There are always many decisions to consider when planning a vacation—traveling sustainably means making choices that respect and protect the communities and environment you visit too. I experienced first-hand how rewarding it can be to travel this way when I took a sustainability-focused road trip in Germany earlier this fall. Exploring local culture, enjoying natural green spaces, and learning from local innovators made for an ideal holiday, and it was all easy to do with so many eco-friendly options throughout Germany.
Traveling by rented electric vehicle and Deutsche Bahn trains, staying in sustainable hotels, and eating local vegan cuisine, I explored Dresden and Bremerhaven with a stop in Leipzig. And I learned about Weimar, another intriguing city that’s a significant destination for design, with a sustainable ethos. As a design fan alone, I’d love to visit Weimar and my recent green trip cemented the rewards of traveling to green places.
What makes designing an eco-itinerary in Germany so simple is the abundance of ways to support the ongoing well-being of local communities, economies, and environments. Numerous hotels follow sustainable practices such as reducing emissions and conserving resources. Electric vehicles and public transportation reduce energy use and pollution. Many German cities offer walkable and bikeable green oases, electric mobility, and innovative activities focusing on intercultural understanding and sustainably restored historic buildings. And prioritizing organic and vegan cuisine protects biodiversity. In Germany, you’ll find plentiful options for a well-rounded vacation that also helps sustain the places you visit.
Dresden’s architectural wonders
My first stop was Dresden, which I can’t recommend enough for its mix of history, architecture, green innovation, and lovely expansive parks. Located on the left bank of the Elbe River, Dresden’s historic center features magnificent structures from the Renaissance, Baroque period, and 19th century. Despite devastation from WW II, the Altstadt (Old Town) has been carefully restored.
For a quiet morning stroll, go to see Dresden’s historic buildings bathed in golden light. The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was built in the 1700s, destroyed during the Allied firebombing in 1944, and rebuilt from 1993-2005. One of the most recognizable landmarks in Dresden, the Baroque dome offers 360-degree views over the city.
Zwinger Palace is another excellent example of Baroque architecture and among Germany’s most important. It’s a monumental complex built by Augustus the Strong in the 1700s for royal festivities and now houses three museums, including the Old Masters Picture Gallery, one of the world’s most renowned collections of paintings.
Originally built in the 1500s, the Royal Palace was where Saxon electors and kings lived. Today, you can see the reconstructed palace rooms and extensive armory collection, plus check out the impressive Procession of Princes, on the exterior wall of the palace, the world’s largest porcelain mural. Afterwards, stop by one of the many charming cafés, like the Coselpalais Café in a historic building built in 1765, and try the Dresdner Eierschecke, a delicious Saxon dessert with three layers: a cake base, a middle layer of quark cheesecake, and vanilla custard on top. Supporting a local business while sampling regional cuisine is the kind of mindful travel experience that’s readily available in Dresden and beyond.
Outdoor delights in Dresden
Thanks to historic architecture paired with unusually broad expanses of nature and outdoor space, Dresden is at the top of the list of unique cities I’ve visited. Forest and greenery make up 62 percent of the city, one of Europe’s greenest. Dresden Heath, known as the “green lung of Dresden,” is a 19-square-mile nature preserve and recreation area with hiking trails and wild animals in the middle of town. The haven is a fantastic example of how Dresden, and Germany as a whole, protects nature and gives residents a place to renew their spirits.
A must-see is the Elbwiesen, or Elbe Meadows, wide green lawns with paths on both sides of the river. It’s typically filled with locals enjoying a picnic, canoeing, watching an outdoor film or concert, or visiting vineyards and beer gardens. See it all from a different perspective on a steamboat ride with Sächsische Dampfschifffahrt, the world’s largest and oldest paddle steamer fleet. Sip a coffee or German beer while floating down the Elbe, appreciating the natural beauty.
Touring Dresden and its green spaces by bike with RollOn (or you can also try MOBIbike) was a fun way to see the city that I could feel good about too. For travelers who want to lessen their environmental footprint, Dresden has one of the most comprehensive public transportation networks in the country with bike- and car-sharing programs, electric vehicles, trains, trams, buses, scooters, and ferries. The city is so green that most people who live there don’t need a car, which limits fossil fuel use and pollution.
Delicious Dresden dining
Dresden also offers a vibrant food scene with many vegan and organic dishes that focus on local ingredients and regional dishes. There’s an abundance of innovative, well-known restaurants lining the Neustadt district, including Altes Wettbüro where I enjoyed organic vegan dishes and wine.
Lila Soße is another favorite for modern German cuisine made using ingredients sourced nearby. And the city’s oldest vegan restaurant, Falscher Hase, is known for hearty vegan food including a tomato seitan burger—the best veggie burger I’ve had. I also highly recommend a stop at Pfunds Dairy, a cheese and dairy store covered in stunning handcrafted tiles made in Germany in the 1800s.
Exploring seaside in Bremerhaven
My next stop was the beautiful seaside city of Bremerhaven on the northern coast of Germany. The city plays an important role in German and European maritime history and boasts a high concentration of world-class museums, affording accessible opportunities for intercultural understanding. In fact, the coastal destination is known for its Havenwelten (Harbor Worlds) and Wissens- und Erlebniswelten (Worlds of Knowledge and Experiences).
One of the biggest ports in Europe and providing access to the North Sea, Bremerhaven is one of Germany’s most important harbor cities. Start off your tour of Havenwelten by visiting the observatory platform at the Atlantic Hotel Sail City for 360-degree views of the Weser River and the harbor area. Then head to the nearby Maritime Museum and marvel at the medieval Bremen cog ship from 1380, the world’s best-preserved merchant ship of the Middle Ages. It was discovered in the harbor mud. Afterwards, walk through a decommissioned U-boat, the Wilhelm-Bauer.
For dinner, I recommend the Treffpunkt Kaiserhafen restaurant in the industrial port area. Nicknamed “the last pub before New York,” it’s where emigrants would come before setting sail. Today it’s a small rustic pub with warm service, maritime decor, an energetic ambience, and hearty comfort food. Another local favorite is the Salondampfer Hansa. You’ll feel like a captain as you dine on seafood in a steamship from the 1930s with elegant, wood-paneled rooms and cozy banquettes.
Bremerhaven’s enlightening experiences
The Wissens- und Erlebniswelten side of the city is famous for multiple first-rate museums that bring culture to life. One of my favorites was the German Emigration Center, highlighting the millions of Europeans who relocated to the U.S. from Bremerhaven. As Melf Grantz, Lord Mayor of Bremerhaven, says, “Since Bremerhaven was founded, immigrants have shaped the cityscape…We couldn’t ask for another museum that reflects this history more appropriately than the German Emigration Center.” The interactive museum recreates the experiences of the journey, sharing moving stories and memorabilia and bringing more than 300 years of emigration to life. The museum also participates in education and applied migration research.
Another standout museum is the innovative Klimahaus (Climate Experience Center), an interactive museum and science center focusing on climate, climate change, and weather. The hands-on experience creatively enables intercultural learning by showing you how people living along the eighth longitude are affected by their climate as you “travel” through five continents and nine climate zones. Plus, the museum’s electricity is 100 percent from renewable sources. You can also stop by The Zoo at the Sea, which is committed to nature conservation and species protection.
Green hospitality, restaurants, and businesses in Bremerhaven
Of the plethora of Bremerhaven hotels leading the way in sustainable offerings, Atlantic Hotel Sail City Bremerhaven is committed to its “Green Sail” eco-initiatives. Since 2013, the sail-shaped hotel has implemented more than 500 measures to conserve resources, greatly reduced its carbon footprint, and committed to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. At the onsite Panorama Restaurant Strom, their seasonal menus source mostly from regional purveyors, and they minimize their packaging and raise awareness for food waste.
You’ll also find a variety of excellent vegan and organic food to choose from here. Speisesaal at the German Emigration Center is a must. Enjoying the delicious vegan food in the sunny cafe is wonderfully relaxing. I also visited the Geestemünde Farmer’s Market with produce from nearby farms, plus pastries, bread, meat, cheese, coffee, and plants—the apples I bought there were fantastic!
Green travel also means supporting local small businesses of which there are many in Bremerhaven. Entrepreneurs following their passions include designer Eva Erkenberg at Bremerhavens Segelmacher. Upcycling old sails into new products such as tote bags, notebooks, and placemats, Erkenberg and her craftsmanship celebrate Bremerhaven maritime history—and make perfect souvenirs.
Where design meets sustainability in Weimar and beyond
If you’re looking for other green cities in Germany, Weimar is another great choice with its design heritage and eco-conscious lifestyle. See the first Bauhaus exhibit at the Bauhaus Museum, stop by one of the many UNESCO World Heritage sights, then visit one of the city’s many parks. And since staying a bit longer in one destination makes travel more sustainable, investigate the Weimar Card Plus, which includes admission to museums in Weimar and Thuringia.
During my road trip, I also stopped in Leipzig, another destination that offers many green travel options. I visited St. Thomas Church and if you have more time, you can kayak on the Weiße Elster and visit industrial buildings that have been rebuilt as innovative arts and culture centers such as Spinnerei, Tapetenwerk, or Kunstkraftwerk.
On this trip, I discovered how many sustainable options are available in Germany to create a rich, well-rounded, and meaningful trip. It felt so good knowing that my travel was supporting conservation efforts, intercultural education, efficient transportation, eco-friendly accommodations, organic and vegan cuisine, local small businesses, and innovative science and technology. I wholeheartedly recommend Germany to green travelers who want to combine cultural experiences with sustainability.
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