Berlin | The Greens in the city
Many first-time visitors to Berlin are surprised by how green it is: the city abounds with parks and gardens, leafy squares and picturesque canals. What’s more, with a top-notch transit system, and regional trains that will have you halfway across the country in a matter of hours, there’s no end to the national parks, lake districts, and mountain regions you can reach from the German capital.
Once a royal hunting ground (its name translates as “animal garden”) Berlin’s central park is a respite from city life, full of ponds and streams, gardens and lawns, and cultural attractions like the English Garden, which hosts a jazz festival every summer, and Berlin’s beloved zoo and aquarium. The easiest way to explore is by bike, though a long, meandering walk with a stop for coffee at the Café am Neuen See (a beloved café and restaurant beside a lake) isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Among Berlin’s newest green spaces, this park is famous for its previous life: up until 2008 it was an airport, and the site of the famed Berlin Airlift, which saved the city from Soviet siege in 1948-49. Its runways are now full of bikers and rollerbladers, the green spaces in between taken over by community gardens and families grilling and picnicking. Meanwhile, its hulking, arrival halls host frequent events, and are open to several regular history and architecture tours.
Another recent addition to Berlin’s growing list of parks, Gleisdreieck used to be a rail depot. Industrial remnants still peek through the grass, including iron tracks and some watchtowers, but this is now a place where children run free on lawns and clamber across playgrounds, skateboarders strut their stuff at a skate park, and street artists decorate officially designated walls. Head to the park’s southern end for wilder meadows, or its northern end for a glimpse at the striking German Technology Museum, with an airplane on its roof.
More of a forest than a park, this sprawling bit of countryside at Berlin’s western edge is dense and lush enough to entertain thoughts of witches, fairies, and the Brothers Grimm. It has a castle-like hunting lodge (Jagdschloss) that hosts a charming Christmas market, but also a Soviet-era listening station (Teufelsberg) on top of a hill made of WWII-era rubble. There are plenty of lakes for swimming in summer, but also an outdoor contemporary art collection (Haus am Waldsee) for those more culturally-minded. This one is best explored by bike, but if you fancy a long hike in spring or summer, bring a spare basket to carry all the fruits, berries, and flowers you’ll find here.
A bit dusty and scrappy but beloved by locals, Mauerpark has a name that hints at its history. This strip of green used to be part of the no man’s land between East and West Berlin (“Mauer” means “wall” in German) notorious for its trip wires, watch towers, and attack dogs. Today, it hosts a wildly popular Sunday flea market, complete with a beer garden and rollicking karaoke in an amphitheater. On a normal day, you’ll see neighbors sprawling out on the grass or throwing a frisbee, and kids rambling through the petting zoo at its northern end.
This waterway flows through several of Berlin’s hippest neighborhoods, but the part that cuts through Kreuzberg is particularly picturesque, with sprawling grassy areas perfect for picnics, and bridges that act as impromptu gathering places for the city’s buskers, beer drinkers, and layabouts. Although it gets a bit industrial at its western end, the Landwehr Canal is mostly one long trail of trees and flowers perfect for cycling. Just make sure you budget time for all the photo stops you’ll make along the way.
Just south of Berlin, this is a landscape of bright meadows, lush forests, and tranquil streams weaving their way past centuries-old half-timbered houses and small farms. A biosphere reserve and UNESCO heritage site, Spreewald harks back to the early days of Berlin, when it was simply a series of settlements on a swamp. Organize a group of friends to take the train to one of two main villages, Lübben and Lübbenau, where you can rent canoes and kayaks, or simply get on one of the small barges that serve beer to boisterous locals as they wind along the canals.
The city’s second largest, this lake’s proximity to the center makes it a favorite of Berliners looking to cool off in summer. Here’s where you’ll find a sprawling public beach perfect for setting up a picnic and taking a dip, but also plenty of sailing clubs and marinas, some of which offer yacht charters, or sailboat and houseboat rentals. Ringed by forest and freckled with seven tiny islands, Tegeler See is the perfect place for a mini adventure, especially if you have kids in tow.
Schlachtensee and Wannsee
Perhaps the most popular of Berlin’s summer retreats, these two lakes in the southwest are absolutely teaming with swimmers the minute the weather gets warm. Schlachtensee is surrounded by a 7km boardwalk that also makes it a popular spot for walking and running, while Wannsee, despite its gruesome history (the House of the Wannsee Conference sits on its banks) is one of Berlin’s most picturesque spots, lined with villas and country clubs, dotted with countless sailboats, its public beach full of the traditional “Strandkörbe” or basketweave chairs.
Just beyond Berlin’s eastern border, this reserve is a haven for hikers and cyclers, a European bird sanctuary, and a spa destination. Märkische Schweitz is Brandenburg’s oldest nature park, and Berliners have been going here for years to traipse around woodlands, spot migrating geese in fall, and take a dip in the curative waters of the resort town of Buckow. Pack a bag full of snacks and head out into this vast forested area, weaving around its lakes, streams, and swamps, and enjoying the hilly terrain in an otherwise mostly flat region.