Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Cycling the Death Strip: Berlin Wall by bicycle

By Jason Overdorf for CNN
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
The Platz des November 1989, where thousands of people breached the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, is among destinations on a cycle tour of the Cold War frontier in Berlin. The Platz des November 1989, where thousands of people breached the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, is among destinations on a cycle tour of the Cold War frontier in Berlin.
Where the Wall came down
Death Strip
Tourism meets recreation
Landmarks and landscape
Easy riding
All along the watchtowers
Church of Our Savior
Tributes to the fallen
Ida Siekmann memorial
  • The Berlin Wall Trail runs for 99 miles along the frontier that once divided the city
  • Completed in 2009 at a cost of $13.4 million dollars, the trail attracts all types of cyclists
  • All 14 sections of the trail are connected by public transportation
  • Numerous beer gardens lie close to the route

(CNN) -- A lone saxophonist plays in the shadow of an overpass while a horde of cyclists looks down at a set of tangled train tracks.

This outwardly gloomy spot is as good a place as any to begin a cycling tour of the "Berlin Wall Trail," a 160-kilometer (99-mile) path developed to commemorate and transform one of the darkest chapters of the city's past.

Once a popular location for defectors because East German trains cut through a corner of the Western zone, it was here on November 9, 1989, that tens of thousands of people overwhelmed an official checkpoint after a bureaucratic error led to the opening of the border.

Divided by mapmakers into 14 sections that vary from seven to 21 miles in length, the Wall Trail, or "Mauerweg," traces the entire path of the Wall.

Built in 1961, the Wall divided the city by surrounding West Berlin, for decades following the partitioning of Germany after World War II an island of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

'Culture, politics and nature'

The Wall Trail is a unique combination of tourist attraction and recreational zone, says Michael Cramer, the Green Party politician and cycling enthusiast who conceived the plan in the early 1990s and is now working on a Europe-spanning Iron Curtain Trail, inspired by the Wall route's success.

"It's a ride through history, culture, politics and nature," he says.

That feeling hits home as I pedal across the Mauerpark to the Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse, where a watchtower and a section of the barren "death strip" have been preserved unchanged.

While Cramer's scheme might seem an obvious venture now, it wasn't easy in the beginning.

The Wall\'s original Death Strip is visible along the route.
The Wall's original Death Strip is visible along the route.

Berliners hated the Wall so much that many people wanted every trace of it obliterated.

In 1989 and 1990, souvenir hunters were carting it away so fast that the government had to shift from demolition to conservation practically overnight.

With experts forecasting an unprecedented population boom, real estate developers were eying the former "death strip" as keenly as East Germany's notorious Stasi security agents ever had.

"At that time, all the politicians and the media said, 'No, no, we want to erase the Wall,'" Cramer says. "But 10 years later, in 2000, we were successful."

Completed in 2009 at a cost of some 10 million euros ($13.4 million), today the trail appeals to all types of cyclists.

MORE: Watching the watchers: Spy's guide to Berlin

Bike-friendly public transport

Every section is accessible by Berlin's bike-friendly public transportation system, so cyclists can pick and choose from various sights and terrain.

It's flat and paved, so it doesn't take an athlete's fitness to hack it, and an ordinary city bike or single-gear, hipster's "fixie" serves as well as something fancier.

Better still, even though it attracts thousands of visitors every year, it never gets crowded, says Martin "Wollo" Wollenberg, who heads a tour company called Berlin-on-Bike.

"As you experience the Wall zig-zagging through the city, you get a feeling for the separation," Wollenberg says. "In a lot of places, the difference between East and West is still quite vivid."

For tourists new to Berlin, about 25 miles of the trail runs through the heart of the city.

Passing not only the Bernauer Strasse documentation center but also the Reichstag, Brandenburger Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and many other important historical sites, it makes an excellent route for a leisurely four-hour guided tour.

Meanwhile, for more committed cyclists, in former western districts such as Kladow and Wannsee, the path doubles as a nature trail, cutting through forests.

Regular rows of plantation pines make the former death strip easy to identify.

At 29 different sites along the path, memorial placards tell the stories of some of the nearly 250 "victims of the Wall," such as Peter Bohme, a 19-year-old cadet in East Germany's National People's Army who was shot trying to escape to West Berlin in 1962.

The Wall Trail is suitable for cyclists of all abilities.
The Wall Trail is suitable for cyclists of all abilities.

Signposts at regular intervals make it well nigh impossible to get lost, and every section has something to spark the traveler's interest -- the bridge where captured spies were exchanged, a former watchtower now used by the forest brigade or the famous Church of Our Savior whose walls once formed part of the fortifications.

Riders are never more than a mile or two from the nearest beer garden.

MORE: Insider's Guide -- the best of Berlin

How to ride the wall

For do-it-yourselfers, bicycle rental runs about €10 per day, with outlets ubiquitous throughout the city.

Visit Berlin offers free pamphlets with complete maps of the 14 sections of the trail and brief descriptions -- though only the German version was available when I visited. The same material is available online.

Cramer's "Berlin Wall Trail: Cycling Guide" can be picked up for about $10 online or at the souvenir shop at the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.

Berlin on Bike's "Wall Tour" covers 15 kilometers of the Wall Trail in about four hours. The company's English- and German-speaking guides provide information about the building and destruction of the Wall and life in East Germany.

At €14 plus €5 for bicycle rental, it's worth considering even for those planning to do the rest of trail solo.

An award-winning journalist and travel writer, Jason Overdorf's byline has appeared in The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He's also the Berlin correspondent for GlobalPost.

CNN Travel series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Whether filled with electric blue sulfur flames or hissing lava, these mega mountains offer incredible vistas
updated 8:40 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
This once-a-year luxury cruise visits untouched islands and never-snorkeled reefs.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Peter J. Goutiere was just shy of 30 years old when he piloted a Douglas C-47 from Miami to Kolkata, India.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Breathtaking scenery, championship design -- many of the courses dropped into the Canadian Rockies are among the most memorable in the world.
updated 9:06 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
A floating hippo in the Thames river designed by artist Florentijn Hofman
Why Florentijn Hofman is sending a giant beast into London's River Thames.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
updated 8:42 PM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
A squabble over a device that limits how far a seat can recline has brought inflight etiquette into the spotlight again.
updated 6:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Thirst for victory competes with thirst for booze in event where competitors raise their glasses long before they cross the finish line.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
At these fun Los Angeles bars, the the drinks come with a chaser of kitsch.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
From dining next to massive predators to drinking atop a rock in the middle of the ocean, Africa boasts some of the most interesting places to eat.
updated 5:21 AM EDT, Sun September 7, 2014
Just weeks after Bill HIllman, known as a veteran, expert bull runner, was badly gored in Pamplona, he's back at other smaller bull runnings in Spain, but walking with a cane.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Don't like the country you live in? Why not create your own, as many people have done. We uncover the parallel world of "micronationalism."
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
A CNN producer experiences China's poor on-time flight record firsthand as his plane takes off eight hours late.
updated 2:00 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
New Yorker Kerrin Rousset's exploration of Swiss city aims to lure cocoa fans over to the dark side.
updated 11:47 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Some things are just better after dark. These experiences around the world prove it.