Berlin ‘underworlds’

  - darkometer rating:  3
Bunkers, air-raid or fallout shelters and the like, are not only literally dark, they’re also ‘dark’ in the dark tourism sense. Berlin, having been at the centre of WW II and the Cold War, has its fair share of such places. It is possible to view a few of the remaining ‘underworlds’ of this kind on guided tours offered by the dedicated expert association ‘Berliner Unterwelten’.  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations  

More background info: Air-raid shelters became increasingly significant during the bombing raids against cities during WW II – and Berlin, as Nazi Germany’s capital, was bombed particularly hard and thus in need of such complexes (although not as much as Hamburg or Dresden that were even harder hit). There were different types, ranging from little more than simple cellars in the basements of tenement houses or simple purpose-built reinforced concrete bunkers providing shelter for the civilian population to massive structures built primarily for anti-aircraft gun facilities (Flaktürme).
Obviously, the political and military leadership had their own bunkers too – and the most infamous of these was Hitler’s "Führerbunker", where he eventually committed suicide, after which the war was de facto over. After the war it was mostly demolished and what little remains is not accessible to the public – for good reasons (esp. so as not to offer unwelcome neo-Nazis a place of pilgrimage).
Many of the civilian and anti-aircraft bunkers have also disappeared. But a few remain accessible, including partly ruined larger structures.
During the Cold War new underground shelters for the civilian population were built, as nuclear or fallout shelters. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and thus the end of the Cold War these became largely redundant. But a few of these have survived too, also in Berlin.
Thanks to the efforts of Berlin’s expert society "Berliner Unterwelten" it is possible to see the interior of a range of the city’s bunkers on guided tours. They also add museum-like elements to their more popular tours aimed at families, while the more specialist tours can be truly adventurous and only for the physically fit. 
What there is to see: One of the tours offered by the Berliner Unterwelten society takes visitors into an old WW II air-raid shelter complex that had been built as part of the Gesundbrunnen metro station.
This also includes the so-called Underworlds Museum section, as numerous artefacts are on display in a series of exhibitions (including gas masks, artillery shells, and the like). The tour continues at a given pace, though, so that there is not always sufficient time for everyone to view everything. The guide will take the group through the labyrinthine corridors, which however are mostly well-enough lit. At one point though, the light is switched off to demonstrate the phosphorous glow of special paint in one of the rooms (don’t touch the walls here – the paint is somewhat toxic).
Another popular tour takes visitors into a former fallout shelter from the Cold War days (which theoretically could still serve its original purpose). This tour is split between two locations and includes a one-station metro transfer to the nuclear bunker in its original state. The first part is, again, more museum-like, including a section on Berlin’s infamous ‘ghost stations’ during the Cold War years of the divided city. Some sections of the tour were also used by a theatre troupe who had also added several Chernobyl-themed props such as protective suits hanging from the ceiling …
The atmosphere on these guided tours will most likely vary somewhat from guide to guide. When I did them back in 2008, they happened to be conducted by the same guide, who, though very informative and at the same time frequently humorous, also chose to emphasize the family-oriented entertainment factor by asking a lot of ‘educational’ questions and prompting the youngest participants to venture answers. This style may not be for everyone; indeed I overheard a group of three adults at the back mildly complaining amongst themselves about the “quiz-like” nature of the interaction of the guide with his audience. Kiddie-oriented or not, these tours are generally very popular and can thus get quite full (in fact when I went, the crowd had to be split into two ca. 30-strong groups). This makes the tours perhaps more touristy than you may expect.
Other tours on offer, though, are markedly more adventurous tours that are expressly not for kids: these take smaller groups into the Humboldthain bunker, a former anti-aircraft gun bunker (Flakturm), and the largest of its kind in Berlin. It was partly blown up by French troops after WW II and subsequently, like other such structures, covered in rubble from the bombed-out ruins of the city. A bit of the original structure pokes out of the mound of rubble, however, and the interior has partly been made accessible by the people of the Berliner Unterwelten. There is an easier shorter tour (no under-14s allowed, sturdy shoes required – hard hats are provided) that allows glimpses into the vast cavernous interior. Another, much more demanding tour, includes a descent into the deepest depths of the ruins – this is only for the daring and physically fit, preferably people with some experience in mountaineering too (and no under-18s). Vertigo or claustrophobia sufferers shouldn’t consider this option either.
Also on offer are a couple of further tours, perhaps less interesting for the darkest tourists (such as a visit to the former pneumatic dispatch system), although one occasionally available special tour takes groups much farther afield, namely to a hospital bunker out in Wannsee (cf. House of the Wannsee Conference).
A newly added tour explores the underground metro line U6 and includes the visit to a "ghost station" (cf. Nordbahnhof), in this case a station that was built in the 1920s for a planned line that was never completed (i.e. it was not one of the stations closed due to the division of Berlin … but still, probably the best impression you can currently still get of the former ghost stations).
Location: In Gesundbrunnen, in Berlin's district of Wedding, north of the city centre, by the Humboldthain park. The ticket office of the Berliner Unterwelten society, and starting point for their most popular basic tour of the Gesundbrunnen bunker is located in the southern entrance to the metro station of the same name (i.e. the entrance on Brunnenstraße, not the main entrance at the Gesundbrunnen Center!). From here, the actual tour goes straight underground into the Underworlds Museum complex. The tour of the Cold War nuclear bunker starts a few minutes’ walk up the road at Blochplatz (and finishes at Pankstraße metro station).
Google maps locator: [52.5478,13.3888]
The Humboldthain anti-aircraft bunker tours start at the bunker ruins itself, across the road from Gesundbrunnen in the Humboldthain park – the ruins tower over the whole area and cannot be missed.
Yet other tours start at various relevant meeting points as specified on the respective tour descriptions on the Berliner Unterwelten website.
Access and costs: By guided tour only, no individual access; prices vary according to type of tour.
Details: the basic Underworlds Museum tours of the WWII air-raid shelter take place regularly all year round at fixed times: in English daily at 11 a.m. (Tuesdays and Wednesdays only during the summer months April to October). More tours in German only are conducted Thursday to Monday at 12 noon and at 2 p.m. (weekends and Mondays also 4 p.m.), Tuesdays and Wednesdays only from April to October at 12 noon.
The tour of the Cold War era nuclear bunkers takes place regularly at 1 p.m. Saturdays to Mondays, and in German at weekends at 12 noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and also on Thursdays and Fridays at 4 p.m.
Group tours can always be arranged at other times – also in several languages other than German or English (phone: +49-30-499105-17).
Tickets, which have to be purchased before the tour starts, but cannot be booked in advance, cost 9 EUR (regular adults rate, 7 EUR concession, children under 11 free).
The ‘easy’ tour of the interior of the Humboldthain anti-aircraft bunker is only available during the summer months (because during the winter the protected local colony of bats’ hibernation mustn’t be disrupted), April to October, Thursdays at 1 p.m. in English, and in German at weekends at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and on Thursdays and Fridays at 2 p.m. (no kids under 14 on these tours). Cost 9 EUR (7 concession). Good sturdy shoes and warm clothes are required. Hard hats will be provided.
The highly adventurous climbing tours (in German only!) into the depths of the Humboldthain bunker cost 35 EUR per person and must be pre-booked, also various restrictions apply: you have to be at least 18 and be reasonably fit and able to perform mountaineering-like climbs and not suffer from vertigo. You need to wear very sturdy hiking or mountaineering boots, warm protective clothing and gloves and bring your own sufficiently powerful torch/flashlight! Hard hats will be provided. Note: this is hard core – only for the fit and really dedicated! And if you want to go, plan well ahead: places on this tour are restricted and sell out far in advance.
To get to Gesundbrunnen, take the U8 metro (e.g. from Alexanderplatz), regional metro lines S1, S2, S 25 or S41/42 (ring lines), and then head for the Humboldthain/Brunnenstraße exit, where you’ll find the ticket office of the Berliner Unterwelten society. Tickets are usually available from at least half an hour before the first tour commences, i.e. mostly from 10.30 a.m.
Time required: Most tours offered by the Berliner Unterwelten society last about 90 minutes (except the extreme climbing tour of the Humboldthain bunker, which takes up to 3 hours) – but also factor in extra time for obtaining tickets from the main office at Gesundbrunnen and possible walks to the actual starting points of the tours (other than the basic Underworlds Museum tour, which starts right outside the ticket office).
Combinations with other dark destinations: general: see Berlin – the nearest points of interest for dark tourists are the nearby Berlin Wall sites, in particular Bornholmer Straße, which is just one stop away by regional metro train (also walkable), or Bernauer Straße (2 stops south on the U8 metro – or on the S1, S2, S25 to Nordbahnhof).
The special tours of the bunker hospital in Wannsee (only in German and only for groups by prior arrangement – check the Berliner Unterwelten website: can and should be combined with a visit of the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial site.
Note also that the ‘Story of Berlin’ Exhibition on Kurfürstendamm also includes a nuclear bunker section.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: generally see Berlin – the immediate vicinity of Gesundbrunnen doesn’t offer any mainstream tourist sites, but Mitte and Alexanderplatz are easily reached.

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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