The uncertainties surrounding climate change are creating challenges for policy makers with regard to investments in water-related infrastructure. A promising new approach is the adaptation pathways approach. This article contributes to this approach by introducing an institutional and socio-cultural perspective. It presents an analytical framework to evaluate the necessary institutional and socio-cultural conditions, uncovering challenges with regard to the governance of adaptation and of keeping options open for the future. The framework has been applied to the case study of fresh water supply in the Netherlands. Based on an institutional and socio-cultural analysis, the feasibility, flexibility and governance of adaptation strategies are discussed. Reflecting on the presented framework, critical issues are addressed with regard to the further development of the adaptation pathways approach.