May 14, 2012 at 8:43 AM ET
As any traveler worth their soles knows, to walk around a city is to experience its true essence. “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 savored 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 centers 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.
More from Departures.com