A Guide to Responsible Travel in Amsterdam.
As someone who lived and worked in Amsterdam for nearly seven years, it seems ironic that the first time I write about sustainable travel in Amsterdam – or about Amsterdam at all for that matter – is after I have left.
Despite having left the city, Amsterdam holds a very dear place in my heart. When it comes to sustainability, or green travel, there are fewer countries that it seems to come more naturally to than the Netherlands.
Speaking of green travel – if you’re looking for tips on where to find the best “green” in Amsterdam, this is not that sort of post. You’ll have to go elsewhere for “coffee” shop recommendations! (Side confession: during my seven years of living in Amsterdam, I never entered a coffee shop). But I digress…
Why the need for Sustainable Travel in Amsterdam?
I’m not the only one to have fallen for Amsterdam’s charms. With a population of only 821,000, Amsterdam receives in excess of 14 million tourists each year – not including day-trippers. That’s a number that is estimated to be growing at 5% each year, meaning 23 million visitors by the year 2025. Amsterdam hasn’t quite got to the point of Venice or Barcelona, where tourists are being told to “go home”, but arguably, it’s not that far off.
As in other cities in Europe that receive such a large number of visitors compared to their relatively small populations, tensions have been emerging. Tellingly, the tourist board of Amsterdam sees its role as to manage tourism, and the relations between tourists and Amsterdam residents, as opposed to promoting tourism. Measures are being taken to encourage the “right” kind of tourism – such as longer trips, visitors who are interested in Amsterdam’s culture (as opposed to merely its beer), and to spread tourism around the city as opposed to a few hotspots in the centre.
Given the numbers, is it responsible to travel to Amsterdam? I believe so. The possibilities to support sustainable and responsible tourism in Amsterdam are there, it all begins with planning ahead and supporting initiatives that are focused on being sustainable. Such as the ones listed in this post!
Travelling to Amsterdam: Getting There.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is one of the best connected and efficient airports in the world, and is served by most airlines. However, if you’re travelling from within Europe, chances are it’s probably as easy (not to mention greener) to reach Amsterdam by train or road.
Amsterdam’s Central Station is connected with direct rail services to Brussels, Paris, Koln, Berlin, Dusseldorf (and many other German cities).
As of 2018, Amsterdam will also be directly connected to London by train with Eurostar services – at the moment you can travel to Amsterdam by train from London but you’ll need to change in Brussels. The direct link to London will provide a more time efficient, cost efficient and environmentally friendly way of reaching Amsterdam from the UK (I wish this had been done 7 years ago!)
How to find Eco Hotels in Amsterdam.
There are some amazing options for eco friendly hotels in Amsterdam. From budget to luxurious you’re bound to find something that suits your taste/budget as well as being environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
Hotel vs Airbnb? There’s no denying that hotels (and even hostels) are expensive in Amsterdam. Visit between March and October and you’ll want to book as far out as possible to get a (semi-decent) deal. Airbnb is a contentious subject in Amsterdam. Like in other cities such as Barcelona, Airbnb has come under criticism from the city and from local residents for causing a breakdown in neighbourhood community (through so many apartments being only rented out to tourists), and also for forcing up property prices.
You can read more on the responsibility debate about Airbnb in my post here.
If you’re an Airbnb fan I recommend going for a hosted Airbnb option which can be a great way to meet locals who are usually happy to share their favourite spots in the city with you!
Best for Budget:
The Generator Hostel
Set in the grounds of the Oosterpark (East park) in an old laboratory, the Generator Hostel is definitely designed with the flash-packer (or hipster) in mind. The public areas are lovely, including views from the cafe terrace out over the park. The cafe serves good hearty food including plenty of vegetarian / vegan options. Rooms are either mini – dorms (4 per room) or private rooms. When I stayed the rates were as high as 50 euros per night for dorm bed in a mixed room of four, which is pretty steep, even for Amsterdam. On the responsibility front, Generator is all about embracing the local area and helping travellers discover the east of Amsterdam (somewhere the masses do not reach).
I recently stayed at QBIC’s award winning hotel in London and was seriously impressed. QBIC Amsterdam is a little more off the beaten track – near the world trade centre (wtc) in South Amsterdam. But the location means better prices, fewer tourists, is still within easy reach of the city centre, and is minutes walk from Amsterdam Zuid (south) train station. Rooms are economical, eco friendly, and even have environmentally friendly reminders to turn the efficient rain shower off while you shampoo your hair with their organic products.
Best for Central Locations:
With three locations across the city, Conscious Hotels are… as environmentally and socially conscious as they come. Conscious Hotel Museum Square is perfect for being in the middle of it all, while Conscious Hotel Vondelpark is at the southern end of Amsterdam’s largest park – close to lots of yummy eateries and green space. I stayed at the Vondelpark hotel last year and loved their comfortable, relaxed rooms.
The newest Conscious Hotel, The Tire Station comes complete with solar panels on the roof, an eco friendly patisserie appropriately named ‘sticky fingers’ and uses Aquifier Thermal Energy Storage – a fancy name for a revolutionary energy management system that sets the standard for efficiency, making this one of the most green hotels in Amsterdam.
The new kid on the block of eco hotels in Amsterdam, Eco Mama, “green quirky conscious sleeping” has arrived in Amsterdam. Ecomama is both a hostel and hotel, with seven room types. Ranging from “el cheapo” dorm to double private deluxe rooms. Ecomama is dedicated to eco friendly, conscious living, and the hostel is packed with environmentally friendly initiatives: from natural stone heating, to cradle-to-cradle furniture, efficient water systems and more.
For every guest night stayed, Eco Mama donates to Ninos de Guatemala NGO in (yes you guessed it) Guatemala.
Best for Experiencing ‘non touristy’ Amsterdam:
In the east of Amsterdam, in what used to be the headquarters of ‘De Volkskrant’ newspaper, sits the trendy, arty Volkshotel (but without the hipster price tag). Volkshotel literally means “peoples’ hotel” and that’s what this place strives to be: somewhere for everyone. Aside from the hotel, Volkshotel is big on social responsibility. It offers open workspaces and a co-working space for entrepreneurs and creative types.
One of my favourite things about this hotel are its views from rooftop bar and cafe, Canvas – which even if you don’t stay here is well worth a visit for a sundowner.
Best for Longer Stays / Digital Nomads:
Zoku Amsterdam is an original concept that combines hotel/stay with community and co-working. Their make efficient use of old space by buying up former office buildings to convert (vs building new hotels). Aside from being eco-certified and holding a whole list of environmental certifications for eco friendly accommodation, Zoku is looking to promote a more sustainable way of living. It starts with using space efficiently.
If you’re going to be in Amsterdam for longer than a few days and need to do some work, I recommend taking a look at Zoku. Their rooms are loft-style and come complete with kitchen, work desk/dining table, couch and TV. On the top floor there’s a large open plan lounge, garden area, and dining space for the use of all. Zoku put on events (from business inspired to cooking classes!) regularly.
Inspired to travel more sustainably? 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism! Read more about it and tips on sustainable travel here!
Responsible travel in Amsterdam: Activities.
Beyond the stereotypical cheese buying (not that I have anything against cheese, far from it…!) Amsterdam has plenty of options for those who want to see a slightly alternative side to the city, or want to support responsible travel initiatives in Amsterdam.
Sailing Amsterdam’s Canals.
The best way to see Amsterdam.. is from the water. Several meters down, you quite literally get a different perspective of the city. On a sunny day (or even on a non sunny one) there’s not much better than relaxing and and watching the picturesque canal houses and bridges drift by.
I’m not the only one to think so. Canal cruises of Amsterdam are one of the most popular activities to do on a visit, but unfortunately most people pile into the large canal cruisers which play the same recorded “guide” on continuous loop, and separate Amsterdam from visitors through ugly glass panels while pumping a load of diesel into the canals. I’m not a fan of – let’s say – the typical canal cruises.
Fishing for Plastic with Plastic Whale.
For more authentic options that actually allow you to experience Amsterdam’s canals, there are a couple of options. My first and favourite, that I tried this summer was with Plastic Whale.
I went on a canal trip with a difference – plastic fishing in Amsterdam with Plastic Whale to be specific. This company caught my eye in press written about their mission: to become extinct! Put simply, they fish plastic out of Amsterdam’s canals with the help of tourists / companies on team-building days, etc (their boat trips are open to anyone and can be booked via Airbnb). They then use much of the plastic fished out to make more boats (so that they can offer more plastic fishing trips) and have 7 boats already. Today they operate in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and have ambitious plans to spread beyond the Netherlands in the future.
Going on a trip with Plastic Whale is a great way to see the best of Amsterdam’s canals – in local non touristy style – and do one’s bit for the environment.
Rent your own (small) Boat.
If you’re a fan of boating around and have some experience of boating, an alternative is to hire your own boat. There are an increasing number of companies that offer this such as Mokumboat. They also offer the option to rent a larger boat with captain if there’s a bigger group of you. Boats can be picked up at a number of locations throughout Amsterdam. If it’s a sunny warm day, book well ahead! No license is required but the person “driving” cannot be drinking, and it goes without saying to be considerate of other boaters on the canals (which can get busy).
If you want to stretch your legs and get some exercise on the canals you can rent a pedalo! Pedalos are available for hire at the canal cruises jetty opposite the Rijksmuseum.
Last but not least, I would NOT recommend hiring a boat for yourself on King’s Day – where there are heightened security measures, strict regulations, and
too many drunk “sailors” the canals become blocked with boats!
Tours & Things to do in Amsterdam
Beyond the canals and main museums, there are a few other responsible travel related activities. O my Amsterdam Tours offer walking tours of the city which highlight the impact of climate change on Amsterdam – a city which is entirely built on water (and below sea level). The tour is a chance to see more of the city while learning about the issues of Amsterdam’s environment, water management and what the city is doing to reduce pollution and carbon emissions.
Visit.org offer an Amsterdam Sports Tour in partnership with the Olympic Stadium in the south of the city (Amsterdam hosted the Olympic Games in 1928). Proceeds from the tour go directly towards preserving the stadium.
If sustainable shopping is more your thing then definitely take a trip to the Lena Fashion Library (read about it in English here). The Library offers people the opportunity to borrow vintage clothing and fashion, instead of buying it. Thereby striving to reduce a number of issues in fashion such as high textile waste from fast fashion throw aways and child labour in fashion. If you’re not staying long enough to Subscribe and borrow, you can buy to support the initiative.
If eco-friendly beauty products are your thing, make time to visit the Marie-Stella-Maris store on the Keizersgracht (or you can shop online). Their beauty products are natural and paraben free, and every sale made supports clean drinking water projects around the world.
For those in need of some relaxation during their time in Amsterdam, Spa Zuiver is set amongst beautiful grounds in the Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam’s wood, literally) and is a huge complex of saunas, jacuzzis, pools and a spa (there’s a hotel too). Be warned: sauna in the Netherlands means no clothes! If you prefer to keep your swimsuit on, check for which day of the week is “swimsuit day” 😉 .
To Bike-tour or not to Bike-tour?
See the getting around section below!
Got a little more time on your hands? I recommend venturing outside of Amsterdam! You can read about helping release seals into the Wadden Zee in the Netherlands here!
Where to eat: Eco friendly and Organic Eats in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is filled with lovely organic eateries. Here a just a few of my favourite places to grab a bite while supporting a good cause:
Set in the east of Amsterdam, just steps from Amsterdam’s famous windmill brewery (Brouwerij t’Ij), Instock is Amsterdam’s first zero waste restaurant. Every day they collect surplas food from producers (think odd shaped cucumbers that supermarkets turn down) or food that has a shorter than sellable shelf life, and put it directly into their daily changing menus. The result? Positive use of food that is perfectly good and yummy-tasting but would have been thrown out!
Restaurant de Kas.
Also in the east of Amsterdam, Restaurant de Kas is set amongst its own greenhouses and gardens where much of the produce that it serves grows. The menu changes daily, according to what fruits, herbs and vegetables are being grown. Fish and meat are sourced sustainably from local suppliers. Book ahead as this one is popular.
Eat well, do good is Dignita‘s motto. Apart from serving delicious brunches at their two locations in Amsterdam, Dignita is part of the ‘Not for Sale’ social enterprise, which is committed to providing professional training to vulnerable individuals and social groups, helping them to integrate into new cultures.
The Alchemist Garden
The Alchemist is a vegan, raw organic restaurant in the west of Amsterdam.
De Ceuvel Amsterdam
The perfect excuse to hop on the free pont’je (ferry) across the river Ij to Amsterdam north (they depart from the north side of central station), De Ceuvel is an exercise in sustainable living as well as a cafe. Built on a former shipyard, De Ceuvel is also a working space for entrepreneurs, artists and sustainability dreamers. Check the website for upcoming events that are held regularly, and a floating bed & breakfast is planned for the future.
Local Transportation: Getting Around in Amsterdam.
On Two Wheels
Amsterdam is synonymous with cycling. In my humble opinion, there are few places in the world better suited to being discovered on two wheels. That said, tourists on bikes have been taking a bit of a battering (both literally and figuratively) over the last couple of years. Amsterdam cyclists are not always the most patient of folk (I speak from experience), and it does not help when stoned visitors or those who have never ridden a bike before decide that central Amsterdam on a busy Saturday is the perfect spot to try. So, what to do? A few tips from experience:
- If you’ve not cycled before or are not feeling reasonably confident, central Amsterdam is not the place to try. Start off somewhere quieter like a park or a quiet side street to build up your skills and confidence.
- Cycle considerately. Avoid cycling in big groups (including large tour groups) if you can, or if you do stick to single file. This is what locals get upset about – when their way is blocked by a group of 20 wobbly cyclists half way out in the road.
- I personally recommend hiring your own bikes and going out in a small group or on your own if you are comfortable with cycling vs taking a tour.
- Watch out for the tram rails. Tram rails are the perfect size to fit a bike tire in without letting it out again. When I lived in Amsterdam many of my friends ended up with bumps and bruises (or worse) after
a few drinkstheir bikes got stuck in the tramlines. When you need to cross them, do so at a sharp angle.
- Don’t copy the locals. Amsterdam cyclists can be crazy at the rest of times. You’ll see them on phones, cycling holding umbrellas, racing through red lights and all sorts. The thing is that the Dutch were practically born on bikes, so when novice cyclists try the same things.. it may not end well!!
- Always lock your bike up with a thick lock, to something. It’s well known that Amsterdammers like bikes, but not all like to pay for them…
On Trams and Buses
Amsterdam has a great network of trams and buses. They can be really bad value if you pay for them individually though, so do get an ‘OV Chipkaart’ (available at any metro station, railway station or at the GVB office opposite central station). You top up with credit and then swipe it every time you get on and off a bus or tram. The handy 9292.nl app gives you routes and times to get around Amsterdam.
Amsterdam has a few railway stations dotted around the city which can be useful within Amsterdam, but are mainly most helpful for getting to/from Schiphol Airport and outside of the city. To use your OV Chipkaart on NS Trains you need to have a minimum of 20 Euros credit, so it may just be easier to buy an individual ticket.
Of Red and Green Neon Signs.
Mention a visit to Amsterdam and two things come to most peoples’ minds. The city’s infamous Red Light District, and “coffee” shops (i.e. cannabis cafes).
Though not strictly legal in the Netherlands, recreational cannabis consumption has been tolerated for as long as anyone can remember (especially if they’ve been smoking) in the Netherlands. Recently, however the Dutch government has been trying to clamp down on coffee shops and reduce cannabis-tourism because of the crime that it is considered to be responsible for. In other parts of the country, “weed-passes” have been introduced and officially access to coffee shops is restricted to Dutch residents only (not tourists). Such measures have yet to be rolled out in Amsterdam.
Most visitors to the city end up in Amsterdam’s red light district at some point in time, but this part of the city along with Dam square is arguably Amsterdam at its worst: it is full of rowdy tourists on bachelor weekends, the streets and canals are dirty and crowded, and the area is also known to be a crime hotspot. For most Amsterdammers, that is reason enough to stick well clear.
If do you decide to go, don’t even think about trying to take pictures of the ladies in windows as you’ll end up in serious trouble with their pimps. Ethics in the red light district are low, and conditions for workers there (most of whom are immigrants from poorer EU countries and beyond) are poor, another reason to stay well clear of the area. In a bid to improve working conditions in the district, the Amsterdam mayor recently announced the opening of a brothel run by prostitutes.
How to Escape the Crowds in Amsterdam.
If you prefer your city trips on the quieter side, it’s fairly easy to escape the throngs of tourists in Amsterdam. Places that naturally get overwhelmed with visitors are central station, the Damrak leading down to Dam Square and beyond, the red light district, Leidseplein and Museumplein. Beyond those spots, there is far more of a blend of locals, expats who live in the city, and tourists. In most parts of central Amsterdam you’ll hear English being spoken around you as much as Dutch, but that is as much a symptom of how international the city has become as a place to live as opposed to only from tourism.
As a general rule of thumb, the further out of the city centre you go, the quieter and more local you will find the neighbourhoods to be. Even the stunning canal area of the Jordaan and the negen straatjes (nine streets) can be blissfully peaceful on a Sunday morning for a walk and a few photos of Amsterdam’s canals.
So, you’re now ready for a trip packed full of sustainable travel in Amsterdam!
Want to read more on Amsterdam? I recommend Wanderlustingk’s 1 day walking tour of Amsterdam.
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Have you been to Amsterdam? Do you have sustainable travel recommendations for Amsterdam or other tips to add to this list? Do let me know in the comments below!