Forget confusing public transport and budget-busting taxis. The best way to experience a city like a local is on your own two feet. Not to mention it’s free, and eco-friendly too. We’ve picked five destinations where you can literally take exploring in your stride and suggested routes that join the dots between the sights and sounds you won’t want to miss…
1. Melbourne, Australia – fly from £454
Helpfully, Melbourne’s Capital City Trail makes it easy for walkers to tick off the main hotspots without having to pore over a map for hours. The 29km route takes in portions of other walks, such as the Merri Creek, Yarra River and Hobsons Bay trails and passes through urban icons including the South Bank, the famous cricket ground known simply as ‘The G’ and the waterfront Docklands suburb where you can ride the Melbourne Star.
A meander among the city’s famous laneways is a must. Tucked between the skyscrapers of Melbourne’s CBD, alleys such as Hosier Lane, Duckboard Place and Strachan Lane are home to ever-changing displays of street art, while other lanes house eclectic shops, restaurants and cafés. At nearby Federation Square, you’ll find the city’s ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) and the iconic Flinders Street Railways Station. From there, you can hop across the Yarra and stroll from Alexandra Gardens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, the perfect place for a picnic. The gardens are also home to the Aboriginal Heritage Walk, a guided tour of the ancestral lands of the Kulin nation.
For a taste of Melbourne’s famous coffee culture, you’ll find flat white heaven in the hip inner-north neighbourhoods of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Brunswick. Grab your caffeine fix ‘to go’ at an independent roaster like Industry Beans then wander to Fitzroy’s Rose Street Artists’ Market.
Further south, Grand Prix fans can walk the 4.2km Albert Park Formula 1 circuit, which circumnavigates a lake with fab views of the city skyline. Or mooch about the beach suburb of St Kilda, with its alfresco cafés, grungy live music venues and iconic Luna Park. The Tolarno Hotel (from £47) in the heart of St Kilda on Fitzroy St is a destination in itself, with original artworks on display and a fab restaurant.
2. Kyoto, Japan – fly from £437
Home to more than 1,000 Buddhist temples, traditional teahouses and Instagram-worthy streets, Kyoto is also delightfully compact and flat, making it one of Japan’s most walkable cities. Handily, many tourist hotspots are huddled in the Higashiyama district. Explore it over a couple of days, starting at Sanjusangendo near Kyoto Station and heading north. En route you’ll discover Gion, the traditional Geisha district known as the ‘floating world’ of Kyoto. The main thoroughfare of Hanami-koji Lane is full of restaurants, bars and teahouses, and the picturesque lanes that spring off it are enticing for an after-dinner stroll. Running alongside the Shirakawa Canal, Shimbashi is arguably the prettiest street in the whole of Asia, particularly all aglow at dusk and when the cherry blossoms are in bloom from late March to early April.
Rest your head at the cosy Kyoto Granbell Hotel (from £96) in the heart of Gion and, the next day, head just southeast of Gion to Nene-no-Michi, one of Kyoto’s most scenic lanes. Follow it north to Maruyama-koen Park and visit grand Chion-in Temple – the steps up to the main compound were used in 2003’s The Last Samurai – and Shoren-in Temple, which exudes tranquillity. From here you can head east to Nanzen-ji district, home to one of the most important Zen temples in Japan, and join the Path of Philosophy, which follows the cherry-tree lined canal along the base of the Higashiyama Mountains to Ginkaku-ji (or Silver Pavilion).
Further afield, the golden temple of Kinkaku-Ji in the far north is a must-see with its gold-leaf-covered exterior mirrored on a shimmering lake, while down south, the mountainside Shinto shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taisha and its iconic red shrine gates is a truly arresting spectacle. Head west and you can wander through the magical Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. And bang in Kyoto’s centre, the Imperial Palace Park is a vast swathe of green that boasts an incredible variety of trees.
3. Vancouver, Canada – fly from £271
With its mountain backdrop and ocean vistas, the scenery alone would make this Pacific city a pedestrian’s paradise. But walkability is actually Vancouver’s top priority as it sets out to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. The strategy includes a new network of Pedestrian Wayfinding Maps dotted at more than 200 stands throughout the city. The first maps are centred around trendy downtown districts including Coal Harbour, Gastown and Yaletown, which make the perfect base for your stay. The Riviera on Robson (from £136) boasts awesome city and harbour views and is the perfect jumping off point for Stanley Park, 1,000 acres of forest, formal gardens and the beautiful Lost Lagoon. You can loop around the whole park by walking the seawall, a 9km vehicle-free pathway that takes two to three hours to complete. A must-see en route are the totem poles at Brockton Point, towering monuments of First Nation history on the eastern side of the park. On the western side, head up Prospect Point Lookout for amazing views of the North Shore Mountains, the Lions Gate Bridge and Burrard Inlet.
The scenic promenade from the south side of False Creek to Granville Island is an easy 2.9km waterside wander that takes in the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics Village. Granville Island itself is a gastronomic oasis, with more than 70 eateries, Canada’s first microbrewery and the famous Public Market, packed to the rafters with fresh local produce.
4. Helsinki, Finland – fly from £85
The Finnish capital is another city gunning for greenness. Already incredibly pedestrian-friendly, plans are underway to develop a network of dense, walkable and interconnected neighbourhoods with the aim of making car ownership obsolete by 2025.
Helsinki combines a pocket-sized, culture-packed centre with a scenic coastal location, making it a wonderful place to discover on foot. A quick ferry takes you out to its archipelago of around 330 islands, including Pihlajasaari – the most popular place to while away a sunny day. Or walk around the bays of Kaisaniemenlahti, Eläintarhanlahti, and Töölönlahti from Kaisaniemi Park. It’s even more stunning in winter, when the lakes become shimmering sheets of ice. Head to Tokoinranta Park on the northern side and make a pit stop for a coffee and korvapuusti (cinnamon roll) at Hakaniemi Market Hall. Then continue around the top of Töölö Bay and visit the Winter Garden’s glass greenhouses filled with ferns and tropical plants. On the southern shore, check out Töölönlahti park, which often hosts cultural events, and admire the architectural grandeur of the National Opera House and Finlandia Hall.
The south harbour adjacent to the city centre offers more waterside wonders, including the Skywheel, Uspenski Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and Market Square for local arts and crafts galore. Nearby you’ll find Helsinki’s design quarter featuring a stunning line-up of Finnish brands including Marimekko, Littala and Artek. The guided Design Walk, which departs from Esplanade Park, is a fascinating insight into this Finnish obsession — and a chance to pick up a future design classic. The route includes Hotel Klaus K, one of Helsinki’s chicest addresses just off the Esplanade (from £159).
5. Florence, Italy – fly from £51
Often compared to an open-air museum, Florence boasts incredible historical sites around every corner and, thanks to the centre of the city being closed off to cars, walking is by far the best way to absorb all the world-class culture on offer.
Get your bearings from Piazzale Michelangelo, a large square with sprawling views over the whole of Firenze and its snaking Arno River. You’ll need energy reserves to climb the stairs so it’s best tackled first off, then head to the Duomo, or Cattedrale di Santa Maria, with its intricately tiled dome. A tourist trap, maybe, but jaws still drop at the sight of this awe-inspiring Gothic wonder.
Grab a coffee at Mercato Centrale before heading to the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, home to Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. Just remember to book ahead to beat the queues. Then counter all that high-brow culture with some window shopping of the jewellery shops lining Ponte Vecchio. Can’t afford a sparkler? A gelato at La Strega Nocciola is a worthy substitute. Look up from the bridge and you’ll spot the Vasari Corridor, an elevated passageway constructed in 1565 so Duke Cosimo Medici could move securely from his home in Palazzo Vecchio to the his ‘office’ at the Pitti Palace. Now a giant museum of modern art, silver, porcelain, and costume jewellery, the Medici’s former royal residence is well worth a visit, as are the beautiful Boboli Gardens behind it.
A short hop away is Santo Spirito Square, a beautiful piazza loved by locals with plenty of bar and restaurant terraces providing wine, pizza and respite for tired feet. Don’t forget to check out the frescos by Botticelli and Filippino Lippi at the Basilica of Santa Maria of Santo Spirito while you’re there, then stay in style at nearby Casa Santo Nome di Gesu (from £77), elegant digs set in a 15th century building with original frescoes.
Are you ready for a city-walking break? Search for flights below:
All flight and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at time of writing on 18 June 2019.