What’re the worlds’ most walkable cities?

Frommer’s published a top-ten list of The world’s most walkable c

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

An "excessive" proposal for redevelopment of Westbanhoff railway station, Vienna, by Shahira Hamad. Could this H.R. Giger-like imagery be Generation Z's answer to Frank Gehry?

Frommer’s published a top-ten list of The world’s most walkable cities for tourists a couple of days ago. Few will be surprised Florence and Paris top the list but there might be some raised eyebrows that Venice isn’t there. And Melbourne and Sydney among the ten most walkable cities in the entire universe?

The full top-ten in order is Florence, Paris, Dubrovnik, New York, Vancouver, Munich, Edinburgh, Boston, Melbourne and Sydney.

A few months ago Tyler Cowen nominated London, Paris and Buenos Aries as his three best cities for walking (he excluded New York from consideration on the basis he’s too familiar with it to judge it objectively). Like Frommer’s, he also addressed the question from a tourist’s point of view.

He thinks Moscow, Mexico City, Toronto, Los Angeles and Istanbul are under-rated as walking cities. On the other hand, he says Budapest, Krakow and Munich are over-rated.

It seems there’re many cities that are regarded as the epitome of walkability for tourists. Commenters on Professor Cowen’s article nominate a host of others, including Venice, Prague, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona, Chicago, Copenhagen, Boston and Vienna. No one nominated any Australian cities though.

This is an odd exercise in some ways because there are very few cities that are simultaneously attractive to tourists yet can’t be navigated successfully by walking. Some cities are unsafe for walking and some, like US sunbelt cities, are simply too sprawled to make walking a serious option, but the vast majority are quite amenable for pedestrians.

That’s because tourists tend to favour the historic city centre and inner areas where lots of activities cluster within walking distance. Moreover tourists tend to stay for short periods and only visit once or twice, so a small centre can fully occupy and satisfy them.

Even Canberra is walkable. You can easily stroll between Parliament House, the National Gallery, the National Library, old Parliament House, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the High Court, the National Science and Technology Centre, the National Rose Garden and the Park Hyatt (the wonderful old Rex hotel Hotel Canberra).

There’s food, shelter and souvenirs in those places, but Canberra lacks something the best cities for walking have in abundance. Canberra doesn’t have much of interest on the way.

The most attractive cities for walking invariably have high profile destinations, but in my opinion their secret is they make a virtue of the journey. Walking is a sufficient end in itself rather than just a means of getting to the next museum or gallery.

Some have constant architectural surprises or vistas as you walk round a corner, step up onto a bridge or chance upon a square or park. There are lots of intimate public spaces and walking is often made markedly more pleasant by minimising the presence of cars.

Others have public spaces that buzz. Their streets burst with life and energy fed by a variety of shops and restaurants and a population that lives publicly. In some cities where the architecture might be relatively unremarkable (e.g. in Asia), the vitality comes from the interplay of commerce and everyday lives played out on the streets.

Venice is an example of the former and Hanoi the latter. The very best cities for walking, like Paris, combine both. These are cities where even if their prime high-profile attractions were closed, aimlessly walking the streets for hours on end would be a delightful and rewarding experience.

I have no problem with either Frommer’s or Professor Cowen’s lists (not that I’ve been to every city) but I note Venice isn’t on either of them. I wouldn’t have it there either because I find it’s just too hard to separate the intrinsic appeal of a city from how walkable it is.

In a physical sense Venice is pedestrian nirvana, but in my opinion it’s also a one dimensional city. The throngs of people along the canals are almost all tourists. The businesses only provide lodgings, food and fodder for tourists.

Although it was once a major and diverse trading centre, the dominant industry now is tourism. Like those Sunbelt cities with no ‘there’ there, Venice is a bit like a city without a ‘city’.

Almost every city that attracts international tourists is walkable – they reveal themselves best on foot and most of what they’ve got can be accessed easily on foot. Visitors don’t come because they’re walkable, but some might stay away if they weren’t.

In the very best cities, though, walking the streets is like walking in a rainforest – it’s a worthwhile end in itself.

P.S. It’s a pity there’s not a footbridge across Lake Burley Griffin to connect the Parliament House precinct in the vicinity of Lennox Gardens/Flynn Place to the new National Museum of Australia.

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21 thoughts on “What’re the worlds’ most walkable cities?

  1. Peter Hannigan

    I think the list can be described as the ‘safe’ western not-too-culturally-challenging walking cities. For example Damascus is a wonderful walking city, with historical places from anywhen over the last 2,500 years popping up around corners. There are cafes and food places all over, and a vast old city to explore complete with multiple bazaars. Of course it is not safe now, but was up until mid 2011. It was in fact safer in terms of street crime than almost any western city – in particular in comparison to say Barcelona, Prague or any large US or Italian city. This applies to a lot of other middle eastern cites. You do have to be prepared to deal with a different culture and you can’t get things that are ‘just like back home’. It does not mean the cities on the list are not lovely and wonderful to visit, its just a very Frommer list (that is, American and ‘safe’).

  2. [email protected]

    It depends on who is doing the walking. A large proportion of disabled people prefer to walk rather than be pushed around in a wheelchair. As one of the walking disabled i have found that all Australian cities and almost everywhere i’ve been in Europe and N.America are dangerous places in which to walk, mainly because pedestrian-initiated traffic lights never give me enough time to cross the road. Every traffic-light manufacturer seems to buy their software from the same company. Many elderly people and able adults pushing prams and wheelchairs have the same problem.
    As a risky generalisation, it seems that, where both vehicles and pedestrians are involved, few city planners give any thought to disabled walkers.

  3. michael r james

    AD, thanks for the update on walkable cities. Curious though, that if there is a storm of page viewers and they are the same opinionated bunch on the TC site (where there were >100 comments on the same topic), none of them are posting comments (I am assuming the site is open access–can’t really tell since I am a Crikey subscriber)? Could have been fun to have read some feedback!

    Incidentally I read all those 100+ comments and while there are a plethora of other cities proposed, many with some worthy points, at the end I reckon Paris still comes up tops; even amongst those Americans and mostly male bloggers, that has to mean something. Interestingly I cannot recall a single one defending NYC and one (NYC resident) saying it no longer deserves to be on any such list. (hmm, anti-Bloomberg politics? dunno but actually it jibed with my own view and I’m a Bloomberg fan.). The two other regular honorable mentions are Barcelona and Amsterdam, both of which I agree with (even if Amsterdam is a bit on the small side).

  4. Margo

    Small correction re Canberra: The Hyatt Hotel Canberra (or the Park Hyatt), which is near Parliament House and other major national attractions, is the old Hotel Canberra, not the old Canberra Rex Hotel. The Rex is at the other end of town, nearer the city centre.
    Also, totally endorse the mention of Dubrovnik — it was more than 30 years ago that I was there, but the vivid impressions have not dimmed.

  5. michael r james

    Russ at 4:27 pm

    I pretty much agree. Though perhaps those friends who didn’t like Venice’s maze were Americans? (of course Australians, esp. genY, are in many ways, American these days; their loss). I first visited Venice when I was in Paris and an American there who had visited at similar time, was scathing. I found myself defending the city even though I had also vowed to never return when there were so many tourists (just getting out of the train station precinct was almost enough to make me turn back). She was a New Yorker and I think if you only deal with rectilinear grids from birth you find medieval cities disorienting and somehow deeply uncomfortable (and she, like most, probably never ventured from the crowds).

    The smaller the place the worse the impact of tourism. Siena in summer! Avignon, despite the tourist throng (and nevermind attempting the summer festival) is to die for; really, no place deserves to be so astounding, and in this particular case I couldn’t advise people not to visit in summer because to have dinner with good company en plein air at night in the main square is not to be missed.

    I have never been to Genoa but admit it has attracted me. I think any place with a claim to greatness is/has been a great mercantile centres. On my notional bucket list is to walk the Med coast of France (a la Joel Stratte-McClure’s Idiot and the Odyssey), from Menton to Cerbère, maybe on to Barcelona; perhaps I should start in Genoa, only an extra 100ks or so! Yes, indeed that seems just right, because then it would encompass three of the great ancient Med ports, of Genoa, Marseille and Barcelona–and actually one of my faves, Sete (the “Venice of Languedoc”) which is the fifth largest commercial port on the Med and of course the terminus of the Canal du Midi.
    My other great planned walk is “from sea to shining sea”, ie. from the Med to the Atlantic via the Canal du Midi (and hey, WizAus, that is great for cycling too; check out the guide by Declan Lyons) which passes thru some great cities/towns like Sète, Narbonne (branch canal), Carcassone, Castelnaudary, Toulouse, Moissac, Agen, Bordeaux. Have to hurry up because some bloody fungus is killing all its plane trees.

  6. Russ

    Michael, I’m not sure we are too far apart on this… I wasn’t suggesting a single street as a metric for walkability. More as a substitute for a concept of “best”; any urban area will, of necessity have good and bad parts on any metric, so defining something as “walkable” is a fairly fraught business. Big cities clearly become much harder again to define, with their increase in diversity, which is why comparing a small-ish tourist town and a modern metropolis is pretty pointless anyway. Similarly, a mathematical definition that captures notions of connectivity and legibility can be useful, but (and this was my point), a confusing disconnected city like Venice may well score quite poorly on them. I’ve heard no end of complaints from tourists about walking around Venice and getting lost. I think it’s part of it’s charm, but I’ve spent almost a fortnight there, so I had time to get lost.

    On the list I mentioned, I’ve spent almost a week in several of them and would happily return for longer. I like cities with some place in early economic development (hence Venice obviously) and most of the above I visited for that reason. I’d definitely question whether Genoa (Venice’s great Italian shipping rival), Avignon (home of the pope for almost a century), and Bruges (the major port of the Flemish wool trade) are “several rungs below” a city of similar size, if slightly earlier vintage. Though by all means discourage people from going there; the last thing they need is more tourists.

    Genoa might be an exception to that actually. If you are into getting lost in twisting back-alleys, vistas of the Mediterranean on one side and the Alps on the other, and centuries of rich architectural and art history then save your euros and go there instead.

  7. Wiz Aus

    “In most cities cycling is too fast to take everything in.”

    Ah but the beauty of the bicycle is that you can slow down to barely more than walking pace, and if that’s still too fast (or you want to check something out where there’s just no room to ride safely) just hop off and either chain it up somewhere or walk it along with you. OTOH, if you’re a fit/regular cyclist, you can cover 50km in a few hours if you really need to. So give me a good cycling city any day…

  8. michael r james

    Russ at 2.50pm.

    I reframed the question because I think everyone commenting here doesn’t believe whatever Frommers or TC for that matter, were attempting to use as a metric, was of much use.

    Obviously my frame is different to yours, because while I could enjoy walking around those small towns, that is a completely different thing to the bigger cities; I have been to quite a few on your list and agree but OTOH they can be exhausted in about one day or two. So, you’re right I am probably mixing up walking as a visitor with living in the city. Though again, I might say Paris is the exception in that you kind of know during your first visit if you would really like this city (ok, maybe second visit, the first being spent getting exhausted ticking off the big items–in fact, definitely the second trip because I believe the first visit often puts people off.).

    No, I don’t think single streets are at all about defining a walking city. Though even there one would have to say that the single continuous East-West route in Paris of Cours de Vincennes-(Nation)-Faouborg St Antoine-(Bastille, Pl des Voges)-r St Antoine-r de Rivoli-(Hotel de Ville, Louvre, Palais Royale, Concorde)-Champs Elysee-(Arc de Triomphe)-av Grande Armee-(Pte Maillot)-Charles de Gaulle-(Neuilly)-La Defense is pretty stupendously difficult to best in the history, monuments and diversity.

    And “Venice ..is.. poorly connected and requires long detours..”. Technically correct but the whole place is barely the size of a single arrondissement in Paris (so “long”?), and getting “lost” in Venice backalleys is half the fun. As it happens, in a bookshop yesterday I was browsing thru an Architectural History of Venice (I think the one by Howard & Moretti) and musing that it is a long time since I have been there and I would take this book with me. About 400 pages: this is more than 3 weeks of investigation but alas I cannot afford more than a few days (and by “afford” I mean Euros; it’s an expensive city). Venice was the pivot point of the western-eastern world for several centuries which places it several rungs above those smaller towns.

    And those floods, well they are an inescapable feature of the city and have been for hundreds of years (ok, getting worse in modern times). Like people who complain about the fogs of San Francisco, they are missing the romance! As I said, I am a sentimental sucker. Once worked on the 15th floor of the Health Sciences building at the UCSF, which is well above the fog line so that one saw the city hidden by fog–except the two towers of the GG poking out–that lifted late morning to reveal the sparkling bay and city. Glorious. And it turns out those fogs are related to several wonderful features, such as the cooling+moisture in Napa valley that allows vineyards, and the wonderful clean air of SF due to those continuous Pacific breezes, that also keep the city climate milder than otherwise, warm winters, cool summers. Great place to walk all year round. But WizAus, a perfect cycling city–partly good weather and makes it a bit more accessible than just walking. In most cities cycling is too fast to take everything in.

  9. Russ

    Michael, by reframing the question, you are moving a long way from the original in ways that matter. Living and mostly walking in a place is significantly different to visiting and mostly walking in a place. The former would emphasise access to services, the discovery of new things and the weather, the latter legibility, accessibility of tourist sites and connectivity.

    Venice – which I love by the way – is almost illegible for the first few days, poorly connected and requires long detours to access various sites (although most people won’t realise it), despite its small size. And that’s in dry conditions, when it floods it is nearly impossible to walk anywhere except the major sites. To the extent you can distinguish walkability from the city itself, and especially given its size, Venice isn’t that easy to walk around. (I mean come on, it has a whopping great river through the middle of it and three (!) bridges).

    The reality is, almost every European city of 50-200 thousand people with an old centre and restricted car traffic – which is most of them – is fantastic to walk around, whether for tourist reasons or for the flaneur. Venice is fascinating, but I can’t say I found it better for walking around than Bruges, Leiden, Delft, Lucca, Verona, Siena, Genoa, York or Avignon. Perhaps a better question is what is the single best walking route/street? I’d nominate a stroll along Lucca’s town wall.

  10. Wiz Aus

    MJ, wasn’t claiming I’d rank Vienna as a top walking city really – but given my preferred mode of transport is bicycle I’d still happily spend 3 weeks there, given some decent weather! But I’d think even Paris would be better by bicycle. Venice OTOH is unquestionably a walker’s paradise (we only used the Vaporetto once in 3 days because we couldn’t work out the easiest route to our hotel) – but I’m not sure what else there would be to see after 3 weeks.
    I suppose the question needs to be framed better – e.g. if you love walking, what would be the best cities to live in (for at least a year)? On that basis I’d still have to rule out cities with constantly hot/humid summers, whereas, suitably dressed, a brisk walk in -5C can be perfectly rewarding (it’s actually when it’s just above freezing and constantly drizzling/sleeting that it’s least pleasant – yes I’m looking at you London).

  11. Bill Williams

    I wonder why Hanoi didn’t make the list?

  12. hk

    I laud Edmund White’s “The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris” it is more than just an aesthete’s … naricist’s view….

  13. michael r james

    WizAus 9.20am/10.07am

    Chacun ses goûts.
    But seriously, Vienna? I would say it is like what some people (who don’t have much/any experience) say about Paris–“empty supermodel”–filled with pretty monuments but nevertheless pretty dullsville for walking despite that.

    But will agree that there are just too many places to experience, but would disagree with the comment about “no more than 3 weeks”; I reckon one needs 3 months to try to get the proper feel of a city (at least a city worth getting to know). I suppose these Frommers et al guides/lists are an attempt to provide travellers with some basis for choice–yet in their attempt to span the zillions of tourists interests, inevitably fail totally.

    And yes, I find Venice extremely walkable. Those “deathly quiet” zones are wonderful to stumble across, and though I would never again go in the peak tourist time, one can escape the hordes quite quickly–for example just walking along the canal south of St Mark’s square, after one or two bridges the lazy tourists have thinned out and you can continue all the way to the “new” park sector at the SE corner and it is very different. Some people (though the ones I know/knew appear to be quasi-toffs with access to Venetian villas) say that it is a great place to spend Xmas/New Years.

    HK is a favourite walking city of mine, where I try to stopover almost every trip to Europe or Asia. And essentially you never run out of different areas to visit. It also has a large number of bushland walks close to the city (something like 70% of HK land area is actually too steep/rocky to build on and is national park, plus the islands), a bit like Sydney with its harbourside walks. Though never one’s preference, even the hot typhoon season hasn’t put me off. I once got caught in a gigantic downpour that made the worldwide news that night, and in final analysis was quite exciting. Another time I got caught in a brief intense downpour while walking across Lamma Island–my umbrella did nothing to protect me, but I still was dry by the end of the walk! (The cross island walk–from one ferry terminal to the other–actually has gazebo rest points which I only realized the hard way were the means to avoid getting saturated in summer downpours.)

    Another factor that impacts on the enjoyability of walking cities is whether it is easy to find a respite–a cafe, cheap restaurant etc–and, again, I think this is where some cities like London, NYC fall down (I know, some of you will babble on about London, sorry I never find it to be so; and don’t get me on about quality of coffee, even in NYC), but where Paris excels like no other place; one can have almost total confidence in both finding a cafe/brasserie anywhere and enjoy a hassle-free good coffee and maybe a sandwich or steak-frite without breaking the bank (this walker detests the Anglo habit of drinking/eating while walking; it got so that I had to forewarn my visitors in Paris that I was NOT going to do that, especially just to save one euro). Of course this also invokes the high-point of flaneurism–people watching.

    The other great thing about Paris (& HK but not London or NYC etc) is that you can set out walking in any direction without planning one’s journey or return strategy in any detail–since there is always a Metro station within eyesight wherever you are. (London’s stations are a lot further apart and you can wander around in a large “island” without finding one. Of course you can always resort to a map blah blah, and plan better but the terrific thing about Paris is you don’t have to do either.) Of course smaller cities (Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, Copenhagen ..) don’t have that issue but then by definition don’t have the depth of the bigger cities.

    One of the best books on walking Paris is by expat Australian cineaste/author John Baxter (The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris; but he has a bunch of books most of which are very readable), who seemingly makes a living in Paris from these scribblings (making me very envious). (Others will laud Edmund White’s “The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris” but I am not totally convinced by that kind of …err.. aesthete’s … naricist’s view…. enough said.)

  14. Wiz Aus

    Actually it was TC who said there wasn’t much to see in Vienna after the first visit – but his first visit was 3 weeks. That may well be true, but unless you’re planning to live somewhere (or you’re staying with relatives/friends), there’s very few cities that I can imagine it would be worth spending more than 3 weeks in, especially if you don’t speak the native language. Mainly because there’s too many other places in the world that I want to see too.

  15. suburbanite

    It’s interesting that most of the discussion is around city centres or high density centres, which is obvious since sprawl is the enemy of walkability. Once you get below the density of inner city Melbourne you can forget about walking for anything but taking the dog for a walk or for fitness. Low density suburbs only exist because of cars and facilities and shops are spaced for cars not walking. In fill houses will go some way to addressing this, but the government needs to work harder at encouraging greater density in suburban centres. Hong Kong is actually a great city for walking, although only after you find the right walking routes.

  16. Peter Logan

    I have walked around many European cities and enjoyed the walkability but only ran marathons in Canberrra!
    Melbourne is beautifully walkable but I live in a tiny house in the inner suburbs. I do feel the car has dominated the rest of Melbourne, to the detriment of the health of those condemned to drive to the shops, school and work. And ultimately to peak oil.
    I once went to Government house for a reception with our mayor, on foot. All the decision makers arrived in government cars. That explains something.

  17. hk

    To be a meaningful comparison the sub regions of the urban region need to be defined. On my list PC3006 (Southbank) CCDs touching the left bank rate high. Shire of Casey PC’s in the Melbourne Statistical Division do not.

  18. Russ

    Is Venice actually that walkable? It isn’t an easy place to get around quickly on foot. It is poorly connected, with only a handful of major (clogged and quite indirect) pedestrian routes to take you between major sites. Walking the back-streets of Venice is sometimes interesting but they are deathly quiet and don’t go anywhere. I’d argue it is a boat-orientated city, more-so than a walking one, and although that’s a bit nicer than cars, walking Venice can be pretty frustrating.

  19. Wiz Aus

    AD didn’t say anything about Vienna being a ‘monument city for one visit and little need to return’! I’d certainly disagree – I spent 4 days there last year as part of a 3 week tour of Germany/Austria/Italy/Switzerland, and it’s one of the 4 or 5 places I definitely want to go back to – there just wasn’t time to see everything in one go, and the weather was pretty lousy when we were there (October – it was 3-5 degrees and drizzling on/off the whole time, despite being fantastic weather for the rest of the trip): indeed I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned climate as key factor in walkability: I’d take points off Kyoto (which I otherwise loved – though I’d say it’s better for bicycling than walking) because of this, mainly because of the summers – nobody can walk/cycle around much in 35+C/90% humidity and be comfortable.

  20. michael r james

    Florence (and arguably Venice) cannot be compared with large cities like Paris, NYC etc. Yes, it is an ok place to walk and much improved today, but after my first visit (about 3 decades ago) I swore never to return–because it was congested with traffic and pollution, was in perpetual repair (seemingly everything was scaffolded), and was a ripoff. I eventually did return when a conference was held there (in mid 90s) and they had finally made the old city core a traffic-free zone, and generally cleaned up their act. BUT they still had no public seating anywhere!

    I mostly concur with the second list ( Venice, Prague, San Francisco, Amsterdam …) though it is nuts that Paris is missing! Venice is actually pretty good–except only in the off-season because it is unbearable in summer. And wherever you walk it is boundlessly interesting (surely this has to be criterion #1 for walkability?) and without traffic! I agree it is an odd place–continually losing population (down to about 70k permanent residents I think) but despite that there is something special which you can feel imbued in the very stones (perhaps you have to read Jan Morris or Norwich before visiting and be a sentimentalist sucker.)

    As I have said before NYC (ie. Manhattan) is just a bit too spaced out, and a bit dull at ground level a lot of the time. Even London, littered as it is with history piled on history, is also a bit spaced out (it could just be me but I tend to get fatigued walking there–I have noticed my fatigue is in direct proportion to interest per distance, plus tourist crowd aggravation). I agree with AD on Vienna–that is a monument city for one visit and little need/desire to return. Prague lives up to its hype but again the crowds can be a bit too much for the medieval heart. Maybe I am biased (I certainly have a strong opinion which I will claim is scientific) but Paris seems to be one of the few big tourist cities that copes with them (IMO London and Rome don’t)–oh, and it helps that at peak summer Paris is calmer because all the Parisians are elsewhere! And Amsterdam is a wonderful walking city–nice scale and less traffic harrassment. Barcelona is great –and as it happens SBS is showing a live flyover as I write this, (right above Sagrada Familia) at the end of the Vuelta leg tonight. Chicago (great for design/architectural junkies) and Boston are too neglected by many.

    By the by, AD, do you reckon that is the real (Sir) Michael Hopkins visiting your blog!

  21. Hopkins Michael

    Walkable cities need three things – origins and destinations close together (said the transport planner) and places worth walking to and places worth working through (said the human). Hanoi and Kyoto are in my top few for the “walking around aimlessly smiling when the museums are closed” category and have a good mix of all three.

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