Paul Sullivan enjoys fabulous scenery and oodles of local history on a hike from Wannsee to Potsdam…
There are many different routes one can take through Berlin’s vast Grunewald forest, but this hike along its western and northern edges, where it meets the shoreline of the Wannsee and Havel, is one of my personal favourites. As well as peaceful scenery along the pine-lined forest pathway, the route is peppered with royal architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, often bizarre traces of the former Berlin Wall, and a few decent cultural attractions en route too–not least in Potsdam where the walk ends.
You can easily reach the starting point by taking an S-Bahn from the city centre to Wannsee station (an AB ticket), whose eye-catching expressionist architecture—especially the striking octagonal ticket hall with skylights you’ll see on your way out—is the work of Weimar architect Richard Brademann, whose influence on Berlin’s transport system was comparable to that of Alfred Grenander.
From the station, cross the busy Kronprinzessinnenweg to the lake, from where you can already enjoy expansive views all the way over to Kladow. Head south past the BVG ferry terminal and boat-tour piers, keeping the lake to your right; to get across to the lakeside path, you have to make a short detour back up to the main road (Königstrasse) and then cut back down the narrow Am Grosser Wannsee (follow the signs for the Liebermann Villa).
Am Grosser Wannsee runs parallel to the shoreline and is lined with blocky, glass-fronted modern residences along the left hand side, and a mix of watersport clubhouses and historic villas on the right. The latter are remnants of the Alsen Colony, an exclusive villa-dotted park created by banker Wilhelm Conrad in the 1870s as a lakeside playground for the city’s wealthy elite.
After buying the land and building his own summer residence (Villa Alsen), Conrad— managing director of the Berliner Handelgesellchaft and member of the prestigious Club von Berlin (which is still running today) set about convincing his friends and business connections to build homes there too, resulting in a slew of handsome villas, castle-like constructions and magnificent gardens; by 1890 the community had grown to 189 residents, including high profile painters Max Liebermann, Oskar Begas and Anton von Werner, businessmen and bankers like Johann Hamspohn and Eduard Freiherr von der Heydt, and architects, art collectors and publishers like Johannes Otzen, Oscar Huldschinsky, and the Langenscheidt and Springer families.
The colony began to decline in the early twentieth century as new villa suburbs emerged (Nikolasee, Schlachtensee, Dahlem), postwar inflation forced many to sell-up in the twenties, and several prominent Jewish families were forced to emigrate and sell their property to the Nazis in the thirties. Many buildings have been restored and revived, however, most notably the Max Liebermann Villa at Number 42, which was originally designed by Paul Otto Baumgarten in 1909, and now features a permanent exhibition of the painter’s works (as well as regular temporary exhibitions), and a beautiful garden that backs onto the lake and is best admired from the charming outdoor terrace of the building’s Café Max.
Next door at Number 40 is the former Villa Hamspohn, built in 1906-1907 (also by Baumgarten) for AEG director and Reichstag member Johann Hamspohn, and which is nowadays Villa Thiede—named after entrepreneur and art patron Jorg Thiede— who has turned it into a space to promote the works of the Berlin Secession. A few doors down, it’s difficult to miss the Villa Herz (Number 52/54), built in a dramatic neo-Romanesque “fairytale castle” style by Willhelm Martens (a student of Martin Gropius), for the manufacturer Paul Herz.
But by far the most renowned building lies at Number 56/58, an imposing Baumgarten structure created for pharmaceutical manufacturer Ernst Marlier in 1915, but turned into an SS guest house during World War II, In 1942 the villa provided the location where senior Nazi officials decided on the “Final solution to the Jewish question”. Now called the House of the Wannsee Conference, its sobering permanent exhibition gives insights into the fateful, spine-chilling meeting, as well as showing how the plan was put into practice.
Turn right at the Haus Sansoucci, a villa-style restaurant that dates back to 1889, and follow the pathway down to the shoreline and the Düppel forest. Just before you reach the lake, you’ll spot a dramatic sculpture. This is the Idstedt lion, or rather a copy of it. Originally erected in Flensburg by the Danes as a symbol of their victory over insurgents from Schleswig Holstein, this zinc copy was placed here by Conrad as a reference to the later Danish defeat at the hands of the Prussians in the Second Schleswig War (1864). The name of his colony, incidentally, was also a reference to the Battle of Alsen—the last engagement of Prussia against the Danes—in that same war.
The forest trail from here runs along the mighty Havel—the river that feeds the Wannsee lake—past the Badestelle Alter Hof, a simple but atmospheric spot for a swim, a picnic, or simply a rest on one of the wooden benches to enjoy the scenery (there’s also a public toilet), to the ferry crossing point for the Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel).
Every few minutes, a small ferry chugs across the water to pick up passengers (four euros per adult at the time of writing) and take them to the charming island—a World Heritage Site since 1990—renowned for Friedrich Wilhelm II’s small but iconic 18th century white palace, exquisite landscaping by Peter Joseph Lenné, and the eponymous free-roaming peacocks. Next to the ferry point is the Wirtshaus zur Pfaueninsel, a suitably rustic option for anyone needing a snack or a drink.
As you continue along the shoreline path, look up to your left to spy a brick spire topped with a single onion dome peeking through the trees. This is the Peter and Paul church, commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm III and designed by Friedrich August Stüler and Albert Dietrich Schadow. Inaugurated in 1837, it was built to commemorate the marriage of Friedrich Wilhem’s daughter Charlotte to future Russian Tsar Nicholas I. Nearby (but out of view from the pathway) is the Blockhaus Nikolskoë, a Russian-style house originally built in 1819 but reconstructed in 1984 after a fire; it now serves as a restaurant with excellent views across the Havel.
Talking of refreshments, around the corner is the Wirthaus Moorlake, a historic Bavarian-style inn that yet another Prussian king—Friedrich Wilhelm IV—commissioned as a forester’s house and stables in 1840. Until 1918, the Hohenzollerns used the upper floor dining room as a private space for themselves and guests, but these days it’s run by the Roeder family, who match classic German cuisine to popular literary events.
Having now officially merged with the Berlin Wall Trail (Mauerweg), the forest path from hereon in features regular information boards profiling significant Cold War era buildings and events. The first of these tells the story of the picturesque yellow-brick Sacrower Church that sits across the water, Its distinctive Italianate form, complete with campanile (separate bell tower), was sketched out by Friedrich Wilhelm IV himself, and designed by royal architect Ludwig Persius in 1844.
The church was right at the border and, after a final Christmas service in 1961, became trapped in the no-man’s land created by the Wall. Vandalised by East German border guards and sealed off to prevent anyone using it for an escape, its campanile was used as a watchtower. It was still a ruin when the congregations were allowed to hold a service again on Christmas Eve 1989, with its restoration starting in 1993.
Just past the here is a grand gateway that once led to the Jägerhof Glienicke, a hunting lodge built in the English Tudor Gothic style in 1828 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, with a spacious outdoor area designed by Peter Josef Lenné—both part of the Glienicke Castle Park. Since 2012 the site has been used by the independent youth welfare organization NaturKulturGut Jägerhof gGmbH, and houses a Kita (nursery).
From here the route passes through the Schlossgarten Glienicke to the Glienicker Bridge (better known as the ‘Bridge of Spies’), but keeping to the Mauerweg takes you along the rear of the neoclassical Jagdschloss Glienicke (Glienicke Hunting Lodge)—built in 1682 for the Great Elector and modernized by Max Taut in 1963—and into the former exclave of Klein Glienicke, a small but idyllic village resplendent with cobbled streets, chalet-style cottages and stately but discreet villas, many of which date back to the 19th century and have royal origins.
For almost thirty years, the village was encircled by the Berlin Wall, becoming an exclave (see the info board on Waldmüllerstrasse), and was only accessible with special permission. Traces of this history are still evident here, such as the large KONSUM sign still painted onto the house at Waldmüllerstraße 3, which testifies to its former role as a GDR general foods store. As well as ultra-tight restrictions on their movements, residents also received regular visits from border guards who made sure no-one was attempting to escape. Despite this intrusive surveillance, there were several successful escapes, most notably a pair of families who dug a 19-metre-long tunnel from the basement of their house (Waldmüllerstraße 1) to the Jagdschloss using a child’s shovel and the blade of a spade.
Others were not so lucky. At the foot of the village’s bridge lies a heartbreaking ensemble of memorial posts detailing the tragic stories of several young men who lost their lives in the adjacent Teltow canal or nearby. One fell through the ice while trying to flee; two are suspected to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning from their outdated scuba diving gear; two others—one a border guard—shot each other despite both ultimately wishing to escape.
Crossing the small bridge brings you to Park Babelsberg, where the vision of Peter Joseph Lenne (as well as Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau) was once again employed, this time by future Emperor (but then just a Prince) William I. The Mauerweg turns off to the left here, but follow the path to the right and get your camera ready for some seriously idyllic views that span the handsome Jagdschloss, the adjacent Glienicke Palace (Schloss Glienicke)—which was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for Prince Carl of Prussia in 1821—and the full expanse of the Glienicker Brücke, which connects Wannsee with Potsdam.
Follow the park’s delightfully winding pathways, keeping the Havel to your right, to keep enjoying the views as well as a slew of architectural curiosities such as the Kleines Schloss Babelsberg (another English Tudor building by Ludwig Persius), the Flatowturm im Park Babelsberg (which was modeled on the medieval tower at Eschenheimer Gate in Frankfurt am Main), and the handsome red-brick Gerichtslaube im Park Babelsberg, which was originally constructed from parts of the old (13th century) Berlin town hall before being dismantled in 1860 and presented to Emperor William I by Berliners.
Although it’s not listed on any official signposts, and even Google Maps doesn’t show it, a pathway follows the riverside from the bottom of the park’s hill all the way to the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof. There are still some things of interest to see along here, not least the strangely photogenic Heilig-Geist-Park retirement home, a GDR replacement for the beautifully baroque 18th century Heilig-Geist-Kirche that was destroyed in the war. If you have more energy, the fabulous city of Potsdam lies right at your feet.
This route is around 20 kilometers (around four hours of walking), but you can easily shorten it by taking various pathways and making use of the various public transport option dotted in and around the Grunewald and its environs. For more info on what to see in the Grunewald, see parts I and II of our guide. This route is also great for cyclists.