Exploring a new city is one of the great joys of traveling. All the new places to see, the sites to visit, the great restaurants to try, and hopefully some discoveries you hadn’t even counted on. You’ve got limited time so the question is how to make the best of the time you’ve got.
This is my pitch to you to consider biking as the best way to get to know a city and it’s many neighborhoods quickly if you want, more slowly if that’s your style. Concerned that the big city isn’t the place for a bike? We’ve biked in New York, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Sydney, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Shanghai to mention a few.
Let’s be clear that I’m NOT talking about:
- Organized bike vacations. I’m talking about renting a bike and exploring a city for a day or two, not an entire vacation of biking. You don’t need to cover yourself in spandex or pack the Power bars. Casual clothes and frequent pub stops are the order of the day..
- A ride in the park. Every city has a big park and most of them have bike rentals. So yes you can (1) rent bike (2) ride around park (3) return bike. Fun, yes. And by all means make your city’s signature park one of your stops. But please, live a little. Move beyond the park loop. Get your bike, a good map on your smartphone, maybe an app with popular bike tours, and then get out and explore the entire city. Broaden your horizons.
- Pedi-cab. If you aren’t the one pedaling it doesn’t count. And that goes double for Segways. They might make a good photo op but we want you to explore.
- Organized bike tours. Tours can be great and you might meet some fun people but the tour will take you where they want you to go, will probably stick to the major sites, and can be expensive. If you need to break the ice, try a tour to start out. But to get the real joy of exploring by bike, strike out on your own.
If you’ve come this far and you’re considering the idea, let me tell you why biking the city is such a great alternative.
- Increase your range and maximize your time. To really get to know a city takes time and a lot of exploring on foot. If your time is limited the distance you can cover on foot will also be limited, and that limitation will dictate what you can see and do. So while I admit walking is great for exploring, it’s simply not a practical way to cover a lot of territory in a limited time. Additionally, when you’re walking but want to travel longer distances between neighborhoods or places you want to see, at some point you’ll need to resort to public transport. That takes time. Buses and trains run on fixed schedules and over fixed routes, all of which you’ll need to figure out to use them efficiently. Unless your start and stop point are adjacent to stations and stops, you’ll need to walk just to get to them to start your journey or to reach your final destination. Hailing a cab is easier but all of this costs money and cabs are particularly expensive in big cities.The answer to a lot of these problems is a bike. With a bike you can easily cover ten times more territory than you can on foot. With a bike you set the schedule, you pick the route and your transportation is always ready to go on a moments notice. Maybe best of all, moving from place to place becomes part of the fun instead of something to put up with. It’s plain and simple: you can go farther and see more for less on a bike than if you are walking.
- Get in the thick of it. Biking, like walking, puts you square in the middle of the sights, sounds and smells of the city. You’re close to the action, mixing in with the people who actually live there, not passing them by on a bus or in a cab. There will always be the tourist’s view of the city vs. what the natives experience. If you’re looking for the latter, you need to get down to the same level as the natives. Your bike is going to help you do that.
- Freedom, freedom, freedom. With a bike you can really give in to your desire to go wherever you want and be close enough to the action not to miss unexpected discoveries. Stop whenever you see something interesting. Satisfy your whims. What are you going to do, ask the cabby to pull over and wait while you explore that surprise market you just found? Demand the tour bus pull over for a bit while you grab a beer in that pub? The beauty of the bike is that it let’s you do all those things in almost the same amount of time with no restrictions. Yes you can do this on foot, but with a bike you can so much more you won’t believe it.
- All area access. In our post-911 world it seems there are more restrictions everyday on how close motor vehicles can get to tourist sites or other sensitive areas. This means you’ll only be able to get so close to some things before you have to start walking. Increased security is a fact of life but I’m continually surprised at how many of these pedestrian only areas are also bike friendly. You won’t be able to go everywhere but I think you’ll be surprised what you can do.
- You want me to ride in THAT TRAFFIC? A lot of cities are way more bike friendly than you might imagine. That means bike lanes and trails are more and more common. You don’t need to and you won’t be riding on the busiest streets. There will simply be too many other, more attractive options. Again, check a map before you set out and plot some routes you’re interested in. You’ll quickly see how easy it is. Most cities have bike clubs that can give you a wealth of information on the routes that are available if you do have to go through more congested areas. Avoiding the traffic is part of the fun and reward of traveling by bike.
- Off the beaten path. There’s an added bonus to avoiding the more heavily traveled routes. Once you get off the beaten track your going to make your most memorable finds, and when you do you’ll be able to linger to enjoy them. Some places will be better than others, some you’ll just want to keep moving through, but this is the only way to find the surprises that make travel such fun. On the bike you’ll be able to scout lots of places, move as quickly as you want between them, and do some real exploring. You can wander around on foot but you won’t have nearly the range of options the bike will give you. Using your bike to explore off the beaten path is one of it’s main advantages.
- Hey, did I just do 3 hours of exercise? We all go on vacation with good intentions and getting at least a little exercise is usually someplace on the list. But the temptations once we arrive are great. I promise you that if you add some biking to your city sight seeing you’ll get in some good exercise without even thinking about it. You don’t have to make a big effort. It will just happen. The miles will slip away and the three hour dinners will take less of a toll.
Well now that I’ve got you all pumped up and ready to go you’ll need a bike. I think you’ve got two choices.
Commuter bike share programs. These are great and are available now in many, many large cities all over the world. They do have some drawbacks. First, the commuter bike programs are designed for – go figure – commuting. This can mean that using the bike for more then say half an hour to an hour can get very expensive unless you stop regularly to switch to a different bike (start the clock running again), or at least log your bike back in and out. Not bad if you are going from site to site, parking your bike and then exploring on foot. But I’m suggesting you do all your exploring from the bike. So having to stop is just an inconvenience at best and a bigger problem if you can’t find a nearby bike station where you can do that. The farther you get afield, the fewer stations you’ll find. The second problem with commuter bikes can be the bikes themselves. The commuter bikes are meant for and are fine for short distances but the lack of perks like multiple speeds and lighter weight can become a drag if you plan a full day out. The commuter programs can be a great way to break into city biking and certainly if they are your only option, go for it, but you really should consider an all day rental.
Bike Rental. Finding a place to rent a bike for the day is pretty easy in almost every big city. Whether it’s a bike shop or a rental location near a train station or in a tourist area, renting bikes is very popular and usually fairly reasonable. Do some research or ask your hotel concierge if you have one. Bikes normally come with helmets (a must!!), locks and maybe a pack or basket. Bike staff are usually very friendly and will help you find a bike that fits you and will be comfortable for the day. As I say, you MUST wear a helmet. Don’t be foolish and don’t ruin your vacation, or worse, because you don’t want the helmet. In fact, I’ll say clearly that if you can’t find or don’t want to wear a helmet then you should not rent a bike.
So now you’re ready to go! Enjoy and let me hear how it went.