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  • Urbex rules: How to explore Berlin’s abandoned buildings (the right way)

Urban exploring

Urbex rules: How to explore Berlin’s abandoned buildings (the right way)

Tempted by urban exploring? Veterans of the scene share the unwritten rules of a uniquely Berlin hobby.

Photo: cat_urbex

“A friend told me that there was a newly abandoned hospital six hours from Berlin, full of X-ray and CT machines. My girlfriend drove me there, and when we arrived we saw that the only open window was on the third floor,” Chrissi recalls. “We went to the Baumarkt to buy a massive ladder, checked into our hotel to come up with a plan and at 5am we went back to sneak in. My girlfriend kept watch, and I went alone through the hospital in darkness.”

What sounds like a living nightmare for some is the dream weekend getaway for Chrissi. The 33-year-old Berliner, who trains in a hospital and also works as a barista, has been doing urban exploring or ‘urbex’ for 12 years. Abandoned hospitals are their niche.

Why? “Most people never see these places during their lifetimes,” Chrissi, laughs. “My main goal is always to find the operating room or the morgue.” In Berlin, everyone and their granny has hopped the fence of Spreepark’s abandoned DDR funfair. They’ve maybe even googled “abandoned Berlin”, set off to the ruins of the former Iraqi embassy, seen some mouldy chairs in a pile of rubble and declared themselves an urban explorer.

But since the pandemic, the lockdown-friendly hobby has seen a new boom of amateur photographers scrambling for undiscovered, untouched spots, recklessly reaping them for all the Insta photo ops they’re worth – and Berlin’s old-school urbexers aren’t thrilled about it.

When I find a house full of things, my urbex heart beats so fast.

Admittedly, Spreepark was what sparked Chrissi’s obsession too: “I snuck in twice, took a few pictures and security kicked us out, which was a thrill.” Originally from Spreewald in Brandenburg, Chrissi is small and soft-spoken, an inconspicuous rule-breaker. “Eventually I got more organised, researching and planning Europe-wide tours,” they explain. These days, Chrissi spends months combing Google Maps. “I pick one little area and drive through on Street View, checking from above to see what looks overgrown or where a roof has collapsed.” Their personal urbex map is now a sea of hundreds of red pins from Portugal to Belgium, already explored or saved for a future date.

For Chrissi’s urbexer friend Cat, the obsession started as a child in rural Bavaria. “On the way to school there was one creepy, empty house I would walk past. I used to go in there with my friends,” she recalls. But back in the early 2000s there was no real urbex scene. “When we explained our hobby,” says Katharina, a third friend who started urbexing with her architecture- and photography- loving father as a teen, “we’d just say that we explored decaying buildings.”

Keep the premises tidy!

Photo: cat_urbex

In the urbex community, everyone’s interest is piqued by something different. For some, old, rotting pianos really do it, for others it is eerie DDR hotels or verdant, moss-covered churches. After 13 years of urbexing, Katharina knows her niche is 18th- and 19th-century villas.

“When I find a house full of things, my urbex heart beats so fast,” says the 37-yearold. “There is often a very sad story behind these places; that an elderly person moved into a care home and the children never returned because they don’t live in Germany anymore.”

On her excursions Katharina always sticks to the unbearably cheesy, but respectful and necessary, urbex code: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” But since the community has grown on Instagram, fewer adventurers are following the rules. Once location pictures are online, it’s often a matter of days before they become vandalised or ransacked.

“I went to a Nazi resistance member’s Italian villa. There were containers of tuberculosis medicine everywhere, children’s drawings, a typewriter and diaries. I went back a year later, after a famous urbex YouTuber had been there, and everything was trashed. I don’t revisit places any more because it’s so sad to see and there isn’t an endless supply of these old villas.”

Cat, who spends hours trawling insolvency sites and Wikipedia lists of Germany’s former ballrooms, is also starting to feel like she’s running out of new, untouched spots and resenting the time pressure to visit her favourite ones before they are vandalised, “My thing is ballrooms and huge factories, control rooms in particular. Oh god, I love them,” she laughs. “I like Brutalism, and these industrial spaces have lots of concrete, huge halls and steel girders. I find it such a shame when that old architecture disappears because the styles are so beautiful.”

As a tight bunch, Cat, Chrissi and Katharina share locations with each other, but few other people, not even their non-urbexer close friends, are lucky enough to be privy to their discoveries. “I’m sceptical of everyone apart from five people in the scene,” Cat admits.

This sometimes complicates things for the 29-year-old photographer, who likes to shoot nude models at abandoned sites. “An abandoned gym hall where I wanted to shoot was already partially vandalised. I had to hurry up, so I asked a random model. I said, ‘I know we’re strangers, but there are some requirements we must discuss.’ In the end they agreed, I took their phone 30 minutes before we arrived, and when we passed signs they closed their eyes or wore a blindfold.”

Enter at your own risk

Photo: Chrissi / retrospective.memory

Urbex is not a hobby for the faint-hearted, and with the thrills come the dangers – another reason to embark on these explorations with trusted friends only. “You need to know, what are we going to do if the police come? Do we run? Stay? Hide? What if someone gets injured?” says Cat. She and Chrissi, who is a keen climber, have relied on their bond to get them out of sticky situations. “I’m afraid of heights, and often you have to climb six metres wearing your 8kg rucksack. I’ve gotten over it a bit and I have Chrissi to thank, who just says, ‘Trust me, it won’t be difficult, we can do it.’”

For Katharina, who still goes urbexing with her parents every autumn, it’s her nearly 60-year-old mum offering the encouragement. “She’s really badass. When we can’t find the way to get in and I’m ready to give up, she’s always like, ‘Come on! We’ll manage. We’ll try it from the other side!’”

Accidents do happen: in 2016, an American Wahlberliner had a serious fall through the roof of Weißensee’s abandoned children’s hospital, while in 2021, a 43-year-old solo urbexer died in an abandoned industrial estate in North Rhine-Westphalia. While such incidents are rare in the community, injury is always a risk.

“One friend fell down a well at an abandoned power plant,” says Chrissi. “Since then, I always carry a five metre rope.” Their parents have given them extra extendable ladders and brilliantly bright head torches for the past few Christmasses.

Another rule of urbex is ‘never go alone’, but Katharina admits that this is one rule she doesn’t always follow now that her rebellious parents are getting older. “Urbex is my cerebral cleanse,” says the PR manager. “Four years ago I had a burnout and separated from my husband. I went to Italy alone and urbexed every day for a month. It was intense, but it’s the best thing to get out of your own head.”

“Alone” isn’t entirely accurate: Katharina brings her dog Mio on every Urbex trip. “He is my emotional support,” she explains. “When I went to Italy alone for the first time I visited an abandoned psychiatric hospital. We entered and it was pitch black. There were cells where unwell people would have been imprisoned, and horrific drawings scratched into the walls. I was so scared, but we ran through this place together.”

When the photos are good, you want to show people what you did. On the other hand, it’s always connected to the thought, ‘If I upload this picture, what’s going to happen to this place?’

In the endless Instagram stream of pleasingly symmetrical images of dusty ballrooms and antique beds with sagging mattresses, Mio has become Katharina’s artistic trademark. But now that urbex has become more popular, Katharina feels somewhat responsible for starting a perhaps unwise Instagram trend of urbex dogs, “Mio is a very careful dog, we trust each other and he also likes doing urbex. Every time I pack my urbex bag, he’s excited to go. It’s a bind – I want to post photos of him, but I don’t want to encourage people to bring their dog. It’s dangerous, they can fall, there are houses with asbestos or pigeon shit that’s dangerous to inhale. I also have shoes for him in case he has to stand on something.”

Much of urbex’s thrill lies in the potential of being caught by the police, another reason that Katharina thinks four-legged companions are best left at home. “If I urbexed with Mio and I got arrested, I wouldn’t know what was going to happen to him – so I have to be extra careful.”

This risk has only grown with the rising popularity of urbex. While most explorers around Europe receive a ticking off or a fine of a few hundred euros, France, a country notorious within the community as particularly urbex-hostile, is cracking down with a new trespassing law that directly targets urbexers.

Chrissi has had some scrapes with the Gauls, having once been approached by a mob of angry neighbours in the middle of a dark forest and arrested by the Gendarmerie who warned them not to do urbex in France again – a daredevil at heart, they were back at it that evening.

In Germany, however, the urbex boom doesn’t seem to have resulted in tougher security. “I think in Berlin normal people wouldn’t be interested in policing random urbexers, but it’s different in a small French village where everyone looks out the window when they hear a car door close,” Chrissi laughs.

Don’t post your spots!

Photo: Chrissi / retrospective.memory

Urbex and Instagram are tempestuous bedfellows. “I’m torn!” says Cat. “When you find a beautiful spot and the photos are good, you want to show people what you did. On the other hand, it’s always connected to the thought, ‘If I upload this picture, what’s going to happen to this place?’” When a location becomes well-known, many newbie urbexers flood there, posting pictures willy-nilly, including street signs or outdoor shots that easily reveal the location.

To remedy this conundrum, Cat, Chrissi, Katharina and Patrick have all decided to only upload photos after at least a year has passed since they visited the site, in an attempt to protect it from vandals. But since urbex’s move into the mainstream, this might seem like the last of their problems. “There are these new companies, mainly from Holland, that are selling coordinates. But they are selling total shit!” Katharina laughs. “I bought one out of curiosity – you pay €2 and get the coordinates of a place that has already been ruined. I was so bitter! I wrote them an email, but I never got a response.”

Patrick, who is the administrator of the Lost Places Berlin-Brandenburg urbex Facebook group, also has his worries. “The group has grown hugely,” he says. “Five years ago it was different, but now people share lots of information about locations. There’s also the risk of burglars who want to ransack places and then sell stuff online.” For now, says Chrissi, gentrification is the scariest spectre threatening Berlin’s beloved, secret spots. “In Buch there were big hospitals which are being renovated into flats now.

It’s the same with the abandoned Olympic village.” Chrissi’s old haunt Spreepark is now all but impossible to break into as plans commence to turn the ex-funfair into a public park; any would-be urbexers must pay €5 for an official tour.

Just like her parents, Katharina wants to be urbexing into old age, “but my euphoria and passion has been dampened by the past years,” she admits. The four old-schoolers all have the same message to share in a final attempt to protect their passion from extinction: “Be patient! Don’t post your spots!”
And if you’re a newbie, take a paid tour round the old hospital in Beelitz or the former tuberculosis clinic in Oranienburg before you accidentally get arrested or break your arm falling from a roof.

Want more Berlin architecture? Here’s a look at the Marxist buildings of Berlin and 20 years of urban development, from bunkers to Berghain to BER.