Nestled in a corner of southwestern Germany that is so close to both France and Switzerland that people regularly cross the border for a bit of shopping, Freiburg im Breisgau (not to be confused with Freiburg an der Elbe in Lower Saxony) is a small city in the famous Black Forest.
Reportedly Germany’s warmest city, with some 2,000 hours of annual sunshine, Freiburg dates to 1120, when it was founded as a free-market town. Along cobbled streets and ancient gates, colorful medieval houses snuggle close together between a river, a canal, and a really tiny stream. The lively historic squares full of cafes and restaurants, beer gardens, and shops and boutiques make Freiburg the perfect place to spend a long-weekend getaway.
And, with the Black Forest just outside the city limits, you can easily combine a wellness or hiking vacation with a bit of a city break.
Here are some of the best things to do in charming Freiburg.
Get Your Bearings At Munsterplatz
Munsterplatz should be your first port of call. It’s right in the center of the old medieval town and is a great place to get your bearings and start exploring.
The beautifully cobbled square is lined with historic buildings, colonnades, and outdoor seating for many restaurants. In the center of the square is the cathedral, which gives the square its name. This 800-year-old church -- with its grand spire, 91 gargoyles, and gorgeous old clock -- survived the bombings of both World Wars. Make sure to stay for the ringing of the 750-year-old Hosanna bell. You can even climb up the tower, but since there is no lift, you will have to scale the 333 steps.
Pro Tip: Every morning, except on Sundays, the square plays host to a lovely fresh produce market.
Attend An Event At The Historical Merchants' Hall
Right on the square lies the 16th-century Historical Merchants’ Hall, a fabulous building in burnt orange with turrets, colonnades, and a spectacular roof. This is where the merchants used to spend time while their wares were inspected and taxed and their paperwork was filled out.
Inside are grand rooms, such as the Emperor’s Hall, where concerts, talks, and various public events are held. Catching an event is the only way to explore the inside, but there are many, so you’ll probably be lucky. Check out the hall’s event calendar here.
Pro Tip: Under the colonnades outside, there is usually a secondhand book stall selling a variety of books, from coffee table books to foreign language books.
See Schwabentor And Martinstor
There are two old city gates left, Schwabentor and Martinstor. These were once the bustling entrances to the city center through which merchants came and went. Martinstor is the older of the two, dating to the early 1200s, and it looks like a fancy church steeple with its clockface and little turrets. It barely escaped demolition in the early 1900s when many buildings and the city walls were razed to make space for the ever-growing city. Unfortunately, you cannot see the inside.
Schwabentor, however, holds a small museum of tin figures -- some 9,000 of them -- and also allows access to its church-like steeple, which dates to the mid-1200s.
On the wall outside Martinstor you will see a plaque with three names: Marghareta Mossmer, Catharina Stadelmann, and Anna Wolffart. These three women were executed for practicing witchcraft in Freiburg in 1599.
Explore Freiburg’s Little Venice
Between the two gates lies Klein Venedig, or Little Venice, a picturesque higgledy-piggledy assortment of colorful medieval houses around the small Gewerbekanal, or Trade Canal. Cafes, beer gardens, and small shops (such as a lovely silver artisan shop) invite you to linger a little longer. Look out for the crocodile in the canal!
Pro Tip: If you are coming from the east, from Schwabentor, turn around for an Instagram-worthy shot of a couple of yellow houses behind the canal.
Stroll Along The Bachle
In keeping with the watery theme, as you stroll along the cobbled lanes you will probably step into or stumble across the tiny Bachle, a mini canal that flows through the pedestrianized streets. Established back in the 1300s, it used to provide water to the town center and was used for fighting fires.
Today it is a veritable open-air art gallery with all sorts of things in it. There are even stands where children can hire a little sailboat and let it go in the stream. You’ll be surprised by all you discover in the Bachle!
Pro Tip: According to local folklore, if you accidentally step into the Bachle, you will marry a Freiburger. (For what it’s worth, I fell right across it and am still happily married to my non-Freiburger.)
Admire The Art At The Augustinermuseum
This modern museum located within a renovated former Augustinian monastery houses an amazing collection of medieval art, including original windows and statues from the cathedral. Sculptures, wood carvings, panel paintings, and an array of religious artifacts from the Middle Ages, plus paintings and graphics from more recent centuries, make for an impressive collection.
Pro Tip: Spend time with the Apostles, the stone sculptures from the cathedral. The display is very photogenic indeed.
Hike Up Castle Mountain
Schlossberg, or Castle Mountain, is a mountain that no longer has a castle. What is does have, however, is parkland and forest, great tracks to walk along, and absolutely stunning 360-degree views across Freiburg all the way to the Vosges Mountains.
Approximately 590 feet above the historic city center, there is a modern tower that offers even better views, plus a beer garden where you can take in the fresh air, the views, and the local brews.
Pro Tip: Take the cute Schlossbergbahn, a funicular railway, up to the top if you wish to conserve some energy. It is wheelchair accessible, too.
Where To Eat
A location between the Black Forest and France’s Alsace region, a mild climate that is perfect for vines, and a lush and fertile countryside that produces mostly organic seasonal produce are the makings of a fine gastronomic city.
Even if you were just to stick to the weekday market on the square, you would sample enough interesting food to last you a week. There are fruits and vegetables, cakes and breads, sausages and meats, wine and beer, and coffee, tea, and cold drinks. Add all the surrounding restaurants, and you’ll hardly have to move from the square at all.
Here are some of my top picks.
Restaurant Oberkirchs Weinstube
Right by the cathedral, this old-fashioned, traditional restaurant offers seasonal and local specialities. Especially during asparagus season, it is well worth sampling the menu and the local wine.
Confiserie Rafael Mutter
For great coffee and something sweet to go with it -- be it chocolate, cake (Black Forest gateau!), or biscuits -- look no further than Confiserie Rafael Mutter.
What’s better than to sit outside in a lovely location under the shade of tall trees with a cold beer and a snack? Not a lot, and that’s just what Hausbrauerei Feierling, a lovely beer garden attached to its own brewery, offers.
Markthalle Freiburg is an indoor hall filled with food stands offering a culinary trip around the world. It’s easy, not too pricey, and has something for everybody, including plenty of local specialities.
Where To Shop
Shopping is an absolute delight in Freiburg. I must admit that I have traveled here before with a friend just to shop and eat. We ignored all the cultural and historic sights along the way and simply meandered down the cobbled streets, stopped at the countless boutiques, explored the upmarket department store, and enjoyed the cafes and restaurants in between.
Because of its compact size and multicultural influences, Freiburg is a great shopping destination. For the best selections, walk down Konviktstrasse and Schusterstrasse and through Little Venice.
In particular, don’t miss these stores.
Lust Auf Gut Concept Store
This quirky concept store selling clothes and knick-knacks and is just fun to explore.
Breuninger is a lovely fashion department store with good quality clothes. Worth a browse.
Where To Stay
Kreuzblume Hotel & Restaurant
Right in the old town, in a traditional building, Kreuzblume is a charming little hotel with a restaurant attached.
The Colombi Hotel is a great luxury choice for a stay in Freiburg, complete with plush suites, a day spa, and a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s within easy walking distance of the old town.
For more to see and do in Germany, see this page.