Berlin is well known for being stylish and full of history. But what many visitors aren’t aware of is that it’s also rather “wet”, threaded with winding rivers and looping canals, surrounded by crystal-clear lakes that are ideal for wild swimming, and dotted with Sommerbäder (large outdoor pools) and Strandbäder (lake beaches), both municipal and private. This aqueous landscape comes in handy when summer temperatures rise towards 30C and people wake early to bag a spot at a local lake or lido. But even during the depths of a Berlin winter it’s not unusual to see locals enjoying a dip.
Some Germans are fond of nudity, so you may well spot a few bare bottoms – or more – especially at the more secluded lakes, and certainly in the many designated FKK (Freikörperkultur) areas. This is all part of the fun when you consider that swimming across Berlin can be as beguiling a way of exploring it as walking – or cycling.
I begin my mission to swim a clockwise “east-west” circle around the city with a visit to my favourite local lake, the Weißer See. It’s a sunny morning as I cycle from my home in Prenzlauer Berg through the neighbouring district of Weißensee, a quiet district that a century ago was known as the Hollywood of Berlin (Expressionist classics such as Dr Caligari’s Cabinet were filmed here). Twenty minutes later I arrive at the lake, which is somewhat hidden between a roaring main road and a residential area.
Though it usually teems with couples, families and groups of teenagers with music systems and crates of beer on warm summer nights, at 9am on a weekday it’s almost deserted. Morning light filters gently through the surrounding trees, playing off the lake’s surface. Finding a grassy spot along the lake’s edge, I lock up my bike, spread out my blanket and carefully walk through the murky shallows. The Germans have a wonderful word for how the water feels: arschkalt (literally “arse-cold”), but a few gasp-filled strokes and things warm up quickly. Aside from the occasional curious swan, fish or dragonfly I’m alone for the duration of my 40-minute dip. Afterwards I warm up with a coffee and croissant on the wooden terrace of Milchhäuschen, a historic GDR-era cafe and restaurant right on the lake.• Admission €5. Strandbad Weisensee, Berliner Allee 155, +49 30 925 3241, binbaden.com. Open daily 9am-midnightDirections: M4 tram to Buschallee
The next day is overcast – perfect conditions to visit Friedrichshain’s Haubentaucher (the German word for great crested grebe). The pool is the newest in town and the latest opening within the RAW Gelände, a vast and quintessentially Berlin complex whose semi-dilapidated and heavily graffitied buildings host clubs and bars, a street food market (Sundays), a climbing wall that was once a second world war bunker and a skate hall. Since opening in May 2015 the place has become a stylish spot, but it’s much calmer on a moody weekday afternoon. There is no queue at the club-like wooden doors and just a few families are making use of the swanky and sizable (28m x 10m) pool. Even the designer sun-loungers around the pool’s edge, normally draped with prone “morning after” bodies, are half-empty. “We’re still waiting for someone to sponsor us to heat the pool so we can open in winter,” says co-founder Daniel Lente, who gives me a tour of the area, which includes a cocktail bar, Soul Food kiosk, beer garden and large concert and club space. The water temperature is much more approachable than yesterday’s lake though, and I spend a happy couple of hours alternating between leisurely laps, reading my book and sipping fresh fruit juice from the bar.• Admission €5. Revaler Straße 99, 10245 Berlin, +49 30 2977 6670, haubentaucher.berlin. Open Sun-Fri 10am-1am, Sat 10am-4am.Directions: S-Bahn to Warschauer Strasse plus 5-minute walk
Before I start exploring Berlin’s watery west, there’s one more east-side lake to try: the mighty Müggelsee, which at 4.5km long and 2.5km wide is officially the city’s largest. A warm summery breeze keeps me cool as I cycle the 20km along the river Spree, passing the looming power stations, techno clubs and industrial ruins of Treptow. The lake’s tree- and reed-lined edges, punctuated with small but semi-secluded sandy areas, are ideal for sunbathing, fishing and swimming, and the gentle gradient out towards the deep centre makes the shallows good for families and non-swimmers. Needing some refreshment after the two-hour bike ride, I find a spot and spend an hour swimming in the cold but clear water, taking breaks to watch the yachts and motorboats in the middle distance. Feeling peckish, I ride to the lake’s official and slightly gaudy Strandbad, which is free to get in and has several snack stalls. It’s surprisingly busy with bronzed youths playing volleyball and kids splashing around, but the grassy areas are quiet enough to enjoy a spontaneous picnic and a bit of sun worship before heading home through the pleasant fishing town of Friedrichshagen.Travel tip If you’re with the kids – or just a fan of urban planning – the Waterworks Museum at Friedrichshagen has a fascinating exhibition set in a 19th-century machine hall. • Free admission. Strandbad Müggelsee, Fürstenwalder Damm 838, 12589 Berlin, +49 30 648 7777, am-mueggelsee.de. Open daily 9am-to sunsetDirections: S3 to Rahnsdorf plus a 15-minute walk
Sommerbad Kreuzberg (Prinzenbad)
If there can be such a thing as a cult swimming pool, it’s Kreuzberg’s Sommerbad. Known more commonly as Prinzenbad because of its proximity to U-Bahn Prinzenstrasse, it has appeared in books (Sven Regener’s 2001 slacker classic Herr Lehmann) and films: the opening scenes of the 2003 screen adaption of Herr Lehmann and Bettina Blümner’s 2007 documentary Pool Of Princesses. Its popularity rests on its easy accessibility and uniquely local demographic, with which I am immediately confronted: a flesh-coloured blaze of teenage Turks, heavily bearded style-conscious types and older folk all battling for space in the venue’s two 50-metre pools. I retreat to a patch of green and listen to the colourful blur of accents and languages. I grab a few laps but it’s still a bit hectic so I decide to give up and come back when it’s quieter. “When is a calmer time to come?” I ask the middle-aged German lady on the way out. She shoots me a pitiful look that has no doubt been practised on many tourists: “7.01am.”• Admission €5.50. Prinzenstrasse 113-119, 10969 Berlin, +49 30 616 1080, berlinerbaeder.de. Open daily 7am-8pmDirections: U1 Prinzenstrasse, bus 140, 248
Not wanting to be caught out again, I catch the S-Bahn at 7.30am to get to the Strandbad Wannsee early. Not only is this the city’s best-known and most historic lido, it’s also Europe’s largest, with a 1,275 metre expanse of sandy beach and impressive 1920s “New Objectivity” architecture that houses a promenade of pizza, beer and ice-cream stalls. Though often disregarded by locals as being overcrowded and “touristy”, it’s merely “busy” at this time of the morning, with plenty of space to spread out near the water and enjoy repeated dips. In between, I watch a parade of Berliner life: women chain-smoking in the pool’s trademark wicker chairs, fully clothed men sipping a morning beer in the 26C heat, kids jumping off the diving pier and screaming down the large waterslide. By 11am it’s getting more packed and I’m feeling hungry; time to head somewhere quieter.Travel tip The wooded edges of Wannsee lake are lined with historic villas, including painter Max Liebermann’s summer home and the House Of The Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was planned; both are now museums.• Admission €5.50. Wannseebadweg 25, 14129 Wannsee, +49 30 803 5450, 100-jahre-strandbad-wannsee.de. Opening times vary, see website for detailsDirections: S1 to Wannsee plus a (clearly signposted) 10-minute walk
It takes 30 minutes to walk from Strandbad Wannsee to the Schlachtensee. Not only are the snacks at its beer garden and terrace restaurant (Fischerhütte am Schlachtensee) superior, but the elegant, kidney-shaped lake is refreshingly calm and there are far fewer people around than at other pools. Following the wooden boardwalk around the lake, I grab a grassy spot and – trying my best to forget the news reports about giant catfish – I make the most of the silky water before catching the nearby S-Bahn home.• Free admission. Am Schlachtensee, Steglitz-Zehlendorf, no telephone Fischerhütte am Schlachtensee websiteDirections: S1 to Schlachtensee
If you like your swims to come with a splash of history, you can’t go wrong here. It’s part of the imposing grey limestone stadium expanded by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympic Games, and it’s difficult not to be awed by the scale and aura of the place; just as it’s hard not to imagine the crowds cheering the diving, swimming and water polo competitors from the viewing benches that still line the sides of the 50 x 20 metre pool. The murky past and concrete aesthetic quickly dissolve into a sunny, crystal blue present, however, as I watch athletic pros showing off their impressive butterfly technique in the main pool and listen to the hubbub of families and teenagers in the two adjacent kids’ pools. There are no sunloungers or umbrellas but everyone seems content to just lay their towel down at the edge of the pool or read in the shade of the surrounding alcoves. Travel tip A visit to the main stadium requires a separate ticket (adult €7, child €4) but is worthwhile given the size and history of the place. If you really want to nerd out, the site runs 60-75 minute guided tours that include underground areas normally inaccessible to the public.• Admission €5.50. Olympischer Platz 3, 14053 Berlin. +49 30 6663 1152, berlinerbaeder.de. Open daily 7am-8pmDirections: U2 or S5 to Olympiastadion (U-Bahn is slightly closer)
For my final swim I cycle to Wedding’s Strandbad Plötzensee – one of the first Berlin lidos I ever visited and still one of my favourites. Despite being close to the centre (just 30 minutes from Alexanderplatz) and offering a 740-metre beach, dapper cafe-restaurant serving ice-cream, decent German and Med-inspired food and even cocktails (plus DJs on weekend evenings), the place is often relatively quiet during the week. Today – a Thursday afternoon – there are a handful of young couples and families on the beach, and a few kids paddling safely within the confines of the lake’s floating depth markers. Even better, the water is at the most comfortable temperature so far. Floating on my back while listening to the surrounding chatter – occasionally broken by the distant hum of planes at nearby Tegel airport – makes me feel far away from big city life.Travel tip the poignant and fascinating Plötzensee Memorial to the victims of National Socialism is a 20-minute walk away.• Admission €5. Nordhaven 26, 13351 Wedding, +49 30 8964 4787, strandbad-ploetzensee.de. Open daily 9am-7pmDirections: S-Bahn to Westhafen or Beusselstrasse plus a 20-minute walk
Paul Sullivan is the editor of Slow Travel Berlin
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