Hiking the Grunewald (Part I)

Lily Philipose gives a guided tour through Berlin’s most famous forest… 

Image by Paul Sullivan

The imperial era in Germany, the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Cold War all left their imprint on the 32-square-kilometer forest east of the Havel, between Heerstrasse and Wannsee, known as Grunewald. First known as the Spandauer Heide, then—when it became a royal hunting reserve—as the Königliche Spandauer Forst, the forest took the name Grunewald in 1542, when Elector Joachim II built a hunting lodge he called “Zum gruenen Wald”.

The forest of native oaks and beeches, populated by deer and boar, was hunting territory for the royal family till the end of the nineteenth century. In 1889, four artificial lakes (Dianasee, Koenigssee, Herthasee and Hubertssee) were added to the two natural lakes (Halensee to the north and Hundekehlesee to the south), and the forest area was opened to the public. This created valuable lakeshore property, and soon the Grunewald became home to some of Berlin’s wealthiest residents, a colony for millionaires. By 1897 there were at least 205 villas, their owners appropriating the lakeshores to make lavish private gardens and parks.

In the 1920s Christopher Isherwood wrote in his Berlin Stories: “Most of the richest Berlin families inhabit the Grunewald. It is difficult to understand why. Their villas, in all known styles of expensive ugliness, ranging from the eccentric-rococo folly to the cubist flat-roofed steel-and-glass box, are crowded together in this dank, dreary pinewood.”

Pine, birch, poplar and other quick-growing species had indeed by this time been added to the native oak and beech, but the Grunewald was hardly dank and dreary. By the first decade of the twentieth century, as Berlin became a world metropolis, and as rapid urbanization started encroaching on the city’s natural spaces, the city administration pledged to protect the Grunewald from this fate. Acquiring the forest in 1915, the city designated it a protected nature reserve, where no further urban construction could take place.

Grunewald remained deep, green forest, free of urbanization, till the 1930s. At the height of his power, Hitler decided that the forest, specifically the area overlooking the Olympia stadium now known as Teufelsberg, was to be the location for a grand ensemble of buildings: the Faculty of Defense Technology for the Technical University. Its foundation stone, laid in 1937, was to be no less than the foundation of Germania, Hitler’s planned capital city of the Third Reich. And that was the beginning of the fascinating story of the Teufelsberg.

The best way to experience the Teufelsberg is to take a walking tour through the Grunewald, and below I suggest a few routes I carved out while finding my way through the forest, discovering it on several levels: natural, historical and architectural.

Route 1: Gleis 17 – the Ökowerk – Teufelsberg

From S Bhf Grunewald about 30 minutes to the Ökowerk; from there, another 30 minutes steep climb to the Teufelsberg

Image by Paul Sullivan
Gleis 17. Image by Paul Sullivan.

Platform number 17 (Gleis 17) at S-Bahn Grunewald is one of the many “quiet” memorials in the city—quiet, because it is so completely integrated into the comings and goings at the subway station that you may miss it if you don’t seek it out.

Gleis 17 is a memorial to the 50,000 Berlin Jews who were deported to concentration camps between 1941 and 1945, many of them from this station. You walk alongside the track as though on a timeline, where 186 metal grates mark each deportation with the year, the destination (Lodj, Riga, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz) and the number of people deported.

As the dates get deeper into the war years and the number of deportations mounts, birch, oak and elm trees start overrunning the tracks. Beginning the hike with a walk down this platform is a quiet, reflective start to the rest of the journey, and a reminder of the many historical associations tied to the Grunewald.

From the station, head toward the Ökowerk, a nature conservation center at the Teufelssee and site of the oldest water works in Berlin, dating back to 1871-72. The water works itself, with its distinctive red brick chimney stack, still exists as a lovingly restored historic preservation site. The Ökowerk—which includes 2.7 hectares of grounds with lily ponds (alive with various forms of amphibian and plant life), herb gardens, wildflower patches, orchards, beehives, nesting boxes for birds and dry-stone walls where bees, wasps and bats find shelter—is an oasis of wilderness.

It’s difficult to believe that you are, in fact, not far from Kurfürstendamm and the City West. As an ecological education center, the Ökowerk offers environmental seminars and activities for children throughout the year and an outdoor café on weekends (in quite idyllic surroundings). You can return in Advent for the Christmas Market, with an emphasis on organic foods and crafts.

Image by Paul Sullivan
Ökowerk. Image by Paul Sullivan.

To get to the Ökowerk from S-Bahn Grunewald, take the exit, continue under the overpass, passing the beer garden and restaurant Scheune on your left and across the street to Schmetterlingsplatz. Here, the forest path forks. Turn right, which brings you straight to the side entrance of the Ökowerk in about 20 minutes.

If you keep straight on, you come to the Teufelssee. In summer, this part of the lake is busy with a colorful mix of families with picnics, lovers, toddlers, nudists and dogs—and the occasional family of wild boars who might steal your belongings if you’re not careful. If you take a right, you will come to the main entrance of the Ökowerk, from where you can begin the climb to the Teufelsberg. There is a third option, hanging a left at this point, but I’ll get to that in Tour 2.

The Teufelsberg, the abandoned, crumbling, graffiti-sprayed Cold War listening post atop a steep hill, is one of the most fascinating sites in the Grunewald. Its most distinctive sight, the white bulbous-shaped radome, which balloons out of the central tower, can be seen rising toward the sky, as you make your way up.

Layer upon layer of history lie beneath this mysterious place. In 1915, the city designated this a “permanent forest area”, which meant that as a nature reserve, building projects were off limits. Hitler, ignoring this protected status, chose this site for his bombastic plan for a grand Faculty of Defense Technology within Berlin’s Technical University. Construction began in 1937, but the buildings that would have housed this Faculty were razed to the ground by Allied bombing. They lay in ruins till, from about 1951, the vast quantity of rubble to which the city had been reduced—26 million cubic meters in all—was dumped atop it. And thus emerged the Teufelsberg.

Image by Paul Sullivan
Teufelsberg. Image by Paul Sullivan.

Some years later, the mountain, now 115 meters high, was given back the former connection between Grunewald and natural beauty when it was restored to become a popular sport recreation area for West Germans, with sweeping ski slopes and toboggan runs.

The Allies had other plans for the Teufelsberg, though. They closed down the ski slopes, and in the late 1950s, Teufelsberg went from being a winter vacation spot to housing a top-secret military installation. From 1963, as Field Station Berlin, it became perhaps the most important surveillance center for Americans and British officers (numbering at one point about 1500 of them), as they listened in to the communications of their Cold War enemies.

Today you can pay a small fee to enter the grounds or take a guided tour. From the tower there are fantastic views of the city, including the Olympic stadium, the runways at Tegel, and much of Potsdam.

Option to Route 1 – the Sandgrube

Image by Paul Sullivan
Sandgrube. Image by Paul Sullivan.

At the Schmetterlingsplatz, if you take the left fork, you will reach the Sandgrube. This is a deep sand pit, formed between 1966 and 1983, when vast quantities of sand was removed for the purpose of rebuilding the city. The pit, about 15-25 meters below the rest of the forest, and at its deepest spot, at almost groundwater level, has become a unique biotope, with flora and fauna quite different to the rest of the Grunewald.

The Sandgrube is a paradise for kids, who enjoy slipping and sliding down the hang of the sand cliff instead of using the ramps or wooden stairway, but also for picnickers and nature-lovers and all those who can delight in the sudden blur of kingfisher wings, the electric colors flashing off a dragonfly, or the emerald green back of a lazing lizard.

Route 2: Grunewald – Grunewald Turm – Haveluferweg – the Alte Liebe

Image by Paul Sullivan
Horse riding in the Grunewald. Image by Paul Sullivan.

The Grunewald to Havelweg hike is longer, about three hours, but if you want to cheat, there is a shorter option as well, which I include at the end.

The city has opted for few (if any) signs along hiking trails to keep Grunewald free of clutter. This means you’re quite likely to get lost, even if following a guidebook or map. Hikers and cyclists in the Grunewald tend to rely on GPS tracking, but if (like me) you prefer the “purist” way, you could try simply trusting this guide and your instincts.

Follow Route 1 to the side entrance of the Ökowerk. Instead of turning right to the main entrance and the climb up to the Teufelsberg, turn left. This will bring you to a broad path, the ‘Wanderweg’. Take a right and continue on the Wanderweg till you come to a broad four-way crossing. Crossing the road, you will see a large map (with your present location conveniently rubbed right off the map so that it is of little use).

The road ahead forks at this point, and here you head left (Saubucht) along a path with pine, maple, beech and oak trees on either side. Just when you think you might be getting lost after all, you finally see a small wooden signpost that leads you in the direction of the Grunewaldturm (at this point two kilometres ahead).

Follow the sign, and you will see another after about kilometre that points you further toward the Grunewaldturm. At the end of this stretch, you reach a small four way crossing. There is a wooden sign here too, pointing to the Havelchaussee—but just as you are congratulating yourself on your sense of direction, you will notice that the sign points in the direction of a fork in the path, and does not favour either branch.

Take the left branch, and before long you will find yourself at the edge of the forest and at the Waldhaus Restaurant where you can take a well-deserved break. Continue on to the Grunewald Turm, and by the Restaurant Kaisergarten (with a large Biergarten), you will find a path leading to the Havel. Once you reach the river, take a right on to the Haveluferweg, and walk alongside the shore.

Ah! Here is the Havel landscape at its most beautiful, with a view stretching across to southwestern Berlin and Potsdam in the distance. You can find shady nooks in between tree roots or tree stumps on which to rest, bathing areas that aren’t as mad as at the Teufelssee, and meadow banks where you can spread a picnic blanket. The water laps at the edges of the shore, the water-grass rustles, and the horizon opens up.

The Haveluferweg ends at a gravel path, where you need to bear left, toward the yacht harbor. Head toward the former hotel Haus Schildhorn (now Seehotel Grunewald). From here, the path leads behind the yacht harbor and to a descending stairway. Take the stairway, which brings you back to the shores of the Havel. From this point on, follow the Haveluferweg again, which ends up at your destination: the pier where the restaurant-ship Alte Liebe is docked. On a warm day or a cool fall evening, you can sit out on the pier and enjoy a meal and a glass of wine, looking out at the Havel landscape, and drinking in the beauty of the scene.

Right across from the pier and the Alte Liebe is the bus stop for Bus 218, which takes you either to S-Bahn Heerstraße, or (in the opposite direction) to the S-Bahn Wannsee. Be sure to check the BVG schedule for the times, though. The bus runs about once every hour, and no later than between 19:30 and 20:00.

“Cheat” option for Route 2

And now for the “cheating” option: You can take Bus 218 to the Grunewald Turm, and from there follow the Havelchaussee/Haveluferweg to the Alte Liebe. The hike is about half the length of Route 2. And the Alte Liebe is still the perfect ending.


You can find Part 2 of Lily’s tour through the Grunewald here.