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Underground city tours always seemed to be a tourist come-on to me, but then I discovered Berlin Underground tours. Not a for-profit business, not a tour that drops you off in a gift shop, not a tour that starts in a bar and highlights raucous partying, this is the real deal in Berlin’s Underground.
In addition to getting up close and personal with eye-opening historical bunkers, tunnels and bomb shelters on these tours, you see and learn about these with the help of a guide who is (usually) a trained historian or perhaps a history geek. Some, like my guide, Katja (on the tour I took in early 2016 in German), had studied Berlin history at local university. She was extremely passionate, had actually talked personally to people who had experienced being in many of these Berlin Underground areas when she was a student and since, and just brimmed with details she was eager to share.
Tour 1 good starter tour
Since it was winter, the tours being offered were more limited than during high seasons, so I opted for the Tour 1 “Dark Worlds” (“Dunkle Welte”) at Gesundbrunnen, a good accessible basic tour if you have to choose just one. There are about 12 total Berlin Underground tours, but not all are offered year-round and not in all languages (click on the language flags to the right on the Guided Tours page to see what your choices are). Offerings depend on the season and the availability of guides for those languages (German, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, French and Danish, as of this writing).
On a dreary day in January, I waited outside the Berlin Gesundbrunnen station for the tour to start. Others slowly showed up for the midwinter tour on a day with sub-zero temperatures, wandering around inside or outside, eyeing what everybody thought was “the green door” mentioned in the description for this Berlin Underground tour. The attendees were a mix of young and old, residents and tourists, men and women. Then the prior tour exited: “How was it?” I asked a couple walking by. “Really super, two thumbs up,” the man said. “Really interesting.” Can’t wait, I thought.
Before long our guide, Katja, arrived, along with her “shepherd” assistant to make sure everybody stays on task and together. No dawdling in the underground. Or getting lost on purpose. We end up going down some stairs to THE Green Door, totally inconspicuous, which is not marked with anything that distinguishes it as a Berlin Underground tour entrance. However, it is quite securely padlocked shut, with a small sign above i with the famous quote from Spanish philosopher George Santayana, in German, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Underground tours reveal city’s secret underbelly
Berlin Underground tours show much of Berlin’s darker underbelly built by the Nazi regime and continued during the Cold War thereafter. On at least Tour 1 – and I would expect on all of them — you learn a lot about the life of everyday Berliners (and the more elite too) during WWII, what they went through and life in the subterranean air-raid shelters. But Tour 1 is more than just a walk through cold, stone tunnels with a guide reciting a memorized script. There are exhibits in various rooms, as well as artifacts – many of which are authentic – that demonstrate what a room was really like or how it was used. When the guide turns off the light in one room partway through, walkways pop into bright illumination from glow-in-the-dark stripes and markings – but don’t touch the walls since the residues you may get on your skin are not safe!
In a couple of rooms, participatns saw bunks that folded up against the walls (these were not used during the war, Katja pointed out), and low benches where residents would sit. Of note was the allowance of just one small suitcase per person, and it had to be “bunker-sized,” meaning it would fit right below you under the narrow bench. Most people, Katja noted, had these little bags pre-packed so you could just grab it and run to the shelter. She said you also then had to pull on many many layers of clothing since otherwise you couldn’t take it all in – and this even on sweltering summer days. Older folks, she said, would often just stay home and say, “Well, either I live, or I don’t.”
3,000 unexploded war bombs still exist
When it came to shelters, you had to get there fast or there would not be room and sometimes you just went there every night to feel a modicum of safety while sleeping. That occurred with the then 70 so-called “mother and child shelters,” where access was only allowed with a special ID for mothers with children.
One exhibit drew particular attention: Katja noted that many unexploded bombs are still buried around the city – they suspect it may be as many as 3,000! In the exhibit, you see one bomb that exploded in 1994 near Pettenkofer Street in Berlin. Another bomb was found prior to explosion as recently as October 2015 near the Jewish Museum, and 10,000 people had to be evacuated to safely defuse and remove it.
Berlin Underworlds Association nears 20th anniversary
Founded in 1997, the non-profit Berlin Underworlds Association (“Berliner Unterwelten e.V.) researches and documents underground structures in the Berlin metropolitan area, including structures stemming from the Cold War. In the process, the group attempts to make these open to public tours, seminars and exhibits. The idea for such an association came originally from Dietmar Arnold in the mid-90s when he was a student in Berlin of city and regional planning. Today, the association, which started with seven people, has nearly 500 members. And Arnold is still chairman of the board.
The association to this day finances its entire undertakings, including all research and documentation, from what it earns from tours and events – no sponsors and no government funding, per spokesman Holger Happel. The mission of the group is to preserve history authentically. The Berlin offices are at the Gesundbrunnen station where aptly named Tour 1 takes place.
Tours all year long
One tour or another in one language or many run nearly every day of the year, except during Christmas week. To see more details, go to Berlin Underground website’s Guided Tours page.
When we emerged from our “Dark World’s” tour to the bustle of the subway stations, it was somehow a bit shocking to be back in the real world after 90 minutes. We look forward to going back to experience more of these wonderfully factual and authentic underground tours in Berlin and what they teach you about history. Don’t miss one when you are there.
Find out more about Berlin Underground tours on its thorough website. (All images in this story, unless otherwise noted, are used by permission – © Berliner Unterwelten e.V.)
What to do in Berlin planning map
In the map below, pins mark the exact location of the sites and places to see mentioned in our articles and travel tips on Berlin, Germany. Zoom in or out on the map using the controls. Switch easily from map to satellite view. Click on each pin to pull up a tooltip with the name of the destination or location as well as any additional information, including links to stories and articles. This map is the perfect place to begin planning what to do in Berlin for one, two, three or more days.
Turkish Market - Neukölln
Along the street next to a canal, the Turkish Market has a true street market feel. It is not groomed! Turkish women mix with tourists and locals. You see serious shoppers and tourists with cameras. To learn more, read our story 5 Great Berlin Street Food Markets as well as Berlin Turkish Market: Flavors, Food, Deals In Oriental Bazaar Setting.
Markthalle Neun - Kreuzberg
Mind-boggling, really, the types of food, drink and true culinary delights, many of which are really pushing the envelope a bit. Burritos, oysters, burgers, grilled cheese, French cheeses, Sushi, Asian noodles, and much more. Fine wines, frothy international beers, even a Berlin-area whiskey distillery! To learn more, read our story 5 Great Berlin Street Food Markets.
Winterfeldplatz Markt - Schöneberg
German, all the way, but with a nouveau feel. Locals are out shopping for the week, others are dropping in for a little saunter and snack. To learn more, read our story 5 Great Berlin Street Food Markets.
Kulturbrauerei - Prenzlauer Berg
The “Culture Brewery” is a former brewery that has been transformed into a hot spot with stores, a museum, a grocery store, movie theater and a nice courtyard, where of course the food trucks pull in on Sundays. A much more mellow scene, with young families, couples, groups of friends, but not so many tourists. Tables and benches are set up but seating goes fast in nice weather. To learn more, read our story 5 Great Berlin Street Food Markets as well as Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Thai Wiese - Wilmersdorf
Noodles, salads, dumplings, satays, you name it! There is Thai food here you will likely not find in any restaurant in Berlin or in most other cities. Get a Thai massage even if you are so inclined. To learn more, read our story 5 Great Berlin Street Food Markets as well as Thai Park Berlin A Feast For Eyes And Tummies Seeking Yum Thai Food.
Q110 Bank of the Future
Earlier in 2016, HI Travel Tales wrote about a new kind of banking experience by Deutsche Bank called “Q110 Bank” or “Bank of the Future.” We were quite enthralled by the casual and friendly, yet efficient and hard-working experience. Granted, it can be a little alarming at first to search for a bank on the web and walk over to the front door, only to be stopped dead in your tracks, starting into a wide-open space that leaves you cocking your head and furrowing your brow: Is this really a bank? Or a coffee shop? Or a boutique??? Am I in the right place? Where are the counters? The offices? Learn more in our story, Q110 Bank of the Future In Berlin By Deutsche Bank Gets Revamp.
Jewish Cemetery at Schönhauser Allee
Recognized as Berlin’s second Jewish cemetery and opened in 1827, the setting of the “Jüdischer Friedhof” is as beautiful as it is somber. This is where you will find the grave sites of many famous Jewish people, including the artist Max Liebermann. To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Artist's War Memorial Bethlehemkirchplatz
The memorial on the Berlin Bethlehemkirchplatz (Bethlehem Church Square) is actually the work of Spanish artist Juan Garaizabel to commemorate the Bohemian Bethlehem Church. This small church was built for Bohemian evangelical refugees in about 1735 and was a center of the community. It was destroyed by bombing in 1943. Read more in our Photographer's Diary, Artist's War Memorial At Berlin Bethlehemkirchplatz.
Cafe Anna Blume
One of our favorite coffee and cake destinations is Café Anna Blume with an incredible outside patio, perfect as a place to kick-back and enjoy any time of day. To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Museum at Pankow
To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Museum in the Kulturbrauerie (Alltag in Der DDR)
And an absolute must-visit is the Museum in the Kulturbrauerie – “Alltag in Der DDR.” (Free admission). Open since 2014, this relatively new, very lively, interactive, permanent exhibit is stunningly well created, showing visitors what everyday life was really like in the DDR (former East Germany, a.k.a. GDR). To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Oderberger Strasse Fire Station
This, the oldest fire station still on duty today in Germany, was opened on Nov. 26, 1883. Don’t stand in the driveway as emergency vehicles still come and go … with urgency. To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Judengang (Jewish Walkway)
Literally translated, the name means the “Jewish Walkway” and runs from Knaackstrasse to Senefelderplatz in the Kollwitz area, providing access to the rear entrance to the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee. To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Built in 1902 as a public bathhouse for Berlin and constructed in German Renaissance style, this magnificent building and pool fell into disrepair and went out of service in the mid 1990’s. The building was purchased by the neighboring GLS Language School and is now part of that campus, renamed the Hotel Oderberger and open only since January 2016. To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Berlin Underground Tours - Gesundbrunnen station
Underground city tours always seemed to be a tourist come-on to me, but then we discovered Berlin Underground tours. Not a for-profit business, not a tour that drops you off in a gift shop, not a tour that starts in a bar and highlights raucous partying, this is the real deal in Berlin’s Underground. Learn more in our story, Haunting History on Berlin Underground Tours.
Süsse Sünde (Sweet Sins) walk-up ice cream counter across the street for desert (try “Schoko-Chili-Sauerkirsch” aka Chocolate Chili Sour Cherry, “Pfirsich-Lavendula” aka Peach-Lavender, etc…). Learn more by reading our story, Dine, Wine, Dawdle and Doze When Visiting Berlin.
Sowohl Als Auch Restaurant and Coffee House
Another wonderful place to sit and while away time is at a sister location to Café Anna Blume, the “SowohlAlsAuch” restaurant and coffee house, diagonally across the street. To learn more, be sure to read our story, Quick Prenzlauer Berg Travel Guide To A Berlin Hotspot.
Potsdamer Platz is an important public square and traffic intersection in the center of Berlin, Germany, lying about 1 km south of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and close to the southeast corner of the Tiergarten park. Learn more in our Discover Berlin Walking Tour: Shortlist of Top Sites.
Topography of Terror Museum
Museumsinsel (Museum Island)
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Reichstag Parliament Building
Berlin Tourist Information - Europa Center
The Europa Center at Breitscheidplatz is not just one of the most famous shopping centres in the city. It also distinguished by its location in the heart of West Berlin. The legendary Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), the Kurfürstendamm shopping street, the Berlin Zoo, and the historic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, are only a few steps away from here. The Berlin Tourist Information Centre here is also open on Sundays.
Berlin Tourist Information - Tegel Airport
Perfect for Berlin visitors arriving at Tegel airport. The Berlin Tourist Info Centre is located near the Gate 1 in Terminal A. It is open daily from 8 am to 9 pm.
Berlin Tourist Information - Berlin Central Station
In the shopping area at the new Berlin Central Station in a good position opposite the DB Information at the entrance Europaplatz you find the Berlin Tourist Info Centre. As soon as you arrive in the city, you can come here to make hotel bookings, get information and buy tickets. The new Berlin Central Station is a fascinating example of contemporary architecture, greeting travellers to the city with a bright and friendly atmosphere and a fantastic choice of shops. Centrally located, it is very close to the government quarter.
Berlin Tourist Information - Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate is Berlin's signature attraction. A visit to Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Tourist Info Centre in its south wing can be easily combined with a leisurely stroll along the Unter den Linden boulevard with its numerous places of interest. The Reichstag with its striking glass dome is also just a few minutes' walk from Brandenburg Gate.