Eco-consciousness is a way of life in Amsterdam, a city that’s consistently received high scores on the Sustainable Cities Index. Windmills dot the landscape, and the circular economy is taking hold. Recycling initiatives reduce waste, and bikes reign over cars.
As a tourist in Amsterdam, there are many ways you can participate in this lifestyle, from perusing shops stocked with eco-chic fashion, to cruising the canal on a self-pedaled canal bike, to fishing for plastic. You can even visit a windmill — and when you’ve built up an appetite, eat at an eco-restaurant.
And it's not just Amsterdam. The Netherlands is filled with other sustainable attractions...all accessible via green transit, of course.
Here's how to enjoy lovely Amsterdam and its surrounding areas without hurting the environment.
Bike the Dutch Dream
In Amsterdam, it’s all about pedal power: Bikes outnumber cars four to one. Here, cyclists eschew helmets as they zoom along 400 kilometers of designated red bike paths. Many ride with no hands, while texting or hauling groceries and even children.
To explore the city like a local, hit up one of many available bike rental services, including MacBike (which loans out snazzy red bikes) and Yellow Bike Rental (which rents out, yes, yellow vehicles). Looking for something sturdy? Opt for a black omafiet (granny bike) from YourCityBike.
Note: To prevent theft (up to 100,000 bikes disappear annually), older bikes are better, and investing in a bike lock is crucial.
Pedal Through a Canal
Amsterdam looks different from the water, and on a warm day, you can take it at your own pace in the greenest way possible by powering your own canal tour. Pedal boats, also known as canal bikes, are available for rent and can accommodate the whole family.
These move by pedal power, just like bicycles on land, and are a great way to view the city’s center and antique architecture. Stromma Shop offers canal bike rentals in three locations: the Rijksmuseum, Leidseplein and the Westerkerk.
Typically you’ll get a set of directions and a rain cover in case of sudden showers.
Walking, with a map or guide to lead the way, is an ideal way to experience the city. Neighborhoods are compact and walkable, and you can discover hidden gardens, alleyways, beautiful canal bridges and ancient leaning houses as you stroll.
Jaunt through picturesque Brouwersgracht street to the beautiful Jordaan district, where you’ll find the Anne Frank House. Explore the Negen Straatjes, nine small streets packed with charming shops, boutiques and places to rest your feet at local cafes. Sometimes it seems all roads lead to the Museumplein, home of the famous Rembrandt painting, “The Night Watch.”
Tip: Always avoid walking in the bike lane, and if you get tired, jump on a tram for Central Station. Getting lost is hard, and this will ultimately be the way back to any point you started from.
Hop Inside a Bicycle Rickshaw
Don’t want to pedal? See the city via the Amsterdam bicycle rickshaw.
Called Fietstaxi, or bike taxi, you get to sit while someone else does the pedaling work. This three-wheeled contraption is a relaxing alternative to biking or walking, and from it you can see parts of the city unreachable by most other means.
Bike taxis, which generally hold two passengers, can be booked ahead of time from a rental service or found on some streets in the center, especially around Dam Square. Drivers tend to double as tour guides and can show you the local sites.
Also make sure to check out Solar Taxi, which rents out a fleet of 10 cabs powered by roof-mounted solar panels and boosted by battery assists.
Get Your Culture on at a Sustainable Museum
Five prominent Amsterdam museums have achieved BREEAM-NL certification, which assesses the sustainability performance of buildings.
In 2014, the Van Gogh Museum became the first in the world to earn this distinction. The museum has reduced its ecological footprint by minimizing water and energy use, introducing a recycling program, and encouraging the utilization of public transport.
Next door on the Museumplein, the Stedelijk Museum, featuring modern art from 1880 to the present, and the Rijksmuseum, are also BREEM-NL certified. In other parts of the city, the Amsterdam Museum, which tells the story of Amsterdam and is located in the city’s former orphanage, is also certified, as is The Hermitage, which is currently displaying “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” the first known Rembrandt painting to emerge in 44 years.
A fair trade capital since 2014, Amsterdam is also pioneering the circular economy, ensuring plenty of green shopping opportunities, from second-hand treasure shops to chic boutiques.
For the ultimate eco-conscious experience, try one of many vintage shops in the city. Specializing in fashion from the 1940s, Rumors Vintage & Design is located a quick jump from Central Station on the Haarlemmerstraat, where you can spend a great afternoon poking through all kinds of stores. There are also many second-hand shops throughout the city selling vintage clothes by the kilo, such as the Kilo Shop Waterlooplein.
Tempting boutiques abound as well, including VERSE, purveyor of eco-jeans and clean cosmetics, and Studio Jux, which offers a stylish guilt-free shopping experience with its affordable prices and commitment to product transparency in sourcing and manufacturing.
Go on a Canal Cruise with a Purpose
The Plastic Whale is an Amsterdam fishing company — but not in the traditional sense.
Fishing trips with the company yield plastic, not fish. The company’s mission statement? Make the world’s waters plastic-free and create value from plastic waste.
So far, Plastic Whale has built 10 whaling boats and launched an office furniture line using Amsterdam canal plastic. You can participate by jumping on board for a guided canal cruise with a big net to catch some plastic yourself.
Hop on a Sustainable Train
An alternative to biking is the Amsterdam tram. This blue-and-white streetcar is a familiar sight throughout the city, utilized by locals and visitors alike. A great way to sightsee from a warm, dry, seated vantage, the tram can pick you up and drop you off anywhere you’re going because it already knows the way. All lines generate from Central Station.
Tram riders need an OV-chipkaart, the Dutch public transport smart card. The plastic chip card is appropriate for long stays, but if you’re in Amsterdam briefly, there is a special short-term disposable ticket option. The card can be purchased at train stations, supermarkets and newsagents.
Eat at a Green Restaurant
If you’re hungry after a day of sightseeing, fear not: Amsterdam offers many excellent dining options that are also eco-friendly.
One popular spot is De Waaghals, located in the chic De Pijp neighborhood, which offers a mostly organic vegetarian menu in a charming atmosphere.
Restaurant Instock serves all three daily meals with an interesting twist: Ingredients are sourced from food surpluses that would otherwise go to waste. The restaurant features live music on Saturday night and a vegetarian menu.
Vinny’s in Haarlemmerstraat offers a beautiful Middle Eastern menu in a brightly lit, modern dining room, where all the furniture is for sale.
Relax in a Green Space
The largest and most famous of Amsterdam’s many green oases is perhaps Vondelpark, where you can indulge in summer theater or relax at a bucolic cafe such as the Blauwe Teehuis. Another option: Fill your bike basket with eco-goodies from Ekoplaza — a grocery store with an entire plastic-free aisle — and find a quiet spot in the shade.
A visit to Amstelpark in Amsterdam Zuid can fill an entire day, especially with the kids, thanks to its mini-golf, farm and yummy snacks sold at several snack bars scattered throughout the park.
A cherry blossom festival marks the arrival of spring in the Amsterdamse Bos, where you can follow the Forest Gnome Trail, spend an afternoon rowing or canoeing, or go camping.
If it's raining, which does happen in Amsterdam, you can keep it green by finding shelter in the famous butterfly greenhouse at Europe’s oldest botanical garden, Hortus Botanicus, located right in the city center.
Treasure Hunt at a Street Market
Amsterdam’s street markets offer a treasure trove of recycled goods.
The Noordermarkt has been convening in the shadow of the Noorderkerk, a beautiful 17th-century Protestant church, every Saturday since the time of the Dutch Golden Age, when trade, travel and exploration first brought a wealth of beautiful items to Dutch market stalls. Here, you can find antiques, clothing, tiles and food. The Albert Cuypt market in trendy De Pijp has been in operation since 1904 and boasts 300 stalls. And on Wednesdays, the Haarlemmerplein Market offers a selection of mostly organic food.
The biggest market of all in Amsterdam happens once a year on King’s Day when Amsterdammers celebrate the king’s birthday with a huge city-wide yard sale, where you are guaranteed to find just about anything. In its own way, King’s Day might be the capital’s biggest recycling program.
Explore the City’s Windpower
Don’t be fooled by the sleekness of Amsterdam’s wind turbines — they’re actually very old. The Netherlands have long relied on mills to grind food and pump water, and it’s still possible to visit the last working mill in the city.
Currently, there are eight iconic old-fashioned mills dotting the city, but only the Windmill van Sloten continues its job of pumping excess water from the former Haarlemmer Lake to maintain the water level in Amsterdam Nieuw-West. Dating to 1847, the mill includes an exhibit called “Rembrandt in the Attic,” open to the public. If you really like mills, you can even get married here.
After a day of activities (and eating), retreat to an eco-friendly space to rest. Over 50 hotels in Amsterdam have been awarded the international sustainability quality mark Green Key, making it super easy to check in green.
Hotel Jakarta opened in spring 2018 as the most sustainable hotel in the Netherlands. Located on Java Island, where ocean liners once departed for Indonesia, this hotel links occident to orient and past to present while offering a brand new sustainable stay in a fusion-chic atmosphere. Innovations include rainwater collection for the subtropical indoor garden created with Hortus Botanicus and solar-energy-heated showers.
Closer to the center, there are four eco-designed Conscious Hotels in Amsterdam, including one near the art of Museum Square. Conscious Hotel energy comes from renewable sources, there are beehives on the roof, and some of the furniture is made from recycled yogurt pots.
Get Out of Town (in a Green Way)
There are many eco conscious ways to explore the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam. A series of convenient, flat bike paths connect you to all points in the country, and you can follow them right out of the city to places such as the Keukenhof Garden, with its seasonal tulip beds; the fishing village of Volendam; the cheese town of Edam; and the Muiderslot Castle in Muiden.
Skirting the water and venturing through fields of livestock, the view from the bike path reveals the beauty of the Dutch countryside and connects you to the same panoramas painted historically by Dutch landscape artists. There are also plenty of places to stop on the way for refreshment.
If you’re not a biker, you can still get out of town economically on a comfortable boat. Holland from the water is a beautiful experience, and you can cruise from Amsterdam center right into the countryside, where you can meet the cattle producing all that great cheese, and see the iconic Zaans Schans windmills.
The Netherlands is connected by a strong railway infrastructure that will take you anywhere you want to go, including Amsterdam to Leiden in under an hour for an excellent day trip. Leiden is a vibrant university town with beautiful canals and architecture and a fascinating history; it is where pilgrims lived for several years before sailing to the New World. Visitors can connect with this heritage at the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, a living history museum depicting a 17th-century pilgrim house.