Strandbad Wannsee

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

Image by Paul Sullivan
View of Strandbad Wannsee from the water. Image by Paul Sullivan

You’re in Berlin. The sun has got its hat on and you suddenly find yourself longing to swap the concrete, traffic and big city noise for some sand, sea and frische Luft.

The East (Baltic) Sea is at least three hours away—just a bit too far for a day trip—and the lakes surrounding the city are wonderful but not always accessible. Plus you really want something a little more…expansive? With some facilities? And within an hour by bahn or bicycle? Then you remember it exists—Strandbad Wannsee!

Strandbad Wannsee’s impressive 1,275-metre long (and 80-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 massive Wannsee Lake, just a 30-40 minute train ride or bike ride from the city centre.

The beach’s impressive history stretches back more than a century. Before it was named 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 was expanded and open all year round for winter bathers and ice-skaters.

Berlin, Strandbad Wannsee
Strandbad Wannsee in 1930. Photo via Bundesarchiv.

Its current look was formulated by architects Martin Wagner and Richard Ermisch, who had their functional New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) buildings installed by 1930. Inevitably, the Nazis began immediately grumbling about its modern ‘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 250,000 visitors per year and has been designated a UNESCO 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 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 that contains changing rooms, toilets, restaurant and kiosks selling everything from Bockwurst to ice cream.

Strandbad Wannsee’s expansive beach. Image by Paul Sullivan

You can hire a rowing boat, recline in one of the wicker chairs (Strandkorbe), 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.

Needless to say, the beach can feel a little packed during peak times so it’s 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—as mentioned—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, perhaps making 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 poignant House of The Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis planned their so-called Final Solution.

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

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