One of my dad’s life mantras, absorbed into my own, is “if it’s free, it’s for me!” I know that free doesn’t always mean the best quality, like a free swipe into the dining hall of any given college, but it can be awesome, too. So when I was planning for Berlin, I began researching for free walking tours. I had done one while on a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, and as that one had proven spectacular, it seemed fitting to try again.
My first full day was spent in part taking a free walking tour.
I recommend one to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the thought of deciphering the code of a new city (read: everyone. Even if intimidation isn’t a factor, it’s nice to see the lay of the land and listen to the history. Tour guides are storytellers, here to further the narrative of a place, and bring insight that you wouldn’t gather otherwise.
Granted, there are plenty of facts that I could have easily Googled (like Berlin not becoming the capital of Germany until 1871), but if you’re presently in the middle of the history, why ask the internet when you can hear it firsthand from a knowledgeable person?
I love listening to stories, so standing, staring at my surroundings, and being recited tales of the past at said surroundings is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to engage with place. Even as an avid reader, I can only focus on so much history on the screen and in front of me at once.
So I reserved a spot with the Original Free Berlin Tour.
After circling the general area of the meeting point, finally found and stepped into the crowd of other tour-goers at the one80 hostel, near Alexanderplatz. There was a commotion of chatter, of visitors and guests of the hostel and a confusing blend of two tour groups, mainly comprising of Americans, huddled as one, and one guy came up to me to confirm that he was in the right spot.
We chatted for a bit, he from Texas and traveling across the continent for two weeks, flying by the seat of his pants as to his next European destination. I wish I had the same wherewithal, but my indecisive and overthinking tendencies would probably result in me staying up all night, scrolling through the endless options of places to go the next day, shutting down from too many options and trying to not even think about what my activities would be, and ignoring it all in the name of cake.
He mentioned Copenhagen, and I beamed, having just returned and still on a high from its beauty. “It’s expensive,” I said, repeating myself in emphasis, “but so, so gorgeous.” He would consider.
Two guides from the Original tour appeared, checking off names and ensuring us that we would be departing shortly. A few minutes past 10am, running more on Irish time than German time, we left. I had run to the restroom in the limbo of waiting, guessing I would be safe in hurrying off for three minutes, and upon returning to the lobby found it empty. I sprinted out of the hostel, catching a pack of twenty headed down the sidewalk to my right, and partook in my least favorite form of exercise to meet them. Along the way, I passed one of the two guides from the hostel and he looked at me, saying brightly, “Don’t worry! They just left!” Breathless, I thanked him and, on attaching myself to the group, trailed along as we made our way to Alexanderplatz.
Our tour lasted about three hours and twenty minutes, 2/3 of it spent under a hot sun, the last third blanketed in clouds (and, 35 minutes after we wrapped up, the likes of a tropical storm-sized nor’easter). Our guide, a German woman in her early 20s who, like many in Berlin, moved here, showed us every nook and cranny of the city. We began at the world clock, a phenomenal turret-style clock displaying the time of every country in the world. In the distance stood the TV tower, which we were told stands 40 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower.
Insider knowledge doubles the curiosity of a place.
If I were simply exploring Berlin via museums, visitor centers, and bicycles, I probably wouldn’t have learned that most of the squares look as they do because of bombing during World War II, and may not have noticed the hundreds of bullet holes that characterize columns, pillars, buildings. The knowledge that the city’s oldest church is only the oldest by default–the oldest was decimated in the war–wouldn’t have been mine. I would see the juxtaposed architecture, the grand Berlinerdom (built in only ten years and colored in ash because of, again, bombing) standing proudly beside buildings of the mid- to late- twentieth century, and probably only gaze in wonder at the blend of styles, not at the need the city had for rebuilding.
Berlin is, in part, the way it is because of the war, and the daily attacks they received.
It has reinvented itself as an international hub, creating in its wake a unique, modern, and wholly unbeatable culture. In a way, I think, it was made over by the disillusioned, those in question of society, the ones wanting something flashy and exciting without ever leaving its roots behind. Many monuments and buildings aren’t in their original locations anymore, but still they stand.
While walking along the Spree River, our guide pointed out a grand building in the middle of construction. It is to resemble Versailles, which the original structure in that spot first was modeled after. It was torn down, and two other buildings have stood in its place until the government grew tired of the look and sent them crashing to the ground. When it’s done, it will display Prussian artifacts.
With our guide, we crossed paths with Brandenburg Gate (where the Berlin Wall once ran, and on each side of the wall, concerts would be hosted to out-entertain the other), the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the Currywurst Museum, the site of Hitler’s bunker, what were formerly the Nazi’s headquarters, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We visited the site of an underground library, which can be viewed from a square of glass in the ground, and where Nazis would gather to burn books they deemed dangerous to the regime.
It was eye-opening to be in a city whose history is so deeply aligned with the Third Reich and the Holocaust, because there remembrance and twinges of shame are evident. It isn’t a shame directed at the city, but at the events that unfolded in and around its boundaries. In those areas, silence feels appropriate and encouraged. The city doesn’t hide into itself: it doesn’t spare the grisly details. It is simultaneously sparse and whole.
Opting for a walking tour was the best choice I made while there.
The rest of the time, I could explore with a new light drawn on the city, recalling moments and events that made Berlin feel even more complex, raw, and beautiful. It is unrecognizable in places, sharp and soft rolled into one; and hurt; and healing; but still it remains. Always it remains.
You can reserve your spot on the Original Berlin Free Walking Tour here. Tours last between 2.5 and 3.5 hours, with a 15-minute lunch/restroom break.