Main image: © GNTB / Francesco Carovillano
There’s a city on the edge of the Black Forest where the trams seem to glide along enticing strips of lawn. Where some 82% of the urban area is classified as green space. Where the majority of the population travels by bicycle, and the streets gurgle with Bächle, roadside gutters that run with clean river water. That city is Freiburg, and if you climb the Schlossberg out of the centre, the green can be seen all around. This is Germany’s foremost eco-city, but visitors to its nicely preserved medieval cathedral square might not be aware of those credentials until they notice that the produce in the daily market is organic and local. The big eco initiatives are out in the suburbs, where new buildings have to be low energy, many solar powered. Here, car ownership is down to 172 per thousand inhabitants, barely 30 percent of a typical urban average.
One luxury Frankfurt hotel, popular with high-flying executives in Germany’s financial capital, has another high-flying population up on the 28th floor. Bees, in a rooftop apiary that supplies honey for treatments in the spa. It’s an example of how the appearances of this city of concrete and steel can be deceptive. Despite evident conspicuous consumption, this remains the German city with the most vegetarian restaurants per head. And it is also the city that has extensive botanical gardens with one being a Palmengarten. All in all, around 80% of the population live within 300 metres of a public green space, and 64% either walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work. One of the city’s eco initiatives is the MainBecher scheme, where sustainable coffee cups can be bought at any participating venue and filled at a discount. You can either return them for a refund or keep them to use again.
The Berlin vibe – young, creative, freethinking – is a perfect seedbed for sustainability. After all, this is the city with a giant park, the Tiergarten, at its heart. It is the city which has famously recycled its buildings, creating hotels out of warehouses and nightclubs out of factories. It is a city populated with vegan restaurants and upcycled vintage clothing shops. And talking of upcycling, it is the city whose famous Wall has a section that has become an art gallery, whilst much of the rest of its former route is now a cycle path. Gardening projects are flourishing here, where volunteers come together to create urban fruit and vegetable gardens on unused wasteland. And this is a city which also even recycles its airports. Tempelhof, which was so instrumental in the famous airdrop which kept west Berlin supplied during the Cold War, is now a much-loved urban park.
Anyone who has been to Cologne during Carnival will know that there’s a deeply unconventional streak to the city. The Carnival floats are the creation of local neighbourhoods, and that same neighbourhood vibe resurfaces again in local commitment to sustainability, when residents open up their courtyards and gardens to resell unwanted and homemade items – who doesn't love a second-hand bargain? The city’s location on the Rhine means that a lot of its tourism is water-based, with visitors starting or finishing their river cruises from here. There are other transport alternatives too, because Cologne’s railway station is the focus of the high-speed trains that connect with Brussels and thence London, which makes it a key entry point for British travellers who want a greener alternative to flying. Those visitors are more than likely to purchase the tourist board’s KölnCard, which offers free public transport within the city and up to 50% off at museums, restaurants, shops and attractions.
The Hanseatic city of Bremen has cleaned up its act since much of its big shipping opted to not travel up the river Weser, but to offload at its seaport of Bremerhaven instead. The ancient merchant houses remain as a sign of previous prosperity, whilst the river front has been given over to leisure, particularly for cyclists, for whom there’s a free, multilingual cycling navigation app. In fact there are four rivers in the Bremen vicinity, the Ochtum, the Wümme and the Lesum together with the Weser, as well as nine public swimming lakes. In total that means 47 square metres of water per resident, and no other large German city has as much as that.
At first sight the handsome and ancient city of Celle, not far from Hanover, doesn’t look like a centre of sustainability. Preservation, yes. Heritage, for sure, with its castle and pretty market square. The town has some 500 lovingly restored medieval timber-framed buildings, which must be a nightmare to heat, along with several well-maintained Bauhaus buildings, too. But it is the need to protect those buildings which has ramped up local conservation efforts, initiating city tours by electric train, by horse-drawn carriage, by segway, and by electric bike. In fact Celle was the first city in northern Germany to be certified as a sustainable destination, back in 2017, with its emphasis on the likes of buying regional products, changing lighting to LEDs, etc. And sitting as it does in a region of heathlands, rivers, moors and forests, landscapes, it has a lot to preserve.
When it rains in London, the saying goes, the people of Hamburg put their umbrellas up. This is meant to be the most British of German cities, and it certainly shares similar weather. It is way ahead of London, however, in the sheer numbers of commuters who go to work on foot or by bicycle. This is a city of waterways, subtitled the Venice of the North, with two big lakes, the Alsters, like a pair of lungs at its heart. Accordingly, boats are a part of city life, whether that be setting out on a solar-powered tour of the port, or renting a sailboat on the Outer Alster. Back in 2011, Hamburg was designated as Europe’s Green Capital, and it hasn’t rested on its laurels: recent innovations include a green roof subsidy of up to €100,000 for anyone installing at least 20 sqm of soil to support any kind of vegetation on their roof.
With its fairytale castle, cobbled streets, roofs topped with pointy hats, and proximity to the Harz mountains famous for witches, there’s something truly magical about Wernigerode. Many visitors come here en route to the Harz National Park – including fishy visitors in the streams that gurgle through town. For them, Wernigerode has carefully removed all obstacles to migration to allow them to move upstream to their spawning grounds in the hills. Meanwhile public transport is free for tourists, thanks to the Harzer Urlaubs-Ticket, and many places will allow free refills of empty water bottles.
There’s a Mediterranean flavour to the former capital of Bavaria. The tall narrow streets of the old city could easily have been transported from Nice, and the plazas surrounded by ice-cream parlours could easily be from the Italian Riviera. The city has 1,400 buildings of serious historical significance, including the 12th century Steinerne Brücke, a magnificent bridge straddling the Danube, which for many centuries was the only river-crossing between Ulm and Vienna. Regensburg is of course UNESCO registered, and very aware of the need to preserve its treasures. Accordingly, it has curated a lot of recommendations for eco tourism on its sustainability website, regensburg-nachhaltig.de. Here you’ll find listings of accommodation which, for example, obtain their electricity from renewable sources, of restaurants that serve mainly regional and seasonal produce, of shops that sell organic or fair trade products. They even recommend companies where travellers can offset their CO2 emissions.
The capital of Thuringia is an elegant city of Renaissance and Baroque facades, threaded by gliding trams. The head-turner here is the 700 year old Krämerbrücke (Merchant’s Bridge) lined with houses and craftsmen’s shops. Bridges like these, still with their own inhabitants living on top of the arches, are very rare these days, and its lesser-known location means that the Krämerbrücke gets a fraction of the attention that Florence’s Ponte Vecchio does. The bridge is the focus of the city’s emphasis on sustainability, its shops selling local handicrafts such as Blaudruck prints, hand-painted ceramics, Lauscha glass, hand-made jewellery and wood carvings as well as wines from the nearby Saale-Unstrut region. And beyond the bridge, the city’s shops and restaurants are encouraged to offer more organic food, particularly from the local area. Meanwhile the citizens are doing their own bit by topping the list of the most economic users of water per head in all German cities.