We all know it: traveling is a wonderful thing. Period. But it is often also full of contradictions and dilemmas. To me, some of the biggest of these are to justify all the pollution and problems it can cause. To put it bluntly, I wonder often if we have to harm our planet in order to discover its beauty. I don’t know; one sounds antithetical to the other, doesn’t it? If this is how a friend would describe her relationship to me, I might be all like “step away girl, this is toxic!”

Far from perfect and not morally superior at all, I’m aware that I chose my desire to travel far over my ecological footprint often enough when going on a journey. I’m talking planes, and also the tourism business in general, which is beginning to face some really tough ecological and social issues. It’s a rapidly growing industry, and coming up with ideas that are delightful for visitors but still good for the local people, economy and environment takes time, creativity, will power and huge amounts of sensitivity.

It’s possible though. And hesitantly happening. So, apart from trying to make up for my choices when I’m at home by living as sustainably as I can, I always search for ways to travel more green. 30% is still better than zero percent – there’s (almost) always something you can do. It’s about where you stay, what you eat and, most importantly, how you treat the environment and people around you (hint hint: with real respect).

I love myself some little experiments, so when I read about the Raphael Hotel Wälderhaus  in Hamburg I fell in love with the revolutionary green approach and made a plan: Go to Hamburg, and see how green my getaway can get…

So, I took the train to northern Germany and found a temporary home in the wooden walls of Raphael Hotel Wälderhaus. Literally translated, “Wälderhaus” means forest house, which already indicates that they’re all about the trees here. Built by the “Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald“, an association for the protection of Germany’s forests, this place is not your ordinary hotel. Functioning as an international forum for sustainability, you can rest your head here – but also gather and learn.

Their holistic approach towards sustainability goes far beyond the stuff that only looks good on the outside. They have an amazing restaurant, different conference halls and an ongoing interactive exhibition which allows people of all ages and kinds to explore the magic of our forests in an entertaining fashion.

I love the concept of such multifunctional spaces and this one is really well executed. Every little detail has been thought of and the whole design concept is just gorgeous – cool and modern, but also very inviting. The Wälderhaus is located in the heart of Hamburg’s multicultural Wilhelmsburg district, and aims to really get in touch with the locals. The neighbourhood’s kids and teenagers especially love to swing by and visit the exhibition or grab a lemonade at the bar, and many people from the surrounding area have found work in the hotel.

Did you know, that mushrooms can communicate with each other? | Photo: Johannes Arlt for Wälderhaus

The building itself is made out of local, untreated wood and ferroconcrete, has a fully green rooftop and is almost a hundred percent self-sufficient, running on solar power and geothermal energy. Pretty cool, right?

Apart from all of this, the hotel rooms are super comfortable and calming. They are covered in wood as well and entering them feels like walking into a forest. Or a Finnish sauna. A sauna in the forest maybe? Point is: I slept like a baby in the soft cotton sheets, surrounded by clean, woody air.

Stop the water while using me is a local cosmetic company which encourages you to save water while washing.

Every one of the 82 rooms features a certain local tree. Mine was the “Süntelbuche“, a species known for its extremely weird and unusual figure – what a perfect match! Just like the Wälderhaus in general, which worked out as the ideal base for my green exploration. I’m still impressed with the elaborate design (and the amount of different nut specialties at the breakfast buffet). What a good example of building a hotel in sync with what is happening around it!

Talking of surroundings: The Inselpark, a huge green park, is just around the corner. It’s a former gardening exhibition ground that now functions as a huge, green community space with a waterside, plenty of space and a lovely little cafe. A perfect hideaway for a little green picnic or coffee break!

Since coffee breaks actually are just my thing, wherever I go I try to remember the bring my own cup. It may feel like it’s not that big of a deal to use a paper or plastic cup, but the numbers are actually shocking: in Germany alone, we use 2.8 billion to-go cups per year – that means 320.000 (!) per hour. It’s an actual problem – way too many resources are being used, and in this case the solution is so easy and obvious.

I will admit it’s a bit of a readjustment – sometimes you may be annoyed by always carrying your own cup with you, especially when on a journey. So I really dig the deposit system, that “Refill It” from Hamburg came up with: you buy your own lid once and get a matching cup for a deposit fee in all participating coffee shops in Hamburg. Luckily there are quite a few of them, so it’s always easy to get rid of your cup again and get a new (reused) one the next time you are craving some caffeine. They also have a similar system for water bottles to reduce plastic bottle waste – these are really smart ideas that I hope will be copied more and more!

Speaking of zero waste, there also are quite a few shops in Hamburg where you can do your (grocery) shopping without unnecessary packaging. Bring your own boxes or bags and stock up on fresh goodness at Stückgut in Elmsbüttel, Bio.lose, the fully vegan store Twelve Monkeys in St. Pauli or get some precious spice and oil souvenirs at Wohlempfinden Pur. There also are many lovely organic farmer’s markets happening all around town where you can buy tasty local and seasonal produce, and get in touch with the people growing it.

If you want someone else to prep your food, I’ve got some favorites for you as well. Happenpappen in St. Pauli is a fully vegan restaurant, focusing on local produce and just the right mix of healthy and indulgent. Run by Cathy, a kickass female chef, this place and its menu charmed me right away.

They tackle the art of a real good and satisfying salad, make some mean burgers and pamper you with #breakfastalldaylong on weekends. The space is cozy and always pretty packed – satisfied customers are always coming back for more.

Some other place I would also return to is Cafe Koppel, not too far from the Central station in St. Georg. It’s a vegan and vegetarian cafe, using mostly organic ingredients. The space is hidden in an historical art center and has a lovely green backyard. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and also have some really delicious organic wines. I just could not get enough of the fried tofu. Such a cliche vegan thing to like…

If you are looking for a bit of a finer dining experience check out Piccolo Paradiso, a fully organic place in the center of the city. You can’t blame the owner for being quite proud of his massive wine selection. All organic, all tasty (ok, I didn’t try all of them, but still). The food is quite special too – Mediterranean style and made with a lot of love and dedication. Worth checking out if you are not on too much of a budget.

A more thoughtful way of buying clothes can also change a lot, whether you are at home or en route. I like to visit different second hand shops wherever I go. Reusing things really helps to save resources and I personally love it when the things I buy already have a story.

Hamburg is full of vintage opportunities, so a gold digger like me will have a real good time. Apart from that there are more and more great new eco-fashion labels popping up – and many of them are located in Hamburg. My favorites are Jann & June and Black Velvet Circus, which prove that green fashion can still be edgy and elegant. Stores like Glore gather all of them together to showcase the best of green fashion.

For an inspirational little stroll, walk through the Gängeviertel, a former working class area that used to be a place where people living together formed a strong local community. Nowadays it’s an artists’ quarter which is trying to revive this community spirit. It’s a very colorful and green area with a lot to discover, but when you’re doing so be aware that people are actually living here. You can’t go wrong if you stay sensitive and respectful, and treat everything and everyone as you’d want to be treated yourself.

If you’ve got the curiosity, creativity and the desire to try out new things, traveling more thoughtfully is really easy and fun. The cool ideas I’ve seen in Hamburg – that are happening all around the world – give me hope that we are well on the way towards a greener way of living and getting around.

What are your green travel tips or favorite destinations? Let us know in the comments below.

All images except stated differently ©Tabea Mathern

Thank you to Raphael Hotel Wälderhaus for having me!