Thrill-seeking in Berlin
Berlin might be renowned as a nightlife, culture and history hub, but it has oodles of adventures to offer too, says long-term resident Paul Sullivan
It’s a sun-filled summer afternoon and I’m standing on the roof of a 37-floor, 125m-high hotel, looking directly onto Berlin’s iconic – and even taller, at 368m – television tower. A friendly German man is chatting away while casually tying a winch around my waist, which is connected to a suspiciously thin strap. In just a few moments, I’ll be hurtling through the sunshine towards the ground of Alexanderplatz at high speed – screaming hysterically, as it turns out – before being brought to a standstill just above the roof of the square’s local Burger King.
What might sound like bungee jumping is actually base flying: a controlled fall, using the aforementioned winch system, often performed by film stuntmen. This location, on the top of the Radisson Berlin Alexanderplatz hotel, is the only place you can do it in Berlin, and it’s popular enough to have drawn in more than 20,000 adrenaline junkies to date, many of them ‘flying’ after sunset to add some nocturnal flair to the fun.
Base flying is just one of many adventurous pursuits to be found in the German capital, if you know where to look. Although the majority of Berlin’s 13 million tourists a year seem to be mostly here for techno clubs, art and 20th-century history (all first-rate experiences, admittedly), a resident’s perspective has given me much more insight into the city’s many green spaces, its joyful abundance of water and a corresponding array of outdoor activities.
As well as base flying, I also discovered something recently called house running, which takes place by another hotel (Vienna House by Andel’s Berlin) in the northeast of the city. This experience involves being secured with a steel cable, tilted over the edge of the roof, then running (or walking) the 60 metres or so down to the ground. Additional airborne adventures in Berlin include tandem sky dives in nearby Fehrbellin, helicopter rides over the city centre, spinning around in Germany’s biggest wind tunnel, or – a more affordable option – enjoying a gentle drift in the Berlin Welt Balloon, which rises 150m, allowing passengers to gaze serenely down on iconic landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz.
Personally, I’m more of an aquaphile than an acrophile. When I moved here in 2008, it made me deliriously happy to discover just how much water runs through Berlin, despite it being landlocked. Aside from the well-known River Spree and the Landwehrkanal, the city is threaded with smaller waterways and surrounded by lakes, opening up a vast range of water-based activities, from wakeboarding to waterskiing.
Aside from lake swimming – which I and many locals enjoy year-round, though I’m personally not as keen on hacking through icy surfaces during winter as some of my friends are – one of my favourite water-based activities is the serene sport of kayaking. My first ever kayak experience in Berlin was at the Insel der Jugend, a pretty and historically fascinating island located along the Spree at the southern end of Treptower Park’s atmospheric harbour.
The island’s name, given to it by East Germany in 1949, means ‘Island of Youth’, a reference to the regular concerts and dances once held here. Today it still hosts events in its charming Kulturhaus, as well as renting out canoes and kayaks (for as little as 13 euros per hour), with which you can paddle straight out into the river and around the Alt-Stralau peninsula. Another personal favourite is the area nicknamed Neu-Venedig (New Venice) further south in Köpenick, which has half a dozen peaceful channels, scenic bridges and quiet cottages, plus the opportunity to paddle farther down to the large Müggelsee lake. To make a weekend of it, head to the charming Spreewald region, an hour and a half from the city, where you can paddle through endless tree-lined tributaries and charming local villages.
Prefer your thrills to take place on terra firma? No problem! A quad-bike tour will get you burning rubber and spinning wheels on mud and gravel in the countryside, or there are even epic night-time excursions that allow you to cruise through the city at night. And those with a passion for fast cars can sidestep the usual Trabi experience and book a Porsche Panamera Turbo, Mercedes AMG C 63 or Jaguar F-Type R for a spin along the German autobahn. For younger thrill-seekers, Berlin also offers kart racing too. Whatever you do, an absolutely must-see destination also happens to be one of the city’s most popular recreation areas: the mighty Tempelhof Field. Only a decade or so ago, this was a functioning airport, famous for its role in the Berlin Airlift between 1948 and 1949, when Allied planes dropped emergency supplies to West Berliners, including sweets for the kids. Today, its imposing terminal building, expanded during the Nazi regime, hosts events and exhibitions, while the vast grounds – including the former runway – are now used for all sorts of outdoor sports: jogging and cycling, rollerblading and skateboarding, kite-flying, kitesurfing. I personally love doing a few laps on my bike, then meeting friends for a late evening beer to watch the sun go down. It’s one of the loveliest things to do in summer and completely free (apart from the beer).
A resident’s perspective has given me insight into the city’s many green spaces, its joyful abundance of water and a corresponding array of outdoor activities
For those with an interest in history and an exploratory bent, Berlin has some incredible abandoned sites, thanks to its 19th-century industrial heritage and central role in both the Nazi and Cold War eras. A good inauguration into this aspect of the city is to make a pilgrimage to Teufelsberg, a former British and American listening station built on the ruins of a Nazi training camp in leafy Grunewald. Thankfully, these days you don’t have to break in through the fence and worry about security guards and their snarling dogs. Instead, you can take an official tour (€8) of its dilapidated, graffiti-splattered dome and hear about its fascinating history and how filmmaker David Lynch almost bought it as a meditation hub.
One of my favourite abandoned spots, though, is the Beelitz-Heilstätten, a former sanitorium set up in the 19th century to treat tuberculosis patients. Located about an hour away from Berlin (it’s accessible by train, but also makes for a nice 60km bike ride), it’s a truly eerie experience to roam the ruined corridors and rooms full of rusting medical machinery. The grounds are contrastingly beautiful, and a tree-level walkway has been installed in recent years that gives visitors wonderful bird’s-eye views of the entire place. Tours here start at €12.5.
So next time you think of Berlin, with all its museums, history and exhibitions, consider experiencing a different side of the city, too – perhaps an exhilarating and revealing one that rushes up to meet you from 368m in the air…
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