Find your Island

Berlin boasts over 30 islands of all sizes: from the lively to the lonely, here are five offshore destinations that are sure to transport you into uncharted territory.

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Photo by Martin N. Hinze
Berlin boasts over 30 islands of all sizes: from the lively to the lonely, here are five offshore destinations that are sure to transport you into uncharted territory. Berlin is a a bit of a wetland. Surrounded by lakes like the Wannsee, Müggelsee and Tegeler See, and home to the river Spree and the Havel, the city is built on marshes. During the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, two mighty streams of melted ice crossed the land, leaving it pretty soggy. And it didn’t go unnoticed by settlers – the name Berlin is said to come from the old Slavic word “Berl”, meaning “swamp”. Unsurprisingly, this abundance of water has forged countless islets and peninsulas, each of which is a little pocket of biodiversity, architectural wonders, political secrets or even romance.
Insel der Jugend: Recreational pleasures
A stroll along Treptower Park’s southern Spree bank will lead you to a stout tower opening to an arched steel and concrete bridge, originally built in 1916 by French and Russian prisoners of war. It was designed by Viennese architect and construction engineer Friedrich von Emperger who is also responsible for the three-storey tower and massive adjoining building you will see at the far end of the bridge. All were commissioned by the then-town of Neukölln whose coat of arms is still visible on the second tower. After WWII the building complexon the island was used by the youth of the GDR, earning the Insel –formerly known as Rohr Island (after the reeds growing there) – its new name. Ask any Ossi, and they’ll have nostalgic memories of the disco nights and performances of GDR greats like pop star Veronika Fischer happening on the “isle of youth”. The Kulturhaus has seen better days, but it still hosts a variety of concerts, weekly film screenings and poetry slams in the summer months. From Easter weekend it opens up its idyllic Inselgarten (Mon-Fri from 12:00) where you can lounge in a deckchair with a beer (€3), or hire a pedal boat or a canoe (€32 – €60) from Kanuliebe right next door. And before you head toa gig, you can watch the sun set with beautiful views of Stralau while you dangle your legs above the Spree’s filthy waters – just watch out for the swans. Size: 1.8 hectares Getting there: Walk east through Treptower Park and look for the bridge tower. How long to spend there: Set aside an afternoon or an evening for all the art and adventure.
Eiswerder: Industrial wonders
If you enjoy the quiet charm of 19th-century industrial buildings and you’ve already explored Spandau’s old Siemens factories, Eiswerder is an insider tip and just a few kilometres further north. A beautiful architectural unit of red-brick buildings welcomes the visitor who crosses one of its two bridges over the Havel to Eiswerder island, just northwest of Berlin. Its location smack bang in the middle of Berlin’s main waterways, and being the only local isle to boast a railway connection in the late 1800s, made it attractive for industrial use. Since then, it has housed a gun foundry, an artillery workshop, an ammunition factory and, established under Prussian rule, a royal firework laboratory. Eiswerder’s industry has seeped under the surface, too: “Nearly1.4m deep, the soil there consists mainly of artificial particles; over the years, the surplus of factory material became part of the ground, so it got bigger and higher in the process,” explains Kolja Thestorf, a PhD student in Climate Geography at Humboldt University (yes, there are nerds devoting years of research to this stuff!). Today, most of the warehouse buildings have been repurposed, housing businesses like Blactronic Studio for music production, print workshop Mandaro and a fence supply store, as well as event space Event Island, small music venue JWD, art gallery Inselspinnen and even a handful of penthouses. If you’re hungry after your tour, head to German restaurant Stilbruch. And if you’re an industrious start-up looking for cheap workspace, you can rent commercial offices there for €9.90/sqm, which is a good deal considering the average commercial rent in Berlin is over €19/sqm! Size: 14 hectares Getting there: Take bus 136, 236 or X36 from S-Bahn Spandau, a light at Eiswerderstraße (still in zone B) and cross the Große Eiswerder bridge over the Havel. How long to spend there: Appreciate its factories over a long afternoon.
Pfaueninsel: A royal animal kingdom
Pfaueninsel’s rich animal history stretches back further than its eponymous peacocks. Its original name was Kaninchenwerder (“RabbitIsland”), as Prussian Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I set up a rabbit breeding station there in the 17th century. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that one of his successors, King Friedrich Wilhelm II, turned it into a park and brought the peacocks, a bird species native to India and Africa, with him. His son, Friedrich Wilhem III, not one to be outdone by his ancestors, extended it to an excessive personalpetting zoo, housing his collection of over 900 animals, including wolves, eagles and even alligators! In 1842, the island’s exotic inhabitants were moved to Berlin Zoo, save for the peacocks. Today, the island on the southeastern edge of Berlin is a UNESCO-protected site and boasts one of the greatest varieties of birds in Berlin and Brandenburg, among them the black-eared kite, kingfishers andorioles. If you want to see the famous peacocks, you could head to the aviary or just follow their unpleasant, non-musical mewing, echoing all over the island – they roam freely, so it won’t be longbefore you meet one. It might be animal-friendly, but don’t bring your dog – they’re banned from the island so as not to disturb the proud fowls. Humans, however, are allowed to have picnics or grab traditional Berlin fare from bratwurst (€3.50) to Boulette (€4) at the outdoor café. Size: 67 hectares Getting there: From S-Bahn Wannsee, take bus 218 to Pfaueninsel and hop on the ferry across the Havel (€4, running every 10 to 20 minutes from 9:00 to 20:00, May through August). How long to spend there: Half a day. Come early to beat the crowds or visit on a weekday.
Köpenick’s Schlossinsel: A fairytale in Ossi land
Set in the depths of former GDR territory, Schlossinsel is an unexpected fairytale escape. This man-made island is situated on the outskirts of the old town centre of Köpenick where the river Dahme joins the Spree. On its northern shore it is separated from the mainland only by a 3m moat, barely noticeable when walking along the street onto the island. Schlossinsel is also the proud home of East Berlin’s answer to Schloss Charlottenburg. Its Baroque palace, constructed between 1677 and 1690, contains a treasure trove of imperial ornaments, including furniture, tapestries, leather wallpaper, silverware and oddities, all visible in its three-floored museum space. Its splendid hall of mirrors from Wiesentheid Castle in Franconia, 1724, and the Chinese rooms from the Palazzo Granieri in Turin, 1740, with original paintings of war scenes, make it a must-see for history enthusiasts. Bring a picnic blanket and a book to the Schlossinsel’s well-manicured park or enjoy watersports all around: Wasserläufer on Müggelheimer Straße right next to the island rents out fun (and funny-looking) pedal boards for €10-15 per hour, and Schlossboote on Grünauer Straße also has pedal and rowing boats for around €10. Why not take in views of the castle from the water? Size: 6 hectares Getting there: From S-Bahn Köpenick, take a bus to Schloßplatz and just walk over to the castle from there. How long to spend there: One to three hours for the exhibition (€6, €3 reduced) and a stroll in the park afterwards.
Valentinswerder: Where inspiration strikes
Valentinswerder, the second-biggest island in Tegeler See, is one for fans of contemporary architecture. Most buildings here are no more than 70 years old, as the island was heavily bombed during WWII.The Nazi commanders had it illuminated to trick enemy pilots into thinking they had reached their target – the nearby Borsig and Siemens factories. Few of the original villas remain and since the 1990s,wealthy settlers have turned Valentinswerder into a land of architectural experiments, including mirrored facades and the award-winning, minimalist holiday house Projekt 1:1, conceived by architecture students from the Berlin University of the Arts. Graft archtitects of BRLO Brwhouse (Gleisdreieck) and Kinderdentist (Prenzlauer Berg) fame, who, apart from winning the competition to build apartment blocks on Checkpoint Charlie, also have a project on the island. There are only 30 to 40 permanent residents, while creatives, such as queen of contemporary dance Sasha Waltz, have a holiday house there. German TV actress Stephanie Bothor also finds inspiration on this isle. For her art project Paradis Sauvage, she is not leaving her 464sqm garden for 364 days in order to find out just what ‘paradise’ means. Unfortunately, when we stopped by, she wasn’t there. If you want to visit the island, come on a weekend or on September 7 for a guided round tour as part of the Tag des offenen Denkmals. Size:13 hectares Getting there: From Tegelort, Saatwinkel and Havelspitze, the local ferry line Fähre Tegeler See offers individual crossings (€2.80 one-way, only at the weekends, almost every hour). How long to spend there: Enough time for new ideas to emerge.