What to Expect on a Historical City Bike Tour with Fat Tire Tours Berlin
Since moving to Berlin just over a month ago, my focus has mostly been on my job search and working on my visa application materials. With that said, I'm still not super familiar with the city. I realized that it would be good to do the whole touristy thing and get to know Berlin’s highlights. Over the weekend, I decided to go on a bike tour with Fat Tire Tours Berlin.
I’d heard good things about Fat Tire Tours from another friend who had just been here for a quick visit. He told me the tours were worth going on, and I figured it was probably worth a try. I started doing some research and the reviews were really good! Apparently, they have been voted as the 2018 #2 in the world in as TripAdvisor's Traveler's Choice and are ranked as the #1 Outdoor Activity in Berlin. (If you don't believe me, read the Fat Tire Tours Berlin TripAdvisor reviews for yourself.) They also offer tours in other major cities around the world, including Paris, London, Barcelona, Munich, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Chicago.
Fat Tire Tours Berlin: The City Tour Itinerary
My friend and I ended up going on the Berlin City Tour which took us to some quintessential spots around Berlin. This was the itinerary that was emailed to me a few days before the tour:
- Brandenburg Gate
- Checkpoint Charlie
- Berlin Wall
- Nazi Architecture
- Site of Hitler's bunker
- Victory Column
- Stop for lunch at traditional beer garden (not included)
- Reichstag (parliament building)
- Museum Island
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
- Berlin Cathedral
- Potsdamer Platz
- Deathstrip Watchtower
- And more…
Starting at Alexanderplatz, the tour took about 4.5 hours with a break for lunch at a beer garden. I liked that fact that the tour was pretty relaxed and mostly only covered flat roads, making it perfect for people who want a more leisurely tour experience. Additionally, Berlin has a lot of bike lanes, so it always felt like we were safe even in high-traffic areas. Each group was made up of around fifteen people and paired with one tour guide. Our guide’s name was Ciaràn from Dublin. With tours, I feel like the guides can really make or break your experience with a tour, but Ciaràn did a great job at explaining the historical significance of the city in a succinct yet engaging way.
Bebelplatz, Berlin State Opera House, Humboldt University
One of the first stops in our tour after departing from Alexanderplatz was Bebelplatz which also included the Berlin State Opera House, the prestigious Humboldt University, and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral. The pink State Opera House had been first built in the 1600s and rebuilt several times because of fire and ruin through subsequent wars. During World War II, Hitler ordered the rebuilding of the State Opera House, because he deemed it necessary that Germany needed an opera house built during a time like that. And so, under Nazi rule, the Opera House was rebuilt in 1942, only to be bombed and destroyed shortly thereafter.
An interesting spot in Bebelplatz was the Book Burning Memorial. In the center of the platz (translation: “place”), there is a glass window in the ground. You can tell that many tourists have walked over it as the surface is pretty scratched up. But if you look down into the hole, you’ll be able to see stark white empty bookshelves around the perimeter of the bunker-like space. This memorializes the spot where the Nazi book burnings took place. The empty shelves are symbolic of all the books that should be there but were unfortunately burned under Hitler’s command only a few weeks into his chancellorship. This was supposedly one of the first things that Hitler did to manipulate German citizens and establish his totalitarian power in what would become Nazi Germany.
After Babelplatz, we headed to the iconic Checkpoint Charlie. This was one of my favorite parts of this bike tour. Our guide discussed how Berlin and Germany as a whole was divided into East and West and controlled by the UK, France, the US and the Soviet Union around its borders He explained the significance of the checkpoint which was the most famous border crossing between East and West Germany, occupied by the Americans on one side and the Soviets on the other during the Cold War. A fact that I didn't know about Checkpoint Charlie is that it’s not the one that was there originally. In fact, the original one was destroyed in 1990 and has since been rebuilt as a tourist attraction—fake guards and all. I don’t think this part is particularly photogenic, but it holds a lot of historical significance and is a must-see stop for first-time tourists visiting Berlin.
The Berlin Wall and History of the Death Strip
We then headed to one of the last standing parts of the Berlin Wall. Our tour guide explained to us that this section (pictured below) was a fourth-generation iteration. The wall pictured below was very thick and had an outer and inner part. In between, there was a section which was known as the Death Strip, which consisted of sand and metal spikes to dissuade people from escaping from the East and attempting to make it into the West side. In addition to the sand and spikes, there were always guards waiting there to shoot anyone who dared to try and cross the border. They would even try to assassinate those who took photos as it was assumed that those photos were being taken in an attempt to try and plot a future escape--an extremely brutal, volatile time in Germany to say the least.
Hitler’s Bunker and Grave Site Turned Public Parking Lot
After leaving the famous remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, we stopped in front of a normal-looking public parking lot. But, our guide explained to us that this parking lot was the stop where Hitler’s bunker was located (also known as Führerbunker). This was also the location where he committed suicide by cyanide. Hitler became increasingly suspicious of those who had once been his loyal followers and confidants and didn’t trust those in his inner circle after Germany’s defeat in WWII. He asked his doctor to prescribe his cyanide pills so that he could take his own life, but in his paranoid state, he assumed that the pills were just sleeping pills, so he also decided to shoot himself in the head immediately after taking the pills as an extra precaution.
The Holocaust has forever cast a dark shadow on Germany that may never fully go away. When Hitler took his own life, Germany didn’t exactly feel it necessary to commemorate a leader so evil and destructive. That’s why today his gravesite is nothing more than a public parking lot.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Immediately before lunch and heading into Tiergarten, we stopped at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I visited this memorial last year when I first visited Berlin. I remember feeling somber wandering through the memorial space, as it is a place for contemplation and reflection of the Jews lives who were brutally and unfairly taken during the Holocaust. It was designed by Peter Eisenman from New York who wanted people to just stumble upon it. The acclaimed architect left no explanation for why he chose to use 2711 concrete slabs, or give a reason as to why the floor was deeper towards the middle—his idea was to try and leave it as open for interpretation as possible. The design and lack of explanation have been a contentious topic since it was opened to the public in 2005.
Bradenburg Gate: A Symbol of Peace (and Snark)
Bradenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) is another one of those locations that are hard for tourists to ignore if ever in Berlin. Fun fact: The statue at the top was once stolen by Napoleon and given to France as a gift. They placed the statue in the Louvre but later returned it. Once it was given back to the Germans, it was reinstalled but with the horse’s butt facing France. It seems that Germans love making very ostentatious, deliberate symbolic points like these in their architecture.
Biking Through Lush Tiergarten
Finally, we make it to Tiergarten where we had our lunch and rehydrated (dehydrated?) with some German beer and pretzels. We stopped at a beer garden called Schleusenkrug and rested and reenergized for about forty-five minutes. It’s said to be the best (biergarten) in the park, hosting both tourists and locals alike. The park itself is really beautiful and worth going for a stroll in especially if you’re visiting Berlin during the warmer spring and summer months.
The Victory Column A.K.A. “Chick on a Stick”
I don’t know if people actually refer to the Victory Column (Siegessäule) as Chick on a Stick, but it seemed funny to me. Our guide explains to us that this was the spot that was meant to mark East and West Berlin and was also meant to mark the ‘Capital of the World” under Hitler’s failed plan of global domination. There is a golden goddess at the top, hence the “Chick on a Stick” alias. Tourists can climb to the top level which stands at fifty-one meters and offers a panoramic view of the city. (I forgot to take a pic of this spot--sorry!)
Reichstag and Bundestag
The Reichstag is where it all goes down, i.e. where the houses of parliament sit (Bundestag). All the important governmental decisions are made here. And, it's free to visit--you just need to book online at least a week or two in advance otherwise chances are slim that you’ll be able to go on a walk-in basis. Also, you’ll need to bring your passport in order to get through the security check. Another interesting symbolic fact about the Reichstag’s architecture is that the glass dome at the top also has a glass floor, representing the fact that the people are always above the politicians. Smirk.
Museum Island - The Final Stop on the Fat Tire Bike Tour
Okay, so my friend and I wanted to take some pics in front of this really cool building (no idea what it was) on the way to the last stop of our tour, Museum Island (Museumsinsel), and we completely got separated from the group! But, we did end up riding by with our bikes. On Museum Island, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are five museums to check out that cover art and architecture. They are Pergamon Museum (Pergamonmuseum), Bode-Museum, New Museum (Neues Museum), Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie), and Old Museum (Altes Museum).
If you’re visiting Berlin for a few days and want to spend a full day just going to the museums, I’d recommend getting an all-access pass that can be purchased here for 18,00 € (around USD $20.50).
Final Thoughts on The Fat Tire Tour Berlin
I thought this tour was a lot of fun and I really did learn a lot of information (although I admittedly did look up additional facts for this post). If you are interested in taking a Fat Tire Tour in Berlin and will be here before the end of December 2018, you can also get a discount using the code, ‘STEPH10’ for a 10% discount on the following tours: Berlin City Bike Tour, Third Reich & Nazi Berlin Tour, Berlin Wall Bike Tour and Modern Berlin Bike Tour. Enter my code into the 'Promotional Code' field in your cart and before the Checkout. (FYI — I only have 10 of these tours to offer this code for, so take advantage of it if you can!
Thanks for reading and let me know if you end up going on a tour with Fat Tire Tours in Berlin!