Strandbad Wannsee

Berlin’s oldest and most famous lido still packs in the punters…

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image by Paul Sullivan

You’re in Berlin. The sun has got his hat (and rave shades) on and you suddenly find yourself longing to escape the city—to flee the concrete, traffic and shadows for some sand, sea and fresh air.

The East (Baltic) sea is at least three hours away: too far for a day trip, especially since you’re not an early riser. But wait. What’s that large mass of water south-west of the city, en route to Potsdam? Of course—it’s Strandbad Wannsee!

Strandbad Wannsee’s impressive 1,275-metre long (and eighty metre wide) sweep of sandy beach has long been a venerable summer destination for Berliners. Officially the largest lido in Europe, it’s located on the Eastern side of the Wannsee Lake, just a twenty minute train ride or a one to two hour bike ride (depending on how quickly you cycle) from the city centre.

The beach’s history stretches back an impressive 100 years. Before it was Strandbad Wannsee, in the early 1900s,  it was known as Freibad Wannsee and offered separate beaches for men and women (plus a ‘family section’); guests got changed inside tents and were served by mobile vendors. By 1924 the tents gave way to thatched pavilions, the sanitary facilities were improved and the beach had been expanded and was open all year round for winter bathers and ice-skaters.

Berlin, Strandbad Wannsee
Strandbad Wannsee in 1930

It’s current ‘look’ was formulated by architects Martin Wagner and Richard Ermisch, who had their New Objectivity (Neue Bauen) buildings installed by 1930. Inevitably the Nazis began grumbling about its ‘un-German-ness’, banned Jews and replaced all the non-Nazi staff with party members. Fights allegedly broke out here between Nazis, Communists and Social Democrats. In 1933 the director of the bathing beach committed suicide in his office; Wagner emigrated to Turkey in 1935.

Nonetheless, the lido provided welcome relief during World War Two, pulling in 425,000 visitors during 1944 and 615,000 in 1947. The complex survived the Allied bombings and in 1951 enjoyed a fresh surge of interest, thanks partially to teen chanteuse Conny Froboess, whose saccharine Wannsee tribute Pack die Badehose ein (‘Pack your Swimming Trunks’) was a national hit.

Today the ‘Mother of all Lidos’ attracts up to 230,000 visitors per year and has been designated a Cultural Heritage site. Between 2004-2007, it underwent a 12.5 million euro refurbishment in time for its centenary celebrations. Given its listed building status, restoration was sensitive and minimised to recreating the forecourt in front of the entrance and improving the technical infrastructure.

Once you’ve paid to pass through the low, long entrance (which somehow resembles a Berlin S Bahn station), you emerge onto a vast plaza featuring giant chess sets, sun decks and landscaped walkways that give widescreen views across the lake. Sweep down the stairs to find the historical two-storey clinker-brick promenade, a row of functionalist buildings with changing rooms, toilets, restaurant and kiosks selling everything from Bockwurst to ice cream.

Image by Paul Sullivan

You can hire a rowing boat, recline in one of the wicker chairs (Strandkorbs), or just throw your towel down and dive in the water. There’s a slide and playground out to sea, and part of the beach is still separated for nudist bathers in case you’re going for that all over tan.

Of course, any beach that holds 50,000 people at a time can feel a little packed during peak times, so its best to arrive early in summer to beat the crowds. To get here, just jump on a train (the S1 and S7 to Nikolassee followed by a short, pleasant stroll), or an even nicer way is by bike.

There are decent cycle paths more or less the whole way and, if you’re coming from the center, you can pass through the Tiergarten and the Grunewald forest—and even make a detour to Teufelsberg if you have time.

If you don’t want to lay around on the beach all day, there’s plenty more to do in the Wannsee area. There’s Schinkel’s Glienicke Palace, for example; the pretty Pfaueninsel; the meditative Max Liebermann’s villa, or the House of The Wannsee Conference where the Nazis planned the iniquitous Final Solution.

For more information, check out the beach’s website.

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