Green getaway: Holidaying with a conscience in the heart of Berlin

Community-led housing, plant-based dining and eco-transport options ensure Germany’s capital rides high when it comes to sustainable travel

Berlin's sustainability mindset makes the German capital an easy place to enjoy a holiday with a conscience. Photo: VisitBerlin
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Skateboarders whizz past and locals on bikes with their kids in tow enjoy a whirl in the afternoon sun.

I am at one of Berlin’s many green spaces, Tempelhofer Feld, a 385-hectare abandoned airport that was once the site of Nazi rallies and has since been converted into a public space, with community gardens, picnic areas and cycling paths.

It's one of 2,000 green spaces, cycle lanes and recycling initiatives in forward- thinking Berlin, a city on a green path to the future. Aiming to be climate neutral by 2050, Germany's capital has a young population, a strong preference for public transport over cars and a regard for sustainability that seems to be intrinsic to its DNA.

I’m meeting with Michael LaFond, a man who has studied architecture and community development, and is the founder of the Institute for Creative Sustainability in Berlin. This multidisciplinary, non-profit organisation champions Berlin’s co-housing project, a plan to create self-organised and community-led housing for all.

Michael LaFond founded community housing project Spreefeld. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Spreefeld is an affordable housing co-operative model spread over three buildings where there is a grassroots community level initiative to consume less.

As I stand on the terrace of one of the buildings, looking down at carefully planted food forests – where shrubs and vegetables of different species and heights are planted to mimic a larger ecosystem – I see fruit trees and vegetable patches, walking paths meandering along the River Spree and a natural swimming pool that’s kept clean by special plants growing inside it. The scene is so idyllic that I almost forget I’m in the heart of one of Europe's busiest capital cities.

LaFond has lived at Spreefeld since 2014 and shares some background on the project’s history.

“This was an industrial area until the Second World War. In the 1970s, there were many squats or abandoned buildings in East Germany, and young people who defied the establishment, artists and other creative people occupied these vacant buildings," he says. "The city officials worked with them to eventually purchase the buildings from the absent owners and turned them into co-operatives.”

Community housing project Spreefeld is devoted to community use with spaces for co-working, galleries, a yoga studio and music room for residents. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

The two lower floors of LaFond’s building are devoted to community use with spaces for co-working, galleries, a yoga studio and music room, as well as a day care centre for children. He shows me a common kitchen and a living room, which can be used by all residents. Some people have smaller units without kitchens, while others with higher incomes chose to have larger units with built-in kitchens.

“It’s all about co-operation and community. Very often you will find a neighbour willing to babysit your child or help out when you are sick. We share resources like cars and bicycles, and help each other picking up shopping," says LaFond. "Most of us only walk or cycle and that’s why we don’t have parking spaces for cars here. We use solar and geo- thermal energy and have built passive buildings, insulated with three layers of glass that use less energy."

Berlin's trendsetting vegan food trail

The project is just one tiny portion of Berlin's sustainability initiatives, which also permeates to its culinary scene. The city's plant-based dining and zero waste restaurants are trendsetters when it comes to sustainable eating.

Cookies restaurant, run by Chef Stephan Hentschel, is the recipient of a Michelin star for his exclusively vegetarian menu. Meanwhile, Michelin Green stars – for restaurants with a focus on sustainability – have been awarded to five other Berlin eateries.

I take a vegan food walk with local tour company Fork and Walk in the gentrified neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. My guide Violeta shows me some of the favourite local haunts, including Brammibal’s Donuts, where I taste delicious vegan doughnuts in flavours such as salted caramel and chocolate pumpkin spice.

Even Currywurst, Berlin’s long-standing street food staple consisting of a sausage cut into bite-sized chunks and seasoned with curry ketchup, is available in vegan versions.

Markthalle Neun is one of the largest market halls of Berlin. Photo: Visit Berlin

At Veganz, Europe’s first vegan supermarket founded in Berlin in 2011, I wander shelves lined with meat, fish and cheese alternatives, plus plenty of plant proteins.

At a branch of a popular chain of bakeries called Zeit Fur Brot, shelves overflow with freshly baked goodies and I am amazed by the vegan options on offer – from organic sandwiches to quick meals with rice and lentils. The bakery uses renewable energy and all organic ingredients and ensures no food waste by giving any leftover stock away to those who need it most.

As a vegetarian, I am delighted at the choices I have when eating out in Berlin. At the zero-waste Frea, for example, all leftovers are composted.

Berlin’s historic market hall Markthalle Neun in Berlin-Kreuzberg is next on my list and I interact with locals under gargantuan iron beam ceilings as they shop for groceries. The hall sells everything from freshly baked sourdough bread and hand-crafted cheeses to a whole range of sausages and other local favourites.

As I explore, Refill Berlin – a non-profit scheme aiming to make free tap water available throughout the city – allows me to easily fill up my own water bottle at cafes, restaurants and drinking fountains, entirely free of charge.

Getting around Berlin is also easy to do sustainably, with the city’s various public transport options from the U-Bahn metro and S-Bahn trains to trams, electric buses and an endless supply of bicycles for hire. Using several options to get around town, I delve into the city's neighbourhoods and can't help but fall in love with its green spaces – from public parks such as Tiergarten, to freight stations and shunting yards that have been transformed into parks, where I spend several hours lounging on a picnic blanket with a good book.

Lulu Guldsmeden, a boutique hotel, is furnished with natural, fair trade materials, and provides guests with bicycles. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

The green mindset of Berliners also extends to the city’s hotels.

The Courtyard by Marriott Berlin Mitte houses modern, minimalistic rooms and woven vinyl floors that are made out of recycled fishing nets, which not only upcycles old products, but is also hypoallergenic. The hotel has an energy-efficient operation and offers any nearly expired food products to employees in a bid to reduce waste. Single use plastics are also not used at the property.

At Lulu Guldsmeden, a Nordic-style boutique hotel on Potsdamer Strasse, everything is about sustainability – from the fair-trade furnishings in the rooms to the organic toiletries and the use of natural materials including natural latex, cotton and wool from camels, yak and sheep. The hotel serves only organic food and there’s also bicycles for hire for guests looking for a green way to get around town.

Pre-loved fashion and swap parties

Sustainable fashion designer Antje Pugnat at her Berlin studio. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Berlin is also famous for its sustainable fashion scene and I visit the sprawling Noch Mall in the north of the city. This department store is stocked with everything from furniture and homeware to clothes, books, jewellery and electrical goods, all of which are pre-loved.

But Berliners don’t have to travel to the mall to shop sustainably. Many neighborhoods have their own flea markets and my guide tells me about clothing swap parties, where everyone attending brings at least five items of clothing to swap with other fashion lovers.

“Renting, vintage stores and clothes swaps are becoming common in the city,” Antje Pugnat says when I meet her at her charming design studio on Potsdamer Strasse.

This is where she creates luxury knitwear, sculpting woollen garments, hats and accessories as well as making finely meshed machine knit garments, working with natural materials such as cashmere and silk. Staying true to her green values, Pugnat only works with producers that share common ethical and ecological principles.

As I leave her workshop, entirely impressed by the collection, I reflect on my time in Berlin and how it has opened my eyes to the idea that taking a holiday doesn’t have to also mean taking a break from your conscience.

Updated: July 18, 2023, 8:38 AM