Sustainable cities in Europe

12 destinations for your next trip

More than a trendy, throwaway phrase, "sustainable travel" has real meaning for today's thoughtful traveller. While, inevitably, there's still a long way to go, more European cities are taking their environmental and social responsibilities seriously. If these things also matter to you then you're in luck! Whether it's transport, food miles, quality of life for locals or ‘green city’ status that most concerns you, we have an exciting list of destinations to share. What every destination on our list has in common is its enthusiasm for enacting positive change. What's more, each city is doing so while retaining the vibrancy and individualism that makes it so attractive.

Edinburgh

With such a longstanding international reputation for its natural and architectural heritage, it's no surprise that Edinburgh is leading the way in the UK with environmental issues. An extensive and deliberately low carbon public transport network makes it easy to see sights like Holyrood, Edinburgh Castle and Dynamic Earth without using a car or taxi. Alternatively, of course, you might choose to walk: try exploring Holyrood Park with a ranger-led expedition. Accommodation, too, is getting in on the sustainability act. Look out for hotels (and restaurants) that hold Green Tourism accreditation (which means they're excelling in matters like energy efficiency and waste management). And, if you're a whisky aficionado, you'll be glad to hear that the Scotch Whisky Experience shop prioritises sustainable options over commercial considerations.

Don’t miss: exploring the city's extensive selection of markets. Top picks include Edinburgh Farmers' Market, Stockbridge Market and Grassmarket.

Copenhagen

In 2009, Copenhagen set an ambitious goal of becoming the world's first carbon-neutral world capital by 2025. While this goal unfortunately won’t be achieved by this date, the city has managed to reduce its emissions by more than 80%. If you visit, you'll benefit from the cleaner air and, if you're comfortable on two wheels, from the huge investment in safe cycling. It's a city made for exploring by bike, and you can even take an eco tour of the city with Green Bike Tours, a non-profit organisation. Another organisation, GreenKayak, offers kayaking tours of the city, which are free if you collect rubbish while you paddle and post about your experience on social media.

Don't miss: overnight camping on a floating pontoon using solar-powered lighting.

Stockholm

Stockholm's commitment to sustainability issues is long-standing: it adopted its first environment programme in 1976. It's become a way of life in the city and as a visitor, you can expect a low-impact transport network, locally-sourced meals and a great choice of sustainably-produced clothing shops. Even the shuttle bus from the airport runs on renewable energy. Once in the city, the bicycle reigns supreme and is the ideal way to explore. In the summer months, rest up after your excursions with a stay at Nolla Cabin on Lidö. Part of the ‘Zero Island’ project, Lidö is a nature reserve, and the solar-powered cabin's floor-to-ceiling windows get you as close to nature as possible while still giving you a roof and walls.

Don’t miss: eating your way around the city's green restaurants, which use seasonal and locally-produced food.

Oslo

Another feather in Scandinavia's cap, Oslo ranks first in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index 2022. Experience what this means by visiting one of the many markets that focus on locally produced food and crafts, or visit Vestkanttorvet, a large and very popular flea market. As elsewhere in Scandinavia, cycling and kayaking are green ways to see the city and the surrounding fjords. Meanwhile, the interactive exhibitions at Climate House are fantastic for the whole family to learn about sustainability and how everyone can help tackle climate change. At a more local level, Bjørvika is a former container port on the harbour front that's now an urban farm tended by locals. It even has its own alfresco venue for arts events and communal dining.

Don’t miss: cocktails at Torggata Botaniske, with vines growing up its walls and its own home-grown plants in some of the drinks.

Tallinn

As the European Green Capital for 2023, Tallinn has plenty to offer the sustainably-minded visitor. The picturesque Old Town is best explored on foot, and don't miss the artisan shops in Masters Courtyard, where local craftspeople showcase and sell their wares. If walking makes you hungry, Balti Jaama Turg Market is a great spot to indulge in some local street food. Afterwards, why not visit Telliskivi Creative City? Part of a neighbourhood regeneration project, it provides workspace for local creative industries and regularly hosts all kinds of events. The huge Kadriorg Park is perhaps the city's best-loved green space. It's the ideal place for a walk and is also where you'll find many of Tallinn's museums.

Don’t miss: a visit to Mukri Bog, an ancient and very important wetland.

Amsterdam

Despite its cobbles and canals, beautiful Amsterdam is a city of bicycles. This even includes its waterways, where you can hire a so-called ‘canal bike’. It's also a city that has taken action against the threat posed by too many visitors. However, Initiative Toerisme in Balans is not only about regulating the number of visitors, it's also concerned with protecting the quality of life for everyone in the city. See for yourself how much Amsterdammers value quality of life as you explore their city. Perhaps you'll go to the thriving Saturday farmers' market at the Noordermarkt Square or enjoy a meal at an ecological restaurant like Umoja.

Don’t miss: exploring the city by bike - but be prepared to brake by back-pedalling.

Ljubljana

Car-free since 2008, Ljubljana's city centre is a joy to explore either on foot or by a public transport network that includes over 200 buses powered by compressed natural gas. Prešernov Trg Square, with its statue of the Romantic poet France Prešeren, is the heart of the old town. It's also the natural starting point for a walking tour of highlights like the Franciscan Church and Plečnik's Triple Bridge. And, when you want to kick back and relax in more natural surroundings, you'll find plenty of parks, garden squares and the like. With 542 m² of green space per inhabitant, Ljubljana is one of Europe's greenest cities.

Don’t miss: the Friday street food market in Prešernov Trg Square.

Vienna

A city of parks and gardens, around 50% of Vienna is devoted to green spaces. They include several of the old Imperial parks and even part of the Donau-Auen National Park, an environmentally very significant floodplain landscape. Environmentally-sensitive public transport, such as green taxis and over 1400km of cycle paths, make it easy to get around the main sights, including Schönbrunn, St Stephen's Cathedral and the Sigmund Freud museum. KunstHausWien is another museum must-see. Designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, its commitment to upholding the highest ecological standards has seen it awarded an Austrian Eco-Label. It's visually very attractive, with a frontage covered in living greenery and even has two bee colonies on the roof to produce the museum's own organic honey.

Don’t miss: the small herb and flower gardens, planted by locals, along Sponge Street in the 15th District.

Valencia

It might be most known as the home of paella, but Valencia is also the first European "smart city" and will be European Green Capital for 2024. Visit and you'll see why. It's a very green city, giving you plenty of cool, shady spots to recharge your batteries after exploring the likes of the famous cathedral and the modern City of Arts and Sciences, or eating your way round the vast Central Market. An extensive cycle path network and several bike sharing programmes make cycling easy and convenient when you don't want to walk or if you want to head out to one of the more distant beaches, such as Patacona.

Don’t miss: Albufera Natural Park. Just 10km from the city, these wetlands are an oasis of peace, quiet, wildlife and sunsets you'll never forget.

Zurich

Perfect for cyclists, Zurich has almost 100km of cycle paths. With bikes, pedestrians and public transport making up nearly 3/4 of the city's traffic, it's a relaxing place to get around. Many of the hotels are sustainably certified and this even includes some of the elegant boutique hotels in the historic Old Town. Look for the ‘Swisstainable’ tag to learn more. When out and about exploring the likes of the Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches and the Sechseläutenplatz, don't forget your reusable water bottle: the city has 1000 drinking water fountains. Finally, of course, you can't come to Zurich and not spend time at the lake. As well as a haven for boating, bathing and general relaxing, the lake is also a valuable source of green energy for the city.

Don’t miss: hiking the Planet Trail from the Uetliberg mountain to Felsenegg.

Paris

Paris is proof that no matter a city's age and venerable lineage, it can always reinvent itself in a sustainable way. Alongside the always impressive Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe and other well-known landmarks, look for other, newer attractions. For instance, you might spot some of the increasing numbers of rooftop vegetable gardens, urban farms or even one of the flourishing vertical farms. If you're in the trendy Le Marais district, the nearby Expo Porte de Versailles exhibition centre is home to what's currently the world's largest urban farm. Much of the produce, nurtured by the aeroponics method, feeds local residents but some is used in the neighbouring rooftop restaurant, Le Perchoir.

Don’t miss: the many veggie and vegan restaurants, sustainable food shops and organic markets like Marché biologique des Batignolles.

Lisbon

Lisbon's long-term investment in sustainable tourism has given it a plethora of accolades, but also a very pleasant and convenient cityscape for locals and visitors alike. The main tourist sights, including the castle and the city's three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are easy to reach on foot or using public transport but you can also join in on a ‘Responsible Walking Tour’ run by Lisbon Sustainable Tourism. Skirting the standard landmarks, this is a tour that will give you a local's insight into the city. Expect street art, Portuguese tiles, secret river views and the tantalising smell of the famous Lisbon sandwich, the bifana. And, at the end of a long day's sightseeing, the city's beaches, including several Blue Flag Award holders, are the perfect wind-down spot.

Don’t miss: dining at eco-friendly restaurants like the vegan Ao 26 or The Decadente, which follows a zero-waste policy.

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