A Green City Guide to Berlin

City: Berlin, Germany
Population: 3.4 Million
Green Cred: Devoted to alternative energy development

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When East and West reunited in 1990, city planners had the opportunity to rebuild one of the world's great metropolises. Innovative new buildings went up everywhere, while old factories and modernist gems got a new lease on life. Once known for its drab gray apartment blocks, Berlin has become a vibrant green oasis. With thrift shops, farmer's markets, vegan restaurants, and vast parklands, the German capital is one of Europe's greenest travel destinations.

A drive along the autobahn reveals Germany's commitment to renewable energy. Mighty armies of wind turbines rise from fields and farmlands. But venture into the heart of the capital city and it becomes clear that Berlin has a soft spot for sustainable urban development. From the green roofs of Postdamer Platz to a 1970s restaurant turned art gallery, the cityscape is awash with brand new sustainable structures, classic architectural icons, and refurbished spaces repurposed in so many creative ways.

Beyond the architectural gems of the sprawling skyline, Berlin offers numerous opportunities for green exploration. One of the best destinations for bicycling in the world, the city also boasts an exceptional public transit system and a tranquil network of waterways. So rent a bike, take a ride on the S-Bahn, or charter a solar-powered catamaran after checking in to your eco-friendly hotel. Then go try some vegetarian Wienerschnitzel.

Places You Must Go

  • Ride the elevator to the Reichstag's glass dome for one of the best free views of the city. Natural light streams in through the curved glass to illuminate the room below where parliament meets. Or forgo the wait in line and simply lounge about on the expansive green out front.
  • Catch a concert at Radialsystem V. The arts space housed in a 1905 pumping station is located near the East Side Gallery, the longest still standing stretch of the Berlin Wall. Go early to see the artwork that adorns its length.
  • Stroll down Unter den Linden to the Brandenberg Gate, then turn left to explore the Holocaust memorial, before arriving at Potsdamer Platz. This complex of office buildings, restaurants, movie theatres, and hotels features an Urban Waterscape designed by Atelier Dreiseitl. Here, skyscrapers reflect in serene pools of harvested rainwater.
  • Venture to ufa Fabrik in Tenpelhof. Once a film copy center, the complex is now an international center for culture and ecology. The theaters, open air stage, organic bakery, live music cafe, and children's farm are all powered by solar panels.
  • Rise 48 meters above the streets of Berlin to see the view and some art. Turmkunst is a sky-high art gallery that was once a restaurant. Four street artists recently gave the 1970s tower a colorful new coat.

Things You Must Do

  • The best way to traverse this vast city is by bike, and most places that sell bikes rent them too. Fat Tire is centrally located and offers bike tours in addition to rentals.
  • Get a different perspective and see the city from the water. Reederei Riedel offers boat cruises along the River Spree as well as Berlin's canals.
  • Embark on a guided tour of some of Berlin's eco-friendly buildings. Led by local architects, Ticket B's "Sustainable Development" tour includes landmarks like the Freie University's "Foster-Brain" philological library and the headquarters of Solon SE, one of Europe's largest manufacturers of solar modules, and the developers behind Solon C60, a 50-passenger solar-powered catamaran you can charter by the hour.

Where To Sleep

  • Once home to the National Military Printing Press of the German Democratic Republic, MitArt Hotel is located in the heart of the city's most vibrant art districts. A gallery itself, works by Berlin artists hang in every room. Visit the locally on-site cafe for locally sourced organic treats.
  • U Inn Berlin is committed to eliminating its environmental footprint by using renewable energy sources, eco-friendly cleaning products, recycled paper products, and biodegradable garbage bags.
  • Surrounded by the serene, leafy neighborhood of Karlshorst, Villa Seepark is a certified green two-bedroom apartment dating from 1912.
  • Known for a commitment to reducing energy and water consumption and decreasing carbon emissions by implementing new solutions in hotel sustainability, the Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels has ten properties in Berlin.

Where To Eat

  • Organic fare is served in Foodorama's sleek, minimalist, carbon-neutral dining room.
  • Doner, the Turkish version of shawarma or gyro, is one of Berlin's most popular street foods. Pick up a vegetarian version at Voner the Vegetarian Doner, or opt for a haloumi cheese sandwich, served at most doner cafes.
  • An exceptional Alpine menu changes with the season at Cafe Obermaier where schnitzel, spargel (asparagus), and kasespatzle (a traditional cheesy, doughy dish) are served in a warm dining room or an illuminated beer garden.
  • Vegans can satisfy their fast food cravings with a Mac Wheaty Cheese Burger at Yellow Sunshine.

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Shops To Visit If You're There For A Day

  • Fair trade fashions, handmade hand bags, and French lingerie constructed of ecological materials are all on offer at Wertvoll.
  • "Live green, look good" is the motto of Pamoyo, a Berlin fashion label devoted to sustainable materials. The "open source" label offers their chic patterns under a Creative Commons license.
  • Coffee from Africa, tea from India, and rum from Cuba. Weltladen is a treasure trove of fair trade goods from around the world.
  • Otto Junemann started making felt slippers in Berlin in the 1920s. Pick up a pair at Junemann’s Pantoffeleck.

Shops To Frequent If You're There For a Year

  • From baked goods to beauty products, Bio Berlin is a one-stop shop for organic goodness.
  • Franziska Wodicka makes furniture from vintage drawers. Browse the ready-made chests and cabinets at her Kreuzberg shop SchubLaden, or go with a custom request.

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Green Spaces

Germans take their need for nature seriously. Peer out the train window and you may notice tightly knit communities of garden houses. City dwellers go here on the weekends to unwind and harvest their vegetables. While these warm weather retreats are private, visitors can enjoy the capital's bounty of parks and gardens. A few favorites include the Tiergarten, Treptower Park, Viktoriapark, Volkspark Friedrichschain (home to Cafe Schoenbrunn, pictured), and the brand new Tempelhofer Park - the historic airport became a sprawling space for sun bathing and kite flying last spring.
Farmer's markets are also in abundance. The Okomarkt am Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg and the Okomarkt am Chamissoplatz are both strictly organic. And the Turkish Market is a long, fantastic corridor of plump figs, warm sesame-sprinkled breads, and bolts of fabric. Farmers and vendors set up their stalls along Kreuzberg's Maybachufer every Tuesday and Friday.

Great Independent Artisans

  • Reclaimed floorboards are turned into tables, bunk beds, and other distinctive pieces by Georg Bochem in his studio Dielerei.
  • Holger in't Veld infuses his handmade chocolates with flavors like blood orange and mountain mint.

The Best Flea Markets, Antique Fairs, and Thrift Stores

Whether it's a vintage dirndl or a Soviet era map you're after, Berlin is an exceptional city for antiquing. Stroll the streets of Kreuzberg, Prenzlauerberg, and Friedrichshain and you're sure to stumble upon a few fabulous thrift stores and antique shops.
  • With locations throughout the city, Humana is the German Goodwill. One of the best is at Frankfurter Tor.
  • Waahnsinn is a fabulous thrift shop in Mitte, stocked with GDR era finds.
  • Sundays are for flea markets (when most of Berlin's shops are closed), the ones at Mauerpark (Sundays), Boxhagener Platz (Sundays), and the antique market at the Ostbahnhof are a few of the most terrific.

(Originally published 2010-07-16)

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