Berlin underground tours are an alternative way to understand the city’s complex history, where you can view war bunkers and escape tunnels in what are now disused metro stations. With Berlin known for its alternative scene and unravelling of a dark past, this is a different way of seeing it.
When researching my trip there I came across the Berlin Underworlds Association (Berliner Unterwelten) – a society for the exploration and documentation of subterranean culture. They provide expert tours of the city’s underground linked to various moments of its history, citing to “experience the history of Berlin from an unconventional perspective.”
The Berlin Underworlds Association has been offering Berlin tunnel tours for around 15 years, so they know exactly what they are doing when it comes to the important underground structures in the city. You won’t get stuck or lost, or be breaking any laws when it comes to the exploration of abandoned areas. This has all been curated and set up exclusively.
- 1 What Berlin Underground Tours Can You Go On?
- 2 The Berlin Wall Escape Tunnels
- 3 Berlin Underground Bunker Tours
- 4 Beneath Berlin – Understanding History
What Berlin Underground Tours Can You Go On?
From war bunkers and air-raid shelters to the remains of an anti-aircraft fortress, subterranean Berlin plays host to a wealth of history. You might find it hard to choose which tour to go on, although a lot of your choice will be dependent on what tours are running on the given day.
There are currently four underground Berlin tours available:
- Tour 1: Dark Worlds
- Tour 2: From Flak Towers to Mountains of Debris
- Tour 3: Cold War Nuclear Bunkers
- Tour M: Under the Berlin Wall
I decided on Tour M, which at the time was called Breaching the Berlin Wall: Subterranean Escapes from East Berlin to West Berlin and which this article focuses on, with an overview of the main things you get to learn about and what an underground tour encompasses generally.
Photography is not allowed, which is why I am using images granted for use by the Berliner Unterwelten.
Where Does the Berlin Underground Tour Begin?
The majority of the tours start in or near the Gesundbrunnen station in the north of Berlin city centre and they last approximately two hours.
When Do the Underground Tours Run?
The main season for tours is April – October and they run from Monday – Friday between 10 AM – 4 PM and on Saturday, Sunday and National Holidays between 9 AM and 4 PM.
You can check the website for further details and view the calendar of dates and times on the homepage.
Underground Tours Prices
Surprisingly, the tours to this secret part of Berlin are relatively inexpensive.
- Tour 1, 2 and 3 are €12
- Tour M is €15
- The Exhibition, “Myth of Germania” is €6
Do note that the BerlinWelcomeCard is not valid for these tours, as it is a separate entity to the main tourism offering.
The Berlin Wall Escape Tunnels
Many attempts were made to escape from East Berlin to the West via man-made tunnels dug deep underground, where everything from reinforcements to lighting and ventilation had to be taken into consideration.
The first tunnel was dug in December 1961 and the last one in 1985, four years before the borders were opened. Of course, some attempts had devastating consequences, when uncovered by the East German secret police (Stasi), but others were successful. The determination resulting in the same people risking their lives to dig another tunnel in a different location months later to help others.
Escaping Via the Sewage System
The sewer channels were also used as escape routes, even though the Stasi had put preventative measures in place with grating systems. Initially, the grating was a square shape within the circle of the tunnel meaning there was just enough space to squeeze under – through the sewage.
The Stasi later installed oval-shaped grating and then used measures to cover the space completely. Many West Berlin students had great escape operations in place using the sewage systems to help their friends trapped in the East.
However, when escaping this way, someone had to be the ‘lid man’ with the promises of being able to go down into the hole another time. In the room underground was a manhole cover, the same as the ones you see in the city today and what would have been in use back then. The lights were turned out as if to create the atmosphere of nighttime escape and two strong guys were asked to carefully and quietly lift the heavy lid.
No problem at all, but putting it back? A disastrous mixture of the wrong balance, uneven weight and constant clanging noise. Back then, they would have been caught instantly and killed. It puts into perspective how difficult these escapes were with the Stasi on the lookout right around every corner.
Escaping Via the East Berlin U-Bahn Underground Stations
With the construction of the Wall, U-Bahn lines in East Berlin were severed in their connection to the West. But as the East got poorer the two West Berlin lines (the U6 and U8) that ran through East Berlin were ‘rented out’ to the West, allowing them to pass through the East Berlin metro stations without stopping.
We were told about how people cleverly hid among the tracks and side walls ready to jump on passing trains and how the guards on the Eastern side would defect and while on duty, use this route as a means to escape.
When the Stasi lost too many men they eventually locked guards on duty in a room with a small window looking out towards the tracks. Any signs of escapees would have to be called through to a superior, by which point it was probably too late to catch them.
From Underground to Overground
One of the most fascinating parts of the tour was wandering along a huge underground corridor only to emerge from a side door on the wall of the underground station, which most people probably walk past daily and don’t give a second’s thought as to what lays beneath.
From there you are taken via the metro to my much recommended Berlin Wall viewing site, Bernauer Strasse, where more than seven escape tunnels were attempted within a short distance of just 350 meters of each other. This is also where two of the most successful Berlin Wall escape tunnels were constructed.
READ MORE: Where to See the Berlin Wall (The viewing locations and the questions it makes you ask).
Berlin Underground Bunker Tours
Photo exhibitions form much of the tour when underground in what is a former civil defence shelter and it brings the stories to life. You will catch a glimpse at a room that formed part of an air-raid shelter on the Berlin tunnels tour, although you will have to take the underground bunker tour (Tour 3) to delve more into that part of the history and see what relics of these hideouts are left.
Thousands were built in the city to provide safety and despite being able to see one, it’s still unknown how many more exist that have yet to be found.
For those who don’t have the time for the tour or who want to see a reconstruction of what the bunkers that no longer exist look like, the Berlin Underworlds Association made a free “Bunker Berlin” App. You can learn more about the Drivers’ Bunker, the Speer Bunker, the Goebbels Bunker and the Führerbunker, supported by historical overviews, construction plans and interviews with historians and witnesses.
Beneath Berlin – Understanding History
What lies beneath Berlin is well worth viewing. We take riding a metro system for granted without realising how instrumental it was for those planning escape, those seeking shelter and those harbouring secrets.
The guide was both passionate and knowledgeable about the history and expertly clued up on the facts, figures and questions presented by the city’s complex history. To condense Berlin’s history into sizable parts that you can understand is commendable. I even met locals who had said they had wanted to take this tour for the past 10 years to better understand their past.
Not only do you get to grips with the city’s history, but you get to learn about it from a truly interesting perspective and to understand a complex time in modern history in that way is priceless. It gives a whole new meaning to ‘off the beaten track’, doesn’t it?
Many thanks to the Berlin Underworlds Association for allowing me the opportunity to attend one of their tours.