Urban forests play a crucial role for the wellbeing of city dwellers, and their importance for people has been emphasised during the COVID-19 pandemic. This exploratory study analyses the visit patterns and visitor attitudes and perceptions in a peri-urban forest nearby Bonn, Germany, as well as the impact of the lockdown. Methodically, we combined automated visitor counting with a total of 345 on-site interviews. Respondents were asked a variety of open-ended and closed questions on various aspects of forest management and recreation. The results show that shortly after the inception of the lockdown the number of forest visitors doubled and the visit pattern changed markedly. In contrast, people’s associations with the forest remained rather stable. The forest visitors interviewed primarily associated the forest with tranquillity, recreation and fresh air, and they were generally positive about forest management. However, these expectations conflicted with the sense of crowdedness experienced during the lockdown, when novel forest uses and new motivations for visiting the forest arose, with an important focus on the forest as a place for social interaction. These were mainly a result of the lockdown restrictions, rather than COVID-19 itself, which left people with more time and flexibility, and less alternative activities. The results highlight the importance of forest management in catering to people’s expectations and ultimately for the role that forests play for people’s wellbeing. This was the case before the lockdown but arguably even more so during, in response to a variety of needs resulting from unprecedented circumstances.