3 secret sustainable city breaks in Spain

Madrid and Barcelona may already be named some of the world’s most sustainable cities but in true eco-friendly fashion, we share three lesser-known green city breaks in Spain…

4 mins

With shrinking rainfall and temperatures predicted to rise by up to 5°C by the end of the century, the threat of climate change is stark in Spain. So, the country decided to do something about it, boldly setting itself the challenge of relying on fully renewable electricity by 2050. Spain is a country already with the largest number of biosphere reserves in the world (with 53) but it’s its urban areas that are accelerating their fight against air pollution, traffic and soaring temperatures. Madrid and Barcelona may already be named some of the world’s most sustainable cities but in true eco-friendly fashion, we share three lesser-known green city breaks in Spain…

1. Seville

Seville is easy to explore by cycle (Shutterstock)

Seville is easy to explore by cycle (Shutterstock)

Seville may be the city of oranges but its philosophy is very much green. In fact, every spring when the Sevillian air is thick with the scent of orange blossom, the methane produced from the unwanted portions of the citrus fruit is now being transformed into electricity. Seville has forward-thinking mayor Alfredo Sánchez Monteseirín, who kick-started the city’s sustainable ethos by green-lighting a number of eco-friendly initiatives in 2007. Within five years Seville had an electric tram, a commercial solar power plant on the outskirts (the first of its kind in Europe) and a bicycle-sharing programme. With Spain initially slow to adopt city cycling, it’s the latter that’s most impressive. Understandably, Sevillians were thankful of a way to dodge the traffic-clogged streets and today, it’s one of the best ways you can explore the city, with a seven-day pass your ticket to tracing its 120km of cycle lanes.

On Seville’s western fringes, you’ll also find the Isla de la Cartuja floating in the Guadalquivir River, whose sprawling Alamillo Park, 15th-century monastery-turned-modern-art-gallery and panorama-inducing Sevilla Tower are part of an island-wide project to make Cartuja wholly powered by renewable energy by 2025. Just a nudge south-west of Seville and you’ll encounter one of Europe’s most important wetland reserves: Doñana National Park. With a wingspan of over 1,300 sq km, Doñana has become one of the continent’s key cornerstones for conservation, providing a safe haven for thousands of birds and some of the rarest wildlife species on the planet, including the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx.

2. Zaragoza

The locals of Zaragoda are on a mission to plant more trees (Shutterstock)

The locals of Zaragoda are on a mission to plant more trees (Shutterstock)

Veined by three rivers (the Ebro, Huerva and the Gállego), shouldered by a wind-blasted grassy steppe and soaked in year-round sunshine, Zaragoza needs no second invitation to harness the natural energy that’s on its doorstep. As a city, its ambition matches its abundance of renewable energy opportunities, looking to generate 400% of its own energy demand by 2025 and peg back carbon dioxide emissions by 40% come 2030. To meet the latter target, Zaragoza has challenged itself to electrify its public transport and make the entire city accessible to walkers and cyclists. Much of its historic core is already pedestrianised, making it easy to admire its Roman and Moorish architecture on foot, while its flatness means Zaragoza lends itself well to exploring on two wheels.

 Zaragoza’s green focus goes back much further than you think, as 100 years ago it was said pine woodland south of the city was reforested with a tree from every local. A century later and they’re back at it again, with plans for every one of its Zaragozanos (around 700,000) to plant a tree. The key difference this time is the mix of new trees will be seeded in pockets surrounding Zaragoza to blur the boundaries between city and Mother Nature, making wildernesses like the riverine forests and lagoons of the Reserva Natural de los Galachos de la Alfranca feel closer than ever.

To help fuel you for these wild adventures, Zaragoza has also been named the Ibero-American Capital of Sustainable Gastronomy from July 2022-June 2023, when it will promote its organic, kilometre-zero produce via an eco-friendly culinary city map and cookbook.

 3. Vitoria-Gasteiz

Vitoria-Gasteiz looks golden (and green) just before sunset (Shutterstock)

Vitoria-Gasteiz looks golden (and green) just before sunset (Shutterstock)

Ten years after being named Europe’s Green Capital in 2012, Vitoria-Gasteiz still flies under the tourist radar. More than happy for San Sebastián and Bilbao to hog the limelight, the Basque Country’s capital continues to champion all things green. Its Green Capital status largely owed itself to the city’s Green Belt project first launched in the early 1990s, when large chunks of rural land on Vitoria-Gasteiz’s outskirts began to be revitalised as protected parks to offer locals plenty of emerald escapes without ever needing to leave the city. These aren’t your standard city parks: each one feels like a genuine pinch of wilderness you can get lost among, from the oak woodland of Armentia to the bird-rich wetlands of Salburua. In fact, Vitoria-Gasteiz wealth of greenery means there is 42 sq m of green space per inhabitant, while the city was the first in the country to launch a cycle lane network. Locals took to two wheels like ducks to water and 150km of bicycle trails later, you can find yourself pedalling alongside them through leafy parks like Garaio and Landa.

 With 2022 being the tenth anniversary since Vitoria-Gasteiz’s Green Capital crowning, it’s rightly making a fuss of it with a summer-long programme of sustainable events and activities. Whether it’s taking part in a pintxos workshop that highlights the city’s authentic, seasonal produce whipped into shape in its local kitchens, a guided Green Belt cycling tour or organic Rioja Alavesa wine tasting, you’ll wonder why Vitoria-Gasteiz isn’t better known – but very thankful it isn’t.

Related Articles