The essential guide to private tours in Berlin
For the record, I should state that I have worked as a guide offering private tours in Berlin for more than a decade. In the process, I’ve met thousands of wonderful people and worked alongside the best tour guides in the city. I’d like to say I’ve accumulated enough experience to have some useful insight into the subject. It is my intention to remain helpfully impartial in my observations and recommendations. If you want to hear about how to get the best experience out of a guided tour of Berlin, then read on. – Matt
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? Here’s a slightly inappropriate joke at exactly the right moment.
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.
Types of Tours
Although when approaching the subject of guided tours in Berlin, it is reasonable to expect that your starting point may be a general overview tour of the city (often called a Berlin Highlights tour). However, depending on the guide you approach to work with, and your level of interest, it is worth considering what in particular you are interested in exploring, what themes, chapters in German history, areas of the city etc…
Most guides will offer tours based on themes, with the general register consisting of a Third Reich tour – a Cold War tour – a Jewish Heritage tour – perhaps also tours focusing on more modern elements such as the city’s Graffiti and Street Art scene.
As most professional guides also have academic backgrounds in certain fields, you can find that their specialties extend to the type of tours they offer in the city – such as Modern Architecture tours and, if their background is in the culinary arts – Gourmet Food Tours are become a more frequent sight.
Beyond the city limits, it is possible to escape Berlin for day visits to nearby Potsdam, where the former summer residences of the Prussian kings and German emperors are, to Leipzig or Dresden, or perhaps to the concentration camp memorials at Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.
Taking a private tour of Sachsenhausen or private tour of Potsdam, can be a great way to spend your time once having already acquainted yourself with Berlin’s main attractions. Combining all three of these options together (Berlin Highlights/Potsdam/Sachsenhausen) makes for an ideal three-day itinerary.
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 buy glucophage 850 mg 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, rather than a product (such as a television or piece of furniture) that you buy.
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 pre-defined 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
- 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.
A staple of any frugal backpacker travelling Europe – free guided walking tours arrived on the scene in the early 2000s.
As a way of making cities like Berlin accessible to foreign visitors and accommodating to the budgets of visitors – these tours have done wonders at increasing interest in the practice of taking walking tours.
There are some big names in the Free Tour business (like Sandeman’s New Europe) that you will find in most European cities, and smaller companies run by locals who have found the business model works for the kinds of clients they want to draw in and the turnover of guides.
One of the drawbacks of these tours is that, with cities like Berlin, there are many young people eager to find their place in the world and a way to support their time abroad – free tour guiding can be the equivalent of what picking grapes in the south of France once was – temporary and for short monetary gain.
That means that companies will sometimes rely on issuing scripts to their guides – which, while guaranteeing some semblance of consistency in their tours, also means that the experience can come off as being wholly constructed. And unlike with a professional private guide, who can easily detour into other realms, these tours may feel restricted to the well beaten path.
The good news is that there are a wealth of fantastic guides out there who have found their place with these companies – some are even in it for the long run. So, you can hit a winner sometimes.
The most important thing to remember about these tours is that despite the advertising hook – there is a catch. Although the tours may very well be free for guests to join, they are also free for the guides who run them.
The companies expect the guides to contribute towards advertising costs and general running costs and put a per person price on a tour (so for each person attending the guide is expected to pay a ‘kickback’ to the company for the pleasure of having those clients on a tour).
Some of these companies use free tours simply as promotion for their other tours – keeping things short and trying to upsell other paid tours – perhaps a longer version of the tour you have just done, with more sights and more information on Cold War history or Jewish Heritage.
However, because of the demand that the guide pay a ‘kickback’ to the company – you may well find that when the tour is over, there is the expectation that you will contribute, in the form of a friendly tip.
No doubt, when all is said and done, you will want to give the guide something.
Although there is a lot to be said for agreeing a set price beforehand and leaving the money aspect off the table – when both parties know where they stand from the beginning, there is much more room for the more important things.
No upselling and no desperate begging for tips.
As much as cultures around the world vary, it is rare to find someone who does not feel touched by a thank you that adds a little freedom to their life, and certainly a monetary token has far more power than mere words. So help us, we are human, and cash is king.
Bear in mind that tourism, as part of the service industry, has a long and rich tradition of people who provide outstanding, top class performance making careers out of gratuities, and your money is a vote for the kind of world you wish to live in.
Some companies will provide a specific tipping suggestion when booking a guide (often 10-15% of the price of the tour), when booking directly with a guide you can consider this to be at your discretion. Although it is always a nice gesture when stopping for lunch to pick up the tab when inviting the guide to join you.
When hiring transportation for your tour, it is customary to tip the driver (a suggested 5% of the full price), whether they are driving a bus or a smaller private vehicle.
This is again a notable difference between an amateur and a professional: the amateur will never let you forget about gratuities; a professional will always make you feel at home with the choice ultimately in your hands.
Private Tour Guides in Berlin
When I founded Berlin Experiences it was with one thing in mind: to be able to connect people looking for private tours in Berlin with the best guides in the business. I’ve personally led thousands of tours in and around the city and know what it is like to see people leave Berlin with more than they expected – and the value a fantastic guide can bring to any excursion.
There is no shortage of outstanding guides in Berlin who have managed to carve a niche for themselves (Jeremy Minsberg, for instance – Jessica Cartwright– Heidi Leyton – Nick Jackson – Lee Evans – and the wonderful Caroline Marburger and Arja Jacob– just to name a few) but many more who are finding their feet in the industry.
Giving those guides the chance to put their talents to good use is one of the things I find most rewarding.
To the average visitor, the difference between a great guide and an exceptional guide can be hard to notice. What is impressive to someone who has just arrived in a city could be commonplace to anyone who has been there for a matter of days.
It is easy to judge a guide by what they put in their tours – but to professionally judge that guide it is important to also know what they have left out.
This is not something that the ordinary visitor can usually detect – and a good reason why I would suggest doing your research before you book any guide or tour.
Not all countries or cities insist that their guides are legally certified, it’s often helpful to look out for those who at least belong to an official tour guides association.
Unlike countries like Poland and Spain, there is no official license required for guides in Germany, suprising considering the weight of the country’s history.
You will, however, often find that guides in German cities, such as Berlin, are part of a local tour guides association (Verein).
This means they will be part of a community of guides who share information about their city, or country, amongst themselves on a regular basis, and be more aware of the minute details that first-time visitors will easily miss.
The Bündnis Berliner Stadtführer association, of which I am proud to say I am a member, provides a list of peer-reviewed guides in Berlin, alongwith the tours they offer and the different languages they guide in.
Public Tour Companies in Berlin
Founded by a former British naval intelligence officer, Terry Brewer, this company has been offering tours of the city since the 1990s and is famous for providing the longest single day history tour in Berlin (at a minimum of six hours).
The original Berlin public tour company, praised by American author Rick Steves as one of the best in the city. Setting a professional standard for English language public tours in Berlin that is hard to beat.
In-depth sightseeing tours of Berlin’s major landmarks with commentary from some of the most articulate academic guides in the city. Their Berlin Today tour, looking at the developments in the city post-reunification is a particularly unique experience.
Thanks for reading this far! I hope at least some of this was useful to those of you looking to hire a guide, whether in Berlin or anywhere else in the world.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to get in touch.