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  • No such thing as a free tour? Berlin’s tour guide revolution


No such thing as a free tour? Berlin’s tour guide revolution

It sounds like the perfect way to spend a summer day: take a few hours to tour Berlin, getting to know the city better with the help of an expert, entirely free of charge. So what’s the catch?

Photo: Sabine Schereck

In 2004, a revolution hit the Berlin tourism scene.

Fifteen years earlier, the fall of the Wall had opened the floodgates for visitors from around the world. A number of tour businesses sprung up to cater to the growing influx, starting with the British-founded Original Berlin Walks in 1993. It and the companies that followed all worked according to a similar model: guests paid a set fee for a public or private excursion. Part of that fee went to the guide, who was usually a freelancer.

As with anything free, these tours beg the question: what’s the catch?

Then came Chris Sandeman. Legend has it that the Yale graduate, having lost his job as a conventional guide, decided to simply stand by the Brandenburg Gate with a cardboard sign reading “Free Tour”, hoping to entice thrifty backpackers to at least leave a tip at the end. It took a while, but the concept caught on: his company, now called Sandeman’s New Europe, is active across the continent and beyond, with branches in Israel and the US.

It’s since been joined by copycats looking to take advantage of Berlin’s juicy tourism market, which peaked in 2019 at €16.9 billion and has rapidly been bouncing back from its corona-induced lull. Walk by the Brandenburg Gate today and you’ll see a rainbow of umbrellas, wielded by guides advertising pay-what-you-want tours focusing on Berlin history and present.

It’s as seductive an offer to visitors as it is to would-be guides, who are drawn to the flexibility the job offers and the opportunity to show off their Berlin know-how. But as with anything free, these tours beg the question: what’s the catch?

The price of being a guide

Photo: Sabine Schereck

“This is my actual job,” Will Maidment makes clear as he addresses the large crowd gathered around him in front of the Rotes Rathaus. After the Englishman introduces himself, but before he begins a nearly three-hour journey through the past 200 years of Berlin history, he always makes sure to remind his guests that donations are expected. He also mentions that part of the fee will go to his employer, the Krakow-based tour company Walkative.

“Nowadays, people are familiar with the concept of free tours – it’s very rare that someone won’t give you money,” says Maidment, a history graduate who fell in love with Berlin as a 14-year-old and finally moved to the capital three years ago. He scored the job with Walkative during the brief interlude between lockdowns in summer 2020, just as the company was entering the German market.

At his busiest, Maidment leads eight to 10 tours a week, including private tours that Walkative offers for a fixed fee of €180. “I’m in charge of my time and can be out in the sun,” he says of what drew him to the gig.

His colleague Jules Graf, a born Berliner who has guided tours for several companies over the past five years, agrees, adding: “I can talk about something I’m interested in, and people pay me for it.”

Photo: Sabine Schereck

She compares Walkative favourably to her previous job with Sandeman’s. Both companies employ guides on a freelance basis, but while Walkative asks for a fixed percentage of tips earned (unless the total is less than €50), Sandeman’s charged an upfront “marketing fee” of around €3 per person that had signed up for a tour. “If they walked away during the tour, it was your loss,” Graf says. Guides are forbidden from telling tour-goers about this fee, with the justification that it would “create an unfair pressure on them to engender a tip”, according to Sandeman’s website.

Chris Cooke, a New Zealander who worked for Sandeman’s between 2013 and 2020, points out that the fee could be lowered if a guide successfully encouraged tourists to sign up for one of the company’s paid tours – its main revenue source. “There was a lot of pressure to upsell.”

During his time there, he perceived the company as “cold and impersonal. It was purely a business relationship; you didn’t feel looked after. If you needed cover, you had to organise it yourself.”

The pariahs of the tourism industry?

Although guides working for Sandeman’s and co. must generally pass a series of tests and go through hours of training before leading their first tour, but they’re viewed with some scepticism by industry peers. “Not all free tour guides take the profession as seriously as we would hope,” says Heather Ellis. Originally from the US, she moved to Germany in 2005, where she first worked for Original Berlin Walks, then cruise company SPB tours. Frustrated by the lack of a set quality standard for tour guides, she and a few others founded the Bündnis Berliner Stadtführer (BBS) in 2014. “Our mission is to raise the standard of the tour guide profession, and the spread of free tours makes that even more difficult. The guides’ work might not be honoured appropriately, which devalues the profession.”

You didn’t feel looked after. If you needed cover, you had to organise it yourself.

It’s for that reason that free tour guides can have difficulties finding work with other companies, which is necessary in Germany to avoid Scheinselbstständigkeit (“fake freelancing”). This isn’t always the case, though. Georgia Riungu first briefly worked for Sandeman’s in 2010, during a study abroad programme run by the university she attended in Scotland. She returned to Berlin and picked the job back up in 2015. Over the next five years, she expanded her repertoire and led increasingly more paid tours, and slowly phased out the free ones.

She now leads tours for Original Berlin Walks, including a “Women of Berlin” tour that she devised herself. “They look after their guides and support them through training,” she says of her new employer. Still, she looks back fondly on her days at Sandeman’s. “It was great working with international colleagues and meeting travellers from all over the world.”

If you can’t beat ‘em…

In 2020, as the pandemic was wreaking havoc on the tourism industry, Sandeman’s quietly restructured its payment system in Germany. Guides here are now employed on a contract, while those in all other countries must still pay the “marketing fee”. Still, those looking for full-time security with the company will be disappointed: on its jobs page, Sandeman’s mentions it’s seeking part-time workers, and that “this role would be a perfect match for students”.

In the meantime, some of its alumni have gone on to lead free tours of their own. In 2018, Chris Cooke founded Espresso Tours, offering hour-and-a-half guided walks that promise “history without the boring bits”. When tourism began picking up post-pandemic, he left Sandeman’s to focus exclusively on that company. He now employs one other English-speaking guide and a Spanish-speaking one – a necessity in Berlin, where there are more Spanish-language walking tours per day than English and German ones put together.

Aiding him is the emergence of platforms like Freetour and Guruwalk, where would-be tour leaders pay a small price per booking in exchange for being listed. The latter is where you’ll find Ryan O’Reilly’s “Free Tour of Berlin’s Music History” revolving around David Bowie, Iggy Pop and U2. A musician himself, O’Reilly once led Beatles-centric tours of London, and returned to the profession when his gigs dried up during the pandemic. “At first I was cautious about it, but then I was relatively impressed. It’s what you make of it. You don’t get rich, but it’s a rewarding and interesting way to make a living.”

Meanwhile, back at Rotes Rathaus, Will welcomes visitors from all parts of the world to the afternoon tour. Are two tours a day of nearly three hours not tiring? “No,” he replies promptly. From his enthusiasm, it’s clear: no matter the size of the tip, he loves sharing his knowledge about his adopted home.



The basic tour: A two-hour intro to Berlin’s Nazi and Cold War history, starting at the Brandenburg Gate Starbucks and ending at Checkpoint Charlie with stops at the Holocaust Memorial and the unmarked site of Hitler’s bunker. Frequency: Three times a day, 7 days a week

  • Languages: English, German, Spanish


The basic tour: A two-hour, 45-minute Berlin crash course that begins at the Rotes Rathaus, covering the same sites as Sandeman’s plus the TV Tower, Museum Island, Humboldt University and Gendarmenmarkt.

Alternatives: Alternative Berlin, which starts at the same place and explores the squat and street art scene before ending at YAAM; and the Berlin Communist and Socialist Tour, which goes through Mitte and Friedrichshain.

  • Frequency: Twice a day, 7 days a week
  • Languages: English, Spanish, German, Polish (main tour), English and Spanish (Alternative Berlin, Communist and Socialist Tour)

Espresso Tours

The basic tour: A similar route to Sandeman’s, starting at the Brandenburg Gate and ending at Checkpoint Charlie 1.5 hours later.

Alternatives: The Nazi-centric “Hitler’s Berlin” and the DDR-focussed “Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall”, both 2 hours.

  • Frequency: Once daily Languages: English and Spanish (main tour), English only (Hitler’s Berlin, Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall)

Free Tour of Berlin’s Music History

The tour: A two-hour walk centred on David Bowie, Iggy Pop and U2, starting near Bowie’s former apartment in Schöneberg and going through Hansa Studios and Kreuzberg.

  • Frequency: Wed-Fri, once a day Languages: English only