Berlin am Meer

Kieran Drake hops on his paddle board—and hires a kayak or two—to explore Berlin’s waterways…

Over the last two years I’ve got to know the city and its history by diving into its lakes, rivers and pools—and wondering how I’d never heard about Berlin’s wonderful lakes before moving here. 

This year I wanted to spend more time on the water while seeing more of the city and its surroundings than is possible from swimming alone. While numerous boat tours exist, I wanted to travel at my own speed and choose my own route, with the flexibility to stop or change it as I go—the obvious options were to invest in a paddle board and hire some kayaks.

It worked. Every single trip I’ve done so far has opened up new perspectives on the city. Even in places I know well, such as Potsdam or Wannsee, I’ve been struck at how different the view is from the water. In other places, like Neu- and Klein-Venedig, or Stölpchensee, there’s actually no way to visit except by boat, unless of course you’re lucky enough to know someone who lives there.

Below are three routes I’d recommend to anyone else wishing to see more of Berlin from the water. In all the places I’ve paddled, boat hire—kayaks, canoes, paddle boards as well as motor boats—has been possible, so if you don’t own a boat or board, don’t despair! 

Müggelspree and Neu-Venedig

On the far side of Müggelsee, between the lake and Dämeritzsee, lies the Müggelspree river and the small, idyllic residential settlement of Neu Venedig (New Venice). Like its Italian namesake, it’s built on a series of canals that make it a perfect place to spend a day paddling around on the water.

We hired a two-person kayak from one of the boat hire places on the small (unnamed) island between the Müggelspree Alter Spreearm, near Dämeritzsee (25 euros for four hours; 35 euros for the whole day) and set off west along the Alte Spreearm before branching off into Neu Vededig.

The story of Neu-Venedig dates back to 1890, when the expanding town of Köpenick—then outside Berlin—purchased the land for new housing. Instead of draining the marshy ground, five canals creating five kilometres of waterways were dug in 1926 and later divided into around 400 waterside plots with space for small summer houses (datchas). Most of these houses remain relatively modest, consisting of a small pre-fab summer house and a lawn sloping down to the water, where a boat of some kind is invariably moored. Yes, we got house envy. 

Emerging from Neu-Venedig, we reached the 600-year-old fishing village of Rahnsdorf, whose cobbled streets form a horseshoe around a pretty village church, and where sheep and goats were grazing in a field near the water. From here, during summer, you can take Berlin’s last remaining rowed ferry, the F24, from the village to the woods of Müggelspreewiesen and Müggelheim.   

A short distance further west we reached the beautiful Kleiner Müggelsee, heading to a white sandy beach we spotted amongst the trees. We swam, ate lunch and then paddled on to Großer Muggelsee, skirting the edge of the lake and a nature reserve island, paddling close to the water lilies to avoid the wind, before heading back down Müggelspree to Dämeritzsee. Here on the main canal the houses and holiday homes were larger and grander than those in Neu Venedig, but again we had the water almost exclusively to ourselves. On shore, Berliners were busy pottering about in their gardens or enjoying the sunshine with a beer. 

South of Dämeritzsee runs a small canal, Gosener Graben; turning down it was like entering another world: no more houses or gardens, just woods and dragonflies darting about in the dappled light. Sadly we had only enough time to paddle a few hundred metres down the canal and catch a glimpse before heading back. But with enough time you could reach Seddinsee and from there follow the Dahme up to Köpenick and back to Müggelsee: the possibilities are almost endless. No wonder the boats are also available for multi-day hire!  

In total we paddled around 13 kilometres in four hours, which was plenty of time to stop to admire the views and to swim. During that time, on a sunny Friday in May, we saw more herons than we could count—but just two other boats.

Havel and Klein-Venedig

At the other end of Berlin, on its far western edge, lies another watery residential settlement. Hidden amidst the meadows of the Tiefwerden Wiesen nature reserve between the main roads of Heerstraße and Spandauerdamm, Klein-Vendig is again named in homage to Venice.

Entering the water on my paddle board at the beach next to the Alte Liebe Restaurantschiff, I paddled north up the Havel, through the Stößensee bay and under Heerstraße road bridge. As soon as I left the bay and entered the narrow canals, the wind dropped, the noise of the road disappeared, and I found myself in a network of narrow channels edged with reeds and overhung by willows, with views out across meadows and picturesque summer houses. No motor or sailing boats are allowed here, making it the perfect place to paddle board or canoe.

Although Klein-Venedig’s history as a business and residential district for the city’s wealthy merchants dates back to the seventeenth century, as in Neu-Venedig the canals themselves were dug in the 1920s and the neighbourhood designed by architect Bruno Taut—a pioneer of the Weimar-era social housing movement who also designed the estates at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gardenstadt Falkenberg

Amongst the more anticipated wildlife such as ducks, swans and geese I was delighted at one point to come across a pair of Indian water buffalo grazing by the water, as well as some shaggy highland cattle. Both species have been introduced to help manage the wetlands and increase the biodiversity of the nature reserve. On another visit, paddling through in the early evening, I met a surprisingly large beaver, who swam across the channel before taking refuge in its burrow.

Eventually the canals led me to the Südhafen canal off the Havel river just south of Spandau. Instantly the rural idyll disappeared and I was surrounded by unsightly industrial plants. It’s possible to paddle north from here towards Tegelersee or south towards Wannsee but I opted to dive back into the network of small channels at the next available opportunity, paddling my way slowly back to the Alte Liebe—a perfect spot to enjoy dinner and views over the Havel before heading back in Berlin.   

There are various places to hire boats around Stößensee or in Klein-Venedig if you don’t have your own, and the Tieferwerder nature reserve can also be explored on foot or by bike.

Potsdam to Wannsee

This paddle board trip took us 12 kilometres from the centre of Potsdam to Strandbad Wannsee. It’s a journey I’ve done before on foot and by bike, but I wanted to see how different it was from the water. 

We set off from the southern tip of Freundschaftsinsel, which has views from the water towards the distinctive Potsdam skyline and the dome of St Nicholas’ Church—as soon as we left, the Wasser Polizei zoomed up to let us know that only the Alte Fahrt on the west of the island is open to non-motorised boats; the advantage being that it’s beautifully quiet. 

We emerged onto the Havel and Tiefersee to find more views, this time of Babelsberg Park and its Stadtbad and Schloss. Nearby a sign indicated that the route we were following could ultimately take us as far as the Ostsee, while travelling the other way could bring us to the Nordsee: yet another reminder of how extensive the waterways in this part of Germany are. 

At Glienicker See we turned our back on the Bridge of Spies and the more direct route to Wannsee—up the Havel past Peacock Island—and turned south east instead, passing under the Kleine Glienicke Brücke towards Griebnitzsee, which was flanked on one side by woods and on the other by grand houses with immaculate gardens and extensive boat houses—a far cry from the modest datchas of Neu and Klein-Venedig.

For several kilometres we followed the invisible border between Brandenburg and Berlin which runs through the middle of the lake, and which during the Cold War was the border between West Berlin and the GDR. On the eastern shore, a section of the Berlin Wall remains, forming part of a memorial to three young men who died nearby: two while attempting to escape to West Berlin, the other an East German border guard. 

After Griebnitzsee, the river alternates between narrow channels and small lakes. At several points, paths run down to, and along, the water, and we passed both walkers and swimmers. At other points, including at the beautiful Stölpchensee, the water is encircled by private houses and gardens and the only way to see the lake is to reach it by water.

Eventually we passed under the Königstrasse Bridge and out into Wannsee Bay—enormous in comparison to the rivers and lakes we had followed to reach it. The F10 ferry (see below) passed by as we paddled across the bay towards the Wannsee beach, where we had time to swim before taking the train back into Berlin.  

A Note on Berlin’s Ferries

There are of course other ways to enjoy the water too. In addition to the numerous boat tours, you can consider taking one of the BVG network’s ferries (an overview here), which are included in the price of a regular travel ticket. My personal favourites are the F10 on the Havel and F23 in eastern Berlin. 

The F10 runs between Wannsee and Alt-Kladow. As Wannsee is better connected by public transport it’s easier to start there, take the ferry across for a drink or meal in Alt-Kladow before taking a later boat back. 

The F23 runs between Müggelwerderweg to Kruggasse, stopping at Müggelhort and Neu-Helgoland restaurant on the way. The entire trip takes 25 minutes and is a brilliant way to explore the eastern end of Müggelsee or to reach Kleiner Müggelsee.

All photos by Kieran Drake

Next in Off The Beaten TrackCycling The Mauerweg: A Practical Guide »