Tour groups are a fundamental part of the scenery in Berlin.
Wandering the city’s historic central district of Mitte, it is hard not to notice the numerous large groups of tourists being spirited through the streets by various colourful characters.
Look closer and you may see smaller, more intimate groups, engaged in lively discussion.
Tourism is booming in Berlin, with the city registering more than 30 million overnight stays in 2016, making it the third most popular destination in Europe – behind only London and Paris.
As famed for its hedonism as for its weighty history, it is easy to see why the German capital draws the crowds.
Once the nerve-centre of Hitler’s Third Reich and later the frontline of the ideological battle that raged during the Cold War between East and West, Berlin stands as THE city of the 20th century.
Following its re-unification in 1990, it has become emblematic of the new, re-energised, Modern Germany – dynamic, introspective & pulsing with change.
Berlin’s preeminent ambassadors are the hundreds of professional tour guides who work throughout the year to introduce visitors to the major and minor milestones marking the city’s existence – the things that remain hidden in plain sight and the places off-the-beaten-track.
Taking a guided tour of Berlin is rightly considered a must when visiting the city.
In the right company, you will find yourself experiencing things that will define your visit entirely – and leave you heading home with souvenirs, both material and intellectual, worth treasuring forever.
Why Tour with a Guide?
Scratch the surface in Berlin and you’ll find that what is immediately visible to all is just the start of the adventure.
If you’re looking to dig deeper, see more and learn more, enlisting the services of a professional guide will go a long way towards satisfying your curiosity. And just perhaps, help you scratch that itch you never knew you had.
Whether your interest is in an introductory sightseeing tour, a more in-depth exploration of a particular chapter in the city’s rich history, or diving into Berlin’s cultural offerings – a professional guide will have the experience, knowledge, and contacts to make things happen that would otherwise be impossible.
Travelling somewhere new is one of the most inspiring and thrilling things you can do, but as any seasoned traveller will tell you, a first time visit to a city inherently comes with its own time-wasting frustrations and annoyances.
What is the easiest way to get around? How does the public transportation work? Am I safe to walk about at night? Are there any local customs that I should be aware of? If I have a niche interest in something particular, how do I tap into it? And most importantly, how can I make the best use of my time?
A guide will be able to help with all of these questions. But above and beyond providing necessary assistance, a truly professional tour guide will make your experience memorable, for all the right reasons.
Professional Guide vs Amateur Guide
Every country and city you visit will have its own spectrum of tour guide quality.
Knowing that there is a difference between the seasonal amateur workers, at best running a theatrical showpiece from a pre-established script, and those who find that guiding is part of their intellectual calling, is the first step in navigating your way to the best use of your time and money.
As with most cities, Berlin has a rich community of excellent professional guides, all with life experience in various different fields of interest – accomplished scholars, journalists, historians, political and social scientists, archaeologists, researchers and photographers.
The Berlin gamut ranges from erudite students eager to put their education to good use, all the way to enormously impressive streetside scholars, experts in their fields, offering their time and company – all to your advantage.
There is an old educational maxim that says that you don’t really understand something until you can teach it to someone else.
Expert guides are expert teachers.
This comes with experience and often years of dedication to the art.
With guiding at its highest form, you can expect intellectual stimulation from gifted educators who practice their profession with passion and pride.
A great guide is an invaluable asset. Welcoming you to the city, peeling back the layers, saving you time, and generally empowering you with a wealth of suggestions so that you can go on to enjoy your remaining independent time to the fullest.
A great guide is also someone who, by virtue of being a dedicated professional, will have committed time that you may not have, to doing research, collecting materials, and generally gaining access to all sorts of exciting things within the spectrum of their focus.
A great guide will also be able to change direction halfway through on the fly, seamlessly adjust schedules and reservations (within the limits of reality), and above all else, be captivating.
Change your mind about lunch? No problem, let’s go somewhere else.
Did another topic suddenly catch your attention? Fantastic, let’s change direction and dig in.
Feeling grumpy from the flight? Some fresh air and good company will go a long way to helping solve that problem.
If it is the job of an amateur to drag you through the tourist traps, it is the job of the consumate professional to lead you far beyond them.
First showing you the highlights in the context of the whole, and then opening up secret doors in the backdrop of the stage – to show you another side of things entirely.
Private Tour vs Public Tour
Obviously, there is a time and a place for everything, but it’s important to keep your expectations on par with your means and choices.
A great public tour can be a terrific experience for those whose budget doesn’t permit hiring a private guide.
Bear in mind however, that even at its best, a public group is necessarily a compromise.
With a public tour, the guide is at the mercy of the group as a whole, and will be playing to an averaged assessment of what the group’s interests are within the framework of their topic for the day.
Sometimes this is fantastic, sometimes it shows its limitations.
A public tour (whether a paid tour or one of the ‘free tours’ we can discuss later) can often appear as a well-oiled stage show, the kind where the performer sometimes mingles with the crowd, sometimes appears in the balcony to surprise the audience.
A professional private guide is a different kind of animal – combining the professionalism and one-on-one attention of a skilled concierge with the ability to remain well-versed on all sorts of local political and cultural issues, while seamlessly blending history with present-day relevance.
With a great private guide, it’s entirely your day, your show, and the guide will be working hard exclusively for you to make sure you personallly get the most out of the experience.
You will also have the luxury of direct access to his or her expertise without the distraction of other strangers. This means that your experience is infinitely more flexible, and that you are almost guaranteed to end up getting more not just out of the tour itself, but also from the remainder of your entire trip.
Obviously, a private tour comes at a very different price point than the average public tour does.
However, if you factor in the time you save, the fact that you will be spared exposure to that somehow inevitable person who feels compelled to blurt out a million annoying comments on every public tour, and the access to special places and information that might end up being otherwise invisible, a private tour starts to look more attractive by the second.
There are few times in life when quality does not come at a price.
What is exceptional about tour guiding is that it is an industry where your experience is defined by just one person – your guide.
Although with any restaurant you visit will likely have a chain of workers, all functioning together to make the whole (from the waiter who takes your order, to the chef who cooks your food, the kitchen helper who prepares the basic ingredients, and the bartender who serves your drinks), with a tour you are at the mercy of only one person.
It is worth remembering that the cost of what you are purchasing is relevant to the experience you have with this person, with that, different guides may offer different prices based on their personal availability and professional quality.
Any per hourly rate you receive from any guide will generally be a good indication of how serious the guide or agency is and a reflection of how in demand they are.
At the prospect of sounding redundant, it is likely that if a guide you approach offers you a certain price that may seem high, it is likely that it is because they are worth it. It is the job of the amateur guide, who is not in demand due to their reputation and experience, to try to lowball the market.
However, it is reasonable to expect that prices vary based on the time of the year, you can expect to pay more in the summer season when guides are in demand, and don’t be surprised to receive a discount rate in the winter season when the number of tourists in town is lower.
When working directly with a private guide in Berlin you will often encounter the ‘sliding scale payment system’ – this means that you get to decide on the day what you would like to pay, based on a predefined suggested scale, and according to how much you value the experience.
This is also a way of trying to make private tours more accessible to a wider range of budgets.
Within reason, you can expect to pay between 40€ and 150€ per hour for a private guide in Berlin – depending on a number of factors:
- Who the guide is
- Whether you are working directly with the guide
- The time of year (whether on-season or off-season)
- How in-demand the guide is
- Whether you have any special requests for the tour (perhaps visiting something that is off-the-beaten track, and requires extra planning
- Whether the tour requires transportation (this is not included in the above price)
- How large your group is
Remember, the old saying: the poor man pays twice.
What may seem like a saving on price could actually be a sacrifice you are making on quality.