Hohentübingen Castle is well worth a visit for its history and great views. Photo / Otto Buchegge
In the southwest region of Swabia, Germany, you will find Tübingen. With its cobbled streets, narrow lanes and old wooden houses, the university town might not be as famous as Oxford or Cambridge, but it is just as beautiful.
As a region, Swabia is known to be one of the sunniest and most frugal places in Germany; qualities that give it an exceptionally cheerful and wholesome character. Add around 27,000 young, passionate students and you have an idea of what Tübingen is all about; energetic, liberal and deeply innovative.
It’s been like that for a while too. In 1968, Tübingen was one of many cities that hosted protests related to the “West German student movement”; a social movement against traditionalism and the political authority of the nation. Some 50 years later, the impact of such activism continues to shape the lives of city residents.
“In Tübingen, there are self-catering housing initiatives, where cooking and grocery shopping are collectively organized and are mostly vegan,” Tübingen University staff member Jenny Bröder told BBC Travel.
“The people who run and live in these accommodations are often politically active, cultivate an awareness of social and ecological topics, and contribute to the cultural scene by organizing concerts, conferences, festivals and parties. The food offered at these events is also vegan.”
Veganism might seem like an unusual food choice given Germany’s reputation for sausage and cheese, but in Tübingen, the plant-based diet is a popular diet that exemplifies the city’s enduring values.
So although a vegetarian bakery like Ada Bakery does not survive in most German cities, it does thrive in Tübingen according to owner Sedat Yalcin.
“A vegetarian Turkish bakery works here because of all the students, but also the people here, they care about the environment,” he told BBC Travel.
The sustainability streak isn’t just gourmet either. Tübingen’s district council has had green politicians since 1979 and the city is constantly being redesigned in a more environmentally friendly way.
Large cycle lanes, high parking fees and car bans along the city’s main street have made cycling the transport option of choice. Meanwhile, buses are free on Saturdays, and free for students after 7 p.m. on weekdays and on Sundays as well.
The small town also attempted to introduce a major new tax on packaging, before it was foiled by fast-food giant McDonald’s.
The Verpackungssteuer (packaging tax), which Tübingen introduced in early 2022, added a tax of fifty cents on disposable packaging and a tax of twenty cents on disposable cutlery. From takeaway coffee cups and pizza boxes to plastic spoons and forks, everything was taxed whether it was made from plastic or recycled materials.
Within weeks, the tax had made promising progress and reduced the amount of trash in the city’s trash cans by up to 15%. However, it was quickly challenged by the city’s only McDonald’s who claimed that local or individual municipal policies stood in the way of successful, nationally applicable concepts.
It was not the first time that McDonald’s challenged a German city over the packaging tax. Unfortunately, just like in the 1990s when their lawsuit stopped Kassel from implementing the packaging tax, McDonald’s also had Tübingen’s proposal overturned.
However, the town and its residents refuse to be deterred and continue to live on as a micro example of what a small group of like-minded people can accomplish.
How to get there
Rightly so, you can only take a bus or train to get to town. The nearest airport is Stuttgart. Echterdingen is the nearest airport and from there the easiest way to get to Tübingen is an hourly bus service. Alternatively, if you are arriving from Frankfurt, the S-Bahn train is your best bet.
How to get around
Even if you have a car, Tübingen’s strict ticket agents, appalling traffic system and countless restrictions mean you’re better off parking up and exploring the city by bike, bus or on foot.
The best things to see
After meandering through the cobbled streets of the city center, the candy-colored houses and the Marktplatz (market square) in the old town, head to the Neckar River where students often go punting during the summer.
Put on your good sneakers and climb the hill to Hohentübingen Castle, which offers a breathtaking look at the architecture of 1030 and some of the city seen from above. Not to spoil a good building, it now houses several university faculties, including the laboratory where Friedrich Miescher discovered DNA in 1869.
On the way down, stop at the on-site Museum of Ancient Culture to see some of the world’s oldest works of humankind art, including a small Ice Age figure carved from mammoth bone.
Best places to eat
To eat where the locals do, head to the Neckarmüller restaurant, which is located by the river. But be warned, it’s a popular spot so reservations may be essential. For something plant-based, hunt down Veggie Box, a vegan restaurant near the Old Botanical Garden, or Vegi Bar and Café to try their famous wraps and falafel platters.