Tours ain’t just for tourists

Dive into Berlin’s history under the guidance of real pros. On staycation this summer, EXBERLINER scoped out Berlin’s most original tours and gave them a whirl to see what they’re worth.

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Photo by Sigrid Malmgren

Whether on the run or wheeled by a scooter or Trabi, dive into Berlin’s history under the guidance of real pros. On staycation this summer, EXBERLINER scoped out Berlin’s most original tours and gave them a whirl to see what they’re worth.

Communist rides

Over 20 years ago in communist East Germany, one had to sign up on a 10-year waiting list to feel the 26-horsepower rumble through their backside in the smoke-belching, two-stroked-engine steel-and-plastic box known as the Trabant. And back then, this was the only option on wheels.

These days, thanks to TRABI SAFARI, you need to plan only a couple of hours in advance to cruise in one of the cult Kommi-mobiles painted cheetah, lollypop red and school bus yellow, or sliced up into snazzy convertibles. You can choose from one of three routes – ‘The Wall Ride’, ‘Classic’ and ‘Wild East’ – and each excursion is radio transmitted up to 2km by the tour guide in the leading Trabi. The tours run for an adequate 60 minutes – enough time to plough out before your kneecaps lock up.

The biggest fun factor of the Trabi Safari tour is parading through the city centre with gawking passers-by snapping photos of you in your clownesque car. And speed won’t ruin the photo: if the car caboosing the tour doesn’t halt your convoy to the roadside (our Brits got lost!), the rush-hour chaos will – Mercedes drivers show no mercy for the little Trabis.

Ultimately it is great fun. We all climbed out totally pleased – especially the Americans who managed to master the revolver-like stick shift (if you can’t deal with non-automatic, a guide will drive you). One tip: unless you don’t mind sweat stains on your back and thigh burns from the Trabi’s exposed black pleather, don’t try this on a hot day: the little Trabi can easily turn into a sauna-like sweatbox! ND

Trabi Safari | In German or English. Daily 10-18:00. Up to four people per Trabi, six Trabis per tour. €30-60 per person. Book tickets online.

Run Lola run

From the squeaky-clean shadow of Berlin’s bureaucratic high rises down to the nitty-gritty backstreets, the SIGHT JOGGING tour highlights the rise and fall of the Mauer as if it were Berlin’s best kept secret.

The enthusiastic tour guides (we highly recommend René) not only cater to your speed and physical condition but they also adapt their narrative to your unique personality and – apparently – your political preference. Jogging groups usually include no more than five people, although René told us a lot of corporate bigwigs find great amusement in dragging larger groups of their hungover, heavily panting employees around the city the morning after a convention dinner.

Our leader improvised beautifully, bouncing his speaking points off our individual questions. But unless you have the endurance of Forrest Gump, speak up when you’ve had enough or else your über-athletic guide may drag your frail body in every which way well into the evening.

For those reluctant to move their limbs, Sight also organizes tours on three-wheeled, soundless electric scooters. They’re a blast to ride, and this could be the best way to let grandma tag along with her jogging progeny. Bonus: Tours are offered through Tiergarten and Potsdam too! ND

Sightjogging | In German or English (other languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, on request). Book tickets online.

Berlin doesn’t love you

Trading the Reichstag for the RAW-Tempel, Hidden Path Tours wind through Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain in resolutely small groups, talking all things street art, graffiti, gentrification and Kiez.

After working for the big tours and becoming disillusioned – sound familiar? – with both the companies themselves and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of click-happy culture tourists grazing bovine-like on every street corner, the charismatic David Baumgarten teamed up with fellow native Berliner Laura Keuchler to start Hidden Path six months ago. As a formerly active street artist, Baumgarten brings an insider’s perspective, speaking with animated passion about U-Bahn tags, sloppy painted 6’s on drainpipes, the Banksy that isn’t really a Banksy, and the recent ‘Berlin doesn’t love you’ stickers dotting Oranienstraße.

The tour takes on the districts’ radical histories, interesting for both visitors and locals keen to learn more about their Kiez. Ending on the banks across from the fallen Maria and Bar25, gentrification and the future of Berlin inevitably come up for discussion, as do the Swedish-owned petrol stations, Mediaspree and the super-sized hotels and office blocks soon to colonize Berlin’s hinterlands. ABB

In German or English. By appointment for groups of 5-10: [email protected]. €18 per person. (www.thehiddenpath.de)

A People’s History of Prenzlauer Berg

Speaking from somewhere between Ostalgie and academic savvy, sociology student and native East German Win Windisch runs up-to-three-hour walking tours that follow the hidden radical history of some of today’s least radical districts: Mitte, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. We embarked on a historical journey of the latter, as our BERLIN SUBVERSIV guide took us from ‘Working Class and Dissident District to Pregnancy Hill’.

From the old Schultheiss Brewery – now known to all as the Kulturbrauerei – to the workers’ hangout Prater, Windisch illustrates a borough pre-gentrification, bringing it all back to life with maps, political cartoons, photos, flyers and the accounts of ordinary individuals.

The tour includes many stories about famous residents, from the radical-chic territory of squatters and musicians (an early incarnation of Rammstein called P-Berg home) to Prenzlauer Berg’s quieter heroes such as artist and Nazi-resistor Käthe Kollwitz (who gave her name to the borough’s most famous square) and the local priests who hid Jews or the Zionskirche, a perennial site of resistance that later housed the only independent printing press in East Germany.

Contrasting old and new Prenzlauer Berg, from the turn of the century’s disease-ridden apartments to today’s pavements clogged with ice-cream-wielding toddlers, the tour also covers modern day life along the ‘Castingallee’, where the residues of radicalism live on through the Tuntenhaus, Lichtblick-Kino and remaining co-op housing. ABB

Berlin Subversiv | In German and English. By appointment: Tel 0177 425 9730, [email protected]. €12/10 students (www.berlin-subversiv.de)

Flat (bass) line

Perhaps their bus tour is better. For €12, every Friday afternoon for roughly 2.5 hours, Fritz MusicTours Berlin (affiliated with Fritz radio) leads you along a well-traversed yet unfortunately unremarkable trail from Prenzlauer Berg’s well-known Kulturbrauerei to The Ramones Museum in Mitte.

Starting at a place that once upon a time was pretty cool and ending at a tourist trap that never was and never will be, you meander through the stroller-filled Prenzlauer Berg streets hearing occasionally interesting anecdotes, like the one about an impromptu gig at Prater by Bruce Springsteen.

For all the famous Berlin musicians mentioned in their tour literature, the stories you end up hearing are somewhat underwhelming. And if you ever wanted to know where Rammstein hang out, you will have to go on the bus tour, which apparently allows you to enter more underground territory. Plus, you’ll get to drive by Bowie’s old house.

Alas, an insider’s tour this is not – all the information we received about Ellen Alien, Nina Hagen, Rammstein and other bands could be discovered for free on the internet. CC

Fritz Musictours Berlin | In German and English. Every Friday at 16:00. €12 per person. Book online: www.musictours-berlin.com

A gay tour mom will love

Picture this: an early arrival in Schöneberg in front of the casino on Nollendorfplatz to join an assortment of test pilots for the first ever Berlin Gay Pub Crawl. Among the explorers? Our handsome tour guide’s mother. Apparently when he scheduled the launch, he had forgotten about her visit. No matter – she was game.

The crawl kicks off with a shot of Jäger, and we head down Schöneberg’s main gay drag, Motzstraße. Obviously this wasn’t your typical assortment of pub-crawlers, but, aside from the mother, the mix of gay men and straight women was definitely what you would expect.  The first bar is pleasant enough and a good way to kick off conversation among a group of (socially) unlubricated queers and their friends.

As we leave the first bar and our guide points out the second, it’s hard to ignore the fact that even though the bar was designed with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, the view inside is obscured by heavy black curtains. A man greets us at the door, shooting a curious look at some of the women in the group. We enter the sex club under the glow from hardcore pornography on TV screens above. It turns out Reizbar had been booked for the tour when the bar was under different ownership and definitely had a different décor. Ultimately, it isn’t our guide’s mother who gets us to leave – it’s the bartender.

While the rest of the crawl isn’t quite as eventful, the seesaw tips to drunken kinship, leaving the need for exciting happenings in the closet, so to speak. The crawl continues on for two more bars and then on to Die Busche, a club known as the ‘SchwuZ of the East’. But be warned that the club is not in Schöneberg, so if you arrive by bicycle, you may be up for a bit of Schwarzfahren on the U-Bahn after your Schwulfahren on the tour.

Don’t expect anything too radical; it’s not the alternative queer scene you’re going to find on this crawl (although you might bump into various freaks along the way). But if you have a gay friend who’s new to town, it’s a great way to push him out of the house if you’re too busy being heteronormative.

Fag hags and open-minded mums will love it! WC

The Berlin Gay Pub Crawl | In English and German. Wed, Fri and Sat at 20:00. €18/€15 students. ([email protected], berlingaypubcrawl.com)