One of the best things about living in Europe is that it’s very easy and affordable to travel. I go on a city trip in Europe almost every month. With so many amazing cities within reach, how could I not?
When they think of sustainable travel, most people think of ecotourism, nature, and backpacking. Not necessarily city breaks. But to me, being a responsible tourist means making responsible choices for any trip you plan. And planning a sustainable city trip in Europe definitely doesn’t need to be difficult.
Visit a less popular city
The first step to planning a sustainable city break is to choose the right destination. A lot of major cities and famous places, such as Venice, Amsterdam, and Dubrovnik, are suffering from mass tourism. They cannot handle the number of tourists that visit each year, so don’t be one of them!
Instead, consider visiting a smaller city that is less well-known. Usually, the second or third-biggest city in a country is a good jumping-off point. There is almost always an off-the-beaten-path alternative to any popular destination.
- Utrecht instead of Amsterdam
- Trieste instead of Venice
- Malaga instead of Barcelona
- Lyon instead of Paris
- Hamburg instead of Berlin
- Bologna instead of Florence
By traveling to one of these places, you’re spreading the burden of mass tourism, as well as the economic benefit to more people. Choosing a lesser-known destination also has many benefits beyond sustainability. Prices are generally lower because of lower demand, and it is easier to book something last minute. You won’t have to deal with big crowds and long lines for famous landmarks and activities. And you’ll be able to have a more authentic experience.
Choose a sustainable form of transport
Sure, European budget flights are tempting. Low cost and quick travel to cities around the continent. But flying and sustainability do not go together, as it’s the most polluting form of transportation. So for your sustainable city trip in Europe, you’ll need a different way to get there.
Luckily, there are many great alternative modes of transportation.
If you’re going with multiple people, driving is a good option. It offers relatively low emissions, the more people you fit in a car. And who doesn’t love a road trip?
But if you’re going solo, driving has a relatively large carbon footprint. And most European cities have great public transportation and expensive parking, making your car a burden rather than an asset.
I prefer to travel by train and bus when I go on a European city break. With an ever-expanding network, trains and buses will get you almost everywhere in Europe.
My go-to bus company is FlixBus, they offer long-haul bus connections between all major and most minor European cities. It’s not always the most comfortable option, but FlixBus is affordable and convenient. And sometimes even faster than trains, depending on the connection.
Traveling by train is more comfortable and usually quicker. It’s also a fun way to travel, as you get to really enjoy the journey and see more of the countries you’re traveling through. Sitting by the window with a book or listening to music is a pretty relaxing way to get around.
For a short city trip, you probably don’t want to spend your whole day on a bus or train, so you can consider taking night buses or sleeper trains instead. That way, you wake up at your destination, giving you more time there.
Book a sustainable accommodation option for your city trip
Travel costs money, and a big part of sustainable tourism is making sure that it goes to the right people. Instead of lining the pockets of a wealthy CEO, your travel spending should benefit the locals. Staying in locally owned accommodations ensures that a lot more of your money goes to the local community.
So forego big hotel chains and investor-owned short-term rentals. Not only are these places generally pretty boring and do not reflect the local style and culture, but they also add to gentrification and leak money out of the local economy.
Instead, look for locally owned B&B’s, family-run boutique hotels, and hostels. Your money goes to the right people, they offer a local connection and a personal touch. If you do prefer an AirBnb, rent a room in someone’s house or an apartment from the person who actually lives there.
Another great budget-friendly and sustainable accommodation option for a city trip in Europe is to Couchsurf or house swap. Couchsurfing is a platform that connects you with people who want to host you. The Facebook group Host A Sister is a women-only alternative where people also regularly post their houses to swap. You stay in their place while they stay in yours. I’ve done both and can highly recommend it.
Wherever you end up staying, it is vital that you are mindful of your impact and your use. Don’t excessively use resources that locals rely on, like water and electricity, and be respectful of their environment. Being a sustainable traveler means being a good guest.
Pick off-the-beaten-path activities
Just like picking a less popular destination helps make your city break more sustainable, so does picking less popular activities.
Sure, some places are famous for a reason. But there is so much more to see and do in any city than the top three on TripAdvisor or getting the same Instagram picture as everyone else. Instead of ticking off a bucket list with the same tourist traps that everyone else is going to, make an effort to go off the beaten path.
Discovering the hidden gems and experiencing the local way makes your city trip in Europe a lot more fun!
I have certain things that I do on every solo city trip that are great staples for a sustainable itinerary. Like Free Walking Tours that take you around the city on foot, telling you local secrets and insider tips. This Venice Free Walking Tour is one of my favorites, as they specifically avoid mass-tourist sites.
It’s also worth looking beyond the established narrative and stereotypes of a place. Try out alternative tours and visit smaller museums. Speak to local people to find out the truth beyond your preconceived notions.
There are a lot of ways to find hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path activities in the city you are traveling to. You can’t go wrong just wandering around or asking locals for recommendations.
Eat local, seasonal and plant-based
For a more sustainable trip, you have to carry over sustainable lifestyle habits from your everyday life, such as how you eat. Eating a plant-based or plant-forward diet is one of the easiest ways to lower your carbon footprint, also when traveling. Compared to livestock, crops use much less water and land and emit less greenhouse gases.
This isn’t difficult as plant-based food is becoming more and more common in European cities. It also doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on trying traditional dished or local cuisine. I’ve always been able to find traditional vegetarian meals as well as vegan versions of classic dishes everywhere I travel.
Here are some of my tips for traveling as a vegan. Eating at small, locally owned places also ensures that more money goes to the community.
Aside from plant-forward, it is also more sustainable to eat locally produced and seasonal products. Farmers’ markets and food halls are great places to find these if you’d like to cook for yourself. I also recommend picking up some local snacks to try from the supermarket. Perfect for a little picnic or to take home as souvenirs.
Being sustainable also extends to what you drink. Tap water is usually clean in European cities, so bring a reusable water bottle to fill up. If you’re not sure about the quality, a bottle with a built-in filter is the way to go.
Traveling sustainably is all about making the right choices. At every point, you have to think: what is the least damaging option, and who benefits the most? It’s about mindful of your impact and being respectful of someone else’s home.
It’s not hard to plan a sustainable city break in Europe. Make sure you choose the right location, transportation, accommodation, activities, and food. And with these tips, you’ll be a pro at booking a responsible trip for yourself.
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