Visit the lush gardens at Zwinger, built by Augustus the Strong. (Photo: Getty Images)
Berlin is an immensely satisfying city, in part because of how much weirder it is in than the rest of Germany. You’re probably not going to find 24-hour nightclubs in Munich, for example, or a decaying amusement park anywhere near Hamburg.
On the other hand, it’s not just Berlin’s city proper, or even the larger Berlin-Brandenburg conurbation that exudes quirkiness. Whether you make a city trip into nearby Saxony or visit a swimming hole that’s both more distant and strange than the overdone Wansee, these Berlin day trips are at least as idiosyncratic as the German capital itself.
Follow in the Flamboyant Footsteps of Augustus
It’s relatively common knowledge that Dresden, located east of Berlin in the state of Saxony, suffered substantially during World War II. What’s less known is how fabulously flamboyant Dresden is — even if much of it has been rebuilt or restored — and the story behind how the capital of the former Saxon Kingdom came upon its bling.
Much of this tale can be traced back to Augustus (officially, Augustus II the Strong), who served as Elector of Saxony at the turn of the 18th century, his stints at King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania notwithstanding. You’ll first see Augustus, or at least a gold-cast likeness of him mounted atop a horse, in a statue just across the Elbe River from Dresden’s old city.
Your brushes with Augustus’ ghost aren’t just limited to literal encounters, however. It was Augustus, for example, who built Zwinger, the dramatic palace filled with lush gardens that’s probably Dresden’s best selfie spot. Augustus also invested heavily in the restoration of Dresden Castle, whose Baroque character is mostly a result of his influence.
HOW TO GET THERE: Trains depart Berlin Hbf twice hourly for Dresden Hbf (which is a short bus ride or a slightly longer walk from the old city), and the trip takes two hours.
Toast to Bach in a Hipster-Filled Biergarten
Of course, your trip to Saxony needn’t be guided by dead German men, even if the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach looms large over Leipzig, the second-quirkiest day trip you can take from Berlin. In fact, while many famous Germans hail from Leipzig (Goethe, Nietzsche and, more recently, Angela Merkel), their alma mater is more likely to influence what you do in Leipzig than anything they’ve accomplished.
Leipzig University is home to nearly 30,000 students whose youth, creativity and affinity for partying have become central to the appeal of a city many are referring to as the “new Berlin.” Most specifically, hit up the district of Plagwitz, which is not only home to dive-y biergartens, but also to a bevy of ethnic food spots — try El Arabi for falafel and shawarma or Chinabrenner for … well, you can probably figure that out.
Leipzig is also famous for art, from the ubiquitous street art that’s almost become a cliché in cities in former East Germany to art galleries that cater to both established and emerging artists.
Some of these (namely EEG, the Essential Existence Gallery) are in Plagwitz, just a short stumble away from your most recent beer. Many others are concentrated in the Neustadt (new city) just northeast of the city center, from the studio of a caricaturist named Zamir to the Japanese art and architecture collective Das Japanische Haus.
HOW TO GET THERE: Trains depart Berlin Hbf for the 75-minute journey to Leipzig Hbf once per hour.
Cool Off in a Cold, Clear Lake That Isn’t Wansee
Berlin gets really hot in the summer, which is probably hard to imagine if you’re reading this outside of July or August. Berliners (and visitors to Berlin) learn about the capital’s midsummer warmth the hard way, however, which is probably why so many of them flock to Wansee, a once-idyllic lake that now gets totally swamped with day-trippers every time the sun dares to shine down on Alexanderplatz.
If you want to take a dip in an ice-cold lake in the Berlin suburbs but don’t want to share the lakeshore with thousands of people, head to Schlachtensee, which is substantially harder to pronounce than Wansee but also substantially less crowded.
TIP: Pack a picnic lunch and take it into the nearby Grunewald Forest to make a real day of your day trip to Schlachtensee. Wear your favorite band shirt and the brightest pair of sunglasses to become the envy of Berlin’s Instagram intelligentsia.
HOW TO GET THERE: It takes approximately 25 minutes to ride the Berlin S-Bahn from Nollendorfplatz to U Krumme Lanke station, from which Schlachtensee is a five-minute walk.