Berlin Wants You to Get on a Bike...Really

Conde Nast Traveler

Photograph by Julia Davila-Lampe/Getty Images

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Berlin is dead serious about getting you on a bike. Long a passionate cycling town, the city recently budgeted some 2.5 million euros to the upkeep and expansion of bike lanes on the major thoroughfares. Tourists and commuters alike have responded: The city calculates that more than 15 percent of all journeys undertaken in Berlin are now on bike-back, and in some neighborhoods, that number exceeds 20 percent.

In 2010 Berlin finished its bucolic, riverside stretch of the 671-kilometer-long Berlin–Copenhagen bike trail. There are so many bikes in the center (specifically, in the Mitte, Tiergarten, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Prenzlauer Berg district) that a hot political debate is raging about the feasibility of building "bike garages." It's a blooming cycling culture: Berlin's bike messengers, the self-styled "Alleycats," stage midnight obstacle-course races in the clement seasons.

Of course, it's Germany, so there's a body of "cycling law" attached to the sport. We don't just mean that you can get a ticket, at night, if you don't have working lights fore and aft—which you very much can. Berlin's bike lanes are not consistent, which means that sometimes they're painted on the street, and sometimes they're up on Berlin's 25-foot broad sidewalks. A good example would be Prenzlauer Allee, which leads from Mitte to, and through, Prenzlauer Berg, one of the city's beloved pub scenes—thus, mobbed with bikes and pedestrians at all hours.

Prenzlauer Allee's automobile lanes are narrow, so the district fathers have elected to put the bike lane on the sidewalk. Rather than marking it with fluorescent paint, they've just bricked the bike path in a different color of paving stone. This spells difficulty for pedestrians, who often don't realize what the red paving means. Result? Lotsa hopping and weaving on that sidewalk. Cave canem!

Jolly crash possibilities aside, bike rental firms and bike tours abound. On a spring or summer afternoon, clearly one of the greatest tours is out the north and west of the city along the canals, the first 12-to-15 miles of the aforementioned Berlin–Copenhagen bike trail (to mention another pro-bike city). Beginning at the Brandenburg Gate, the trail weaves through parks and along canals, and you'll not suffer for good things to eat and drink along the way. There are nighttime pub crawls, tours along the Wall, even rickshaw rides and electric bikes to be booked.

The Zeus of Berlin biking is Benno Koch, the city's former cycling czar, now a radio correspondent and environmental activist who still leads cycling tours, including a three-day trip late this summer from Berlin to the North Sea.

You don't have to pack your helmet for Berlin, but I find that a pair of biking gloves fold in nicely. In any case, pack along a waterproof windbreaker and a sweater or a fleece. Although now wholly sprung, spring in Berlin can be breezy.

Bike Rentals and Tour Operators:

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