East and West Berlin are, of course, unified. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and since then, the two formerly distinct cities have become absolutely easy to traverse — however, the two halves remain distinct and likely will remain so for the rest of our lifetimes. After all, West Berlin didn’t have a lot that needed changing from the 1990′s; it’s already a well established, democratic, free, beautiful and green city. East Berlin, however, needed a LOT of modernization and change. The reconstruction continues to this day. It’s one of the most interesting urban travel destinations in the world — a tourist who explored East Berlin 10 years ago would find it nearly unrecognizable today. All the construction and hustle and bustle and temporarily closed subways (one is being built at Brandenburger Tor — Brandenburg Gate — right now) makes city travel by car a complicated mess. Exploring East Berlin by foot or bike makes more sense, at least during the peak travel seasons. Further, joining a guided bicycle tour helps tourists get a sense of the city faster and in a more entertaining, less frustrating way than standing in the middle of a sidewalk with a large unfolded map, or a Berlin city guide app downloading onto a smartphone. Berlin by Bike is one such guided bicycles tour company, and our private guided Berlin bike tour via Berlin on Bike was one of the highlights of my family vacation in the city.
Berlin on Bike has several small group and private guided bike tour packages in and around Berlin; large group tours are also available by appointment, and tour guides are fluent in most of the major world languages. My family and I chose the Wall Tour, which is a four hour, seven mile trip highlighting the Berlin Wall — most of which is slow and meandering, with many stops along the way, so that young kids would be able to manage the distance well.
The Berlin Wall, of course, separated East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. This kept East Berliners from emigrating (as they had been, by the millions) to West Berlin, and from there to other European countries. The fascist government of East Berlin erected guard towers and many traps, such as nail-laden mats (called Stalin mats, for Josef Stalin) where people who scaled the wall and jumped would land. People were shot trying to get to West Berlin. German Shepherds were trained to be vicious guard dogs. It was an absolutely miserable time.
As a mother, I was concerned that Berlin on Bike’s tour of the Berlin Wall might be too depressing for my kids…but I needn’t have worried. Our bike tour guide, Josh, was perfectly suited to the task. While he didn’t talk down to my children or condescend to them, he approached the subject matter thoughtfully and with an enlightened perspective. He was amiable and friendly, and knew how to keep the private bike tour rolling along at a speed that worked for my family. Our tour guide talked about the Stasi, and described the physical shortages suffered by East Berlin residents, and the great efforts some took to escape the misery. He touched on the psychological impact it had on residents as well, but only in a way that allowed my kids to see how much things have changed from the erection to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Biking through 21st Century East Berlin with a guide makes it easy to see that history is everywhere. The hubbub and youthful, punkster scene is prevalent, but a tourist who takes her eyes off the construction of modern architecture and looks down can see remnants of World War II, the footprint of the former Berlin Wall, and markings of tunnel escape routes. Having an engaging tour guide profoundly helps understand what we’re looking at, and having a bike to tour the city with brings the history up close. Tour buses can’t do this, and neither can self-guided tours. Our bike tour guide talked about Reunification and changes happening in Berlin today. He answered my kids’ questions — and having a teenager, I’m sure that she would not have been so eager to “learn from mom” if I looked up answers to her questions in a guidebook. Josh was patient when we needed to take breaks, too.
Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie are part of Berlin on Bike’s Berlin Wall tour, but we skipped them (our hotel was close enough to both that we could see those on our own time, and other areas were more interesting to us). Josh happily accommodated this, and added more time and in-depth discussion to areas where my family was more engaged; a guard tower, which has photos of old socialist scenes and a mannequin of a guard. Underground tunnels that East Berliners painstakingly dug marked with plaques. The “death strip.” The Wall at Bernuer Strasse.
A family traveling to Berlin for vacation is advised to add a little historic knowledge to their trip; the liveliness and youth of East Berlin today is even more interesting when viewed in its historical context. While West Berlin is leafy, green and gentrified, it has no need to keep changing. East Berlin is undergoing a long-term metamorphosis, and no city I’ve been in feels more joyous and alive. East Berlin is like the quickening heartbeat of a butterfly emerging from her cocoon. Come see the city, and witness the constant change for yourself.
Berlin on Bike offers other private guided tours, such as Berlin at a Glance, Kreuzberg and Spree, and a nighttime tour. Tourists can rent bikes and explore Berlin independently as well; there are a range of bicycles and bike helmets available. There’s no better way to get around East Berlin than by bike. And, for personalized guided tours of this mosh pit of a city, there’s no better small, independent company than Berlin on Bike.
Thank you to Visit Berlin and Berlin on Bike.