We tend to associate hiking with mountains and forests, clifftops and moorland. But cities too have their own distinctive atmospheres, their own rhythms and architecture and shape in the surrounding landscape – and what better way to drink all this in than while walking? These five sublime urban hikes will give you a much better sense of their corresponding cities than an endless series of nights in bars, restaurants and crumbling old castles.
Photo by karendotcom127/Flickr.
Most think of Hong Kong as a densely populated urban jungle, akin to Tokyo or Manhattan, but while Hong Kong meet that expectation, it also has a lot to offer intrepid travelers in the form of its country parks, jagged peaks, remote beaches and numerous hiking trails. Though several longer hikes are available in Hong Kong, the Dragon's Back hiking trail serves as a wonderful introduction to Hong Kong's natural world. Situated on the south side of Hong Kong Island – the north side of the island is Hong Kong's population center – the hiking trail climbs Shek O Peak and follows a ridge known as Dragon's Back in a hike that takes less than two hours altogether. The panoramic views from the top of the ridge of the beaches at Shek O and Big Wave Bay are stunning, and, when the northeastern wind is blowing, hikers can even watch paragliders take off from the peak.
This utterly fabulous hike traverses the length of the Cape Peninsula, a thin sliver of land dangling out into the Atlantic Ocean from the tip of South Africa. Forty seven miles in total, it's designed to take five days, and there are four kitchen-equipped camps positioned along the way. To walk the whole distance, start from Cape Point, pass through the beautiful Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, then head down to the beach and walk alongside the waves washing the warm sand, nothing but fathoms of ocean between you and Brazil. Hike back up to the clifftops for spectacular views over False Bay, delve into the deeply atmospheric shade of Orange Kloof Forest, and then begin the walk's biggest challenge – an ascent of Table Mountain. Having reached the summit, you can complete the walk by swooping down into Cape Town on the mountain's famous cable car.
For travelers in contemporary Berlin, it's increasingly difficult to believe that the western half of the city was ringed for 28 years by fierce fortifications, forming an urban island in the middle of the totalitarian GDR. Since 2006, a walking trail has followed the entire 160 km circumference of this wall. But even as you amble to the trail's starting point in Potsdamer Platz, now very much the center of a reunited city, it's hard to envisage the copses of skyscrapers and bustling coffee shops split in half by an impermeable barrier. Continue along the route, however, and the wall's brutal story of division and control slowly takes shape around you. A short walk from Potsdamer and you'll reach Checkpoint Charlie, the wall's most famous crossing point which, with its heavily armed guards, became a symbol of the Cold War. A little further is Bernauer Strasse, where both outer and inner walls still stand, containing the "death strip" in between. Interpretive boards detail the wall's history, and there are moving memorials to people who died trying to cross the wall positioned at 29 intervals along the trail.
If several of the walks on this list are long winding epics that you could hike for days at a time, then tackling Auckland’s coast-to-coast route will make things much simpler: in about 5 hours, you can walk from one ocean to another without ever leaving the city. Polynesia’s major metropolis covers New Zealand’s isthmus, or narrowest point, and only 10 concrete miles separate the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. It begins on a secluded patch of coastline that feels miles from civilization, but swiftly bends into suburban backstreets and ploughs a direct line towards the city center. To cross it, however, the trail has to climb over a couple of the city’s great landmarks. Ascend the 196-meter summit of Manunghawahu (Mount Eden), then tackle Manungakiekie (One Tree Hill), a pair of ancient volcanoes which provide sublime views over the city. The walk comes to end in Auckland’s picturesque Viaduct Harbour, where you can sup on a drink while looking out over the scattered islands of the Hauraki Gulf, dreaming of the endless Pacific beyond.
The rivers in Europe's western cities have undergone a transformation over the past couple of centuries. Once crowded arteries pumping people and commerce through the heart of the city, they've morphed into tranquil ornaments, dreamily irrelevant to most people’s lives. This is certainly a shift that’s affected London’s River Thames. In the 18th century, a riverfront stroll would've passed a cacophonous array of activity, as tall ships poured out spices, sailors and slaves drawn from the Americas, Africa and the Far East. But today traversing the Thames Path, an 184-mile riverside walkway that threads right through the heart of London, is a predominantly peaceful activity. Gaze across forested green meadows from the top of Richmond Hill, then pass the great abandoned hulk of Battersea Power Station before weaving around a string of classic sites – the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, Shakespeare's Globe – and tripping off into the old Docklands, once a global trade and travel center, now essentially an inner-city suburb of over-priced real estate. But a livelier history remains close at hand – imagine the broads and brothels of Shakespeare's Southwark, the clatter of merchant ships in Wapping, as you sup an ale in one of the route's plethora of wood-walled pubs. The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping is a good bet, claiming to be the oldest river tavern in London.