Caitlin Hardee breaks the Berlin bubble using just her two feet…
For many of us who love to travel, the pandemic era has brought a drastic change to our once far-ranging lifestyles. Instead of little trips around Europe and further afield, we Berliners took familiarity with the Hauptstadt to claustrophobic new levels of intimacy.
While I too spent far too much time in my little four-walled cage, I was—paradoxically—also constantly in motion. On my own two feet, from January 2020 through March 2022, I covered approximately 5000 miles; and yet, apart from a very few training trips to the mountains, most of those miles never took me further than a 15-mile radius from my front door. I went far, and nowhere at all.
Why all these circuitous wanderings? Well, I was training for the Pacific Crest Trail and with little in the way of elevation, all I could do was rely on sheer volume of miles to build my body into thru-hiking condition. But the endless evening runs and weekend hikes also served to keep me sane during two years of staggering isolation.
In the process, through trial-and-error and a fondness for PlotARoute.com, I discovered quite a few gems for the footloose Berliner. As the weather warms, you too may be toying with the idea of spending more time traipsing the city. Here are my best practices for beginning urban hikers – and a few favourite routes.
If you’re new to urban hiking, or hiking in general, below are a few tips. If you know what you’re doing and just want the routes, skip ahead..
1. Adapt the 10 essentials
In wilderness hiking, we speak of the 10 essentials: rather than 10 specific items, these are roughly 10 gear systems which you should always carry on your adventures. They are, loosely, navigation, illumination, sun protection, rain protection, first aid, knife, firestarter, shelter / bivouac, extra food and water, and extra clothes. Now, in a city, of course you can manage without most of these things. If you get hungry or thirsty, you can buy food, if you get cold and wet, you can go inside. Nevertheless, especially if you find yourself traipsing to Brandenburg and back, it’s wise to carry many of these things anyway, plus a few things specific to city hiking.
Urban everyday essentials: Purchasing power (cash and cards), apartment key, charged phone (for navigation, and in case you want to enter a place like a café that requires digital vaccine passport or similar), mask. A few ziplocs to waterproof your electronics in case of rain. A 50 cent piece or two, in case you need to nip into a City Toilette or restaurant to use the bathroom.
Navigation: map out your route in advance using a tool like PlotARoute.com, then download the GPS track as a GPX file, upload it to Google – My Maps and email yourself the link and/or load the GPX file into a capable app on your phone. That way, you can check your position as you move. Can you get truly lost in a place like Berlin? I don’t really think so, but I’ve been here for 10 years, and seen people get disoriented in some truly central places, like Treptower Park.
Your mileage may vary. If you’re taking a longer hike to the countryside, it can just save you some uncertainty to bring a navigation device, make sure it’s fully charged (and potentially bring a charged battery bank for backup), know basic skills like how to read a digital map, and how to orient yourself along a GPS track.
While you can probably do without wilderness essentials like a knife, repair kit, firestarter and emergency shelter, it never hurts to have a small bladed tool, lighter and space blanket kicking around somewhere in your bag. And while urban hikes, 99% of the time, are pretty safe, even B-town has a few objective hazards. You could be the one person in the history of time who gets their phone instead of their laptop stolen by a Wildschwein, then you go after it and it mauls your leg, you barely fend it off with a Swiss army knife, then have to sterilize a needle in your Bic lighter flame, stitch yourself up and huddle in a Rettungsdecke for warmth while you wait for some dogwalkers to come to your aid. Who knows.
Far more important for urban hikes, however, are multiple layers to keep you comfortable through changing weather, sunscreen and sunglasses in summer, and rain protection at any time of year, whether full-on raingear or just a garbage bag to serve as emergency poncho / pack cover. A hat and gloves are always worth the weight. Even in warmer months, a true soaker of a rainstorm can quickly strip away your body heat.
Any time you head out, check the forecast to see what the day may bring, and pack a few extras for the unexpected. And leave the fashion show for another day: comfort and function are key, especially when it comes to your footwear. Go with running shoes and technical socks that won’t give you blisters—Smartwool, Darn Tough and similar hiking brands will keep your feet happy. Fabrics like merino wool base layers, fleeces or synthetic athleticwear will help you thermoregulate and tend to perform better than cotton, which sweats out and then makes you cold and clammy.
2. Choose your objective
What to consider when plotting your track? PlotARoute is great because it shows bike trails and footpaths that Google Maps doesn’t, and lets you create a track at will for exact mileage. Think about how many miles you’d like to hike total, and if you want to reach any specific destinations. If you’re tackling a more ambitious hike and aren’t sure if you can handle it, routing past transit stations gives you the opportunity to bail out if necessary.
Personally, I know my hiking capacity and like to keep things more wild, so I avoid transit and busy streets, routing along waterways and greenbelts for maximum nature, less people, and a higher ratio of unpaved-to-paved paths, for the sake of my feet. Learn also to recognize symbols on PlotARoute that represent fences and gates that may be locked, and know how to use your map to safely navigate around unexpected obstacles. Berlin loves a good Baustelle—sooner or later you will undoubtedly end up in a can’t-get-there-from-here situation, and need to improvise.
Also consider your hours of available daylight. While the long summer days in Berlin lend themselves to carefree hiking, I frequently find myself hiking in the dark in winter, and take that into account when setting my alarm in the morning. Where am I going? Do I have streetlights on the latter part of the route, or am I spending my entire 20+ miles in unlit fields and greenbelts? Do I know the route well enough to be comfortable in those places in the dark, or do I want to reach a certain mile marker by the time night falls? Knowing my hourly hiking pace, I can work backward from that point to plan when I will wake up and get out the door by, in order to stay on track.
3. Get comfy
Once you have your essentials dialed, it’s time to figure out what little luxuries take your hiking experience to the next level. A pair of water-resistant gloves? A couple cheddar-sriracha sandwiches, packed and ready to munch? A lovely podcast voice in your ears to while away the (free) solo miles? You wouldn’t believe how many subfreezing winter hikes I spent, out in the hinterlands with nary a café or kiosk to buy a hot bevvy, too cold to stop for long lest my core temperature drop even further, pondering whether I should invest in a thermos, before I finally just did it and spent all of seven euros at Edeka for infinite all-day warm deliciousness on my wanderings. 10/10, can recommend.
Part of the fun of urban hiking is inventing your own routes. As mentioned, PlotARoute.com is a powerful tool here. Alternately, plenty of folks share their own routes on Komoot.com. But if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration to get started, here are a few of my very favourite Berlin hikes, crafted and tested over many seasons and endless training weekends.
A quick note: many of these routes clock in around the 20 mile mark if walked round-trip from Zionskirchplatz. But they’re easy to shorten or lengthen, by starting elsewhere, taking transit partway to or from the destination, turning around earlier, going longer, working in side trips or any number of variations. During the fall, I found myself meeting up with a small group of likeminded ladies for some group hikes, and the other members often jumped on or off the hikes to clock more like 10 miles. As they say: hike your own hike!
Plänterwald, Königsheide and the Britzer Verbindungskanal
In the summer, I like to get an early start to catch the morning light and beat the crowds to my favourite bagel place for breakfast and coffee to go. I swing over from the border of Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg on the most natural route to Friedrichshain, tracing the edge of the Volkspark. Grabbing an everything bagel and flat white at Shakespeare & Sons, I then make my way diagonally through Friedrichshain, cross the river and enter Treptower Park.
From there, you have a beautiful couple miles working your way through the woods along the water’s edge. At the far end of the Plänterwald, you do some navigating through Baumschulenweg to link up with the next expansive wooded area: the Königsheide. I like to follow a fairly obvious line through the many paths and then turn back towards the Britzer Verbindungskanal to the north, which I then follow west for a while.
Depending on mileage goals and whim, I then either turn off via the Südlicher Heidekampgraben, take a connector back to the Plänterwald and reverse my earlier course . . .
…or keep following the little footpaths on the edge of the Britzer Verbindungskanal, west until I’m due south of Tempelhofer Feld, which I then cross on my way to the Landwehrkanal and the heart of Kreuzberg.
If I can get out of Neukölln and Kreuzberg without a caffeine overdose (so many places to stop, sip coffee and read a book! Isla near Tempelhofer Feld! Bonanza in its quiet courtyard, Populus on the canal! Five Elephant just a stone’s throw away!) then I’ll trace the greenbelt that perfectly bridges the city between Böcklerpark on the Landwehrkanal and the Spree, crossing the river and continuing north to ultimately retrace my original footsteps along Volkspark Friedrichshain.
Großer Müggelberg, the highest natural point in Berlin.
Let’s be real, Berlin is as flat as a pancake. But if you’re an erstwhile peakbagger into tilting at windmills, or rather anthills, there are a few modest speedbumps in the topography to check off your hiking list.
Unlike the tallest non-natural hillock in Berlin—the Arkenberge—and the more popular Teufelsberg, the Großer Müggelberg is a real hill, as opposed to a greened-over pile of wartime rubble or construction debris. And like considerably loftier peaks in the Alps, the top of the hill has its own little summit cross.
Anyway, the journey is definitely more than half the draw, here—if coming from Mitte, you can use a similar beginning to the Friedrichshain-Treptow-Baumschulenweg approach detailed above, then continue southeast, loosely following the Spree down to quaint Köpenick and over to the woods that hug the shore of the Größer Müggelsee.
It’s useful to have a GPS track if you do want to find the “summit” of the largest hill; from below, the height of the land won’t be immediately obvious, and there are many paths combing the forest.
For my outing, I chose to plot a track connecting the lakeshore with the crests of several hills, then winding back through the woods and back the way I came. I then hopped in the S-Bahn at Spindlersfeld around the 21 mile mark—you could also take the train from Köpenick itself—and cruised back over to Ostkreuz for a languid summer evening enjoying drinks with friends in the lovely bayside bar Rummels Bucht, which sadly no longer exists. Pour one out for this chill spot!
Tegeler See (and Forst) via the shipping canals.
This one threads a lot of lovely greenbelts together and is thus best when there’s foliage on the trees. Autumn is gorgeous—so is summer, though when I do this route in summer, I like to wake up super early to take advantage of the relatively cool mornings and uncrowded lakeshore.
If you’re walking it in autumn with a more civilized start time, Nordbahnhof is a great place to begin the journey on foot—not least for the delicious coffee at Oslo Kaffebar!
From Nordbahnhof, follow the map track through the long, narrow wooded strip to the north, angling over to join the Spandauer Schifffahrtskanal at Nordhafen. Follow the canal to the northwest; where possible, descend from the street level to the little unpaved footpath that hugs the canal bank. Make sure to stay north where the canal forks at Westhafen.
For the next few miles, the wooded bike and pedestrian path traces the canal up past Tegel’s ex-airport, then curves around to meet the Tegeler See. Watch out for construction—the map is currently routed through a little side street near the horn of the woods, to avoid a mess of excavation blocking the normal path.
Once you reach the lake, the path continues on through beautiful sun-dappled forest and little sandy beaches, eventually reaching the locality of Alt-Tegel and the charming Greenwichpromenade.
In summer, I sometimes swap part of the foot journey for paddling in my inflatable kayak, but that’s another story. The real draw for hiking comes in autumn, when the leaves change and Tegeler Forst becomes a blazing tapestry of flame-coloured foliage. To enjoy its peaceful paths, continue around the shore of the lake to the north. And always worth a quick stop: the animal enclosures, which harbour regal stags, enormous boar and other critters.
When you tire of the forest, loop back to Alt-Tegel and hop in the transit: it’s a quick ride on the U6 to get back into the heart of the city.
Brandenburg via the Mauerweg. Side quest: the Arkenberge.
One of my favorite out-and-back hikes entails following the Mauerweg along the former path of the Berlin Wall, up through Prenzlauer Berg, Pankow, the Märkisches Viertel and across the border into Brandenburg.
There’s a gratifying sense of walking out—around the seven-mile mark (counting from the vague vicinity of Mauerpark) you suddenly have the sense of not just being in greenbelts and parks of a city anymore, but very distinctly in a rural area. Continuing through fields and past ancient peat cuts, now filled with water and avian life, you cross the state border into Brandenburg and from there can keep traipsing along for as long as you like, until it’s time to turn around.
Now, should you wish to stand atop the highest non-natural Erhebung in the greater Berlin area, you could theoretically make a turning off this plotted course, around the eight-mile mark, and turn east through the fields and orchards until you came to a fence.
We could not advise you to climb that fence and ascend the hill behind it, nor do we personally know any rapscallions who have done so. But in the interest of public knowledge, because this hill will ultimately be a city park, we present this handful of snaps sourced from an anonymous wanderer.
Bonus extension: connect the Mauerweg and Tegeler See hikes via the Tegeler Fließtalweg
Up for an even longer day? Tired of out-and-back hikes, or using the transit to return? Go gonzo on waterways and woods, and make one giant loop out of the Mauerweg and Tegeler See hikes, by using the Tegeler Fließtalweg through the boardwalked marshlands as a connector.
This hike, as it passes through plenty of wooded areas that are short on artificial lights, is best done at times of the year when the daylight hours aren’t too short.
Bring a nice playlist or some podcasts to keep you company, and enjoy the peace and quiet out in the borderlands.
Buch via the Pankeweg
For about a decade, Buch was just a vaguely evocative Endstation of the S2 to me. Though I knew the mysterious village was probably prosaic and boring (spoiler alert: it is, though its surrounding areas aren’t), the name suggested something mythical and magical.
Anyway, one day trying out a new variation back from my Mauerweg-Lübars route, I ended up on a piece of the shallow-flowing Panke I’d never seen before. My curiosity piqued, I hopped on a map tool to see how far northeast past my standard running routes in Wedding you could trace a logical line along the little creek. Turned out I’d struck a goldmine.
Basically, there are three features that generally attract me when innovating a new running or hiking route in Berlin: waterways, greenbelts and unpaved paths. Oh, and proximity to good coffee. But the unpaved path thing is huge—when you’re training at volume and trying to avoid injury, the more time you can spend off cement, asphalt, stone and the like, the better.
PlotARoute.com is great about showing, by nature of the dotted lines, the nature of the little route you’re peering at: paved bike path? Dirt trail? Wood-covered boardwalk? And here, strung along the modest watercourse of the Panke, was the highest percentage of unpaved-to-paved walkways I’d ever seen in Berlin. That was enough for me to lace up my shoes, throw on my weighted training backpack and go check it out.
When I did so for the first time, it was the dead of winter, right around Christmas. The city was half-empty, and those who remained were safely ensconced inside. I was out hiking for seven hours, and barely saw a single soul. And once I reached the further stretches of the Pankeweg, melting into snow-dusted fields dotted with shaggy Highland cattle, the wizened trees and cold wetlands cast in muted hues by the swiftly darkening sky, there was absolutely nobody. I was enchanted.
In a way, I set the bar too high with that first hike—since then, there have been windstorms, rainstorms, sunny but bitterly cold winter days, absolute morasses of mud to balance the joy of escaping pavement, and as the weather warmed, irksomely, stupid little flying insects that love to kamikaze into your face. And while I gloated over Christmas with the notion that I’d discovered some secret path nobody knew about, turns out, everybody knows about it, they’re just fair-weather wimps.
In milder temperatures, the route is quite busy with cyclists and Spaziergänger, especially out in the wetlands, to which some folks choose to drive directly, park nearby and save themselves the muscle-powered journey from the inner city.
And yet, despite my grinchly inner grumblings, I kept choosing Buch for my training hikes, every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend, for months on end, because there’s something about the way this route flows underfoot that just feels good. And though I find it most enticing in winter, others may quite enjoy the sun’s warming rays as the seasons turn!
While I like to do a 10-mile out-and-back, occasionally switching up the route at the end or tacking a few more miles on, there are virtually infinite possibilities for exploring the fields and woods once you get up near Buch. So many paths! Grab a podcast or a buddy, pack some snacks and head on up to see what you can discover. Say hello to my kindred spirit the Donkey Lady, who likes to walk her donkeys (or mules, or burros, or whatever they are) on late weekend afternoons. And don’t get gored by a Highland cow.
Two years of working on a goal, thousands of training miles: I am now about to fold up my life in Berlin for six months, head stateside and tackle a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. In my absence, I hope you will enjoy some of these urban hikes I’ve spent so much time tramping!
And remember, we may live in a city, but hiking etiquette and basic respect demands that we practice Leave No Trace principles, just as if we were in the heart of a protected wilderness area. I mean it: I’ve actually been secretly training the cows, and if you lazily dump your litter on the side of the path, they’re gonna come end your whole scene. Don’t do it. Happy trails!