machine gun which was exported to Afghanistan in 1938. The gun was seized from the Taliban (probably in working condition), in 2009 by Dutch forces operating in the Uruzgan Province (where Australian forces were also operating)! Talk about reliability!
Walking across from the Metronome to the Castle was a very nice and well maintained park, again with great views of the city.
Entry to the Castle grounds is free, however different payments are required to see the various buildings within the centre. Note that the ticket sales close around 4-4:30pm.
Mini concerts are often performed here entry for around 470CZK at 5:30pm. As we happened to be there at the time, why not? Note: You can buy tickets for “VIP, A, B” sections. Just buy a B section and line up early and you’ll get the best seats in the house for 1/3 the price.
For dinner on the last night, we stumbled upon a very, very, very colourful restaurant called Luka Lu. Whilst many guide books saying tipping is normal in Czech, I was more than happy to give these guys a generous tip at the end. At this family run, Balkan restaurant (with all of the family lending a hand), service was impeccable, the restaurant atmosphere was vibrant in colour and the meals were excellent. If you’re ever in Prague, be sure to drop in.
Finally, our last stop was at the Lennon wall – in memorial of John Lennon. Think of the East Side Gallery with all the vandalism compressed into a 25m section. Not sure why people still recommend coming here as there’s not much to reference back to John Lennon here!
As a final bit of advice for flying out of Prague – getting to the airport from the central station is easy. You can catch the shuttle bus straight there for only 80CZK ($4.50 for a 30min journey?)- absolute bargain! Don’t believe those who say taxi is the best way.. you’ll pay over 10 times the amount. Basically, don’t bother going into the train terminal. Head up to the top level where the road overpass goes over the station and walk to the station building (50° 4.984′, 14° 26.097′). The buses run every half hour I believe, at quarter past the hour. Payment can be made to the bus driver (correct change isn’t necessary but is appreciated- good way to get rid of your coins!).
Once at the airport, security checks occur at the gate instead of into the terminal, so get to your gate a little earlier than usual.
As someone who has studied World War 2 and Cold War history, travelling through Berlin and Prague was for me, walking amidst the past. Walking down streets and neighbourhoods whose names are synonymous with infamous events was definitely the highlight.
As I’ve only scratched the surface of these two countries with these two cities (and only really scratched the surface of these two cities as well), there is no doubt I will be back.