The approach of summer in Berlin is best marked by heated debates about which lake is more perfect. While most Germans have a favorite, in “Take Me to the Lakes” Karoline Rosina and Nils Kraiczy offer photographic documentation of the region’s lakes and just enough info to make a choice of your own. The authors have already narrowed it down from the 140 they visited in and around Berlin to a select 50 organized geographically. (According to E.U. standards, almost every lake in Berlin is classified as “excellent” for bathing, which means picking a favorite is deeply personal rather than simply about finding a not-so-polluted body of water.)
Unlike their American counterparts, German parents consider ice cream a human right and not an occasional treat, which means that at many lakes around Berlin, ice cream trucks are always on hand postswim. So are rental canoes and those plastic paddle boats, plus someone with a bottle opener.
On one day in July, I met friends at Weisser See (White Lake) only to find the whole thing covered in a layer of white pollen. It was like swimming through warm snow. We emerged from the lake looking like a dandruff commercial, which was pretty amusing until it was time to get back on public transportation.
Some people scoff at Berlin’s lakes, which tend to have mucky bottoms and a bit of broken glass around the edges, favoring the crystal-clear ones outside the city. But if the parents of toddlers aren’t too worried, then I’m not either. And while it’s true that an hourlong train ride in any direction will take you to a clearer lake in a more picturesque setting, there’s nothing like swimming in a natural body of water in the midst of a big city.
I never go back as often as I want to, despite hatching plans on the side of the lake to swim after work on weekdays or meet up the following afternoon. But whenever I meet friends at one of Berlin’s lakes, I do the bare minimum of catching up required before asking “Who wants to go in?”
Four Other Swimmable European Cities
Fresh from the Bernese Alps, the ice-cold Aare River snakes through historic old-town Bern and is a popular spot for summer recreation. Fast-moving and fun, it’s a great way to see the city, so long as you’ve got the arm strength to paddle for an exit before it reaches a dam.
One of the city’s largest green spaces, Hampstead Heath, is home to three ponds perfect for swimming, with the oldest used for the activity as far back as the 1860s. A designated Men’s Bathing Pond opened in the 1890s and the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond followed a few decades later in 1925. All three are still functioning, though two remain gender-segregated.
A decade-long initiative to green the city’s waterways means they’re now filled with swimmers instead of with industrial sludge. On the harbor, there are now four bath complexes with diving platforms, kiddie pools and space to lounge. The first, and most well-known, is Islands Brygge Harbour Bath.
A narrow, 21-kilometer island on Vienna’s Danube, Donauinsel is the city’s summer playground. There are cycling trails, forested areas, restaurants, a trampoline park, volleyball courts and beaches. It’s just a few minutes from the city center and can be reached easily by public transport. A family beach has protected shallows for small swimmers.