Since we are stuck in Berlin by the Corona Virus-related travel restrictions, we have decided to explore our city. The city guide app “Stadt im Ohr” (The city in your ears) offers a self-guided walk through Berlin Mitte by smartphone and thus with total social distancing. As in a classical city walk, two tour guides explain the history and tell stories about the various sights. At each of the ten sightseeing spots along the walk, you can listen to a 5-minute podcast with a picture, and an interactive map and direction in the text guide us along the route.
A showpiece of socialist architecture
A small queue is forming outside the Berlin TV Tower while we plug in our earphones to listen to the tour guide. “Tall and lean, tall and lean … very clean!” High children’s voices are singing the praise of the futuristic TV Tower that was a showpiece of socialist architecture when it was built in 1969. At 365 m height (then – it has since grown a little), it was among the highest towers in the world, and the shiny metal ball holding the revolving tower café at a height of about 200 m was visible from all over Berlin.
“But the first thing proud socialist East Berliners would see when they stepped out of the elevator was – West Berlin!,” the audio guide comments. Back then, the Berlin Wall divided the city and many citizens of East Berlin dreamed of fleeing to the capitalist West.
From the TV Tower we follow the walk to St. Mary’s church, one of the oldest structures in Germany’s capital. In the middle ages, the original townships of Berlin and Kölln covered only this part next to the Spree River and today’s Museum Island. Nowadays, the old town centre is a surprisingly empty inner city area of squares and parks, dominated by the huge Neptune Fountain.
Palace of Power, Palace of People
Across the River Spree we move on to the City Palace. Newly rebuilt but not quite finished, it replaces the old socialist Palace of the Republic, which in turn replaced the original palace of the Prussian kings. The new building is modelled on the Prussian palace. On the inside, however, it will house a number of museums. The northern part of the Spree island is already home to some of Berlin’s most important museums, including the Pergamon Museum and the so-called “New Museum.” To everybody’s puzzlement it is full of very old things, among them the famous bust of Nefertiti.
Walking over to the “Old Museum” (which isn’t really that much older than the “New Museum”), we cross the Prussian Kings’ Lustgarten or “pleasure garden”. Originally it was the kitchen garden of the palace, we learn, and later a kind of botanical garden. That was when tomatoes and potatoes grew here, for the first time in Prussia – for their decorative flowers, not their nutritious fruits!
The walk ends near the fashionable area of Hackesche Höfe, where numerous inter-connected backyards form a maze of cafés, shops, and cultural spaces. These days with the Corona restrictions, the atmosphere is rather subdued, but it is still a nice area to have some coffee and muse over our city walk.
Digital vs. personal – What is better?
The self-guided walk through Berlin worked quite well, with two different, clearly spoken voices, dialogues and some music. On the other hand we can also keep on track and stay motivated with a guidebook text we read to each other. Also we hadn’t taken into account the wind (often strong in Berlin) which our earphones weren’t up to. But then of course the noise is even more of a problem on a real guided tour with more than a handful of participants. A real on-site guide would also be able to answer questions or to adjust to previous knowledge of the participants – again only in a sufficiently small group. Our audio guide, for instance, explained what constitutes a gothic church…
An advantage of the podcast definitely was that you can replay parts of it or take time out for shopping or a break in between. Overall, using a city guide app may be a good option especially if you like to independently experience the city but don’t like reading a lot. So far, most of the Stadt im Ohr guides are only available in German. We did the Mitte tour in German but there’s an English version, too: https://www.stadt-im-ohr.de/en/our-tours/mitte-schritte/
Would we try another self-guided walk through Berlin?
We might try another one of their walks in future. The app is free, but each walk costs 9.80 €. It was easy to download although it did not work the first time we tried it … In our opinion the walks are a good deal to explore Berlin.
Note: We paid for the tour download and did not receive any sponsoring to write this article.