When you think of eco-travel, visiting the world’s biggest cities is not usually what springs to mind. You might think of volunteering on an organic farm, camping in a yurt or tipi in the Welsh valleys, or staying in an eco-lodge in Australia’s Daintree rainforest. But a weekend trip to New York, Paris or Melbourne? Not so much.
It’s time for a rethink because visiting a city can actually be one of the most environmentally-friendly travel options around. The sheer fact that every site of interest is condensed into a geographically confined space makes it easier for tourists to get around without resorting to driving. Cities are more likely to have reliable public transport systems to let you zip around between the various points of interest – but if you are staying in the center of town you might get away without using that, either.
It depends how you get there, of course – there’s no kidding yourself that catching a budget flight for a two-day city break is anything other than a major eco-sin. But large cities are better connected by inter-city train networks than the surrounding countryside.
There are plenty of opportunities for city tourists to get out and explore, from the traditional walking tour to mass street skates. The great thing is that you are not only reducing the load on the environment but you are also staying fit, meeting people and hopefully having fun!
When I visit a new city, I always like to walk the streets to get a sense of the city’s size, layout and vibe. Some of my most interesting travel experiences have come from the random and the serendipitous, taking the time to walk from A to B via C rather than zipping around in the most efficient manner. Most cities also have organized walking tours – London Walks, Big Onion Walking Tours in New York, and so on – and there is usually information available at tourist information offices.
Holidays for me tend to go hand in hand with nice restaurant meals and too much wine, so it’s a nice antidote to take some exercise. Running is one of the easiest ways to stay fit when you’re away from homes because it’s low maintenance – all you need is a pair of running shoes and some comfortable clothing. Like walking, I’ve found running a great way to explore a new city and see it from a perspective where I am randomly exploring and not expecting anything particular. You can plot walking or running routes on WalkJogRun.net, either as a planning tool before you go or after the event, to see how far you’ve been. There are also guided running tours in many US cities, including New York, San Diego, Charleston, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
My most memorable travel experiences often involve physical activity in a stunning location – somehow I feel so much more fully present in the scene if I’m doing something rather than just observing it. It was 12 years ago now and I’ve been to many more exotic places since then, but I still remember renting a bicycle at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, riding along the bay, over the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Sausalito for lunch, taking the ferry back to the starting point. Tourist offices or city websites should be able to help you find the best cycle routes – in London, for example, the Journey Planner website for public transport lets you pick cycling options and it automatically configures the quietest streets and takes account of one-way streets. If you don’t want to do it yourself, there are also more formal bicycle tours, such as Bike-A-Round in Paris.
You can hire bicycles in most major cities in the world and many European cities – including Paris, Lyon, Brussels, Vienna, Barcelona – even have free bicycle hire schemes run by the city and subsidized by advertising. There are banks of bikes at metro stations that you can rent out using a credit card. The schemes have been very successful – though since you can return the bikes to any metro station, they reportedly have a problem with them congregating at the bottom of hills!
4. Inline skating (rollerblading)
Now on to my personal favourite. Inline skating, or rollerblading, is great in parks and on cycle paths along rivers and beaches, but it is also a great way to explore a city. It goes without saying that you should have mastery over your skates and stopping abilities if you plan to go on the roads or sidewalks, but you should also double-check the local laws. In some countries inline skaters are classed under the same law as bicycles, meaning it’s illegal to skate on the sidewalk, while in other countries it’s the opposite and you must stick to the sidewalk. In the U.K., it’s a gray area and you can arguably do both.
Skating is particularly popular in France and French cities tend to have lovely wide sidewalks – it’s common to see skaters all over cities such as Paris and Bordeaux, simply using their skates to get from A to B. (The French even have cops on skates though understandably not in areas where the crooks can escape onto a vast expanse of grassy lawn). Even better, the road along the Seine in the center of Paris is closed to cars on Sundays, making it paradise for skaters, cyclists and joggers with fabulous scenic views of the city. As with walking, running and cycling, there are specialist tour companies operating skating tours of cities, such as Skate-A-Round in Paris and Amsterdam.
There are also free mass street skates in major cities all over the world, which are great fun if you’re a competent skater and can stop on a hill and deal with bad surfaces. One of the biggest and best is the Paris Roller every Friday night – the event regularly attracts 10,000 people and is marshalled by the police so there’s no chance of being hit by a car. London has a beginner skate on Sunday afternoons and an advanced skate on Friday nights, plus an intermediate skate on Wednesday nights in summer. London also has costumed skates for Christmas, Easter and Halloween. There are also regular weekly or monthly street skates of varying sizes around the world, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Munich, Nice, Copenhagen, New York, Miami, Sydney and Melbourne.