Why You Need A Guide: Lessons From A Weird, Wet Walk Across Berlin

It’s 2 am. Around me, Berlin stretches away into the gloom beyond the dim reach of the streetlights. The rain’s getting harder – and the tissue-thin map my hotel gave me this morning has now completely dissolved in my sodden pocket.

I have only the vaguest idea where I am, and I can’t speak German – but that wouldn’t make any difference anyway, because there’s nobody around to guide me.

My hotel is somewhere on the other side of the city. If I can blunder my way into Charlottenberg, I’ll be okay – I spent some of the morning memorizing its landmarks in relation to my hotel. But first I need to get there.

The Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) and Museum Island (Museumsinsel) reflected in the Spree River
The Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) and Museum Island (Museumsinsel) reflected in the Spree River

I’m in the east of the city, the former East Berlin (1949-1990), and my hotel is in the west. The S-bahn and U-bahn (train and subway) stopped running around midnight. I don’t have the cash for a taxi.

It’s only a moderately horrible night, weather-wise, and I do have a waterproof jacket – so why not try walking it?

The answer to that question, I soon discover, involves dissolving maps, a growing worry that I’m walking in the wrong direction, and some of the feelings that only a night-time trek in a strange city can evoke.

Leafing through a Berlin guide book beforehand would have helped. I’d have known that the Straße des 17. Juni boulevard would take me through the Tiergarten park, through the Brandenburg Gate, past the Soviet War Memorial and eventually out the Charlottenburg Gate, where I could find my bearings.

Knowing that in advance would have put all my fears to rest. But I hadn’t done that. For this trip, my first to Berlin, I’d chosen to learn absolutely nothing in advance. I wanted a first impression that was free of any bias. I wanted to see what it was like, then learn about it.

The Brandenburg Gate is an 18th-century neoclassical monument in Berlin, built on the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II
The Brandenburg Gate is an 18th-century neoclassical monument in Berlin, built on the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II

In other circumstances, that might have been a wise experiment to run. Tonight? Well, not so much. I’m now realizing I should have done my reading.

Every year, various news articles confidently announce the death of guide books – and then the sales figures come out. Even in the age of digital maps, we’re relying on guide books more than ever.

In 2017, $124 million in guide books flew off the shelves of American book stores – a 5% increase on 2016. It’s true that sales of printed guides dropped between 2005 and 2011, but right now they’re back with a vengeance.

At first glance, this is mysterious. Why, in the age of Google and Wikipedia and countless free travel websites, are we still relying on paper to give us the guidance we need?

Perhaps a clue comes from Pauline Frommer, editorial director at Frommer’s:

“U.S. citizens take a relatively small amount of vacation time per year. When they get out and see the world, they want to know what will be most worth their time. Toward that end, we encourage our authors to be highly opinionated, telling readers what to skip and what will be a worthwhile use of their valuable vacation time.”

Fact: the internet is always going to win on facts. If you want the telephone number and address of a particular restaurant, you’re always going to check Google first.

Statues along the Spree River in Berlin
Statues along the Spree River in Berlin

However, if you want to know why that restaurant is worth visiting, and if it’s the best place to spend your precious time, you’re going to need much more than simple facts.

You’re not going to want to trawl through page after page of TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews, looking for the best picks. You want a particular perspective that chooses the kinds of experiences you’re after, while instilling the sense of curiosity and wonder that you can only get from exploration. You want an opinion.

What you need, in other words, is a guide.

There are two ways you can take this statement. In one direction lie $124 million in brilliantly researched, intelligently opinionated books that unfortunately weigh an absolute ton in your luggage, making them simultaneously the best and worst reference guide to travel with.

And on the other, you have our approach: human beings who have read all those books, been to all those places, and have exactly the kind of hard-won knowledge that can guarantee you a memorable travel adventure.

It’s three hours later, and I’ve done something that would have been impossible thirty years ago – I’ve crossed the Berlin Wall on foot (or rather, the shadowy remains of it). It’s been an intensely dramatic walk, with all my senses amplified by mild terror and my imagination grasping for anything that could identify where I was.

Thankfully, I’m on track. Driven by a woefully incomplete memory of what my map looked like before it turned to pulp, I’ve chosen the right route, and the sense of relief as Charlottenburg Gate comes into view is overwhelming.

Detail of the Charlottenburg Gate in Berlin
Detail of the Charlottenburg Gate in Berlin

That happened five years ago from the time of writing – but it feels like yesterday.

Every atmospheric detail of that walk is crisp in my mind (and time has softened all the more horrible aspects, like my shoes being filled with water when I took them off in the hotel foyer at 5 am).

Maybe going with none of the facts was a ticket to unnecessary suffering – but it certainly made memories that last (maybe not always good memories, but there you go).

Next time, though, I’ll be using a guide – the kind that would have winced, then quietly mentioned that there’s actually a night-bus service that runs until dawn, connecting east and west Berlin and stopping pretty much outside my hotel. It would have saved me around four hours of walking.

Oh well. I won’t make the same mistake next time.

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