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The Four Best Small Cities to Explore On Foot

August 4, 2017
San Antonio, TX

Full disclosure: I’m a city kid. Although I now live in a kind of ongoing episode of Flipper with most of the emergencies subtracted, my childhood was split between lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. Growing up I thought my grandparents’ house in Levittown, Long Island—literally the prototype of the American suburb—was “the country” because they had a pear tree.

And yet, although I was not “outdoorsy” as a kid, I was almost always outdoors. Following the same impulses that might drive young people in Maine to visit a swimming hole, my friends and I would walk to Washington Square Park to splash in the fountain. While Swiss kids were alpine orienteering, we were figuring out how to come from four different boroughs on four different subway lines and meet at the Planetarium — all before the age of cell phones.

To ignore urban centers just because we’re lovers of the natural world is a mistake.

Cities, especially compact cities like those on this list, are great for hiking. Urban hikes are easy to plan and also allow for more improvisation than, say, the top of a mesa. Urban hikes can even be challenging — ask anyone who’s summited the Statue of Liberty! Here are four smaller cities just waiting to be walked.

Adelaide, Australia

The Australian idea of the “walkabout” is not a false cultural construct. It’s a tradition rooted in indigenous Australian rites of passage, and many modern Australians still respect the power of a good wander. Adelaide, in Southeast Australia, is often ignored by tourists heading for Sydney or Melbourne, but for hikers it is a Shangri-La. There are hundreds of routes weaving through and around Adelaide, but our starting point pick is a four-kilometer hike from Waterfall Gully to the summit of Mount Lofty. (It’s a steep trail, but not quite this steep.) At more than 700 meters, the peak of Mount Lofty allows hikers to view most of Adelaide city and the coast. From this vantage you can easily pick your next destination, plus the one after that and the one after that. For info on bikes, horse trails and bush walks, check out this guide to the Adelaide Hills.

Old Riga

Old Riga

The Baltic States

This is a three-for-one deal. The Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — are undiscovered gems in Eastern Europe. Their capitols, Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn, are all equipped with charming Old Towns ripe for exploration on foot. Any of these city centers, parts of which date to the year 1000, can be explored in about two days. We suggest summer and fall for the Baltics, so make sure to pack breathable, wicking fabrics; Baltic summers are warm, and during the “white nights” you can hit the beach at 11 pm.

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang is a classic beach town… Vietnam-style. Picture cruising down the strip in Venice beach, except instead of volleyball everyone’s playing badminton and performing martial arts exercises. It’s beautiful, and every visitor should spend at least an afternoon walking among the small artisan shops along the beachfront. Once that’s done, look to the hills for even more walkable features. There are easy-to-moderate day hikes available to three waterfalls, the ancient Po Nagar Cham Towers and the Long Son Pagoda with its immense Buddha. Vietnam is also famed for the clarity of its ocean water, so pack something amphibious and make sure to check out the wildlife below the waterline.

San Antonio, TX

San Antonio, TX

San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio’s downtown streets are so winding that apocryphal local lore suggests they were planned by drunken cattlemen. It’s a pleasing idea, but the meandering nature of San Antonio’s downtown actually derives from the course of the San Antonio river and the settlements which took root on its banks. A quintessential San Antonio walking tour begins at the Alamo (always easy to remember) and finishes in El Mercado, the largest Mexican Market in the US. Popular destinations along the way include: the Gothic St. Joseph’s Church; La Villita, a Coahuiltecan village; the Riverwalk and the Spanish Governor’s Palace. Here’s a large, free collection of itineraries.

Large Cities Also Keen On Green

Can’t get to Adelaide or Nha Trang this weekend? There’s probably a great city hike right near you. America’s cities are becoming increasingly keen on green space: The 18-mile Lakefront Trail in Chicago traces the shore of Lake Michigan and New York’s High Line was created from an unused span of overpass. Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway is one of the country’s only fully organic parks, and in Philly it’s possible to compete in a hybrid hiking/spelling bee by tracing Wissahickon creek to Schuylkill River. It’s even possible to dip a paddle in many cities  as they take advantage of their local waterfronts.

What’s your favorite urban hike? Let us know in the comments!

Related Links:

5 Amazing Urban Paddling Destinations 

8 Things to Pack on a Day Hike 

Urban Adventures in Hong Kong 

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