Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As any traveller worth their Nikes knows, to walk around a city is to experience its true essence—its soul, if you will. “Your brain functions quite differently when you walk,” says Scott Bricker, director of America Walks, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting the health benefits of putting one foot in front of the other. “It’s good for your health, both physical and mental, and good for your fellow man, because you engage with the community you’re walking among.”Pretty much any city can be experienced on foot, as the hordes of multilingual tour groups thronging the European capitals will attest. But what is it exactly that makes a city perfect for strolling? Is it a certain sort of pedestrian-friendly urban design? The streetscapes themselves, with their distinctive architecture and attractions? The climate? The warmth and vibrancy of the residents? Or is it perhaps something more ephemeral?
Of course, there are obvious peripatetic pleasures that most good walking cities have in common. A sense of history, gorgeous buildings and must-see landmarks (or views) all make for an experience better savoured on foot. There’s also a specific kind of commerce that helps make a cityscape charming to explore by walking—like the ubiquitous sidewalk cafés without which cities like Paris, Vienna and Venice would be lesser versions of themselves.
Sometimes, though, it’s the less tangible things that make walking through the world’s urban centres uniquely fascinating. Like the smells of baking pan quotidien that emanate from countless boulangeries in early morning Paris, or the way the light glitters and reflects off of Tokyo’s glass skyscrapers. Or simply the childlike joy many of us feel when set loose in a strange, labyrinthine streetscape that promises adventure and the chance to get wonderfully lost. (Buon giorno, Venice!)
More and more cities these days seem to be inviting pedestrian exploration. Metropolises that have traditionally seemed daunting to walkers are reinventing themselves as strolling cities par excellence—for example, Cape Town (now luring visitors with new waterfront walking routes) and Hong Kong (with its leafy urban walking trails). Even Los Angeles and Atlanta—”two cities renowned for car culture,” as Bricker notes—are revitalizing their downtown areas to encourage walking.
From the High Line to Harajuku, we’ve found the world’s best urban environments in which to lose yourself for a few hours (or days), complete with iconic routes to explore. Grab your boots: These cities are made for walking.
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This story was originally published by Departures.
One of the best ways to see Hong Kong is to get out of the city altogether--although you won't even have to leave Hong Kong Island. The Dragon's Back Trail, less than an hour from Kowloon, offers fresh air, dazzling vistas and a unique perspective on this celebrated Chinese city. The five-mile trail, said by locals to resemble the spine of a dragon, meanders along a spectacular undulating ridge punctuated by bamboo groves and wildflower-swathed hills. Admire the views across to the Clear Water Bay Peninsula, the islands of Hong Kong and the South China Sea, and watch as locals fly kites and model aeroplanes and even paraglide off the cliffs. Then amble your way to the sweet seaside town of Shek O, with its (for Hong Kong) sparsely touristed beaches and open-air restaurants.
It's no surprise that a city whose residents pride themselves on spurning car culture is a pedestrian's dream. But Manhattan's reputation as a world-class walking city was propelled into a whole new stratosphere with the opening of the High Line--an elevated railway line turned passeggiata--in June 2009. Start at the West 30th Street entrance in the newest part of the park and make your way south, wending beneath the bowers of a mini-forest and past gorgeously landscaped wild garden beds. People-watch at the preeny 23rd Street Lawn, near the sun loungers in the Meatpacking District section and within the mini-amphitheater in the Sunken Overlook above 10th Avenue. Exit at Gansevoort Street, where you'll soon reach the fringes of the West Village, with the leafy cobblestone streets and iconic brownstones that conjure up most people's vision of classic New York. thehighline.org.
As countless starry-eyed lovers have discovered, it's hard to go wrong swanning around France's eternally romantic capital: With its tree-lined avenues, sidewalk cafés and promenades along the Seine, this is a city that seems designed for leisurely ambling. To see Paris at its most soigné, though, head to the rue St. honouré, in the tony 1st arrondissement, near Place Vendôme and the Louvre. Sidle onto stylish offshoot rue du Faubourg St.-honouré and sigh over the world's most fashionable stretch of real estate, lined with global luxury houses like Hermès, Goyard, Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton, along with more avant-garde players like perennially adored-by-stylists concept store Colette. Discard any traces of guilt after retail-bingeing with another form of Parisian decadence, a delicate macaron (or three or four), at cult tearoom Ladurée.
Though Venice seems a lock for the world's greatest walking city--gondola traffic jams have so much more charm than their road counterparts--the town can also seem intimidating to first-time explorers. The trick is to relax, ditch the map and relish getting lost (you inevitably will, and it's a good thing). It helps, however, to start by crossing the famous Rialto Bridge, which has spanned the Grand Canal since 1591, and walk among the produce and provisions stalls of the city's 11th-century market district. Then wander along the Grand Canal and check out architectural gems such as 17th-century Palazzi Barbaro, a onetime haunt of Henry James and Claude Monet, and Peggy Guggenheim's museum, housed in the stately Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Finally, wander into the Cannaregio district, with its Byzantine palaces and monasteries and atmospheric wine bars known as bacari.
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