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Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) is a centerpiece of the city's commitment to free thought and expression. (Photograph by blickwinkel, Alamy)

Travels on the Run: Berlin’s Tiergarten

The bucolic beauty and expanse of Berlin’s Tiergarten (Animal Garden) is such that, in my curiosity to discover it all, my run becomes much longer than what I had charted. I love it when that happens. 

This 520-acre urban park was once the private hunting grounds of the “Great Elector,” Friedrich Wilhelm, and it retains its regal air to this day. Baroque statues, indigo, swan-dotted ponds, and pocket gardens evoke images of corseted women on slow summer strolls under parasols.

At the end of the day, though, I have a singular goal: I had heard that the first two Soviet tanks to reach the city during the Battle of Berlin in 1945 are in the park, and, intrigued by the juxtaposition of military might and baroque splendor, I want to see them. Oddly, they’re not labeled on any of the many maps sprinkled throughout the park. And, my goodness, it’s so easy to get distracted here.

I detour on the tree-shaded pathways to the romantic Venus basin, then take a side trail to see several sculptures featuring 18th-century Prussian aristocrats in the course of a hunt. I would also like to check out Neuer See, a small lake that in summer has a popular outdoor biergarten—which, alas, entails backtracking. I go anyway.

At the park’s western end, near a picturesque canal (complete with colorful barges), I notice a sprinkling of art deco gas lanterns lining the lane and read on a sign that I’m in the middle of the Gaslaternen Freilichtmuseum, an open-air museum featuring lanterns from different eras in the city’s history.

I cross Strasse des 17. Juni and meander down the other side of the park. I come across a pretty English garden bursting with rose bushes. I know that the 1950s Haus der Kulturen der Welt–House of the Cultures of the World–is somewhere off to the left (called “pregnant oyster” by Berliners thanks to its sweeping roof resembling a half-open bivalve).

But where are those tanks? I stop to study yet another map, and it hits me. The tanks are clearly part of the Soviet War Memorial (duh!). I start heading toward the Brandenburg Gate, the start of my run, and there they are, gun barrels pointing straight into the street.

The Soviets built the monument soon after the capture of the city in 1945 to honor the thousands of Red Army soldiers killed in the battle; during the Cold War, when it stood in the heart of bustling West Berlin, honor guards from the Soviet sector (East Berlin) stood watch over it.

I spot a couple of curious sparrows peeking down at me from the gun turret. I spy two Russian tourists reading the signs. And I reflect on how much history this city park has seen through the centuries.

> Run Stats

Mileage: My route is 3.3 miles straight up and back. Note that this park, with its many, many miles of shaded pathways is made for wandering and exploring.

Best Time: Anytime during daylight hours. The blooming rhododendrons in May are legendary.

Start and End: Brandenburg Gate, at the east end of park.

> My Route 

  • Start at Brandenburg Gate, perhaps Berlin’s most iconic landmark.
  • With Brandenburg at your back, cross Ebertstrasse and enter the park at Ahornsteig path. There’s a map straightaway that tells you where you are and what your options are. Maps like this are sprinkled liberally throughout the park.
  • Follow Ahornsteig to intersection with Grosser Weg.
  • Cross Hofjagerallee, a busy road–one of several cutting through the park.
  • Grosser Weg continues to zig and zag, past Neuer See, finally coming out at Strasse des 17.Juni, at the Gaslaternen Freilichtmuseum.
  • Cross Strasse des 17.Juni.
  • Find Handelallee and follow that, making your way to Altonaer Strasse.
  • Cross Altonaer Strasse and follow signs to the Englischer Garten.
  • Follow signs to the Victory Column–the big monument in the middle of the Spreeweg. Cross Spreeweg and reenter the garden, making your way on the noodles of pathways. Go right at Heinrich-von-Gagem-Strasse, then left on Strasse des 17.Juni. The Soviet Memorial is just ahead, on your left. You’ll see the Brandenburg Gate looming beyond.

More: Run through Brandenburg Gate (in effect, going from old West Berlin to East Berlin) and continue down elegant Unter den Linden, the famous tree-shaded boulevard in the heart of historic Berlin. You can run its entire length–less than a mile–ending up at Museumsinsel, where many of the city’s most famous museums congregate.

Barbara A. Noe is senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.