Slipping through the trees at Schlachtensee—a lake nestled in the south-west of Berlin and straddling the outskirts of the magnificent Grunewald Forest—I am greeted by views of glistening water and dappled sunlight wrestling its way through a canopy of weathered branches. Berlin-ers are scattered everywhere; some in groups with music playing softly through portable speakers, others alone with books and worn out notepads. People dutifully swim laps in the centre of the lake, while children frolick in the shallows. Ducks bob along the water and narrowly avoid the oars of wooden row boats being steered by relaxed citizens ready to crack a beer and rest under the sun.
Home to an estimated 80 lakes, swimming spots in Berlin are easy to find and heavily frequented. When hot (or even just warm) weather arrives, you’ll find your own haven of clear and inviting water a mere 30 minutes from the centre of town.
Lake swimming in this country is an old but still predominantly local pastime, though the definition of a “local” in this city of immigrants is fairly broad. Popular since the 1800s, many residents come here for their morning exercise or to wind down after work. When crawling out of the water one frigid morning at Liepnitzsee, north of Berlin, I spoke with a local who had been swimming in the lake “most spring, summer and autumn mornings” since moving there roughly eight years ago.
There are very few guidelines one must adhere to when swimming in Berlin. General common sense rules apply: respect your water neighbour, leave the place cleaner than you find it, try not to have your music too loud. The most important thing to be aware of, particularly for those not yet familiar with the naturists of Europe, is that many people swim naked—or at least topless. This is known as Freikörperkultur (FKK)—translating to “Free Body Culture”—and is a fairly familiar concept to most Germans.
“Dating back to the 1890s, when the first German naturist association was founded in the town of Essen, Germans’ joy and love of being naked is not exclusive to just water activity.”
Though briefly outlawed under Nazi rule, Germans have been swimming and bathing naked for over a century. Dating back to the 1890s, when the first German naturist association was founded in the town of Essen, Germans’ joy and love of being naked is not exclusive to just water activity. From lounging in parks to hiking with nothing but a water bottle, today there are very few legal restrictions on public nudity throughout the country.
Whilst some of the older lakes in Berlin still have dedicated areas for FKK, most lakes nowadays are a free for all. The attitude behind Freikörperkultur is to treat the body not as a source of shame, but as one of strength and individuality. Though many swimmers still choose to keep their bathers on, there is an infectious freedom that comes from being an unnoticed naked body amongst a crowd of hundreds. If you’re game, I suggest packing up a picnic, leaving your swimmers behind and heading to one of the many lakes in Berlin for a true German experience.
A beautiful lake that lies on the outskirts of the Grunewald forest in southwest Berlin. There is no main sandy area here, but plenty of little enclaves can be found whilst wandering the 5.5km lake.
My personal favourite, this lake is just slightly north of Schlachtensee and contains a myriad of beautiful resting spots. The water is crystal clear and the sun manages to weave its way through the trees for most of the day.
One of the more tourist-driven water spots in Berlin, Müggelsee is east of Berlin and is easily accessible by public transport; there is a tram that stops almost directly out the front of the beach. It’s one of the only official “sand” beaches in Berlin and there are a few cafes around for those that forgot their cooler and biers.
Located just north of Berlin, the water in this lake is so clear that you can see little shimmers of sun dancing across it during the day, and the moon tumbling across it at night. A small island sits in the middle of a series of larger areas for communal bathing. Walk around the lake a little bit, away from the main scrub, and you’ll discover plenty of secluded spots to hide out.
Though a bit further out of Berlin, this lake located slightly north of Eberswalde is worth the trek. While a large lake—even on a sweltering summer’s day—it is often far less crowded than its southern friends. The greenery surrounding the lake is as stunning as the water.