Winter in Berlin is hard. Slow Travel Berlin’s Paul Sullivan has some suggestions for escaping the chilly Haupstadt by train…
One of the advantages of living in Berlin is its proximity to a slew of destinations easily reachable by train (and, increasingly, thanks to Flixbus, by bus). A few minutes browsing the departures board at the main train station is enough to underline just how well located we are, with European cities from Warsaw, Amsterdam and Budapest to Prague, Copenhagen and Zürich all possible, usually without even changing trains.
The quickest and easiest destinations, of course, are within Germany. Within a couple of hours you can be transported to Hamburg, Leipzig, Dresden or Munich (now available in under four hours!), all of which make for excellent city breaks thanks to a wealth of cultural and family-friendly attractions, a decent array of restaurants and nightlife, plus the all-important German Christmas markets and associated festive atmosphere.
For something more off the beaten track, Frankfurt an der Oder, which straddles the Polish-German border, is only an hour away on the Regional Bahn, and offers a wildlife park, a Kleist museum, and a surprisingly great art museum showcasing East German artists. It’s also connected via a bridge to its quaint sister city Slubice, so you can get a taste of Poland while you’re there too—as well as cheap cigarette and goods traders, there’s a very pleasant nature reserve close to the centre, and the only Wikipedia monument in the world.
In a couple of hours you can be in the Polish port town of Stettin (Szczecin), one of Poland’s biggest cities and the capital of West Pomerania. It matches grand, Haussmann-style avenues with communist history, and whose sights range from an impressive late Renaissance ducal castle to Cold War bunkers, a slew of great contemporary cultural spaces, many of which are located on its handsome embankment, and an eye-catching concert hall (Szczecin Philharmonic) that in 2015 won the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture.
Keep going north and you’ll hit the Baltic coast, also shared by Germany and Poland, One of the premier destinations here is Usedom, which can be reached in three and a half hours via Flixbus. Accommodation, including spa hotels, is cheaper in winter, the normally crowded streets (and beaches) are relatively empty, and there are imperial baths to enjoy, alongside sandy beaches, an Ice Arena and the Fort Gerhard Museum, which tells the story of the cold war.
If that all sounds a bit chilly and remote, a comfortable four and a half hour train ride will get you to Prague, the handsome Czech capital. It can really be magical in winter, with plenty of pretty architecture to ogle (Baroque, Renaissance) that can’t be found in Berlin, as well as the excellent Kafka Museum, romantic Prague Castle, and some pretty special winter markets and cosy pubs offering delicious Czech beer and hearty dishes like spit-roasted pork and a local take on the sweet pastry known here as Trdelník.
A couple more hours and you can be in Warsaw, an equally charming city whose main Christmas market in the Old Town (Castle Square) has plenty of atmosphere, and sells Polish snacks like kielbasa (sausage) alongside local handicrafts. There is also the opulent Royal Palace, to explore, which has an exhibition on the city’s history; the looming, Stalin-esque Palace of Culture and Science, which has peerless views from the 30th floor observation deck; and a good variety of historical museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes and bars—including a resurgence of the city’s milk bars (Bar Mleczny), which used to offer a menu based on dairy items but now have a variety of down to earth traditional Polish dishes for around five euros; alternatively, browse the more globalised Hala Koszyki food court.
Travelling westwards, six hours on a train will get you to Amsterdam, where you can build snowmen in charming parks like the Vondelpark and Westerpark, enjoy the annual Amsterdam Light Festival, which illuminates the city from November to January, and even skate on the canals if the weather is cold enough. The Christmas markets here sell heart-warming snacks like stamppot (mashed potatoes), snert (thick pea soup), and dangerously tempting doughnut balls known as Oliebollen—perfect for filling up before you explore the city’s vast art treasures at venues like the Van Gogh Musuem, Hermitage, Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum.
Copenhagen is just under seven hours away—passing through Hamburg if you want to break the journey up—and has the added (nerdy) thrill of the entire train using a ferry for half an hour. Here you can try some gloff (mulled wine with raisins and almonds), visit ice skating rinks and castles, and spend some time at the conveniently central Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world, which is tinselled up to the eyeballs from mid-November onwards—as are the kayaks that sail through the city canals on the 13th December, for the quirkily festive Santa Lucia parade.
You can even go snowboarding or skiing for Christmas by heading to Zürich, around nine hours away via Basel, which makes a great base for an array of resorts within 90 minutes of the city. And if you’re prepared to travel up to 10-12 hours, you can also get to Venice and Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, Paris and London. That’s right: from Berlin, much of Europe is literally just half a day away, and with no flight or airport hassles in sight…
Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 10 years.