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July 13, 2007

Big Cities for Strolling

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When encountering a large city that's new to me I try to learn it, provided I have the time. The first thing I do is get ahold of a street map ("plan" if on the Continent) and study the general layout -- locating the major streets, water features (if any), parks, government zones, museum / cultural areas and so forth. If I'm on-site, I'll locate myself and note where I am in relation to various landmarks. Then I'll set off exploring.

Spread-out, automobile-age places such as the Los Angeles region, the Detroit area and Houston I usually explore by car. In the case of LA and Detroit I sometimes select a long street that cuts across a variety of neighborhoods so that I'm forced to see places I might otherwise avoid or neglect. (Just for the record, I drove 10 Mile Road in the Detroit area and Rosecrans Avenue -- if I remember correctly -- in the LA area.)

Most often I do my exploring on foot and focus on the central area and sites that I think I'll find interesting. Usually I'll seek out the main shopping areas because I enjoy window-shopping and enjoy people-watching (shopping streets serve up a lot of grist for the people-watching mill).

I make it a point to seek out sites of architectural importance. I'll visit museums with collections that interest me, but that's an indoor activity.

I've been to only a few of the world's major cities, so what follows is limited. If any of you have your own favorites or blast me for misperception or bad taste, feel free to comment.

What big city do I like best for exploring and for general strolling-around?

Why Paris, of course.

The curving Seine offers constantly changing views and viewpoints. The major boulevards and landmarks such as the Ile de la Cité, Louvre, Tour d'Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe make navigation fairly easy. And the tourist area (along the river roughly from the Eiffel Tower to the Gare d'Austerlitz) is not unwalkably large for a normal adult.

People-watching -- be it of locals or tourists -- is fun and so is the window-shopping. I even enjoy reading shop names and other signs as a means of soaking in the French language.

Other big cities?

New York scores well in the window-shopping, people-watching and architectural departments. But I find the grid street pattern in the main part of Manhattan convenient, yet rather dull.

London with the Thames has a curving central river like Paris does. This is a plus, but London doesn't exploit this resource as effectively. London has enough architectural sites to avoid embarrassment. It's also a great people and window shopping place. It's main problems, in my judgment, are (1) it's street system can let you drift off course unless you keep referring to your map, and (2) it's too big to take in by walking in one go -- it's best to cover a smallish area on foot, take the tube to another area and repeat the process.

Berlin, perhaps thanks to its duplication-of-function Cold War quirk, is also spread out, but not on the scale of London. Its street layout can be confusing without a map. Overall, the strolling experience for my was okay, but not superior.

Prague ranks high on my scorecard thanks to its setting, architecture and people-watching potential. Window shopping has a ways to go, but was much improved in the interval between my visits. The streets in the old part of town can be twisty and narrow -- often too narrow to accommodate the heavy foot traffic during tourist season. And the Charles Bridge with all its street merchants can be almost impassable, even on foot.

Vienna is nice for strolling but a map is handy in the twisty part inside the Ring. No river at the center and few landmarks to focus on make navigation harder once you stray from the Ring and the main shopping streets.

Moscow is focused on the Kremlin and Red Square, though there are interesting areas to walk if you go west or northwest from there. Shopping and people-watching struck me as sub-par as is the density of buildings of architectural interest. A map is essential, as is knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet for reading street signs.

Washington, DC is London-like in that hopping the subway is a good idea if you want to cover the interesting bits thoroughly. The Mall itself makes for a long slog and people-watching there isn't very good unless you really love checking out high school tour groups. Window shopping isn't very good in the central part. Okay -- just forget the Mall and tourist area: if you want to stroll, do it in the Georgetown neighborhood.

I haven't been in Tokyo since 1964 and so can't offer any useful thoughts. Back then, the main architectural attraction (aside from temples, etc.) was Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, since destroyed.

You might have noticed that I didn't include parks in my list of strolling criteria. That's because parks tend to bore me whereas the human-based environment interests me.



posted by Donald at July 13, 2007


Barcelona. Great architecture; even the apartment houses are appealing! The main drag, Las Ramblas, is made for rambling: a very wide central pedestrian walkway bordered by narrow one lane vehicular ways: the reverse of the normal layout. Hard to get lost because Las Ramblas more or less bisects the town, running from the waterfront to a major circle (can't think of its name); so, if you get lost, just ask a local, "Las Ramblas?" and you'll be directed back to it. Mildly hilly town which makes for interesting views. But gets very hilly in some sections. No problemo: there is a great subway/tram system that gets you anywhere easily. And wherever you find yourself -- tapas bars! What a town.

Posted by: ricpic on July 13, 2007 12:40 PM


Posted by: Tatyana on July 13, 2007 1:20 PM


Posted by: ron on July 13, 2007 1:56 PM

I've strolled most of the cities mentioned. But by far the most satisfying for a number of reasons is Rome. Not only is it beautiful with a two thousand year old civilizational panorama unequaled anywhere in the world, but the food is good and the weather is usually sublime. Rome is a strollers paradise.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 13, 2007 2:23 PM

That's odd that you don't enjoy parks because in some cities that is where the best people-watching occurs. Think how unliveable Manhattan would be without Central Park.

Posted by: Neil on July 13, 2007 2:39 PM

By far the best city is Kraków as its a combination of Old Europe, Communist retro style and modern.

Posted by: Mark on July 13, 2007 2:47 PM

Some New-Urbanistic outfit ought to be handing out yearly awards for Strollability, don't you think? Cities, towns, neighborhoods that are exceptionally good to walk around and linger in. The Strollability Awards ... Turn 'em into a black-tie affair each year, hand out trophies, make a big deal of mayors, developers, inhabitants, etc. Maybe maintenance people too. God knows that "well maintained and orderly" can make a place much more friendly and enjoyable.

Hmm, let me add to the list some neighborhoods in Toronto, San Francisco, and Vancouver. The Wife and I really put on the on-hoof mileage when we visit those places. Chicago certainly has some great nabes too ... And Portland, Oregon's downtown was a midsize-city dream when we were there ten or so years ago. And Pittsburgh has some areas that are fun to explore on foot.

But now I'm sneaking out of the "big city" requirement...

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on July 13, 2007 3:00 PM

But you haven't tried Venice?

Posted by: dearieme on July 13, 2007 3:25 PM

Los Angeles is not as unwalkable as it might seem. A few years ago I explored the downtown area on foot, and then walked along Wilshire Boulevard to MacArhtur Park. It gave me a nice perspective on the city that one would not get from driving.

Posted by: Peter on July 13, 2007 3:44 PM

The Bund at night in Shanghai, especially if it rained that afternoon, is very cool. Also, Nanjing Road, but avoid it during rush hour or weekends. For a more quiet experience, several areas in Shanghai's consular district are interesting; these were the old "foreign districts" before WWII and have lots of old European buildings that have been turned into restaurants and small boutique shopping malls. No big Chinese city is exactly contemplative when you're walking, but they're all interesting and people-watching opportunities abound.

Walking around universities in China is also fun; a tip: don't ask the guards if you can go in as the answer is always no. But if you just walk past the gate and look reasonably clean, they won't bother you, especially if you're obviously a "lao wai" (foreigner).

In Beijing, the Wangfujing area is good for walking.

Posted by: Foobarista on July 13, 2007 4:22 PM

Most of Manhattan is pretty boring thanks to the grid, true, but there are great corners. But what about Washington Heights and Inwood? Winding little streets, nice buildings, and very hilly. There's also a stretch of Convent Avenue in Harlem that I think must be one of the most beautiful streets in the city.

And of course the West Village, etc.

Posted by: BP on July 13, 2007 5:16 PM

Boston. The best major American city for walks I know.

Besides the Mall and Georgetown, Washington DC is nice if you walk from the White House, up Connecticut Avenye, through the DuPont circle and past the Zoo, toward about Cleveland Park.

Posted by: PA on July 14, 2007 7:29 AM

PA: re: Washington Heights: shshsh! Do you want to ruin my peaceful strolls? Who needs a bigger crowd here?
Besides, it's not even that pleasurable, what's with garbage piled along Broadway, the trash thrown in that fenced rock between Outlook Terrace and Bennett, and crumbling stairs to Fort Washington.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 14, 2007 12:00 PM

Grudgingly, Donald, I'll agree with you on Paris. I have a diseases that gives me great pain whenever I have to throw a compliment in the general direction of the French.

I'd concur with some of the previous posters as regards Montreal (which has absolutely fabulous and distinct neighborhoods, all filled to the gills with cheap places to sit and eat and watch), Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and NYC.

Surprised no one mentioned San Francisco.

I'd like to add Casablanca to your list as there's nothing like a truly foreign seaport to both raise the hairs on your neck with false danger and fill your eyes with the unusual combination of filth and beauty side by side.

And Lisbon, please. So close to Casablanca and beauty but without the filth.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 14, 2007 12:35 PM

Darko, agree on Montreal and Lisboa.
However, plenty of filth in Lisbon, comparative to [alternatively] South (Algarve) or North (Porto). Go to these 2 places instead next time, and you'll see the difference.

Ah, I said "Lisboa" and almost smelled a fresh-brewed bica!

Posted by: Tat on July 14, 2007 6:43 PM

Toronto. In the span of just a couple of blocks the architecture and ambience of the place just varies so greatly.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on July 16, 2007 9:42 AM


In one afternoon on foot you can take in the Opera House, the markets, the Harbor Bridge, Darling Harbor, Chinatown, museums and great shopping, botanical gardens and for adventure the Kings Cross area.

Posted by: grandcosmo on July 16, 2007 6:08 PM

I haven't traveled that widely, but here's two names to add to the list:

Lviv...beautiful Ukrainian city that is a pedestrian paradise. (Similar to Kracow).

Sophia, Bulgaria...One of my favorite cities. I can't tell you how many couples kissing I saw on the street.

Tirana, Albania. This is not beautiful (it's rather ugly), but this city of 250,000 was built for a time when there were no cars in the country. I once walked from one side of the city to the other in 2 hours. It was amazing. Now however, it has been overrun by automobiles that it would be dangerous for pedestrians. The main square has 11 side roads feeding into it; it is anarchy.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on July 18, 2007 1:31 PM

Robert, thanks for mentioning Lwow, it was a pleasant surprise. It's the city I emigrated from, to US, it's a wonderful place to explore on foot - I had walked its streets for 8 years.

Want to clarify something, though: even if Lwow is now called Lviv and it currently belongs to Ukraine, it is essentially a Polish city; see the history here.

To give an idea what the city looks like, here's a quick-find photo site.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 18, 2007 4:09 PM

Oh, now I feel all sentimental, Robert...want to see the building I used to live? here, corner apartment, 3rd floor windows.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 18, 2007 4:36 PM

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