Rick Steves Berlin: Behind the Scenes Creating a New Guidebook

By Cameron Hewitt

I’ve been quiet on my blog the last couple of months. That’s because I’ve been 100% focused on producing a brand-new Rick Steves Berlin guidebook. For fans of our books, here’s an inside look at how America’s bestselling guidebook series adds another title to its ranks.

Rick and I are both big history buffs — especially 20th-century history. So naturally, we’ve always dreamed of creating a guidebook to Europe’s most fascinating 20th-century city, Berlin. Last year, our publisher gave us the green light: Berlin would sell. So we began the process of putting together the book.

Berlin has long been well-covered in our Rick Steves Germany guidebook. But our Berlin and side-trips coverage was bursting at the seams — at nearly 150 pages, it was practically a book in itself. (Whenever Rick — or another researcher — goes to this fascinating city, it’s hard to resist coming back with piles of new material.) At long last, Berlin would find a proper home…and some much-needed room to breathe.

The decision to create this book was partly inspired by a couple of top-notch researchers, who — in successive years — updated our Berlin material and came back with lots of suggestions. Gretchen Strauch, our resident Germanophile (who actually vacations in Berlin when she’s not working there), pointed out that our Berlin coverage had not quite evolved at the same breakneck pace as the city itself. (Rick wrote his original Berlin chapter in the 1990s, back when the notion of “East Berlin” and “West Berlin” still meant something. And, while we’ve definitely updated our vision of the city over the years, the time had come to tear down this Wall — in our guidebook coverage — and start from scratch.) And Robyn Stencil — who updated our Berlin chapter last year, and was also instrumental in designing the new Rick Steves Best of Germany in 13 Days Tour (which enjoys a grand finale in Berlin) — offered us ample suggestions for new hotels and restaurants. If you love using our books, be sure to raise a mug of Berliner Weisse to the folks pictured on the “Credits” page at the back — just a few of the unsung heroes who make Rick Steves guidebooks the best, and the bestselling, in the USA.

Another area for improvement was our coverage of Berlin’s museums. While people may not think of Berlin as a “museum city” (like Paris or Florence), the fact is that Berlin’s art and history museums are astonishingly good — easily ranking alongside any in Europe. We had a scant few pages apiece on the Pergamon, the Neues Museum, the Gemäldegalerie, and more — but we wanted to turn each one into a fully formed, self-guided tour chapter. Enter Gene Openshaw, Rick’s high school buddy-turned-art historian-turned-travel writer extraordinaire. Gene has written (or contributed heavily to) many of the wonderful stop-by-stop self-guided tours you’ll find in our books.

Last summer, Gene went to Berlin to hit all of the big museums, incorporating material Rick has written over the years with his own insights. He came back with about a half-dozen museum tours, plus self-guided walks through Berlin’s most famous neighborhoods. Now, I had toured Berlin’s Old National Gallery probably a half-dozen times over the years. But test-driving Gene’s brilliant tour was the first time I really enjoyed it. Gene has a knack for making you realize, much to your surprise, that you actually adore German Romanticism.

Starting with so much great material made our job easier…in most respects. But there were so many great ideas, it was a challenge to simply sort through them all. In writing our guidebooks, we usually find there’s one “best” way to experience a destination: The sights line up along a handy axis, the hotels and restaurants conveniently cluster in a couple of fun neighborhoods, and it’s easy to prioritize your limited sightseeing time. But a handful of problematic destinations have a “many ways to skin that cat” problem — and Berlin is the textbook example. Five people with different interests (art museums, Hitler and Cold War sights, foodie/hipster culture, etc.) could have five entirely different trips to Berlin, all have a blast — and never once cross paths. More than just about anywhere in Europe, Berlin is a “choose your own adventure” city.

For this reason, we’ve endlessly tinkered with our Berlin coverage over the years. This new book presented an opportunity for a head-to-toe overhaul. Before my trip, I spent a couple of weeks putting all of the great ideas into a centrifuge, giving it a spin, and pulling out the best of everyone’s suggestions. With thoughtful input from Rick, past researchers, Managing Editor Jennifer Davis, and the head editor for the Berlin project, Carrie Shepherd, we came to a consensus about how to best present Berlin to the reader. And our “mappies” (in-house slang for “cartographers”) even took the time to rough up maps that would fit our planned new coverage.

Before I flew to Berlin, I organized all of this raw material into separate chapters, printed each one as an individual “guidebooklet,” and taped the map to the back page. I was ready to test-drive everything in person.

In late February, I landed in a chilly Berlin, dropped my bag at the hotel, and immediately headed out to take the first of our new chapters — Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate Walk — out for a spin. Most of my past visits to Berlin have been in the summer or fall. Being here in the winter, I came to the conclusion that it’s not the best off-season city. The weather is cool, drizzly, and windy (with the occasional, glorious sunny spell — what Seattleites call “sunbreaks”). And the sun sets early — after about 5:30, I’d be stumbling and squinting my way through our new walking tours. 

While I managed to get my work done, this trip reminded me that Berlin is a fair-weather city. Berliners are never so happy as when they’re outside, and on a sunny day, the parks, riverbanks, and outdoor cafés are jammed. Off-season…not so much. But they try. Bundled-up Berliners huddle on biergarten benches and try to ignore the windchill.

I spent 10 intense days in Berlin (including some side-trips), working my way through our mountains of material, and scouting new additions. For years, we’d described Kreuzberg — the sprawling neighborhood south of the historic core — as the “Turkish immigrant quarter.” While that’s still partly true, it’s only one piece of today’s story. And with the help of two excellent local guides (Maisie Hitchcock and Caroline Marburger), I got a much better look at what’s becoming Berlin’s trendiest, most enjoyable-to-explore neighborhood. The best of what I learned in Kreuzberg — from the bustling riverside Turkish market, where you can buy mint tea and dried fruits, to the über-trendy Markthalle Neun food hall, Berlin’s answer to London’s Borough Market — went straight into the new book.

I had the help of other outstanding guides, too. For my money, Berlin has the highest concentration of top-quality tour guides anywhere. (Rick Steves’ Europe Tours has more lead guides living in Berlin than in any other city.)

Lee Evans — an American expat whom I’ve been meeting up with since the early 2000s, back when he was selling couchette reservations to backpackers at Zoo Station — took me to a fantastic Georgian feast (a reminder that some of Berlin’s best food is not German). Over khachapuri fry bread and walnut spreads, Lee helped me finally understand what was so important about Frederick the Great.

Holger Zimmer walked me through Prenzlauer Berg, where he lived as a squatter in the early 1990s. Fresh out of college, Holger moved into an apartment vacated by an East German family who’d pulled up stakes and moved West.  Holger discovered that the apartment came equipped with a telephone (already a rarity) that permitted unlimited long-distance calls…and the bill never showed up. But then, one day, the phone stopped working — so Holger had to wait in line at the public pay phone, like everyone else. His stories inspired me to write a new self-guided walk of that neighborhood for the book.

Torben Brown guided me through the now-trendy Scheunenviertel (“Barn Quarter”) — explaining the history of Berlin’s Jewish quarter and fleshing out the book’s new self-guided walk of that area.

And Carlos Meissner brought me to the Scöneberg City Hall steps — where JFK said “Ish been ein berleener” — and helped bring real meaning to the dreary area around Checkpoint Charlie and Hitler’s old government zone. If I’d had more days, I’m sure I could have filled them with even more top-quality guides.

While our existing Berlin coverage was already strong, it was gratifying to be able to flesh it out and fill some gaps. I wrote up Tempelhof Field and the Berlin Airlift (in which the Western Allies supplied the Soviet-blockaded people of West Berlin by running continuous supply sorties, round the clock, for nearly a year); a collection of jokes about the classic communist-era East German car, the Trabi (“When does a Trabi reach top speed? When it’s being towed”); Treptower Park, with what must be the most grandiose Soviet War Memorial you’ll find outside of the former USSR; and a couple dozen enticing restaurants, from “budget foodie” street food to hipster sidewalk cafés to elegant splurges. I even wrote a sidebar called “Why Does Berlin Smell Like Farts?” (I’m still a little surprised the editors let that one slip through…but, let’s be honest, it does! It’s built on a swamp. Why else is the city’s unofficial anthem called “Berliner Luft”?)

I also picked up some wonderfully long and precise German words: Trockenwohnen (“dry living”) was the practice, common in Berlin’s late-19th-century housing boom, in which tenants would move into a building so new, the slow-drying mortar was still wet. Their body heat would help cure the mortar, but their health suffered. Those same people might take on a Schlafbursche (“sleep guy”) — someone who works the night shift and rents out your bed to sleep in during the day. Much later, those same apartments were upgraded through a process called instand besetzen — fixing up a place while you’re living there (a common practice among 1990s squatters). And in the waning days of communism, the courtyards those buildings surrounded were spruced up by residents, who chipped away the concrete to plant inviting little gardens (that’s Hofbegrünung — “courtyard greening-up”).

I returned with a stack of heavily marked-up guidebooklets and a couple of big notebooks overflowing with ideas. I spent two intense weeks writing up all I’d learned, marking up the maps, organizing my photos, and turning it all over to our top-notch Book Department. They took it from there, editing and wordsmithing and tidying it all into a solid book. Our “mappies” put the finishing touches on all those new maps, and handpicked hundreds of photos to illustrate the text. And just a few weeks after I returned, we sent it all off to our publisher. Rick Steves Berlin, First Edition, is scheduled to hit the shelves (and our Travel Store) by September of 2017.

As you can see, producing a new guidebook is a real team effort that requires a lot of shoe leather, red ink, and thoughtful, talented people. Our publisher assures us that Rick Steves Berlin will be a big seller. But — real travelers at heart — we’re not really motivated by the bottom line. As Rick always reminds us, our measure of success is not the number of copies we sell, but the number of trips we improve. And by that metric, we’re confident this book will be a smashing success.