The Free(ish) Berlin Tour
My friend Nathalie and I get to Alexanderplatz just after 11am. Just in the nick of time actually, as the gaggle of obvious tourists standing outside Starbucks have already been split into smaller groups and are about to leave. We took just a few too many sherries the night before and we’re a little groggy, but the March air in Berlin has a serious bite to it and it’s fast slapping a bit of sense into us. Here’s tip number one for the free Alternative Berlin Tour: bring a good, warm jacket with you if you do it in March, even if the sun’s out. Tip number two? Go easy on yourself, and do the 1pm tour if you’re fond of a sherry. I learned both of these lessons the hard way.
The tours leave from the same spot at 11am and 1pm every day, and have been introducing people to Berlin’s street art, alternative neighbourhoods and more unusual sights since 2006. I’ve been on a mission to have a seriously cheap weekend in Berlin (see my eating tips here), so a free tour is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for. You don’t need to book it unless you’re arriving with a group of ten or more – all you have to do is get to Alexanderplatz (on time, preferably) and you’ll easily spot the guides surrounded by tourists.
First thing’s first. This tour is advertised as a free one, and it is… technically. Nobody is going to force you to pay up. If you really want to go and pay nothing, you technically can. But the idea behind them is that you pay what you can afford, and what you think is fair. The guides live on what you give, so do the decent thing. So, tip number three? Tip.
Our guide is Alex; an English ex-pat who’s pretty interesting in his own right. He came to Berlin just to visit around 5 years ago, and simply never left. This seems to be a common occurrence in Berlin, which says a lot about the city. Since settling here, he set up a company by complete accident – he produces opera performances throughout the city, with the aim of making Opera accessible to everyone. Giving these tours is the day job that allows him to concentrate on the opera productions (and this is why you tip your guides!).
Tours vary from day to day and from guide to guide; today we’re heading to Kreuzberg. It’s a very cool, grotty-in-a-good-way neighbourhood, where students, musicians, artists and hippies moved in droves from the 50s onwards because of the cheaper rents.
At around the same time, Turkish immigrants came here as ‘gastarbeiter’ (guest workers) who were supposed to build up the area, and leave again. Well, come they did – but for various reasons they never got round to leaving, so a strong Turkish community and culture flourished here alongside the strong counter-culture that was thriving thanks to the students, hippies and artists. The result? Lots of great kebabs, loud wedding processions, awesome street art, rowdy protests, great bars, and an energetic community with lots of stories to tell. Kreuzberg today is just the kind of neighbourhood you’ll want to tour.
Or move to.
Alex tells us some of Kreuzberg’s best stories as we wander round the neighbourhood, and we start to get a real understanding of the place. But there’s one particular thing that brings the area to life, and for me it’s a hands-down highlight of the tour…
The Berlin street art scene is strong, and Kreuzberg is home to some of the city’s best examples of it. The walls of the neighborhood are like a huge outdoor gallery full of awesome pieces, by world famous artists, around every corner. Whether you’re into street art and know a bit about it, or you’re totally new to it and can’t tell a Swampy from a Seen really doesn’t matter. Alex knows the history behind the art and the artists, and he’s more than happy to share the knowledge.
There are a few writers in Berlin whose tags you’ll see everywhere – and a few walls where you’ll see lots of them together. The UF Kidz, Just, and Poet are all seen together in the picture below (left). It might not be as aesthetic as some of the other art in the area, but tagging and throw-ups like this are graffiti at its rawest.
More beautiful and almost directly opposite that wall is Victor Ash’s awesome grid-painted Astronaut, one of Kreuzberg’s most famous pieces. It was commissioned in 2007 and has remained relatively intact and untouched since then – except for a messy fire-extinguisher tag by artist Just towards the bottom left, done when he was still honing his technique. At night, the shadow of a flag from a nearby car dealership lands squarely in the astronauts hand, which is cool.
There’s an impressive (as always) piece by ROA near here too, on Oranienstraße. ROA paints intricate, slightly sinister, sometimes morbid and always realistic murals of animals that are native to the area he’s painting a piece in.
Alex told us that in the piece pictured below, the goat at the bottom used to actually be a pig. Because the piece was painted directly opposite a mosque, ROA decided to turn it into a goat so as not to cause any offence. There wasn’t any pressure or hassle over it; just people thinking about each other and being kind. That’s a really nice thing. Brownie points to you, ROA.
I see the famous pink man piece by BLU, just beside the Oberbaum bridge. The brainy-looking hollow-eyed Pink Man has been there since 2007, which is pretty much a century in street art years. Blu had two other murals near here, which were blacked-out just a few months previously (apparently at his behest, in protest at the continued gentrification of the area). I’m gutted I missed them, but I do sort of understand the reasoning behind the blackout.
The tour focuses on all the things that are great about Kreuzberg and Berlin, and there are plenty of them – but it really isn’t possible to get a real sense of Berlin without acknowledging its troubled and heart-breaking history. Berlin today has an atmosphere like no other city. It’s a chilled out and very liberal place, and its inhabitants have a palpable love of freedom, fun, living and letting live. I can’t help thinking that this is in no small part due to a history that was often the antithesis of just that. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, as you stroll through its streets… until you reach the particularly colourful area where part of the Berlin wall still stands.
The Eastside gallery in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg is a 1.3km long section of the remaining Berlin Wall, and was painted in 1990. Over the last 15 years many of the paintings have been ravaged (both by nature and by man), and many have been restored, but it’s still there, and it’s testament to Berlin’s great attitude that they turned something that was so ugly, grim and divisive into something that is the exact opposite – beautiful, unifying, and full of hope.
The Alternative Berlin Tour lasts for about three hours, and there is a lot more to it than just the street art. Nathalie, who joined me on the tour, has been living in Berlin for 5 years now and she found it every bit as enlightening as I did – and impressing locals is the ultimate litmus test of any good city tour. If you want to see a side of Berlin that most tourists don’t see, and you want to do it without blowing your budget, get to Alexanderplatz for the Alternative Berlin free(ish) tour.
And don’t forget to tip.
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