Sandemans of Berlin: A Free Walking Tour

Sandemans-new-europe-berlin

Image provided by Sandeman’s New Europe Berlin

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.

Travelling-book-junkie-does-a-selfie-at-the-Brandenburg-Gate

Our poor attempt at a ‘Selfie’

So where does the tour take you?

1) The Brandenburg Tor

The-Brandenburg-Tor-also-known-as-the-Brandenburg-Gate

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

The-Holocaust-Memorial-Site

The Holocaust Memorial Site

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.

inside-the-holocaust-memorial

Inside the Holocaust Memorial

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

Where-Hitler's-bunker-use -to-be-Berlin

Where Hitler’s Bunker use to be

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-Old-Nazi-HQ-Building-in-Mitte

HQ in Mitte

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

The-remains-of-the-Berlin-Wall-around-the-old-SS-Headquarters

The remains of the Berlin Wall

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.

The-area-of-the-old-SS-Headquarters

The area of the old SS Headquarters

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.

Lara's-cafe-our-stop-off-in-Mitte

Lara’s café – our half time stop-off

6) Checkpoint Charlie

What-Checkpoint-Charlie-looks-like

What Checkpoint Charlie did look like

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.

Checkpoint-Charlie-today-with-McDonalds-in-the-background

Checkpoint Charlie today (Not us posing by the way before anyone asks!!!)

7) Gendarmenmarkt

The-Concert-hall

The Concert Hall in the middle of the square

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.

Ampel-mann-shops-appear-across-Berlin

Ampelmann Shops appear all over Berlin

8) Bebelplatz

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

one-the-the-many-Islands-on-Museum-Island

One of the many museums on 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.

Art-Stalls- from-the-art-market-in-Berlin-near-Museum-Island

One of the many stalls along the side of the river

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.

Finsihing-the-Sandermans-Tour-on-museum-Island

David finishing the tour on museum Island

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.

Finishing-the-Sandermans-Tour-outside-the-Berliner-Dom

finishing the tour outside the Berliner Dom

The-Berliner-Dom

The Berliner Dom

Top Tips:

  • 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.

 

 

 

 

35 Comments

  • Matt says:

    As someone who has worked as a guide in Berlin for the more than a decade, and also done my fair share of ‘free’ tours, I was glad to see when scrolling down the page that you did leave a tip for the guide at the end of the tour.

    Considering that despite the name, a free tour is only free for you to attend, and free in a sense for the guide, until they get tipped by the guests.

    The concept is a great one in a try-before-you-buy kind of way. Berlin has some fantastic guides and the idea of the free tour is, of course, to draw you in and eventually be wowed enough by the guides to want to give them money at the end of the tour.

    Be aware though – those tips are how the guide earns a living. You’ll find they also have to pay a premium to the tour company they work for, covering every person on that tour.

    So the guide actually has to pay for anyone who doesn’t tip at the end!

    The sad reality of the business.

    • Many people did walk away without paying which I felt was slightly disrespectful to our guide. After all, we would not have gleaned that much information on our own and he was able to bring so much to life. I do not think it is promoted widely enough the impact of free tours and that if people enjoy the tour then a small donation is vital for the concept to continue.

  • I really enjoy free walking tours. I spend so much money on other attractions and enjoy walking around cities exploring the architecture and people watching. This is a great way to do it 🙂

  • We love taking walking tours around the city though our preferred method is self-guided rather than guided. However, when you mentioned that this tour is FREE, well that’s just a rare added bonus nowadays. We recently did a walking tour of downtown Chicago (see link below) which was really intriguing. As you mentioned, it’s a great way to see the sights in a city.

    • It was the ‘free’ element that hooked us in as well if I am truthful. The tour was so informative and worthwhile that I would definitely recommend it to others although like yourselves we do often prefer self-guided tours.

  • Calli says:

    We did a similar tour upon arrival in Berlin – I think it was our first free walking tour ever – and now we look for them in every major city we visit. It’s such a great way to get oriented in a big city. Unfortunately we’ve read some negative reviews of a few tour companies that pay their employees very little or nothing, having them work off the tips they receive so we try to be pickier about who we tour with now but I still love the concept! We even took a tour in Bath, England that was hosted by the tourism board and was done by volunteers – they refused to take tips period.

    • I do think you have to research first to make sure that the tour guides are not being used more as volunteers and end up out of pocket. We never consider taking tours in our home country maybe it is something to consider! 🙂

  • Shere says:

    wow!! that’s an awesome tour and for free! I think it cover a lot of interesting places. I have been a couple of times in Berlin and I had a friend acting like my tour guide. We went to places that I wouldn’t have found on my own. Sometimes an organized walking tour is a good idea, you get to see the important things and afterwards you can still explore yourself.

    • We did go back to a few spots on our own to explore some more but like you say some parts of the tour we would never have found on our own so it was definitely worth our afternoon with the group. 🙂

  • Matilda says:

    Although I usually prefer to wander on my own also, this tour sounds too good to pass up- free and informative:) Will definitely book when I visit Berlin.

    • I would highly recommend them and it is not often we enjoy a formalised tour – we do intend to search out Sandeman’s in other cities just to compare to Berlin although I have been told that these are one of the best!

  • I love walking tours, I tend towards doing self guided tours because I am somewhat of a rebel with ADD (self diagnosed) but this one looked comprehensive, simple and best of all the price sounds best.

    • We tend to do self-walking tours normally just because we find ourselves going off down little side streets exploring and on the odd occasion where we have joined a group we have been known to fall behind because we want to take photos or explore more than others – so we are rebels as well! We did try to keep up with this one though! 🙂

  • Alexandra C. says:

    Great post! What amazing places to include on a FREE tour! Will have to keep this in mind if I ever head to Berlin! Thank you for sharing! -Alexandra

    Simply Alexandra: My Favorite Things

    • We don’t normally do anything like this but on this occasion it was definitely worth the 3 hours we spent wandering around with our guide and the others in our group. We went on a Saturday as we were visiting the city for the weekend and I suppose my only bit of advice would be to try and avoid the Saturday afternoon tour if you would prefer a smaller group. Our group was quite large (around 20-25 people) but they take tours out starting at around 6 people during the week which might be preferred by some.

  • Brianna says:

    I love walking tours, its a great way to get a detailed overview of a city and learn a little more than the typical guidebook provides.

    • We would never have discovered some of the facts from the guide books or the internet no matter how long I spent scouring the for them. Some of the facts were so random that I will always remember them and I consider that a good sign! 🙂

  • I’ve done the same tour! Our guide was amazing. He really worked for his money and we left feeling much more well informed on the city. Since doing the tour in Berlin I have used Sandermans a few more times and while they were good, they were never as good as Berlin.

  • Hannah says:

    I love Sandemans and do the tours in every city I go to- great way to orient yourself and get some great local tips. Plus, because it’s tipped base, I always feel like the guides give it their all. I’ve never been disappointed.

    • I agree Hannah, we completed two tours with Sandemans and on both occasions the guides worked emphatically to raise our awareness at each stage of the tour – I am not sure that other guided tours offer the same level of service especially if you have paid up front.

  • Gabor Kovacs says:

    Wow, a really nice tour, especially for free! I was in Berlin for the first time in 2006, and my cousin was my tour guide who actually is a freak of World War II history and took me to this “Hitler bunker”. I would have never imagined that they took you there in a tour like this, when actually nothing can be seen and everything is just for your imagination!:) Berlin is a great city, my fiancée is going back there for a few days this week and I passed her your post for some great ideas!

    • Thanks Gabor for your comments. I have to admit that when we first arrived at what is now a car park I did wonder what we had stopped for and would have never have found it if it haven’t been for our guide (it is not something that is heavily marked out for people – other than the signpost when you get there). I am glad that you found the information helpful and hopefully your fiancée feels the same way after her visit. 🙂

  • I love free walking tours and have also done one in Berlin. It was a Street art tour and it was so interesting. I got to see some really unusual places I would have never found by myself.

    • That sounds like an interesting tour and one we would probably enjoy. Can you remember the name of the tour? We were only just saying how we might need to book another trip to Berlin as we feel we didn’t spend long enough there! 🙂

  • Samantha says:

    That seems pretty good for a free tour! Museum Island looks great.

    • Museum Island was fantastic we just didn’t have quite enough time to explore each of them separately which means we need to return just to visit them! 🙂 The free tour was great. David, our tour guide, had so much energy throughout; he clearly knew his history and enjoyed explaining it to others. His enthusiasm was definitely contagious. 🙂

  • Sounds like a great way to see Berlin! We usually just wander around as well but sometimes a guided tour with a good guide is the best way to understand a city.

    • We have never done a tour like this before, always opting to wander around the city on our own but I have to say that I will seek out free walking tours again in the future. Not necessarily because they are free – I am willing to tip at the end – but because they add so much to the tour in order to gain the tips at the end. I often feel that if you pay up front the tour guide has already been paid and therefore they do not need to try. I will be looking to see if Sandeman’s are present when we arrive in a city going forward – I highly recommend them as a company! 🙂

  • Donna Hull says:

    Looks like your research won out and the Sandemans free walking tour was a success. I remember visiting the Holocaust Memorial on a short stay in Berlin. So somber and moving.

    • I am always dubious whenever we arrange something like this – group tours are not really our thing but we were both really surprised. So much so that we actually paid and went on a second tour with them later during our stay to a concentration camp – the knowledge of the guides was so impressive it would have been silly not to! I learnt more in three hours than I would have if I had spent all day on the internet researching before we went away. Well worth the 20 euros tip we left at the end!

  • Anabel says:

    I love Berlin and have definitely noted this for future reference. I do some tour guiding myself (Glasgow Women’s Heritage Walks) so know how much work goes into adding value.

    • Having never done a guided tour before we didn’t know what to expect but thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon – it was three hours well spent! Next time we are in Glasgow we will make sure to check out your tour! Do you have a website which details the tour?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.