Sustainable travel is on many of our minds entering 2020 and improving our habits to become more eco-friendly travelers should be on all of our to-do lists. A lot of traveling sustainably comes down to our personal actions, but it’s no secret that some cities make it easier to be green than others. I’ve talked with fifteen travel bloggers to get their input on sustainable cities that make eco-friendly travel super easy. In 2020, consider adding some of these green cities to your itinerary and minimize your footprint on the road!
Returning home from our around-the-world adventure over the last 11 months, during which we tried to travel as sustainably as possible, we reflected on our time in each city. We noticed that a majority of the cities we had been to had some form of sustainable program in place, such as separating waste facilities, public transport, a central market and so on, but none of them really stood out as a ‘sustainable city’ until we remembered our time in Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
The province of Alberta is described as the Texas of Canada, as we saw when we went to the annual Stampede festival in Calgary. The exception is they have very left-wing values and – being Canadian – perfect manners.
Calgary removes barriers to make living sustainably an easier choice and more of the norm (especially compared to some cities where we were disparaged for refusing plastic). Here are some other reasons why Calgary is a sustainable city;
- The city itself is walkable and riding a bike is a big thing because Calgary is so flat.
- The public transport system is smooth and reliable and there are plenty of bicycle and scooter rental options in the city centre.
- Calgary has three different types of public bins; waste, recycling, and compost and they are hoping to reduce the waste that goes to landfill by 80% in 2020.
- During summer, they have lots of free entertainment and activities within the city. We even went to a zero-waste festival while we were there.
- Most of the events have compostable takeaway food packaging AND a commercial compost bin to dispose of it.
- There are plenty of bulk-food shops so you can stock up on essentials package-free.
- Plenty of farmers’ markets to get fresh seasonal, plastic-free produce from and support the local farmers.
- The municipality collects residents’ compost right from their homes.
From our travels, we learnt that as much as you try to travel sustainably as an individual, it’s much easier when there are systems and facilities in place and Calgary offers that in abundance.
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La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz in Bolivia is an interesting, beautiful and exciting city to visit in South America. It also very well-connected and easy to visit sustainably.
Regularly accessed by bus from Peru, this is a popular city for backpackers on a budget and those who want to travel slowly and avoid taking flights.
Not only is it possible to access La Paz sustainably via overland public transport, the city is also connected entirely by cable car. The cable car system is the world’s highest cable car ride and was introduced in recent years to alleviate traffic pressure on the heavily populated city.
The cable cars are extremely cheap to use and help locals connect significantly better with different parts of this huge city. The cable car system also helps to reduce the numbers of cars on the roads and subsequent emissions.
There are so many great things to do in La Paz it’s hard to know where to start. The city has several interesting sustainable activities available to enjoy in the city and surrounding areas. These include climbing, hiking and cycling as well as taking walking and cable car tours of the city.
If you are thinking of visiting the Bolivian Amazon to see the wildlife and exotic animals, be sure to choose your tour operator wisely. Dolphins Travel in Rurrenabaque treat the environment and inhabitants with the respect they deserve. Be sure to remove any sunscreens or insect repellents before getting into the river or any natural water source.
A visit to La Paz is sure to whet your appetite for further travel within this beautiful and diverse country.
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Bike city and green urban planning in Malmo, Sweden
For half a year I was living in Malmö, Sweden as I was doing an internship at the local university. That’s also how I got in touch with sustainability as huge topic and university course for the first time. Malmö was super ahead of green trends and still is doing a lot to push sustainability and green, long term thinking.
For a while, there was a local restaurant that collected food “waste” donations from supermarkets and created delicious fresh dishes. City planning also takes sustainability into consideration and has earned Malmo international recognition through its pioneering residential construction and urban sustainability projects, such as Ekostaden Augustenborg or Sorgenfri.
Not only that, but Malmo has invested in a wind park that is one of Sweden’s largest. Each year it produces electricity equivalent to the electricity consumption of 60,000 homes. Solar cells are installed in Sege Park, there are charging stations for electric vehicles are found all over the city and there’s an extensive network of bike lanes.
In fact, during my time in Sweden, I mostly used the bike to get to and from work, even when there was snow. It was a super normal thing to do and there was so much bike traffic with free air stations around the city to keep the bikes going. Every day I passed a bike counter displaying crazy numbers of how many bikes had passed it that day. Malmo truly is a bike city!
If you stay in the third largest Swedish city for a few days – because there are so many things to see in Malmo – I totally recommend renting a bike and exploring Västra Hamnen and its many parks, including Pildammspark and maybe even going as far out as Katrinetorp.
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Singapore is one of the most interesting cities that I have visited in Asia. Unlike many of the metropolitan cities in the continent, Singapore is clean, dust free and in my opinion is one of the cities that is the easiest to travel sustainably in the world. The city has an amazing public transport system and it is probably the cheapest way to travel in the city. This includes bus and metro.
Singapore is also one of the greenest cities that I have ever visited. There are so many vertical gardens in the city. It is such a refreshing change from most of the other cities I have ever been to. Singapore is even one of the cleanest places in the world. Recycling is a norm and is mandatory if not just expected. Somehow, you will find that it is a culture that most travellers just fall into. While accommodation is expensive, you will find that there are a number of budget ideas that you can indulge in.
One thing that I realized during my one week in Singapore was that it is so easy to travel sustainably if it is something that is expected. Small changes that we make, make a large difference. Singapore is a city that shows the world that no matter where, no matter what, everyone needs to try.
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For a country that gets a lot of its wealth from its vast oil and gas reserves, it might surprise you to hear that its former capital is a perfect city for sustainable travel. Almaty lies in the southeastern corner of Kazakhstan surrounded by spectacular nature. It’s an outdoors paradise, but also loved by those with an interest in Soviet history and urban exploring.
What makes the city so sustainable is that most attractions are in walking distance from each other and that there is an excellent public transport system. You can be hiking the mountain trails near Shymbulak in no time and all it takes is a frequent mini bus.
In recent years Almaty has invested a lot in climate friendly initiatives. For example, Almaty considers measures to promote a circular economy and manage the cities waste in a more sustainable manner. Another project that is already implemented is the development of cycle lanes and a cycle rental system. With 50 automated bicycle stations it is easy to pick up a cycle and return it at another station.
Almaty is the gateway to several national parks with incredible nature where you can hike through mountains, canyons and sand dunes. As Almaty is doing its best to spend more on the environment it is also the tourists responsibility to travel sustainably and make use of the opportunities that Almaty offers.
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Any Chinese city doesn’t exactly sound like the center of sustainability and environmental awareness, but that’s a huge misconception. China has already made the transition to some advanced sustainable technologies, especially in the coastal city of Shanghai.
The first cool thing you’ll probably encounter when arriving in Shanghai is the Maglev train. It propels itself away from the airport and into the city quietly and without CO2 emissions—by means of magnets at a speed of 431km/h.
Next, you’ll probably make extensive use of Shanghai’s metro (subway) system, which has the longest route-length in the world. On an average day, 10 million people make use of the efficient underground.
Shanghai is one of the most populous urban areas in the world, but you wouldn’t notice it if not for the density of high-rise buildings. Judging by the noise levels, you can’t tell 24 million people live within Shanghai’s city limits. The city is very quiet in relation to the number of people driving around on motor scooters. That’s because all those scooters are electric. And no, they’re not electric because the government mandated the change, but because they’re simply cheaper.
The biggest hidden sustainability trick that you won’t notice on your 144-hour visa-free stay in Shanghai, is the cashlessness of its society: everyone pays with their phones. You won’t be able to participate in it and will need to visit an ATM, but just think about all the money trucks that don’t have to guzzle gas to bring bills and coins back to the banks.
A trip to Shanghai is time-travel into the future. And while they’re behind on certain problems like sorting recyclable trash in public spaces, you just know the municipality could fix that problem yesterday if they wanted to.
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Munich is a great city to visit if you are trying to travel more sustainably. Besides the fact that it is easy to reach by bus or train from other countries in Europe so that you can avoid flying, it also has a great public transport system with which you can explore the city. Trains, trams and buses reach every corner of the city and certain lines are available all through the night. Which means you can completely ignore renting a car or using taxies during your visit.
The city also puts a lot of effort into making Munich safe for cyclists. There are bike paths everywhere and lots of parks in the city so that it is not only great for the environment but also an absolute treat to explore the city by bicycle. Especially cycling along the Isar (the river that flows through Munich) is beautiful.
Germany is also very big on recycling. Paper, plastic, cans, glass, compost, it all goes in different containers and get’s recycled properly. Plus it is normal in Germany to pay a deposit when buying a drink in a shop (normally between 0,08 and 0,25 Euro) which you get back when returning the bottle to a shop. A little side fact: since it is allowed to drink alcohol on the streets in Munich, a lot of locals finish their bottles of beer and leave them next to a bin. Homeless people then collect these bottles and bring them to a shop. I think it’s a very cool system and it works well. Munich, in general, is a very clean city.
If you are looking for vegan or vegetarian food, you won’t have any issues in Munich either. Almost every restaurant has vegan/vegetarian options and there are some places solely dedicated to a vegan/vegetarian diet like Max Pett for example. So make sure to put Munich on your list of places to travel sustainably to.
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Tokyo, Japan is one of the easiest cities to travel around the world sustainably with loads of options for eco-conscious travellers to make their journey a green, clean one. Japan, as a whole, has an exceptional public transport system which makes it totally possible to travel around a megalopolis like Tokyo by train – even most locals don’t drive a car.
It’s also easy to be sustainability conscious when eating delicious Japanese food, such as sushi. Avoid types of fish that are rare or overfished such as eel, shark and bluefin tuna and instead opt for shellfish, squid and salmon to quench your sushi craving. And, of course, it basically goes without saying that you definitely want to avoid anywhere serving up whale meat.
Another great tip for eating sustainably in Japan? Bring your own re-usable chopsticks instead of using single-use, throwaway ones. Japan still has a way to go with single-use plastics, but if you can memorise the words to tell shopkeepers that you don’t want a shopping bag then you’re doing your bit. The phrase you need to know is “Fukuro wa irimasen”
Avoid animal cafes. I know it’s tempting to get a little up close and personal with unusual animals in a café setting but the animal rights issues that come with these attractions are pretty grave – you can bet that the animals in these establishments are not having a good time.
Whilst some of Japan’s practices can seem a little contradictory to sustainable travel, there are still definitely ways to explore Tokyo in a sustainable, earth friendly manner. So be conscious and prepared – but also have a blast!
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Buenos Aires, Argentina
We often criticise our home in Europe for not doing enough for the environment. And yet, let’s be honest: compared to many other continents, it’s well advanced in that respect.
Therefore, we had many painful moments during our South American trip. In the countries that are less developed –like Bolivia, Peru or Colombia– plastic bags are absolutely everywhere and the environmental education is nonexistent. It’s common to see people throwing their rubbish, even near their country’s most beautiful landmarks. Even there though, we found over time ways to travel more responsibly.
The easiest city to travel sustainably in South America is most probably Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Being one of the most modern and progressive cities on the continent, the environmental education is one step further compared to its counterparts. Argentina has a strong European influence, which came with its large immigrant population. We noticed this in many aspects of the Argentine culture, and respect for the environment was one of them.
It’s not uncommon to see people shopping with their foldaway bags or their reuse cups. Therefore shops are more and more aware and we see less plastic than in neighbouring countries. That’s great news for responsible travellers, provided they’re prepared with their own plastic-free kit.
There are also many vegetarian and vegan options, which we find important for a sustainable lifestyle. Street food –like empanadas, our favourite savoury pastry– often comes in paper bags rather than plastic.
Buenos Aires boasts also many parks; even a large 350 ha (865 acre) Ecological Reserve at walking distance from the city centre! It’s a favourite weekend destination of the Porteños‘, the residents of Buenos Aires. It doesn’t only bring fresh air to the city: an easy access to nature is the best environmental education.
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Zurich is known as a financial city of one of the most expensive countries in the world – but what is not really well-known is that it is quite easy to travel sustainably around.
Public transportation is extremely good in Switzerland and Zurich is no exception. You do not need a car to get around. Though public transportation is not cheap in Zurich (nothing really is cheap there) it is even cheaper than driving, especially with the high parking fees in the city.
And it is so easy doing fun day trips from Zurich by train – Schaffhausen, Appenzell, Lucerne and more places can be easily reached by public transportation and no car is needed, let alone planes.
If you are in Zurich you can rent bikes for free or walk to many main attractions. Walking and hiking in general is big in Switzerland which helps the environment ever more.
While Switzerland surely is not vegan-friendly, Zurich actually is. Though this “vegan thing” is often neglected when talking about sustainable traveling, the diet has an immense influence on the environment – so luckily, eating vegan in Zurich is quite easy. There are quite some vegetarian and vegan restaurants and you find vegan dishes in many other places, too (though not always).
Plus, there is absolutely no need to buy plastic bottles to drink water! Just bring your own reusuable bottle and refill it with fresh water from one of the many water fountains throughout the city.
Last but not least: Zurich is so expensive that you tend to buy less – very cheap destinations can lead to unnecessary consumerism so this probably won’t happen in Zurich.
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Portland, Oregon, has long prioritized sustainability, even before it became trendy. While other cities around the world rush to implement environmentally friendly policies and practices, Portland is continually refining the ones put in place decades ago.
One of the most prominent examples of Portland’s commitment to sustainability is it’s efforts to reduce waste. My first introduction to a zero waste restaurant was in this city. After a meal at a local cafe I tried to throw my “trash” into a waste can, but it didn’t exist. Instead I found a series of buckets for the dishes and the remaining food was placed in a bin for compostable items. Everywhere in the city recycling containers are provided for multiple types of materials.
This city is also determined to cut down on traffic and the use of fossil fuels. Much of the city is bike friendly and dedicated bicycles lanes have been in place for years. Public transportation options like the MAX Line service the entire city, including a convenient line from the airport to downtown.
But sustainability has become a part of the culture here, even beyond the government implemented programs. While all the popular retail stores exist here, many residents prefer resale and vintage stores, which are often packed with shoppers. Portland residents take the concept of “reuse” seriously and when they go shopping in Portland are eager to buy used over new.
Each visit to Portland I discover some new initiative they’ve implemented for sustainability. I look forward to seeing what’s next!
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Seattle is nicknamed the Emerald City, and with good reason as it is regularly listed as one of the greenest cities in the US, not only for its greenery year round, but also for the eco-minded vision. The municipality has a composting program as well as recycling, a single-use plastic ban, and was the first utility company in the nation to become carbon neutral. The city is committed to investing in green infrastructure, such as their RainWise program that provides rebates to property owners who install rain gardens or cisterns to help manage storm water runoff, thereby protecting the waterways leading to the Puget Sound.
In addition to these sustainable measures, Seattle also has one of the best public transportation programs in the US, with bus routes, a light rail, street cars, and ferries that are all accessible via the Sound Transit app or a re-loadable Orca card, making it easy to use for visitors as well. The city is also incredibly bike-friendly, with bike lanes and even shared bikes that are easy to rent located throughout the city from companies like LimeBike and Uber’s Jump bikes.
If you are planning a visit to Seattle, make sure to stop by a local neighborhood market, where you can support small business owners and buy locally sourced goods and produce, like the famous Ellanos Greek yogurt, handmade soaps, and fresh seasonal flowers. Then head out to visit one of over 400 parks to get some fresh air, or if you have extra time there are even 3 national parks within a 3 hour drive to really stretch your legs.
To refuel after your hike, make sure to stop by one of Seattle’s many farm-to-table restaurants, such as Tilth, or make reservations for the more upscale Archipelago serving delicious fare completely sourced from the Pacific Northwest with a Filipino flair.
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Lisbon is a city that isn’t afraid to be sustainable by transforming itself, that is turning environmental challenges into great possibilities. Add in a vibrant and healthy lifestyle, amazing culture and history and what is there not to love. You might even consider not just visiting but making it a new place to live and work.
Downtown Lisbon is built on eight hills but you can still visit pretty much everywhere by walking between them and enjoy amazing views on your way. Visitors can rent electric scooters, use bike sharing or electric car sharing services. There are over 500 electric charging points citywide and they use a lot of renewable energy. So, Lisbon is a big yes for sustainable mobility! The public transport is really well organised as well.
There are many great outdoors spaces to enjoy, sometimes where you least expect them. Monsanto is a big park, and Vale de Alcantara links it with the Tagus river, where you can find flat paths, great for strolling or maybe rollerblading to the historical sights of Belem; Jaronimus Monastery, Pasteis de Belem, Belem Tower and the Monument to Discoveries. Next to the main Oriente train station there is another chance to wander along the riverside and take in the view of the second longest bridge in Europe.
Lisbon’s holistic approach to urban planning gets better and better. They have a great synergy between mobility, waste management, education, etc. at the same time not sacrificing the environment and preserving their amazing history. This is a place full of new creative startups, and many of them are giving old buildings exciting new life. Check out LX-factory,which has transformed into a great place to hang out filled with new, fashionable and sustainable shops, studios and bars.
There are many flea markets, interesting second hand stores and vintage boutiques, as well as upcycled or recycled craft shops. It’s also easy to find a lot of great vegetarian and vegan restaurants, fresh organic and local farmers markets. A lot of restaurants use local organic products, they normally make a point of telling you so, but if in doubt you can always ask. The old town is crammed with great places to sit outside and enjoy the warm breeze while you eat dinner on some of the many stairs of the city.
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If you’re not feeling too good about your carbon footprint after flying all the way to the UK, Brighton is one city where you can make sustainable travel an easy goal for your trip. It’s tucked on the South Coast about two hours by train from London and it kinda has the green thing covered – thanks to a Green Party local government that has been in power for a very long time.
You don’t drive in Brighton – it’s crammed with one way streets and has zero parking – instead you hop on board electric buses or join the local rail network, which has stations in many of the city’s suburbs. With a mobile phone and credit card, you can rent an electric-assisted push bike in the road too, and drop it off when you’re done. If you’re just nipping along the beach, an electric tram (Volk’s Railway) will take you there.
The city’s famous for its vegan culture and has top lots of plant based restaurants – such as Purezza a tasty vegan pizza spot and the Curry Leaf Cafe at Brighton Station. With meat production now a huge environmental factor, you might like to try these out. Or if you want to cook at home, this town has a thriving zero waste and ethical food culture. Stop by HISBE in the Lanes for zero waste supplies or bulk buy quality ingredients and refills at The Source on Church Road.
Finally, in this beachy spot, you can do your bit by caring for the seafront. Walk the beach and collect rubbish if you can – there are regular beach cleaning silent discos – or simply treat the beach well by taking your rubbish away to recycle it and bringing a picnic in reusable containers.
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Porto, Portugal is not as well-known as Lisbon, the national capital, but it certainly has plenty to offer. And with Lisbon suffering from overtourism most months of the year, that’s already a reason to visit Porto instead as a more sustainable tourism choice. The city is quite small and compact, so it’s easy to visit most places on foot. There are some interesting walking tours on offer too, such as a tour covering all the Harry Potter sights in Porto. It’s a little-known fact that J.K. Rowling wrote the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone while she was living in Porto.
If you do get tired of walking, the public transportation system is economical and easy to use. No matter where you want to go, there’s sure to be a bus, subway or historic tram that will get you there. The national train network is also great for day trips to nearby attractions, such as Aveiro or Braga.
Despite the strong penchant for fish and meat in traditional Portuguese cuisine, the city has experienced a veggie revolution in the past few years and now has some incredible vegan dining options. You can savor delicious vegan versions of Portuguese egg custard tarts (you’ll never miss the egg!) and Porto’s favorite sandwich, the Francesinha.