Hackeshe Höfe, Berlin Mitte, photo by Alternative Berlin
by Sarah Kilcoyne
If you spend enough time in Berlin, you will soon start to realise that there are two sides to this city. On one hand, you have a city that is heavily steeped in history, scattered with reminders of the horrors of WW2; memorials, statues, remains of the Berlin Wall, ‘Stolpersteine’ around every street corner.
Most visitors to this wonderful city are likely to experience this history in one way or another – through walking tours, bus tours or by visiting well-known sights and memorials. As important as the history of Berlin is, there is another imperative aspect to this city that visitors can often miss out on – that is the other side to this city. The ‘alternative’ Berlin.
When you mention an ‘alternative’ side to Berlin, it can sound quite vague. What are we talking about here? The Aquadom at the Radisson? The Currywurst Museum?
Not quite. The fact is that the ‘alternative’ culture in Berlin is something that is so significant, and has been so important in shaping the city that we know today, that it is actually an evident phenomenon. So what embodies the alternative culture? We’re talking about urban art, street art, graffiti, music, electronic music, festivals, film, illegal clubs, raves, squats, punk culture – the list goes on. Only in Berlin, a city divided by war and conflict, scarred by factionalism, and suddenly reunited could such minorities each have the space and freedom to thrive. And this is what makes Berlin such a unique and interesting city to live in and visit today.
By now I’m sure you’re asking, but how the hell am I supposed to experience all of this? In one weekend visit, how do I happen upon an underground club, or attempt to visit a squat house all the while trying to find random works of street art in a city of 892 square kilometres??
That’s where Alternative Berlin come in.
Led by couple Adie and Vanessa Sampson, since 2006 the ‘alternative’ guides of Alternative Berlin have been leading innocent tourists deep into the labyrinth of underground culture in Berlin. In just a couple of hours, one of their experienced tour guides can show you more of the unseen sides of the city than you could do by yourself in a week.
Unlike your average touristy city tour, what makes Alternative Berlin’s tours so special is the authenticity – with these guys, you get the real deal. Adie, Vanessa and all of their tour guides are each personally involved in Berlin’s alternative culture. The tour guides are a combination of street artists, DJs, punk musicians, graffiti artists, and just all-round cool motherfuckers.
You can expect to walk around an alternative district like Kreuzberg, have your guide point out an infamous piece of street art on the building high above you, tell you an amazing story behind the artwork and the artist himself, and finish with something like ‘yeah I was doing a paint jam with him last weekend, nice dude’. Awesome.
Alternative Berlin Tour Guide Ryan, photo by Alternative Berlin
VHIL’s portrait of Fadi Saad, Berlin Friedrichshain. Photo by streetartbln.com
What makes these tours especially interesting, is that you could retake the same tour several times, and see something different every time. Berlin’s alternative culture is very much alive and therefore unpredictable, and the tours reflect that. Which also means that these tours are not just for tourists. A few years ago, I had already been living in Berlin for two years, when I took the Street Art Tour with a visiting friend. Our brilliant guide Adrian found out along the way that a street-artist friend of his (who I now know was the esteemed artist Addison Karl) was painting a mural at Schlesisches Tor, so he took us on a detour to watch. It was such a cool experience, and something I would never have stumbled upon by myself.
Addison Karl overlooking his collab mural with James Bullough, together known as JBAK, in Berlin Lichtenberg. Photo © Just Photography
Free Tour group, photo by Alternative Berlin
Alternative Berlin offer a range of tours, depending on what you’d particularly like to see, and all at very decent prices. There’s the Free Tour – a 3-hour walking tour around some of the most interesting districts of Berlin, where you’ll encounter street art, graffiti, the haunts and hangouts of the famous and infamous, and the landmarks of rock, reggae, punk and electronic music. At the end of the tour, you can simply tip your tour guide, what you think the tour was worth. This tour is a great all-rounder, to get a good feel for the alternative side to Berlin.
If you’re particularly interested in street art, you should definitely consider the Street Art Tour & Workshop. This is a two part-tour; in part one, you will take to the back streets of Berlin to discover some of the latest, greatest and oldest examples of street art, graffiti and mural art that this city has to offer. In part two, the group will be taken to Alternative Berlin’s fantastically grungy workshop venue, which is located in a former abandoned margarine factory in the East Berlin district of Lichtenberg. Here, the group will get the opportunity to try their own hand at some spray painting! You will receive instructions on various graffiti techniques from both local and international artists, and then get to make your very own canvas piece to take home with you.
Street Art Workshop space, photo by Alternative Berlin
This is just a taster of the kinds of tours these guys have on offer, you can check out their full range of tours and workshops here. Some more honourable mentions are the Craft Beer Tour, the Real Berlin Experience, the Green Tour and the 666 Anti-Pubcrawl.
But wait, there’s more! Adie, Vanessa and the team don’t fuck around – the aforementioned workspace in the old margarine factory, is actually a workshop space/gallery, called the Black Market Collective. The Collective is committed to exposing new and established artists from around the world, with an emphasis on those from a non-traditional background, drawn from the street art, graffiti, DIY and punk rock communities. Keep an eye out for their upcoming events and exhibitions! Or even just pop out to view the space, it’s worth a look.
And one for the road! In 2013, the Alternative Berlin team opened up Monterey Bar in the district of Prenzlauer Berg, a cosy rock bar a little different from any other. The bar has emphasis on local and international craft beers, and the guys prefer to support brewers with an interesting story, who experiment with new flavours and styles. The clientele is a mix of rock fans, beers enthusiasts, and people on their way to and from the nearby Mauerpark. Drop by Monterey Bar for a kick-ass beer and head-bang any day of the week, and you might even meet the infamous Adie himself, chilling at the bar with a tasty pint.
Monterey Bar, photo by Monterey Bar
Find all the info you need about Alternative Berlin and their tours on www.alternativeberlin.com