Germany’s Super-Green Bicycle Playground
Elliott lived in Freiburg, Germany for two years while getting his master’s degree at the University of Freiburg. He’s a local of sorts, and the best tips always come from locals. In particular, he recommends:
- Going bicycling
- Grilling, the unofficial German national pass time
- The beach
- Castle hunting
- Checking out the beautiful surroundings
- Intra-city cycling
- Playing in the snow
Freiburg is a lovely medium-sized student city that’s known as one of the greenest cities in Germany. The city itself is quite pretty with its old town, cathedral, and little streams (Bächle) running all over the place downtown (and also great for cooling off when enjoying a nice beer on the streets with friends). It’s also a highly international and open minded city, so your odds of encountering a friendly face are maybe a bit higher than in other German cities.
We could tell you more about Freiburg’s mainstream offerings, but we’ll leave that to Rick Steves. Rather, allow us to share with you some of Freiburg’s more unique offerings that one can find off the beaten path.
When to go
Any time of the year! Freiburg is Germany’s sunniest city, which means it enjoys very warm summers (sometimes too warm), fantastic spring and fall weather, and even the occasional warm day in winter, although it still snows in the city a couple of times a year. There really isn’t a bad time to visit.
First things first: get a bicycle. A bicycle is the absolute best way to get around Freiburg and to check out some of the things that aren’t as accessible by foot or local transit. The city and countryside are full of dedicated bike lanes, and even for the beginner cyclist there’s nothing to be intimidated by.
How to get a bicycle in Freiburg
Rent, borrow, or buy- no matter how you do it, you’re going to need to find yourself a bicycle if you really want to explore Freiburg, and especially if you want to try your hand at being a true Freiburger.
If you’ve got friends in the city, just ask them to find you a bike! Everybody living there knows somebody who either has an extra bike or knows somebody who does. There’s a big sharing culture in the city, so it shouldn’t be a problem
If you don’t know anybody and you’re only there for a few days, you can rent a bike at a big round building right behind the main train station for reasonable rates.
If you’re planning on spending a few of weeks there, ask around or keep your eyes open for flyers posted around town advertising bikes for sale. There are about 1000 bikes for sale in Freiburg at any point, many of them for very little money (even as low as 20€). If you speak a bit of German and are feeling a bit braver, you can also look for one online.
And what happens if you buy a bike and don’t need/want it anymore when you leave? You can try selling it in the same way you found it. Or, considering that you probably saved money over renting a bike anyways, just lean it somewhere and put a friendly sign reading “zu verschenken” (for free) on it. Somebody else will be happy to take it.
Let’s assume it’s summer, or even spring or fall- basically any time but the dead of winter. After you’ve gotten yourself a bicycle, head to the first of many supermarkets you’ll find scattered all over the city. If this was France you’d be walking out with a baguette and a bottle of wine. But this is Germany, so you’re gonna want to get some beer and sausage (even veggie sausage if that’s your thing, or “Grillkäse” – delicious cheese made to BBQ) and plop it into the basket that’s probably already teetering on the back of your bike.
Now it’s time to ride in any given direction for a few minutes until you stumble upon one of Freiburg’s many green spaces, where there will invariably be some people there grilling away with a portable charcoal grill. Tell them you’re a foreigner, offer them some beer, and congratulations! You’ve just made your first German friends while partaking in this definitive part of Freiburg culture.
Go to the Beach
After you’ve made some friends, why don’t you combine grilling with one of Freiburg’s other top offerings- go to the beach!
There are plenty of places to go swimming in and around Freiburg, all of which can be found by a quick google map search or by asking a local. Get your bicycle loaded up with beach towels and a cooler full of food and head to:
- Seepark, a huge green area and lake right in the middle of the city. This is the place to be in the summer, with tons of students sunbathing, swimming, and grilling at all times of the day. Get there early to find a spot!
- Opfinger See, a decently sized lake just at the edge of the city which has a big sand beach, a nudist section if that’s what you’re into, lots of grass and trees, and several fancy grill pits.
- Moosweiher, a small lake that is accessible by transit and has a few trees from which you can jump into the lake.
- Dietenbachsee, a small lake with lots of green space and a shallow lake.
- The Dreisam river, running right through the city. The further you follow it upstream, the prettier it gets, with infinite places to set down your towel and light up your grill while seeking a respite from Freiburg’s oppressively hot summer days in its ice cold water.
Once you’re a little more confident on that bicycle and sustained by all the sausage and beer you’ve been consuming, it’s time to get a little more adventurous. It’s time for Elliott’s favourite pastime in and around Freiburg: castle hunting!
There are a number of old castles and ruins directly within an hour’s bicycle ride or less. None of them are “touristy,” and all of them offer fantastic views of the surrounding countryside as well. Elliott has discovered some of them, but there are certainly many more out there that he hasn’t found yet. In order from closest to furthest, some of these castles are:
- Freiburg’s Schlossberg. It’s right in the middle of the old town. To be honest, it’s mostly just a hill where a castle once stood before being destroyed in a peasant revolt (it seems that’s the theme with castles around Freiburg), but if you really use your imagination you can make out where the castle may have once loomed over the city. On the plus side, it offers great close-up views of the city!
- Zähringer Burg, which lies just a bit northeast of the city center. Half of the fun of the Zähringer Burg is getting lost trying to find it. Once your legs start screaming in agony, leave your bicycle at the bottom of the hill and go the rest of the way by foot. All that remains of the Zähringer Burg is a Rapunzel-esque tower, and if you leave your driver’s license or passport with the restaurant at the bottom (there’s only one restaurant, you’ll know it when you see it), they’ll give you a giant old skeleton key to unlock the tower and climb up to the top.
- Schneeburg Ruine, which are the ruins of a small castle overlooking the outskirts of the city from the southwest. The best way to find this one is to go to the neighbourhood of Vauban (worth a visit on its own, especially for those interested in alternative/sustainable living) and look up at the closest green-covered mountain. There are two distinct “humps”- make your way up to the one on the right by whatever trail or road you can find. Again, the idea here is to kind of get lost on the way. Your bike will only take you so far, and eventually you’ll probably want to go by foot.
- Ruine Hochburg is Elliott’s favourite castle near Freiburg, and almost totally unknown by most visitors to the city. Getting there requires about an hour’s ride on flat ground from the center. Stick to the dedicated bicycle highways and follow the signs to Denzlingen/Sexau. Once you get close to Sexau you can’t miss it, the castle is on a large hill overlooking the town. The ruins are rather extensive and fairly well preserved. It’s a surprisingly hidden gem.
- Ruine Kastelburg isn’t far from the Ruine Hochburg (another 20-30 minutes by bike) and also offers an impressive structure with a reconstructed central tower. In addition to checking out the castle, it also overlooks the town of Waldkirch, which is certainly worth a visit.
Surrounding Towns and Landscape
Arguably more beautiful than the city itself are the countless little towns, meadows, mountains, and vineyards that dot the area, not to mention the famous Black Forest. Many of these places weren’t overly affected by the Second World War and you can still see original and authentic farm houses lined up beside mini churches on winding country roads, most of them still occupied.
The somewhat larger centers such as Staufen and Kirchzarten are definitely worth a visit, but even the tiny towns of just a few houses are also worth a look. A bicycle is of course the best way to visit them, as you’d be hard pressed to end up in many of these places otherwise.
Freiburg and area is also known for its wine production, and particularly in the fall it is a beautiful thing to get yourself lost in the countless rows of the many vineyards covering the hills. Speaking of hills, if you’re starting to feel pretty confident on that bike, there are plenty of beautiful hills, valleys, and even small mountains to explore, most with quaint old farms, the gentle tinkling of cow bells, and stunning vistas.
The best way to explore the countryside is just to get on your bike and go. If you head anywhere west, the ground is generally flat and offers easy riding. If you head anywhere east, you’ll find yourself in rolling hills and challenging but rewarding hills.
Whenever you get tired or it’s time for a break, you’re never far from a small restaurant offering the regional flammkuchen, black forest cake, and a nice cold beer or radler (half beer, half sparkling lemonade- so refreshing!). If you’re on a budget, bring along your own radler or buy one from a supermarket or gas station for about $1. Wrap it in your jacket to keep it cold and you’re good to go!
By now you’re really going to be a cycling pro. If you keep pumping those big brawny legs of yours you’ll soon discover that you can head west to France by bicycle in less than an hour, and south to Switzerland in a couple more. With this in mind, there is really no limit to where you can go by bicycle. Elliott once even rode 850 km over eight days from Freiburg to Pöchlarn, Austria, but you can save that one for a little later.
The closest city to visit in France is Colmar, which is a highly rewarding ride with lots of interesting towns in between (Breisach with its commanding view over the Rhine, Neuf-Brisach with its extensive fortifications, and many interestingly German-named French towns), and the beautiful if not a little too-touristy town of Colmar itself. There are even some WWII bunkers scattered along the way for the history buff. Also accessible in France are Mulhouse and Strasbourg, and Basel in Switzerland. You’ll probably want to pack a bag to couchsurf overnight in some of these places, or bring along your sleeping bag and tent for some guerrilla camping.
Not everything in and around Freiburg requires a bike… if you want to check out the famous Rhine River, or maybe the smaller nearby Elz River, one of the most unique ways to do so is by canoe! Give Thomas at Wildsport Tours a call or email (the website is in German, but he speaks English too) and set up a guided trip, or just rent a canoe on your own and spend a leisurely day on the water.
Find Some Snow
If you’ve decided to visit Freiburg in the winter, you’ll be hard pressed to find snow in the city. While it does occasionally snow in town, you’re much more likely to find snow in the hills of the Black Forest.
Did we mention that you can also go biking in winter!? It’s more fun than you’d think. Dress in layers and go snow hunting by bicycle! (Just take your turns slower than usual, a lesson Lisa had to learn the hard way.) Alternatively, you can take the bus and/or train to some of the hikes in the Black Forest where snow can pile up, go tobogganing at Schauinsland (admittedly disappointing if you’ve ever gone tobogganing anywhere else before), or go skiing at one of the many nearby resorts if you’re a tourist with lots of cash.