Until our most recent trip to Berlin, we’d never gone on a guided walking tour of a city – paid or free. When we’ve gone on other kinds of guided tours, we’re always the slowest in the bunch, hanging back to take photos or read some obscure sign nobody in their right mind cares to read. Even when we know we might “get more” out of an attraction by going with a guide, our preference for independence when we travel usually wins. The nice thing about having sufficient time to spend somewhere is that you can explore on your own but also take advantage of a guided trip or two.
This was the case for us in Berlin.
After checking in at our hostel boat, the Eastern Comfort, the manager gave us a brochure for a list of guided tours with a company called SANDEMANs. Cool! We’d never heard of them, but we figured we’d give them a shot. We’d seen quite a bit of Berlin on our own already, but few of the sites listed on the SANDEMANs main guided walking tour coincided with places we’d visited. We didn’t need reservations so we didn’t have to commit to it, and we figured if it was lame, we could ditch it at any time. Plus it was advertised as FREE. Who doesn’t love free?!
Skip to the end for more about that tricksy little word, “free.”
Come 2 pm on December 31st (yes, they work on holidays), we arrived right on time at the Brandenburg Gate, the typical starting point for the SANDEMANs “Free Tour of Berlin.”
The company offers seven other tours in and around Berlin, but only the one tour is free.
We quickly spotted the little red umbrella indicating our English-speaking guide across from a Starbucks. After being assigned to a group, we were given a visitor number, listened to a friendly intro from our guide, Leo, and started the tour with a brief history of the Brandenburg Gate, the first of at least 13 attractions we were expecting to visit in three hours.
1. Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most recognizable landmarks. It once marked the entrance to a line of linden trees leading to the palace of the Prussian monarchs. It witnessed Napoleon’s victorious procession in 1806, hosted a parade in celebration of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, survived bombings during World War II, served as one of the checkpoints of the Berlin Wall, and has heard countless speeches calling for freedom. In 1989, thousands gathered to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and to witness the ceremonial greeting between East and West German politicians at the Gate.
Make sure to snap any photos of the gate before the tour starts since you won’t be there long!
2. Hotel Adlon
Really? A hotel? As an attraction on a walking tour? It doesn’t look very spectacular. Any guesses why this hotel might be note-worthy?
We certainly would never have recognized it, but this is the hotel where Michael Jackson hung his baby, “Blanket,” out the window for fans in 2011.
Despite its rather unremarkable appearance, Hotel Adlon is a luxury hotel for the rich and famous. When Obama visits Berlin, he books a room at the Hotel Adlon. The building is actually not even 25 years old but appears older. The design was inspired by the original Hotel Adlon, which was destroyed by fire in 1945.
3. The Holocaust Memorial
In an apparent effort not to mince words, the official name of the Holocaust Memorial is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2004, it consists of 2711 stone blocks of varying size, placed slightly askew in rows over an entire city block. The architect has been careful to avoid explaining the significance of the memorial to the public, instead encouraging others to interpret it however they wish. As during my first visit to the memorial, I felt very little while walking through the towering concrete columns. It’s quite a popular attraction, though, and to each his own.
Have you visited the memorial? Were you moved by it?
4. Site of the Führerbunker – Hitler’s Bunker
As Germany’s defeat during WWII became imminent, Hitler retreated to his underground bunker in Berlin. Completed in 1944, the air raid shelter consisted of about 30 rooms protected by a concrete roof nearly three meters thick. It had sufficient space for Hitler, Eva Braun (his girlfriend), and those closest to him. Together, they hunkered down for months as Allied troops advanced on the city.
On April 29th, Hitler and Eva were married inside the bunker as Russia’s Red Army advanced just blocks away. Less than 40 hours later, they committed suicide together by gunshot and cyanide poisoning. Upon his orders, Hitler’s men attempted to burn his body but failed. Soviets recovered the remains and ultimately cremated them and sprinkled them without fanfare in the 1970s.
In the decades that followed, the East Berlin government made multiple attempts to destroy the bunker complex, which proved difficult considering its impregnable construction. Even today, some of the corridors are still intact underground, though they’re not open to the public. The site above-ground now is nothing more than a dirt and gravel parking area behind an apartment complex. Authorities want to ensure that the place where Hitler spent his final hours will never become a shrine to any would-be follower.
5. Headquarters of the German Luftwaffe
In 1919, one of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles was the dissolution of Germany’s military. However, as early as 1925, German pilots were already secretly engaged in flight training in the Soviet Union. In exchange for allowing Germany to set up a flight school at the Lipetsk Air Base, Germans gave the Soviet government access to the development of new flight data.
Training at Lipetsk continued until Hitler officially came to power in 1933. The Ministry of Aviation, a government body under the newly elected Third Reich, was created the same year to handle all matters concerning aircraft production and operation in Germany.
Less than two years later, Hitler ordered the foundation of the Luftwaffe, Germany’s official air force branch of the military. Though it was dismantled upon Germany’s surrender in 1945, the building that housed the Luftwaffe HQ still remains. Since 1999, it has housed the German Finance Ministry. It’s a popular example of Nazi Germany’s somber, intimidating style of architecture.
6. Vintage Trabant Rental Agency
Not a fan of big grey buildings? Then how about vintage cars?!
I have to admit I wasn’t particularly impressed with the Luftwaffe HQ, in part because our guide didn’t have much to say about it. BUT just across the street we spotted a stream of Trabants returning to their home base – a lot filled with vintage cars for rent. Smelly and loud, the cars sounded like they were on their last legs, but they were still fun to see. What a hoot to drive one around the city!
7. The Berlin WELT-Balloon Ride
Berlin’s WELT-Balloon is a tethered weather balloon that offers rides to see the city from the air. We didn’t pay to go up, but it would be a fantastic place to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve!
The Trabant lot and WELT-Balloon aren’t officially included on this tour, but you’ll go right past them regardless.
8. Germany’s Love Affair with Currywurst
Currywurst is a common street food in Germany, made of sausage that’s been steamed, then fried, and drenched in curry ketchup. It’s often topped off with curry powder.
I couldn’t tell you that anymore than I can explain why Americans love corn dogs! They just do.
As a popular fast food, currywurst is readily available from street vendors and cafes. I’m not a huge fan of curry in general, but I will say that the best I’ve had was the stuff I ordered during the tour. If you want to try it, this street vendor is on the corner just south of the WELT-Balloon. If your tour group stops at the same shop (Laras’ Bakery) mid-way through for a coffee/bathroom break, you’ll have 20-40 minutes to snag some. It’s also available at the cafe, but be prepared to wait forever while big crowds from multiple tour groups all converge in line.
9. Berlin Wall @ the Topography of Terror
With the exception of the East Side Gallery, this is the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It runs between Niederkirchnerstrasse and the Topography of Terror, a museum that documents the reign of terror inflicted by the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. The museum is located on the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS, Hitler’s famed secret police and intelligence forces.
The tour doesn’t include entry to the Topography of Terror. The focus is this section of the Berlin Wall.
10. Checkpoint Charlie
Of all the attractions on this tour, Checkpoint Charlie is the one that really should be left out.
During the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie was one of several along the Berlin Wall where folks could cross between East and West Germany. The name came from letters in the military alphabet, following from the other crossing points – Checkpoint Alpha, Checkpoint Bravo, etc. Checkpoint Charlie, though, was unique in that it was the sole designated crossing for foreigners, diplomats, and members of the Allied forces.
Unfortunately, while the history of the site is interesting, the tourist trap that currently exists in its place is anything but. The original guard house that stood in the middle of the street is long since gone, replaced with a replica when locals realized it could bring in tourist dollars. Tourists line up to pay €3 apiece for a photo with a German actor holding an American flag. It’s all pretty lame. A better name for it would actually be “Checkpoint Cheesy,” but the adjacent McDonald’s apparently already has dibs on that name.
11. Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market
During much of the year, the Gendarmenmarkt is merely a popular square bordered by two stunning churches and a concert hall. But if you plan your visit to Berlin to coincide with the holiday season, you’ll find the square transformed into one of the city’s most beautiful and popular Christmas markets.
Unfortunately, the tour doesn’t actually include visiting the market! You just see it, then walk past it. We simply can’t understand why tour guides would choose to take a 20-40 minute break at a random, cramped cafe when they could instead allow visitors the same amount of time at the Gendarmenmarkt. We had already spent quite some time there the previous night and were still disappointed we couldn’t pop in for a few minutes. Who passes by a German Christmas market without stopping for Glühwein?! It’s practically criminal!
Ahhh, SANDEMANs – fail and double fail!
12. Nazi Book Burning Memorial
Throughout history, the public destruction of books has been a powerful form of censorship, a tool used to align cultural identity with political or religious ideology. This destruction reached an unprecedented scale in 1933 all across Nazi Germany. Student organizations in support of the Third Reich called for wide-scale burning of all books deemed “un-German” – those written by Jews, Socialists, or anyone promoting ideas that threatened the government’s propaganda.
Called to action, students took to the streets in marches, wielding torches and burning books in a string of events across the country. In a massive ceremony in Berlin on May 10th, roughly 25,000 books were piled in a tragic heap and set on fire in the Obernplatz, the square bordering Humboldt University. Among the works destroyed were those by author August Bebel, a staunch Social Democrat. The square now bears his name, Bebelplatz, and features a memorial to those dark events of 1933. Simply dubbed Library, the memorial is viewed through a glass ceiling set in the cobblestones of Bebelplatz. Visitors look down into a stark white room, devoid of color, lined with bookshelves large enough to hold roughly 25,000 books. Next to the memorial is a plaque:
That was only a prelude, there where they burn books, they burn in the end people.
In an unsettling twist of foreshadowing, the poem was written by Heinrich Heine in 1820, over 100 years before the May 10 “Action Against the Un-German Spirit”.
He was a German Jew.
Pros & Cons of SANDEMANs Tour
What we loved – the “Yea”:
Our guide, Leo! Personable, funny, and clearly knowledgeable of Berlin attractions.
Visiting Hitler’s bunker and the book burning memorial. If it weren’t for the tour, we would’ve walked right by both sites without knowing they were there.
No need to make a commitment or book in advance.
The idea of a tour in which visitors decide how much they feel the tour was worth at the end and pay accordingly in tips directly to the guide.
What we didn’t love – the “Nay”:
The 20-minute cafe break that stretched into 40 to allow all 25+ members of our group to buy coffee or use the bathroom. I spent about 25 minutes in line for the women’s restroom (no line in the men’s restroom, as usual), and the line in the cafe was too long to buy something. This cafe does not have sufficient space, facilities, or staff to handle large groups of tourists.
Walking right past the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market without stopping. It shouldn’t even be included on the list of attractions unless folks can actually go inside.
The deceptive marketing behind the SANDEMANs “FREE” walking tours. Guides work on tips, which is fine, except by definition then, tours simply are not free. It’s a clever, but manipulative, marketing ploy to lure people in with FREE boldly displayed on brochures but expect guests to tip. Of course, the kicker is that the tour guides have to pay the company a fee for every person who signs up for the tour, even if that person fails to tip or doesn’t complete it. When someone in our group asked our guide how much SANDEMANs keeps of his tips, he was evasive, saying he didn’t want to sway how much we decided to tip. To his credit, I assume he’s been told he can’t disclose that information, but transparency and honesty are important for a company to maintain their reputation with customers. If this sounds like the rant of a crazy woman, check out the article by Caitlyn over at Olympic Wanderings: Are free walking tours really free? She has first-hand experience as a tourist on guided city tours and as a tour guide.
Final verdict. Would we do another “free” tour with SANDEMANs? Probably not.
Would we consider a guided city walking tour with a different company that’s more transparent about their gratuity-based business model? Absolutely.