Europe’s Creative Cities Focus on Sustainability

Ghent, Belgium // Photo by MarioGuti/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

European cities have long lured travelers for their rich history and culture, but in recent years, creative innovation is another draw. A prime example? An increasing focus on sustainability across the continent.

From Scandinavia to the Iberian Peninsula, Europe’s dynamic cities view sustainability as a means of improving the quality of life of residents, while also ensuring the long-term viability of tourism. This trend was only accentuated during the pandemic, with locals adapting their behavior to eat local, cycle more, and shop at neighborhood boutiques. Virtuoso recently released a survey showing an increased awareness of environmental impact in post-pandemic trips (70 percent of travelers indicated that sustainable travel enhances their experience). With this in mind, here are some examples of eco-friendly European cities embracing sustainable tourism.

There’s a lot to love about Ghent. Just 30 minutes by train from Brussels, this cool Belgian city is packed with fabulous restaurants and studios by artisan-créateurs. Pulsing with the energy of a youthful population, Ghent is also prized for its green ethos. In fact, last year the city launched a tourism recovery plan centered on sustainability, investing in promotional campaigns and initiatives with local entrepreneurs. Walking and cycling tours encourage visitors to discover lesser-visited sites, while hotels and museums are encouraged to reduce their ecological footprint through the reduction of water and energy consumption. What’s more, Ghent prides itself on its wealth of vegetarian restaurants. Indeed Ghent was the city that started "Thursday Veggie Day" in 2009, encouraging people to ditch meat for a day, thereby helping to fight climate change.

Monte Carlo // Photo by Garsya/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

When you think of Monte Carlo, you may picture luxury mega-yachts and the glittering casino. But this Riviera hot spot, smaller than Manhattan’s Central Park, is also a sustainability champion. After all, HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco oversees a foundation dedicated to environmental protection of the oceans—fighting marine plastic pollution, developing Marine Protected Areas, and preserving coral reefs. And did you know that in addition to the Formula 1 Grand Prix there’s also the ePrix, a race with only electric cars? This environmental awareness can also be found across the hospitality industry. For example, Elsa, at the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel, was the world’s first 100 percent organic restaurant to receive a Michelin star, and Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris—Monaco’s long-time destination restaurant with three Michelin stars—has proposed a signature veggie dish on its menu since 1987 (“Provence garden vegetables cooked with black truffle"). Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo launched an environmental policy called “Green Attitude” in 2007, while the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel has an urban garden atop the casino. (An agricultural start-up called Terre de Monaco has installed organic rooftop gardens on rooftops across the city.)

While Amsterdam gets all the tourist love, Rotterdam is a thriving city that’s also a world leader in sustainable urban design. The largest port in Europe, Rotterdam is developing a reputation for innovation in the face of climate change and the threat of rapidly rising seas. It goes beyond wind farm projects, the floating dairy farm and vast network of bike lanes; here, architects design experimental buildings to help the city lower its carbon footprint using renewable materials, energy-neutral policies and new technology. One such example is the Dutch Windwheel, designed by the DoepelStrijkers studio—a high-rise building that will actually produce more energy than it uses. Rotterdam has long been a mecca for architecture fans from all over the world and cutting-edge sustainable projects such as these only enhance the city’s reputation.

Copenhagen, Denmark // Photo by joyt/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Slightly less exposed to rising sea levels, but similarly conscious of the risks, Copenhagen aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. A long-time champion of sustainability, the Danish capital is famously cycling-centric, with an estimated five times more bicycles than cars, and 60 percent of residents opting to commute to work and school via bike. In addition, the excellent public transformation system is replacing its old diesel-powered buses with a fleet of electric buses. There are solar-powered boats to explore the canals; organic restaurants like Geranium, Denmark’s only three Michelin-star establishment; an impressive array of eco-friendly hotels; and CopenHill, a waste management site that generates energy for homes while delighting visitors with a ski slope and hiking trail.

Last but not least: What better way to illustrate the importance of sustainability than the European Green Capital Award? The annual distinction recognizes the European cities with innovation environmental programs that set standards in sustainable urban development. This year the honor goes to the Finnish city of Lahti, historically situated on an important trade route between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Lahti was recognized by the European Commission for its successful air quality plan.

In 2020, Lisbon nabbed the European Green Capital Award, hot on the heels of Portugal winning “best sustainable tourism in Europe” at ITB Berlin in 2019. Lisbon has a popular bike-sharing scheme and one of the world’s largest electric vehicle charging point networks. After much investment in tree planting, the city is also developing the Vale de Alcântara green corridor, a three-kilometer link of the Monsanto Forest Park with the Tagus River, navigable by bike or on foot. Prior to Lisbon, the European Green Capital in 2019 was Oslo, Norway’s famously green capital. With more than half of its area covered by forests and parks, Oslo has inspired many cities around the world with its ambitious goals for emissions reduction.

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