As general sceptics of anything organised by others it was a complete shock to my husband’s system when one night, during our planning stages, I turned round to him and announced that I had booked us onto an arranged Walking Tour of Berlin. With puzzlement on his face he turned and asked what the catch was. Our preferred method when landing in any new city is to wander the streets, getting lost whilst usually following my directions after I have spent hours perusing the internet and guide books, researching the sights and uncovering the more uncommon stop-off points along the way.
So why the change in this city?
Well firstly, it’s FREE!!! Yes, that correct – not a typo, I promise.
Since I have started to use the internet, and more importantly local forum sites, to find out what is going on in the cities that we are visiting I am gaining more insights into the cost effective ways of seeing the sights. Never one to turn down a good offer, as soon as I see the word ‘free’ I am interested; hence how the organised walking tour came about.
Now, I am not stupid enough, or lax enough to just assume that by ‘free’ it means good so after seeing an advert for the Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour I started to do some research. TripAdvisor may not be to everyone’s taste but on this occasion it is where I started and then progressed onto other such review sites before heading over to some trusted blogs I know. Not one person had a bad word about this group leading me to think that either they were paying a lot of money for reviews of they were good. Either way, they had grabbed my attention and consequently I booked two for a tour!
All tours start in front of the Starbuck’s at the Brandenburg Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and my advice is be there at least fifteen minutes early before the bedlam starts. If you have booked online you gain priority onto a tour but only if you are there early enough and make yourself known to the tour guides. Two separate tours run, one in English and one in Spanish, meaning that instead of guides having to translate as you wander around the city you choose the group at the start that is best suited to your language needs. Therefore, nothing gets lost in translation – these guys know their stuff and it would be a shame if people didn’t get the same experience because of language barriers!
We decided to arrive early, after our epic morning stroll around parts of the city, to rest our already weary legs and refuel. As we sat there I began to wonder whether when Starbucks were asked by Sandemans if they could use this for the start of their tours they were apprehensive at all or whether they themselves saw it as a cash making scheme. It really should have been the latter. Not only is it busy anyway because of its location but nearly everyone joining the tour stopped off for at least a beverage and toilet stop before starting! Be warned should you think that you can just jump in here to quickly use the loo before heading off there is a charge and whilst not steep 0.50 cents comes as a shock when you are not normally use to paying for the service in Starbucks.
Once checked in we were given a ticket and asked to go and wait in the centre of the road (not as dangerous as it sounds) in between the S-Bahn station and Hotel Adlon whilst the tour guides were allocated. This gave us a moment to get a, now mandatory, selfie in with the Brandenburg Gate protruding in the background before David, our guide for the afternoon, came over and whisked us away to start the tour.
So where does the tour take you?
1) The Brandenburg Tor
An iconic symbol of Berlin, the Brandenburg Tor was once one of 18 gates used to collect taxes as people crossed into the city. Today, the bold landmark is a striking masterpiece of architecture that many visitors flock to just to stand and glance up at the towering brickwork that can be seen for quite some distance down Unter den Linden.
Close by you have the Hotel Adlon, originally made famous by Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin but probably better remembered today as the hotel that Michael Jackson stayed at whilst swinging his child over the balcony. During our tour, and by sheer coincidence, David timed his description of this episode to perfection – just as he started, group entered the main square dancing along to Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror!
2) The Holocaust Memorial
Pass under the gate and you will see the Tiergarten in front of you – head left and you will come up to the Holocaust memorial along with many other memorials to those that suffered during WWII.
As you wander around here you will also see rows of cobble stones, which are four wide embedded into the ground – this marks where the Berlin Wall once stood and is a very visual reminder that at one time, the freedom that we now have to cross the road as we choose would not have been an option.
Reaching the Holocaust Memorial, even on a sunny day, the goose bumps spread over my arms at a fast pace. Seeing the 2711 looming grey columns standing rigidly in front of me makes me feel very sombre. Walking amongst the blocks, emotion washes over me for what everyone, not just the Jews have had to endure, at the hands of others during such a horrific time. The design of this memorial is apt in that it makes you reflect, it makes you think. No-one could come here and use it as a playground, even with its design of uneven walkways – this is a place for contemplation.
Next to the memorial site is the Jewish Museum – completely free to enter and open late into the evenings but be mindful of the fact that, as with many museums in Berlin, it is not open on Mondays.
3) Hitler’s Bunker
Standing, looking out over a concrete car park it is difficult to imagine that Hitler himself once walked over the very ground that we were all stood on. To avoid the fanatics and the worshippers taking over and turning this place into a shrine the bunker itself has long since disappeared and in its place a block of flats has sprouted in the hope that the sinister past of this location would quietly die out. Unfortunately, it would appear the reminder will always be there along with the sign that highlights exactly where the location of the bunker is.
Do you believe that Hitler took his own life here just one day after marrying his wife or do you believe in one of the many other theories relating to this dictator?
4) Former Reichsluftfahrt Ministerium
The former HQ of the Luftwaffe, one of the few Nazi-era buildings still standing after 80% of Mitte was destroyed, is now used as the Ministry of Finance. An imposing subdued building that stretches the length of Niederkirchner Straβe to the Topographie des Terrors.
5) Topographie des Terrors
A well preserved part of the Berlin Wall running around the grounds of what was one of the most feared sites of Nazi Germany – the Gestapo Headquarters and the SS central Command. Now very much levelled to the ground you still get the sense that awful decisions were agreed to here leading to millions losing their lives.
This is also one of the very few places in Berlin where you can actually get a sense of the death strip as it was known – the section of ‘no-man’s-land’ in between the two dividing walls that separated East and West Berlin for so long.
At this point during the tour we had a stop off for coffee in the café across the road, which gave us an opportunity to relax, take in what we had learnt about Berlin’s history, refuel and if we wanted to purchase tickets for any of the other tours that Sandeman’s offer throughout the week.
6) Checkpoint Charlie
If there was going to be one disappointment during the tour this was always going to be it. Once a major crossing point between East and West it has now become probably the largest tourist attraction in the city and with that comes the usual tacky, almost comical theatrics. Two men dressed in uniform happy to pose for photos (which I am sure would come at a cost!) in front of a replica of the former crossing point. Hence to say we moved on quickly from this which I think is a real shame considering its importance.
Probably one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin and definitely a place to return to after the tour to sit and have coffee at one of the cafes. Here you will find the striking Konzerthaus commanding your attention in the very centre with a memorial to one of Germany’s most revered 18th Century poets and playwrights, Fredrich Schiller. Whilst at one end you have the dominating Französischer Dom and at the other the impressive Deutscher Dom; the only square to have churches where services will be completed in both French and German at the same time.
Across the road from the square we also spy an Ampelmann shop – this has become a bit of a cult following in Berlin and as David informs us has lasted since the divide. The Ampelmann was a symbol on East Berlin pedestrian signals (the generic male figure was a symbol in the West) but has since popped up all over the city and now has its own souvenir range and even a café and bar close to the river. Keep an eye out when you visit the city; watch for the pedestrian signs as this is a clear way to tell whether you are in what would have been the old East/West divided states.
Walking on to this square today you would be forgiven for not realising that back in 1933 around 20,000 books were set alight by Nazi students in an act of clear defiance. Books by Marx and Brecht went up in smoke alongside books on topics like abortion in what was believed to be a symbolic burning.
Heinrich Heine, whose work was also burned, wrote:
“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”:
“Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
At the time of writing this back in 1820 I am not sure even Heine would have realised how close his prediction would be to reality.
In front of what was a palace but is now ironically a university building you will find a memorial to the book burning episode buried into the ground – vast white empty bookshelves.
Being a bibliophile I just can’t imagine why anyone would want to destroy books – I have heart palpitations when I see that someone has written in the margin of one!!!
9) Museum Island
Heading around the back of the History museum and over Eiserne Brücke we wander onto the Island and are faced with the beauty and individuality of each of the museums. Each one is distinctive and enticing and whilst we are listening to the descriptions David is providing I am also scouting around deciding which one we will start with if we have time.
At weekends it is also worth noting that there is an Art Market set out along the side of the Island exposing visitors to an overwhelming display of artwork, crafts and tapestries.
Our tour comes to an end with us sitting in front of the Berliner Dom, just as the sun is beginning to set with David retelling a story of how the Berlin Wall finally met its demise. It seems a fitting way to finish, surrounded by a charming mix of old and new architectural delights listening to how the new city of Berlin came into being.
Whilst we have of course participated in tours before it is fair to say that none have been as informative or knowledgeable as David’s. We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon in his company and would highly recommend this tour to anyone that is visiting the city for the first time.
- Book ahead – these free tours are popular and if you don’t arrive on time you may be disappointed if there are not enough spaces available.
- Look at the other tours they provide – whilst you have to pay for them, each guide specialises in certain areas so you are guaranteed an informative and often entertaining day out.
- Each guide works on a tips basis – so if you enjoyed the tour be generous. David worked extremely hard during the afternoon he spent with us and we honestly thought that a 20 euro tip was completely justified for the two of us.
For more information on Sandemans Tours in Berlin click here.