It’s been a blustery fall this fall, and yet every time we searched online for our neighborhood in Berlin, images of sandy beaches, lakeside resorts, and people lounging around in bathing suits bathing or jumping across the Muggelsee on a windsurf board have appeared. “Next time,” we started to say.
It happened to be this August, and by then we had a shortlist of beaches, lakes, and rivers to see.
Like Duluth, you can’t see the ocean from the German capital, but you can get there by boat. The city is landlocked, but spiraling through its center and away from it are waterways that carry goods, passengers, tourists like us, and all kinds of watercraft. Berlin contains more bridges than Venice, around 120 miles of canals and rivers, and a bustling boating scene. The canals that criss-cross the German capital end up joining the country’s great rivers: Rhine, Elbe, Danube and Main. Thousands of additional kilometers of canals and rivers connect neighboring countries, making it possible to spend weeks exploring Europe by water or venturing into the North Sea.
We hadn’t planned a trip of this magnitude, not this time anyway. The city was our destination, and we started with a beach.
The Strandbad (literal translation: “beach bath”) Friedrichshagen lies on the northern edge of the Muggelsee, not far from the apartment we rented while living here that gray autumn of 2016.
The beach couldn’t have been a more fitting choice for our two-season view of Berlin. The last time we went there was in the winter. A skating rink covered the sand. Our hockey-loving sons skated fast laps before we retired to a nearby cafe for hot drinks.
This time the temperatures soared past 90 degrees as we staked out a shady spot near the water. A few minutes later, we had a happy surprise: a boy who recognized our sons from their time at public school in Friedrichshagen two years ago showed up. They swam to diving platforms at the end of a dock extending from the beach. The backflipping quickly began.
We watched from the shore mostly, lulled by our order of currywurst and radler beer (regular old beer, but with lemon) which we got from the Strandbad cafe. The cafe’s simple menu—you better be hungry for one of three types of sausage, fries, or a drink—belies how accommodating this simple beach was.
Everything needed for a day of swimming was there: an outdoor shower, bathrooms and changing rooms, picnic tables, higher tables with umbrellas, a lawn where families with babies lay on blankets, and more sand. A nice bar next to the cafe was not open yet. Attached to the dock was a barge for hire. Every few minutes another shaky customer from the paddle board rental business would come out onto the lake.
The whole scene was so enticing that we weren’t too surprised when a wedding party took place halfway up the beach, the bride and groom dressed in formal wear as their guests lingered under a marquee of party. In a city full of historic churches, castles and parks, they chose this, I thought. Good game.
Something clicked as we watched the boats go through the water that day at the beach. The next day we headed for central Berlin, hoping to find a tour boat.
It’s about the most touristy thing you can do in Berlin other than strolling under the Brandenburg Gate, but it’s an easy way to see some of the city’s iconic architecture.
The approximately hour-long tour made a round trip on the Spree, the river that runs through the heart of Berlin. It has an industrial feel, but that changes. The townspeople pushed the local government to clear part of the river for swimming. The Flussbad (“river bath”) project would use natural filtration to clean the water and recreate the bathing areas that once existed there.
Swimming was on our minds on the day of the boat trip, mainly because it was another hot one. We sat under umbrellas on the deck as our tour operator switched from German to English to talk about the passing buildings, occasionally cracking jokes that had a worn feel. (He explained that a church spire was topped with an antenna: “It’s because God has the Internet.”)
The boys liked the comfy chairs and a waiter came by several times with cold drinks, but even the beautiful architecture of the city wasn’t enough to convince me. We needed a boat – without a guide, that would stop long enough to swim. We needed our own boat.
We headed to the Wannsee, in the southwest corner of Berlin. The lake is home to sandy beaches, rowing clubs, marinas filled with sailboats, and lakeside homes for the wealthy, with boathouses the size of Minneapolis bungalows.
If the Wannsee looks familiar, however, it’s probably for its dark past. It was in this privileged and beautiful environment that the leaders of Nazi Germany met to develop their genocidal plans. The lakeside villa where they held their Wannsee Conference is a memorial and a museum, one of the many ways modern Germany ensures people don’t forget the past.
We had come to have fun on the lake, but first spent a leisurely hour sitting at a picnic table overlooking the water near the villa and its memorial.
Then we went to the nearby boat rental office and, after brief instructions, jumped aboard our ship. Anyone who has spent time in a Lund fishing boat would have felt at home. Our “cruise” was equipped with a 9.8 horsepower speedboat, a steering wheel and a simple map showing us a route we could take around a large island.
It was early evening when we started, a little cooler than noon, and the light was just beginning to take on a golden hue as we approached the first real sight of our boat trip: Pfaueninsel, or the island to peacocks. Today it’s a nature reserve and park accessible by ferry, but it was once a private playground for kings who built a castle and then populated the island with a menagerie that included kangaroos, bears, alligators, chameleons and peacocks. The peacocks still roam inside, hence the name, but the animals have long since become Berlin Zoo’s first inhabitants.
It was while passing through the island that we encountered a German tradition that bears no resemblance to any American custom. A sailboat, possibly 200 yards away, slid with an elderly man at the helm. It wasn’t until he passed that we realized he was sailing naked, which made our sons laugh. He wouldn’t be the last naked boat operator we saw that day; for Germans, it’s a natural way to experience the outdoors.
We were halfway across the island when we passed under the Glienicke Bridge, connecting Potsdam and Berlin. During the Cold War, this bridge was a key link between East Germany and West Berlin and became a favored location for the exchange of captured spies. The ‘Bridge of Spies’ was dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film starring Tom Hanks and is perhaps best known as the location where U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was freed by his Soviet captors in exchange for an East German spy.
We had left most of the boat traffic in the Havel, so I gave in as my sons begged to drive.
“It was really fun because you couldn’t really fall,” the 13-year-old said later.
“You could, but it was difficult,” said the 11-year-old.
Luckily, none of them crashed as they deftly guided us through the rest of the channel. In this quiet stretch, a wooded forest bordered on both sides by the water, interrupted here and there by a simple house and, once, a canal-side restaurant that looked like a great place to spend a few hours. We came back to the Wannsee, almost finished with our tour around the island.
Taking inspiration from some of the other sailors, our sons stripped down and jumped into the lake for a swim on our last full day in Berlin.
The sun was falling now. A sailboat slipped past us, its sail lighting up orange with the last light of day.
That summer thing in Berlin? We could get used to it.