I was rather excited to spend some time in the Netherlands over the recent Christmas break, to visit family and also have some eco-friendly fun!
I think many of my eco-friendly tendencies might stem from my Dutch heritage. When my parents lived in the Netherlands for bit in the eighties it was already the norm to use reusable shopping bags. They held on to this habit when they came back to Australia, so growing up I have never known any differently. The Netherlands continues to be seen as a leader in sustainable development, so in this post I share a bit about the sustainable things we saw and did while we were there.
Getting there and around
I still find the idea of catching a train to another country just the most magical thing! We jumped on the Eurostar after working a day in London and arrived in Brussels for dinner (the Eurostar also goes to Amsterdam but since we were heading to Breda first it made more sense to get off at Brussels). I have definitely taken more than my fair share of short-haul flights in my time, but since living in the UK I have fallen in love with train travel. It is easier and quicker than flying (once the time taken to get to the airport is taken into account) and it results in about 85% less greenhouse gas emissions!
I have started to take for granted how ubiquitous bike sharing schemes are in Europe but we didn’t encounter any in our time in the Netherlands. We would have loved to use the OV-fiets system. It is a bike sharing scheme run by the train operator and offers bikes at super reasonable rates, with the idea that the bikes can be used for last-mile commuting anywhere in the Netherlands (they are at almost 300 locations). Unfortunately the scheme isn’t aimed at tourists and you have to order a subscription ahead of time to be able to use the bikes.
But we obviously weren’t going to visit the cycling capital of the world and not get around by bike. To avoid too much mucking around we rented them from our hotels in the Hague and Amsterdam – that way we didn’t have to worry about getting them back at a particular time. And my goodness, cycling in Amsterdam is unlike anything else! As a pedestrian it can seem a busy and confusing with all the different footpaths and bike paths, but once you are riding everything just makes sense and there are always clear separate cycle paths – even when big chunks of the road network are closed for construction works.
What we did
To be honest I would have been happy riding a bike around for a couple of weeks just checking out the lovely segregated cycle infrastructure, but we also did some standard touristy activities as well.
After a stopover in Brussels, where we spent a charming evening admiring the Christmas light spectacles, our first destination in the Netherlands was Breda. Most of our time was spent catching up with family, but we visited the town centre and STEK – a derelict business park that is now home to all kinds of creative businesses and cafes. It has the feeling that everything has been built from repurposed materials (in a good way), right down to the nativity scene. My relatives also made us a delicious kale stamppot – complete with vegetarian bacon bits and sausages for an authentic experience. Such good comfort food!
Our next stop was Den Haag (the Hague). Visiting the Escher museum was at the top of my list of things to do and it didn’t disappoint. We spent a whole morning being bamboozled by his tessellations and impossible images. (Actually, the top spot on my list originally belonged to Europe’s largest indoor farm, but I was disappointed to find out it had closed a few months previously.) We also took our bikes on a lovely ride to visit Madurodam (Holland in miniature) and Scheveningen beach.
We were amazed when we stepped off the train at Amsterdam Centraal at how busy it was compared to the other cities we had just been in. The Fashion for Good Experience was a welcome respite from the bustling streets. The exhibition unpacks some of the environmental and social issues associated with the garment industry. It also showcases some exciting innovations that are seeking to reduce these negative impacts.
Still keen to avoid the tourist crowds, we took our bikes on one of the (free!) ferries to Amsterdam Noord. It was a bit of a happy accident that our ferry dropped us at the NDSM Wharf. After checking out the graffiti we rode to De Ceuvel – ‘a CleanTech city playground for innovation, experimentation and creativity where we aim to make sustainability tangible, accessible and fun’ (it sounds like an amazing place just from that description!). We visited between Christmas and New Year, so there wasn’t too much happening. Nonetheless we had fun looking at all the signs explaining how everything works. We also popped into the cafe for a warm drink and just had to try their lunch dishes – vegan blue cheese was too intriguing to pass up! They have tons of information about sustainable technology on their website, which is well worth noodling around even if visiting Amsterdam isn’t on your agenda.
A canal tour is top of the must-do lists for Amsterdam, but sitting on a sheltered boat listening to prerecorded information isn’t really our style. Instead we opted for plastic fishing with Plastic Whale! Since 2011 they have fished 3,800 bags of waste from the canals of Amsterdam. We spent an entertaining morning adding a couple more bags to that total.
As always, we also spent some time wandering in parks – luckily Amsterdam has plenty. We pretended to be locals while riding around the Vondelpark holding hands (I don’t think anyone was fooled). We also visited the splendid Hortus Botanicus – one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe.
What we ate
There was never a shortage of delicious vegan and vegetarian options. In Den Haag we treated ourselves to a lovely festive dinner at Hortus. Another highlight was vegan pancakes for breakfast at the Haley’s Comet Breakfast Club. 80s vibes and a fair, local, low-waste ethos – totally my kind of place!
There were so many places to choose from in Amsterdam as well. Sitting on a swing and drinking a smoothie from a bamboo straw at Hearth was such fun. Their vegan, homemade pasta dishes were also very tasty. The Alchemist Garden was probably the only miss of the trip – I should have foreseen that after plastic fishing we would want a hearty lunch rather than cold, raw food. Definitely one to check out in the summer though!
I was most excited to eat at Instock – a restaurant that rescues food that would otherwise go to waste. They have a sign on the wall that tracks how much food they have saved from being wasted since opening. On the night we went it read 617,104kg! Most of their dishes are vegetarian too (I have mentioned before how I feel like I should be okay with eating meat that would otherwise go to waste, but I still can’t bring myself to do it!).
Where we stayed
In Den Haag we stayed at the Court Garden Hotel – the first eco-designed hotel in the Netherlands. When we were looking for accommodation I tried to book at Ecomama in Amsterdam, but unfortunately it wasn’t available. Instead we splashed out for a few nights at the Conscious Hotel Westerpark which was the fanciest hotel we have ever stayed at! I wish their fun signage about how to use the air conditioning system was standard everywhere. I also loved that their lobby bookshelves where full of interesting books on topics like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (okay, so I’m a bit of a sustainability nerd, but you knew that already).
We also stayed in some Airbnbs. I really like the idea of sharing and making use of unused space through a platform like Airbnb. But I’m also conscious that it is distorting rental markets and disrupting community cohesion in some cities. To avoid contributing to this impact we try to stay somewhere that is a spare room or vacant space while the usual occupant is on holiday (although it is sometimes tricky to tell!).
I hope this post is helpful for anyone planning a trip to the Netherlands! Here are some of the resources I use to find information on fun things to do and sustainable travel options:
- Whenever I am travelling I like to read local blogs to find out what is going on in a city. On this trip I enjoyed trying to understand Het Zero Waste Project with my practically non-existent Dutch skills.
- Good Goal is an epic directory of sustainable places in cities all over Europe, including ethical eateries, green hotels zero waste stores and sustainable fashion retailers.
- For train travel in Europe I have always found country-specific train websites easy enough to use, but I also find Loco2 handy for checking times on trains anywhere in Europe – and it has a pun-tastic name.
- We didn’t use it at all on this trip, but an amazing resource is this map of over 300 bike share schemes around the world! Generally bike share schemes in different cities have their own apps or maps, but they vary in quality. This one works pretty well when out and about but also pretty fascinating to explore even if you aren’t travelling!