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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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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