Berlin is still a bit of a secret, eclectic destination and much over shadowed, not just by the glamorous appeal of its bright and beautiful cousins, but also by the long, dark shadows of its own history. Hitler and the wall immediately come to mind - not too attractive to the culturally minded, but beneath all the rubble of that history a new city is emerging marked by a refreshing and unpretentious flair of self discovery.
Even now,18 years after re-unification of the two Germanies, Berlin is still reeling from experience. Much has happened since then and many things have changed and are still changing - it is a though this mythic city is constantly trying to find itself, to find its new identity.
Although tourist propaganda spins an image of a throbbing cultural hot spot and up and coming metropolis, Berlin is not London, or Paris. Berlin is much more ambiguous than that, and that is what makes it interesting. Certainly, it has become a Mecca of the young and tireless in their search for sleepless nights of clubbing. Berlin never rests.
Berlin has an extensive offering of cultural events - from innumerable street parties with truly local character, to mega events that regularly shake the Brandenburg Gate and its surroundings, the huge avenue of the 17th June that originally served as a military parading ground in the old Kaiser's days. Now, the kings are dead - long live the party kings and queens! Berlin stages more mega parades of 100 000 participants and more each year than any other European capital. And I am not talking about the marching kind! No, this is street party territory. Whether it is the gay parade or love parade, or carnival of cultures or the legendary New Years Eve party - Berliners don't need much of an excuse to let the corks fly.
If you want to check out what is going on in Berlin try a search here:
what's on in Berlin
But I wasn't going to talk about all that. Instead, I wanted to draw attention to some of the lesser known sites in and around Berlin, the perfect spots for a 'morning after' chill out picnic - or just for a day out.
Few people think of Berlin as a 'Green City' destination, but as European capitals go, it is, next to Stockholm, one of the greenest European capitals. Although it does not have the wild, romantic features of a picturesque archipelago on its doorstep, it does have plenty of forests, parks and a surprising amount of lakes and waterways, considering its land-logged location. And all of it is very accessible.
Berlin is not as big as London or Paris in terms of population and size, but with 4 million inhabitants it is sizable. One of the main benefits of the years of separation between east and west was that West Berlin remained contained within its imposed city limits - there was simply no room for urban sprawl and the city administration took care to preserve the green belt as best as they could, so that West Berliners would still have access to recreational areas, even though they could not easily get out of town beyond the wall.
Berlin is also blessed by two major rivers and numerous canals as well as a liberal sprinkling of lakes, both in town and all around the city. If you like exploring by boat, Berlin is no doubt one of the best place to do so on the continent. However, be aware that this is Germany, so you need a license if you want to rent a motor- or sail boat. Paddlers are still unregulated and you can rent canoes for the day or for longer intervals. However - the main water way, the river Havel and the Wannsee can get very crowded with boats of all sizes. It is certainly an advantage to know the waterway rules and signage if you want to stay clear of trouble.
The surrounding countryside, formed by the glacial moraines during the last ice age, offers yet more lakes, rivers and canals and it is literally possible to paddle for weeks from one lake to another through a maze of large and small rivers and canals edged by woodlands, grand estates, farmland or small villages.
Those who don't paddle or sail can find a myriad of bathing spots not far from the center of town, often with adjacent beach bars or cafés, and the water quality is surprisingly good. Be aware though, that some of these beaches are designated nudist beaches, while others are not designated as such, but many people don't have any qualms about baring their skin in public and authorities get more upset if you happen to lie on the wrong bit of grass, than about whether or not you are wearing any clothes.
During the summer these lake-side beaches are very popular bathing spots for the few Berliners who don't follow the annual stampede to the Riviera. School is out for 6 weeks during the summer, and most families go away for at least 4 weeks during this time. This makes the city a refreshingly relaxed and pleasant place for a summer City Break destination.
Berlin's other special feature is its extensive green-belt. There are numerous forests and parks in every part of town. Most visitors will only come across the central Tiergarten - Berlin's Central Park, which connects the center of the old East with the center of the former West - almost.
It stretches from the Potsdamer Platz (city east) and to the Holocaust Memorial, to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, to the Siegessäule (Victory Column), the Bauhaus and the Zoo (city west). It is a beautiful and diverse park that makes for a very pleasant stroll and offers numerous relaxed picnic spots. During the summer there are regular free weekend jazz concerts at the 'English Garden', while the meadows are for sunbathing, picnicking and playing games.
But this is only one of many green areas that are scattered throughout the city and far beyond. Some are well maintained parks and castle grounds, while others are quite wild, natural areas and nature reserves. Wildlife is not as rare as one might expect either - deer, fox, wild boar and rabbits are regularly seen (even moose have been spotted only 20km from Berlin), and thanks to the rich water habitats surrounding the city, Berlin and the nearby countryside are a Mecca for birdwatchers that are not afraid of uncharted territory, as unfortunately the tourist infrastructure for birdwatchers in the former East is dismally organized.
Berlin is innocently unaware of its natural attractions. So far it is trying to attract visitors with its cultural offerings, neglecting entirely the growing movement of 'green visitors', who want to explore culture AND nature in the same location. Germans tend to think only of the more dramatic hiking destinations, such as the Alps, as desirable tourist attractions.
However - Germans themselves are keen hikers and cyclists and there are in fact many resources for those who wish to explore by foot -unfortunately most of these are available only in German, but I have managed to find a couple of decent ones for you in English as well (see below).
The city's forests mostly lie on the edge of town, but can easily be reached by public transport. While the environmental department has not been terribly efficient in actually marking hiking trails consistently, there have been some efforts in recent times to improve the situation. However, there are numerous areas where one can go for walks or extended hikes without having to fear getting lost. All along the Havel, for example, there are good and easy-to-follow trails (Havelhöhenweg). But it is the inconsistency that makes it a little tricky for those who are not familiar with the territory. For hikers it is definitely advisable to take a good, detailed map (preferably a special recreation map).
For those who really want to get footloose, there are even a couple of long distance hiking paths that are well maintained and mostly well sign-posted. However - these are long. One of these trails, known as the 'route of 66 lakes', leads all the way around Berlin, taking in many interesting and beautiful sites along the way: ancient castles and country residences, little villages that haven't changed much since before the war and ancient monasteries as well as forgotten fens and forests - and lakes, of course.
Cyclists love Berlin. Its mostly flat terrain, crisscrossed by well marked cycling routes throughout the city, makes the bicycle the perfect mode of transport to get around town There are also many paved and well marked cycling routes throughout the surrounding region and special maps and resources are available for bicycle tourists who want to go on longer tours. Dozens of shops will rent you a two-wheeler, whether you want them for a few hours, a few days or a couple of weeks.
If you want to explore around the edge of town or well beyond the city limits, it is easy to take bikes onto the regional trains for a small surcharge of your ticket. You can even take them onto the S and U-Bahn - (the city train and underground system), but you must also have a special ticket for the bike, which you can buy at the machine or ticket booth.
If you just want to get a taste of biking in Berlin without committing to a full-fledge biking excursion, join a city tour on bicycle, for example to trace the route of the wall. These have become very popular in recent years and there are several to choose from. Or, if you are too lazy to cycle yourself why not take a bicycle Rickshaw tour of the city - Rickshaws can always be found near the Brandenburg gate.
For more information on biking in Germany, check here: Cycling in Berlin or find a route best suited to your style with these interactive tools: Cycle Route Finder . Germany Interactive Cycle Route Map.
Less active travelers who enjoy nature, some short hikes or bike rides, but are more interested in pampering themselves than in sweating it out, will be interested to know that Germany is really big on the new trend of 'wellness tourism'. There are numerous spa towns throughout Germany - some with rather old fashioned and pragmatic flair, but a trendier version of this age old tradition is also emerging and all sorts of beautiful wellness resorts are suddenly bubbling to the surface. For a listing of saunas and wellness spots in Berlin and the region take a look here: Wellness Spots in and around Berlin
So - who'd a thought it? Berlin may not be as cute as Heidelberg or Munich or have as dramatic a backdrop as the Alps in its backyard - but it has plenty of undiscovered niches, especially for those who like to explore beyond the beaten track.
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