Ask almost anyone returning from a tour of the great cities of Europe what they loved most about their trip and you’ll hear, “We walked everywhere!” Often followed by the lament, “Why can’t our cities be like that?”
While it’s true that the majority of American cities don’t have the pedestrian-friendly cultures of Paris, London or Rome, there are places in the United States where walking, combined with good public transit and a growing number of bike share systems, is the normal mode of getting around. There are even some vacation destinations where having a car is a liability and will stand in the way of your fully enjoying your visit.
Here are your 10 best car-free destinations.
New York City
Manhattan and the four outlying boroughs are probably the best known of America’s walkable cities. New York has an excellent 24-hour subway system that connects four of the five boroughs (Staten Island is the exception; it is served by a ferry and bus system). America Walks, a nonprofit advocacy group for pedestrians, consistently awards New York its No.1 Walk Score for walkability.
Walking in New York is endlessly entertaining and allows for spontaneous visits to whatever shops, eateries, galleries or parks that catch your eye. Manhattan is compact, and you’ll find that walking a few blocks in any direction will bring dramatic changes in scenery. Visitors who enjoy cycling can purchase a 24-hour ($9.95) or a 7-day pass ($25) to Citibike, NYC’s bike share system, to take an unlimited number of 30-minute rides about town and on bike paths. (As with most bike share systems, rides beyond 30 minutes will cost you extra.) And a continually expanding ferry service ($4 weekdays, $6 weekends) now connects Manhattan to Brooklyn hot spots like Williamsburg, DUMBO and Red Hook, with hard-to-beat vistas en route.
Transportation to and from the airport, while not as simple as in some cities, includes subway, private bus, and Long Island Rail Road options.
If you still feel like bringing your car “just in case,” consider this: Parking rates run around $50 a night in midtown, and there are hefty tolls to enter the city on every bridge and tunnel. New York City wants you to walk!
Also scoring high marks from America Walks, San Francisco is New York City’s West Coast counterpart. Like Manhattan, San Francisco is devilishly difficult to drive in and has similar sky-high parking rates.
But also like Manhattan, it’s a joy to perambulate, especially the popular tourist areas such as Union Square, North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District where you can enjoy browsing the abundant Ferry Plaza farmers’ market. Know, however, that it is possible to end up strolling into some uncomfortable areas, especially at night. If in doubt, ask at your hotel or another local source.
In addition to the famous cable cars, there is the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), buses and ferry service to get you around and even beyond the city. San Francisco has one of the most efficient airport-transportation systems in the United States, actually dropping visitors inside San Francisco airport for a very cost-effective fare of $8.65 from downtown.
If you live in Las Vegas, you probably are car-dependent because most of the affordable homes and mall shopping are in outlying areas in the desert. But if you’re visiting for a party, forget the four wheels!
Nothing beats the fun of walking the Vegas Strip and taking in the surging sea of humanity entering and exiting the casinos and ogling the neon-splashed landscape. Las Vegas Boulevard offers people-watching at its best (and worst – you will have to fend off panhandlers and hawkers, but just accept that it goes with the territory).
If you want to venture beyond the Strip to visit downtown’s Fremont Street Experience, for example, or you just get tired of pounding the pavement, the area is well-served by The Deuce, a fancy double-decker bus that costs $8 for a 24-hour pass. There is also the competing Arrow trolley bus as well as free monorails that connect related casinos with each other.
Walking in paradise? Indeed: There are few things more pleasurable than strolling the length of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. The weather is almost always perfect, the people are friendly and you’re in sight of the beach. But don’t limit yourself to Waikiki; there are a wealth of other neighborhoods and historic attractions such as the spectacular Iolani Palace and Chinatown that are best explored on foot.
One of the area’s biggest tourist draws is the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, which is accessible by TheBus ($2.75), Oahu’s public transit system. TheBus routes also serve the airport and more remote attractions like Sea Life Park and Hanauma Bay, although the lax on-time performance may fray the nerves of some Type As.
As in other big cities, Honolulu parking is limited and expensive. If you do opt for a car, wait to pick up your rental until you’re ready to leave town to explore the North Shore.
The National Mall was designed for walkers so that visitors can fully appreciate the impressive views of our capital’s monuments, museums, and memorials. Few vistas rival the beauty of the Washington Monument mirrored in the reflecting pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Segway tours have also become a popular way to experience the Mall.
But don’t limit yourself to this popular tourist circuit: Use the clean, efficient Metro subway to go further afield to attractions like the National Zoo (the zoo is free; parking is $22!) and the lovely historic district of Dupont Circle. Or use Capital Bikeshare, with 3,000 bikes at 350-plus stations to explore the city ($8 24-hour passes and $17 3-day passes available, for as many 30-minute rides as you want). Be aware, however, that some of DC’s outlying neighborhoods are not especially safe or tourist-friendly. Plan your travels carefully and ask for advice if you’re concerned.
Thanks to Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 18th-century urban planning, Washington is difficult and confusing to navigate in a modern vehicle. Maybe that’s why DC drivers have more accidents than most other urbanites. Our advice? Leave the car at home.
Although the climate here is sometimes unkind, Boston ranked No.3 in Walk Score's survey of most-walkable cities and has even dubbed itself “the walking city.” In fact, one of the city’s top attractions is its 2.5-mile Freedom Trail where visitors explore Boston’s rich and important history (including America’s oldest bar!) on foot.
Complement that pedestrian-friendly environment with public transit options from Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s extensive subway, bus and water taxi system, to Hubway, the city’s bike share system (a day pass is $8), and you have the ideal car-free vacation. Cross the Charles River to visit Cambridge and see Harvard Yard.
If all that doesn't convince you not to cruise Bean Town streets in your vehicle, consider that Boston drivers rank near the top for accident frequency, according to Allstate’s 2014 “America’s Best Drivers Report.” Although less pricey than New York City, parking overnight in downtown Boston is going to run you around $20.
Not only celebrated as a safe and fun walking city, but Portland is also often named America’s best biking city as well. Because Portland is a small city (population 632,000), it is built on a walkable scale.
Portland’s notoriously overcast weather means it stays mild for the most part, but do bring an umbrella. The Pearl District offers one of the city’s most pleasant strolls, as does the three-mile Waterfront Loop along the Willamette River.
Car-free travelers can depend on the city’s MAX light rail, streetcars and buses. MAX includes connections to the airport, train station and to Beaverton, which is home to Nike’s enormous campus.
The Oregon coast, Willamette Valley wineries and Columbia River Gorge are all so spectacular that they justify renting a car, but save the vehicle pick-up for when you’re on your way out of town.
Ranking No.6 on America Walks’ list of pedestrian-friendly cities, Chicago, like Portland, also scores high as a bicycle-friendly community (No.1, per Bicycling’s 2016 survey), meaning that its streets are less car-centric than most urban areas. Chicago's Divvy bike sharing system has 5,800 bikes at 580 stations across the city. Visitors can get a 24-hour pass for $15, for as many 3-hour rides as they like.
While its winter weather can be harsh, Chicago has stunning panoramas from the Navy Pier of Lake Michigan and the iconic skyline that make for delightful walking the rest of the year. Walking the Magnificent Mile rivals a stroll on New York Fifth Avenue any day.
America’s third largest city also has good 24-hour public transit, comprising Chicago Transit Authority buses and rapid transit (the El), so exploring further afield is easy (as is getting to and from the two airports). So head out to Chicago’s top-ranked walking neighborhood, Lincoln Park, for some more foot time.
The Windy City isn’t as car-averse as some urban areas; its drivers land on neither the best nor the worst lists. Still, you’ll see a lot more and experience the city more intimately if you leave your vehicle at home.
The city founder himself, William Penn, laid out the street grid in Philadelphia’s center in the 17th century, so what better way to pay him tribute than to amble around those pedestrian-friendly 25 blocks situated between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.
Philadelphia ranks just after Boston (No.5 and No.3, respectively) in America Walks’ walkability ratings and is similar in its wealth of historic attractions, parks, and squares. There are 67 National Historic Landmarks within the City of Brotherly Love’s confines; look for the "Walk Philadelphia" signs to help you navigate. Spring and fall are the most glorious times to stroll, but the climate is relatively mild year-round, although below-freezing temperatures do occur in winter.
Philadelphia’s transit authority, SEPTA, runs buses, subways, trolleys, and trains, so if you want to explore outside the Center City district, you have a range of options. The Philadelphia Zoo, America’s oldest, is located in Fairmount Park and is an easy walk from a SEPTA bus stop, for example.
Philadelphia underwent a revitalization in the 1990s and its violent-crime rate has dropped consistently for the past several years. Still, it is America’s fifth largest city, so pay attention to where you meander.
Where else can you walk in the sky? Ingenious Minneapolis has made its frigid winters and warm, humid summers walkable with its downtown Skyway System. Open varying hours 7 days a week, the 11 miles of elevated walkways link major businesses, residences and attractions over 69 blocks, including Target Center, the Hennepin County Government Center and dozens of hotels, restaurants, and shops.
In balmy weather, Minneapolis is a pleasure to stroll at street-level too. There is an extensive network of parks with scenic walking and biking paths, connected via the 52-mile Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. Small wonder Minneapolis was named America’s healthiest city in ACSM’s American Fitness Index between 2011 and 2013.
Minneapolis also excels at public transit, linking both the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport and the famous Mall of America to downtown via light rail. So if you want to do some mall walking in the nation’s second-largest, hop on Metro Transit and head out to Bloomington.
Smaller than Portland, Minneapolis (population 413,000) is a city built on a human scale, making walking and biking (check out NiceRide bike share) the best ways to appreciate it. Driving and parking are feasible in this friendly Midwestern town, but why bother with the car, especially if you’re not used to driving in snow?
The Bottom Line
In some U.S. cities, being without a car is a plus. These pedestrian-friendly centers, with good public transit and a growing number of bike share and bike path systems, make it fun for tourists to explore – without ever having to worry about (or pay for) a parking spot. Of course, be conscious of traffic (drivers aren’t always aware of you) and if you ever have safety concerns, ask locals where they’d feel comfortable strolling.