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Surfers ride the famous Eisbach Welle in the Englisher Garten all year round.
Surfers ride the famous Eisbach Welle in the Englisher Garten all year round.

Photo: München Tourismus/Sigi Müller

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An eight-kilometer playground in the heart of Munich

The River Isar, whose cold, clear waters originate in the Alps, has been the subject of a unique back to nature project. It is now the biggest recreation area in the Bavarian capital with its over one million inhabitants. All year round. Join us on an 18-km cycle ride through the area.

You can fish from the riverbanks, go for a dip or a long-distance swim in summer, enjoy a picnic in grassy meadows, walk, exercise the dog, hike, run, cycle on a traditional lady’s bike, lightweight racing bike, practical cargo bike, gravel bike or all terrain mountain bike… Right in the heart of Munich. The River Isar, with its surrounding meadows, forests and signposted trails, is now the biggest recreation area in the capital of Bavaria. 

Thanks to a unique restoration project, that has turned the Isar back into the river, (almost) as nature intended, the people of Munich have gained a city center beach. Photo: München Tourismus/Sigi Müller

It has not always been like this. Step back one hundred years and the Isar was reputed to be a deadly dangerous river, feared by the local inhabitants. With its headwaters in the Alps, that erupted with the spring thaw when the snow and ice melted, and then swept away everything that came in its path. Bridges were smashed, and people drowned in the wild waters, that overflowed the banks. 

Various cycle and pedestrian bridges now span the Isar as part of the restoration project. Photo: Hanne Høiberg

It is hard to imagine this on a sunny Saturday, when we have propped up our rented bikes against a tree, and the broad meadows on the east side of the Isar exude an air of relaxation. The dark green river flows northwards, the treetops sighing in the gentle breeze, and only the traffic on Reichenbachbrücke behind us and the twin towers of St. Maximillian Church on the opposite bank, remind us that we are in the heart of Munich. 

We continue our cycle trip southwards through woodland, with the rocky bank of the Isar to our right and with the sight of small islands in the river and all the active life that unfolds in front, behind and to the side of us on the cycle trail. Meanwhile, the history of the river makes itself known. 

From foe to friend

Because the Isar, that is over a kilometer wide in places, was so dangerous, it only started to be tamed in the second half of the 19th Century. Pretty extensively. Kilometers of riverbank were concreted over, while the river itself was steered through long straight channels.  Around 100 years later, in the 1980s, it was no longer perceived as an enemy. Now, the Isar began to be seen as a resource, that not only offered a creative outlet for the people of Munich, but also in relation to biodiversity. By this time, the river was heavily polluted, and almost totally devoid of fish. 

Bundesnatur, the German nature conservation organization, proposed returning the Isar to the winding Alpine river it once was. Implementing the project attracted strong support, and even though many people thought it would be impossible, a project was developed to return an eight kilometer stretch of the Isar in the south of Munich back to nature. The project was allocated €38 million, and architectural competitions were announced, that had to consider the need to continue to protect the city from flooding. In 2000, the first concrete slabs were removed. In 2011, the Isar flowed again the way it had for millennia, in what is viewed as a unique regeneration project in Germany. What’s more, thanks to purification via ultraviolet radiation, the water is not only clean, but totally free from any undesirable bacteria. For the benefit of both people and the river, biodiversity and all the fish that once more can thrive in the river. 

The water in the Isar has been purified with ultraviolet radiation and is now totally clean. Photo: München Tourismus/Sigi Müller

Biergarten ahoy

We have reached Hellabrunn Zoo, that is part of the nature conservation landscape around the Isar.  Hellabrunn Zoo is also the world’s first geo-zoo, where the animals live in accordance with the continental geography they originated in.  Definitely worth a visit, especially if you have children with you. Or if you do not plan to stop for lunch at a famous Biergarten a good four kilometers further south. In other words, we continue through the forest alongside the zoological gardens. When we come out into the meadows again, we don’t have to pedal very far before we spy the 31-meter high Grosshesseloher Brücke ahead of us. 

After crossing the river via a small wooden bridge, designed for cyclists and pedestrians, we are surprised by a pretty long steep slope on the opposite riverbank. So steep in fact, that most people get off and walk up it. It is not without reason that the slope is known as Höllerer Berg – the Devil’s Mountain.  The reward is just a further five-minute ride along the trail when the entrance to Waldwirtschaft Grosshesselohe appears on a hilltop amidst the beech trees. 

Waldwirtschaft Grosshesselohe is a welcome sight in the heart of the green forest. Photo: Hanne Høiberg

Waldwirtschaft Grosshesselohe is everything a visitor could imagine a classic Bavarian Biergarten looks like: An extensive garden with wooden tables and benches where you can eat rotisserie chicken or pork from one of the self-service cabins, washed down with draft beer from Munich brewery Spaten. Plus, a large terrace with tablecloths on the tables and waiter service with an extensive menu to choose from.All to the accompaniment of traditional jazz and pop music from the house orchestra and where the female service personnel are dressed in traditional Dirndl and the men Lederhosen. Cheers – or Prost as they say in German.

A couple of hours later, we are ready to ride back to Munich. This time, we follow the well signposted cycle trail on the west side of the Isar. And are very thankful that the route is flat.

A recreational green space 

If the Isar is Munich’s lungs, then the Englisher Garten is the city’s green space for recreation and festivities. This 375-hectare park is bigger than Central Park in New York and one of the largest city parks in the world.  Imagine multiplying a football pitch by 640. It is a place to party. And where people very definitely party. Not least during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Englischer Garten is Munich’s answer to Central Park in New York. Except bigger. Photo: München Tourismus/T Krueger

The park was established in 1785 and is a place where the people of Munich head to after work, and at weekends, when they want to celebrate and party. Or to try their hand at Eisbach Welle, or river surfing, by the Haus der Kunst in the south of the park. This is a short stretch of the Isar, no more than 10-20 meters long, where the river forms powerful waves, which keen surfers ride. When one surfer falls into the water, the next surfer is already waiting with their board. All year round. 

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