With the enviable claim to fame of being Germany’s sunniest city, Freiburg is also one of its most eco-friendly.

Ever since a protest by residents in 1975 halted the construction of a nuclear generator on nearby farmland, the city has been a beacon of sustainability and citizen-led action. From cycle paths to communal gardens, and from a town hall clad entirely in solar panels to a tangible enthusiasm for local produce and outdoor pursuits, everything in this youthful University town is done with a conscience.

But Freiburg still showcases everything there is to love about Germany's smaller cities, from brightly painted half-timbered houses lining a cobblestone square to rowdy breweries serving up full beer mugs and huge schnitzels and ornate medieval gates guarding the walled city.

If you’re looking for a German getaway where it's easy to keep on top of your carbon footprint, look no further. Here's our pick of the top things to do in Freiburg.

Pedal along the Dreisam

Freiburg is a paradise for cyclists, with more than 400km (250 miles) of dedicated bike paths that crisscross the town and its flanking forests and villages. In fact, with twice as many bikes as cars, you'll feel like the odd one out if don't follow the lead of locals and saddle up. You can rent a city bike using the convenient Frelo bike-share scheme, and drop it off at any of dozens of parking stations scattered throughout the Freiburg area (rates start from €1 for 30 minutes).

Look out for the blue bicycle logo that marks the route of the FR1, a dedicated bike highway that straddles the Dreisam River. Starting in the old town, this lovely transect sails past community gardens, the old football stadium, sculpture parks, the Mundenhof animal sanctuary and plenty of street art. Take a pit stop at Cafe Extrablatt and fuel up on their popular weekend buffet breakfasts or grab a coffee before you pedal on your way.

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Cheer on the local soccer team at the SC Stadium

Freiburg doesn't take itself too seriously, until the local football (soccer) team runs onto the pitch that is. If you happen to be in town when SC Freiburg are playing, try to snag tickets to a game. It's quite an experience – not only for the supercharged atmosphere, but also to check out the team's admirable commitment to sustainability.

Germany’s first completely solar-powered football ground, Europa Park Stadium was completed in late 2021 after the Bundesliga club outgrew their old home ground. The 37,000 seat stadium is fitted out with charging spots for electric vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters and has almost 4,000 bicycle parking spots, and it's on track to become climate neutral.

If you can’t score tickets, don a red scarf and join supporters at a local pub – Heimliche Kneipe (Secret Pub) and O'Kelly's Irish pub both attract a sporting crowd.

Fly high in the Schauinslandbahn cable car 

Climb aboard the Schauinslandbahn, Germany’s longest loop cable car, and glide to the top of  1,220m (4212ft) Schauinsland – the name translates, appropriately, to "look into the country." The 10-minute ride is breathtaking, but the views are even better from the top. Admire the panorama, visit the mining museum or walk amongst the pines and soak up the fresh mountain air.

Adventure lovers can cruise downhill on the 8km (5 mile) off-road scooter track, one of Europe’s longest. When it’s time to warm up, there’s nothing better than cozying up near the crackling fire as you take in the superb snowy views of the Rhine Valley from Die Bergstation restaurant (the fondue comes highly recommended).

View from the Schauinsland tower over peaceful countryside
The viewing tower atop Schauinsland looks out over bucolic German countryside © medikus84 / Getty Images

Dip your toes in the Bächle

Wandering through the medieval old town, make sure you keep your feet dry or you might end up marrying a local, or so the local folklore goes. The watercourses that happily single travelers need to avoid are Freiburg's "Bächle" – long, open runnels flowing with clean water that run along many of the town’s streets.

These historic channels served as drainage in medieval times but and after the introduction of modern sewer systems, they were preserved as a nostalgic reminder of Freiburg's long history. Most importantly, the flow of clean water from the Dreisam helps cool the urban microclimate, so don’t be afraid to slip off your shoes and dip your toes in the cool water. Who knows, you might just find a new spouse!

Shop sustainably in the Sedan district

You won't find any of the big brands in this charming shopping district just south of the old town. Instead, the focus is on small-scale sustainable shopping. While you explore, order a coffee at Elephant Beans, where direct-sourced beans are roasted on-site, or grab a bite to eat at social enterprise Strandcafe, where traditional recipes are prepared by refugees using regional organic produce.

When it comes to the shopping, stop in at Glaskiste, a wholesome supermarket with a strict no-plastic policy, for local produce. Just around the corner, you’ll find beautiful organic clothing at Zündstoff’s corner boutique.

Make four-legged friends at Mundenhof

Animal lovers and families with kids in tow will love the Mundenhof animal sanctuary, set on 38 hectares of open greenery. You can get close to over 30 species of free-roaming domestic animals, including camels, horses, goats and cattle from all over the world. The sanctuary also has an extensive program caring for endangered animals such as bison, long-tailed macaques and gibbons.

Visitors can accompany the keepers on their daily feeding rounds from 2:30pm from March to October, and kids will also love getting their hands dirty in the educational on-site petting zoo known as KonTiKi. All the hay and grain needed to feed the animals is grown on the surrounding land – this is how every zoo should operate! Best of all, entry is free, but donations are welcome.

The Gothic-style architecture of Freiburger Munster
The center of Freiburg is full of magnificent medieval architecture © Layne Kennedy / Getty Images

Sip Black Forest wine in a pop-up wine tavern

Freiburg offers rich pickings for wine lovers. Many of the region's vintners produce their wines in small batches that are hard to sell to restaurants or supermarkets. Instead, they set up their own pop-up wine taverns in garages, cellars and lounge rooms, and serve their wine alongside simple German fare. But there's a catch – these straussenwirtschaften (seasonal wine taverns), are only permitted to open for 16 weeks of the year, so they hang a big broom out front when they’re open for business.

Locals go pretty wild around April when spargelsaison (white asparagus season) begins – there’s nowhere better to try this tender delicacy than at Griestal-Strausse, a local winery in the hills outside Freiburg. Outside of asparagus season, try the kürbiscremesuppe (pumpkin cream soup) or the flammkuchen, a crispy, pizza-like cheese-topped bread typical of the region.

Explore Vauban’s utopian society

Wandering through the progressive suburb of Vauban offers a glimpse of how far-reaching environmental consciousness is here. The first clue is the lack of cars, with parking spots replaced by communal green spaces. Then you'll notice that the houses are all low-energy buildings, using solar cells or woodchip-fuelled generators for power.

Then, there are the co-op supermarkets, organic cafes, cute playgrounds and the community petting zoo. As you wander, you'll spot rooftop gardens, food-sharing pantries, organic waste digesters, conflict-resolution workshops and bike paths. Decide for yourself if this is a glimpse into Europe's bright future, or a one-off utopian dream!

Visit Freiburg's bustling produce market

At the heart of the city, Münsterplatz (Cathedral Square) is dominated by a 13th-century gothic tower and the 11th-century Freiburger Münster and filled by a daily farmers market, except for Sunday. Exclusively reserved for produce from the region, the market proudly displays delectable fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese and cold meats, crafts and flowers.

Don’t leave without trying the legendary lange rote (literally "Long Red") – a crispy, 35cm (14in) pork sausage doused in mustard. Get here early to sample a piece of the famous käsekuchen (cheesecake) from Stefans; just look out for the bright yellow van.

View over Freiburg's historic market square
Looking down on Freiburg's historic market square © canadastock / Shutterstock

Take in the views from Schlossberg

Wherever you are in Freiburg, you can see the mountains and the forest rising outside town, but there’s no better vantage point than the top of the tree-covered hill known as Schlossberg ("Castle Hill"). Rest your legs and jump into the cable car, which will whisk you up to a cozy beer garden in three minutes, or work off last night’s schnitzel and take an hour-long hike to the summit, stopping for a refreshing German ale en route.

At the top, push on and climb an extra 400 steps to reach the top of the observation tower, perched above the trees with panoramic views of the Black Forest, the Rhine plain and the old town below. In winter, the trees are often dusted with snow, while summer promises epic sunsets. At the end of July, Schlossberg transforms into a giant stage as live bands and DJs take over the beer garden and surrounding areas for the annual Schlossberg Festival.

Get wet to cool down or warm up in Freiburg

Whether you come to Freiburg in summer or winter, make sure you pack your swimsuit. When the weather is hot, join the locals as they cool off in the Dreisam river in the town center, or dip in the Opfinger or Dietenbachsee lakes, just a short tram ride out of town.

When it’s too cold or wet for sightseeing, warm your bones in the therapeutic waters of Keidel Mineral Thermal Spa. Mineral-rich thermal water from a local spring will leave you feeling rejuvenated while back and neck jets release your tight muscles. There’s also a sauna, but it's communal and clothing free, as is the German tradition. Visit mid-week to avoid the crowds. 

Raise a glass to Freiburg's beer brewing history

German beer is renowned for its purity and flavor thanks to the Reinheitsgebot, an ancient beer law that limits brewers to using only four ingredients: malted grains, hops, water and yeast. Taste the results for yourself at Ganter Brewery and Feierling Brewery, which have been keeping locals refreshed since the 18th century.

Both breweries are still run by their respective families, and a tour of Ganter is a great way to learn more about how they balance tradition with modern technology. End with a beer tasting and snacks in the beer garden. You’ll either be horrified or thrilled to hear they offer a very special local drop, Weir – a half beer and half wine concoction. Prost!

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Freiburg is on our 2022 Best of Travel list. For more stories from some of the world’s most exciting destinations click here.

Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.

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