Urban swimming in Berlin - exploring the land of 3000 lakes

Berlin

Peter and Dawn Springett moved to Germany in 2017. Here’s a guide to the local swimming culture and their favourite outdoor swimming spots in Berlin and beyond


Early morning, Sunday, Berlin. At 10 o’clock the Berliner Seehunde (Berlin Seals) gather at Orankesee in a corner of old East Berlin. It’s easy to get here, which is great for new visitors to the city. Just take a short ride by tram from the centre of town, followed by a short walk to the beach at the far end of the lake.

That’s where we meet the Seehunde themselves. A good old Berlin tradition, gathered in their bright red jackets, they stand out brightly against the muted autumn colours of November. As 10am gets closer, more arrive, until a crowd of 40 are poised for their morning swim.

Following a short list of announcements, it’s time to strip off and descend to the water’s edge. A word to the wise here. Nudity is the norm amongst these adventurous swimmers, although modesty prevents us timid Brits from joining them as nature intended.

At seven degrees centigrade, the mid-November water is as refreshing as you’d expect. We swim widths of the beach until the chill starts to mount in our fingers and toes. For many fellow bathers, it’s enough to wade as far as waist height, and chat as if they were in a very chilly sauna.

For us, ten minutes immersed is plenty! There are no showers out of season so it’s best to bring plenty of layers and wrap up warm before cycling back home, which these days is in Prenzlauer Berg, just up the road from Alexanderplatz.

Berlin 2

Mapping the waterways of Berlin

When we first arrived in Germany, at the end of 2017, Orankesee and its skinny-dipping heroes were our first introduction to outdoor swimming in Berlin. Both of us were south-London regulars at Brockwell Lido and huge fans of the pool at Parliament Hill. We hoped our new home city would offer a similar outdoor experience during the winter months.

We should have known better. Most outdoor pools (Freibad) in Germany shut from September until Easter. Not a good start. Luckily, we’d both read Turning by Jessica Lee, her account of a year swimming 52 different lakes in the Berlin area. With so many to choose from, surely there must be somewhere near to where we lived? Orankesee was soon on our radar, as was Weissensee, a beautiful urban lake popular with swimmers and even closer to our flat.

Like many lakes in Berlin, Weissensee and Orankesee have a designated beach area manned by lifeguards in the swimming season. But all-year swimmers must make do with shoreline entry points that are home to ducks, coots and grebes. Weissensee also hosts a family of swans who normally keep themselves to themselves (as long as you don’t do anything daft like encroach their personal space, the equivalent of spilling their pint on a lairy swan-night out).

With Weissensee and Orankesee under our (life)belts, we started searching further afield. Jessica’s book also helped us narrow down our search to two lakes soon to become our favourites: Flughafensee and Schlachtensee (more on these later).

Once you look at a map of Brandenburg, the state that encircles Berlin, the mind boggles at the sheer number of outdoor swimming opportunities available. Brandenburg has more than 3,000 lakes and 30,000 kilometres of waterways. Along with Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the state to its north, this area is home to the largest inland water system in Europe.

But if you’re just visiting for a few days, Berlin itself offers plenty of lakeside beaches, while the stunning waterways around Potsdam can be reached in about half an hour by train. Most railway departures include a bike carriage although these will get busy in the summer months. Here are five of our favourite destinations.

Orankesee Breaking The Ice 1

1. Break the ice at Weissensee

Weissensee is very near to our first flat in Berlin, so we are a bit biased. Still, it is the perfect introduction to Berlin outdoor swimming. Just over 1 km in circumference with a beach at one end, Weissensee has plenty of entry points around the shore, where you’ll share the water with mostly friendly waterfowl.

The famous fountain at the centre of the lake is a great destination for swimmers and when you’ve finished there’s a terrific old school restaurant on the western shore where the coffee is strong, and the cake is to die for. The lake is also a favourite in winter when swims are short and sweet, although you might need a hammer to break the ice.

2. Pack a picnic and cycle to Flughafensee

Proximity to an airport isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when hunting for outdoor swimming destinations. But given Berlin’s cheek-by-jowl approach to urban life and nature, it works. Flughafensee is deceptively small when you look on a map, but the lake offers beaches galore and a sandy peninsula with a desert island vibe.

It’s best reached from the city centre by bike so that you can then pedal quickly to the quieter side of the lake. Don’t be put off by the air traffic in and out of Tegel airport, it’s all part of the Berlin outdoor swimming experience.

3. Cycle and swim around Templiner See and Schwielowsee

Once you reach Potsdam or Werder, swimmers are spoilt for choice. We picked Templiner See and the adjacent Schwielowsee because you can cycle a figure of eight from Potsdam station and back again, (about 28 km). As well as dozens of official and unofficial beaches, there are plenty of places to visit along the way.

In the hills above Templiner See, near to Caputh, you’ll find Einstein’s house where the physicist spent the summer months before the second-world war. Further down the road in Caputh proper, you can catch a ferry that will take you 50m to the far shore.

This point is the middle of the figure of eight and starts your circuit of Schwielowsee. As you arrive in Petzow, look out for the extraordinary Sea Buckthorn orchard and shop. You’re about half-way through your journey, so top up on your energy with a glass or two of juice made from the bright orange berries.

4. Take an early morning train to Schlachtensee and swim-run around the lake

About 30-minutes from Friedrichstrasse station on the S1 line, Schlachtensee is our favourite Berlin lake. About 5 km in circumference it’s the perfect running loop as well as offering a chain of convenient entry points to the water. Bike or jog around to the far shore where a small sandy bay and wooden benches make this an outdoor swimming paradise.

Top tip: Arrive at daybreak in late October and enjoy one of the most beautiful autumn swims imaginable.

Bonus tip: There’s a swinging rope high in a tree on the southwest side of the lake. You’ll need to be a confident climber to reach it but the views as you fly over the lake are something else. Just make sure you remember to let go in time for a safe splashdown.

5. Dream swim at Mario Beach, Plessower See

This was our potluck swim, and boy were we lucky. We bumped into this beach when we got lost cycling through the fruit orchards of Werder, west of Potsdam. On the way to Glindower See, we took a wrong turn. No problem. The great thing about this part of Germany is that if you miss a lake, there’s always another one along in a minute.

Plessower See looks small compared with the giant waterways elsewhere in Brandenburg. But the beach opens out into wide silky waters. The monitored swimming area even includes a section of lake roped off into lanes if you fancy getting your swimming miles in.

01 Cover January

Issue 45 January 2021

  • The Northumbrian adventurer blazing his own watery (and icy!) trail
  • Keri-anne Payne on how to train like an Olympian in 2021
  • History, nature writing and the Troubles
  • Sarah Thomas looks at the icy thrill of ice miles

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