The Best Cities To See On Foot
Aerial view of Paris. Photograph by Gallery Stock
Where in the world to wander aimlessly (in search of photo ops).
Of all the many accomplishments of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann and his reorganisations of Paris in the 19th century – the grand boulevards, the dispersal of revolutionary fervour, and so on – maybe his greatest achievement was setting the stage for the flâneur (and with them what we now think of as street style). With all of these broad, new avenues, the newly emergent middle class eagerly took to the streets in their finest clothes to, well, strut their stuff.
“For the perfect flâneur,” as the perfect flâneur Mr Charles Baudelaire wrote in The Painter Of Modern Life, “for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”
For the textbook flâneur (from the Old Norse verb flana, to wander with no purpose, obviously), the city is a muse, and his curiosity the medium. Dressed to the nines, and either interested in his environs or perpetually distracted, the flâneur is a kind of living, breathing, gamboling appetite — hungry for discovery, for ideas, for epiphanies, experience, and whatever he might find in a shop window. And more often than not, the flâneur is taking pictures. As Ms Susan Sontag described him, the modern day flâneur-cum-street-photographer is always “reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque’.”
But why leave it to chance? To ensure your strolls do become picturesque, we suggest you start your strutting in the best cities for flânering.
Place des Vosges, Paris. Photograph by Ms Anastasia Abramova/Getty Images
Writing about these pretty, poplar-lined streets where Mr Baudelaire found the stuff of his poems, the critic Mr Walter Benjamin saw in 19th-century Paris the beginning of a new era – in urban planning, sure, in commercialisation, and even in identity – which he called the commodification of the self (and we now call personal branding). The construction of arcades, Mr Benjamin wrote, changed the way we moved about the city, and made that movement a journey into the literal marketplace – or “the department store, which made use of the flânerie itself in order to sell goods,” he wrote, describing the world’s first influencers.
You will find their progeny everywhere here, sprawled out in front of Notre-Dame, threading through the trees in Les Tuileries, and Instagramming their coffees at Flore. But there is some respite from all that to be found in Le Marais, a more ancient-feeling part of Paris (the 3rd and 4th arrondissements), where the scale of the buildings and cobblestone streets makes it feel more like a village. “Whether you get something or not, when you go in a store, you see what Paris is like,” as Ms Sofia Coppola once said. And the bookshops, design stores, and cafés in the Marais provide a nice little peek into what at least one part of Paris is like, giving the passing flâneur a perfect snapshot keepsake for the mental diary – or Instagram feed.
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Café in the Piazza del Fico, Rome. Photograph by Mr Michael Turek
There is a famous, oft-told story in my family, about the time my dad, Mr David Wallace, had an audience with Pope Pius XII in 1953. According to his forthcoming memoir, A Kid From Missouri, about growing up with Mr Harry S Truman, my dad says the holy see gave him a little travel advice while he was in town. “If you are in Rome only one day,” the Pope said, “you know everything of the city. If you are here a month, you will know nothing of Rome. But if you are here for a lifetime, you will begin to know something of the Eternal City.”
No need to rush then. Instead, do as Mr Geoff Dyer did when he “lived in the grand manner of writers,” in Rome: “I basically did nothing all day.”
And what with all nothingness, the flâneur comes to depend on a great sidewalk café — for replenishment, restoratives, and maybe some people watching — and there is no city in the world with a better assortment of spots to stop’n’sip than Rome. Of course, in Rome, like in much of Italy, everyone is a bit of a flâneur, wandering about their neighbourhoods for passeggiata, the golden-hour stroll, when the Italian capital glows with the golden, purplish umber from the terracotta tiles and the dusty sound of nearby bells (unless, like Jep Gambardella in La Grande Bellazza, you prefer to take your strolls along the Tiber at dawn). And everyone has their favourite caffès. For Mr Federico Fellini, his choice spot for a morning coffee was Canova, on the Piazza Del Popolo, around the corner from his apartment on the Via Condoti (which he preferred to its neighbour, Rosati, because its tables were in the shade). Mr Dyer spent his time at the caffès near the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. But, for our money, the best sidewalk caffè in Rome, or anywhere, was the great Antico Caffè Della Pace, just off the Piazza Navona, on a little cobblestone street that dead ends into a sweet little church. An afternoon here – before it closed in 2016, to be replaced by a hotel – spent in the company of friends or just a negroni (or three) hands-down beat the itinerary of the busy tourists, whom Mr Dyer described as “on the move constantly... they flocked principally to places frequented by pigeons.”
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Courtyard at the Doge’s Palace, Venice. Photograph by Mr Gerard Degeorge/akg-images
“The sentimental tourist’s sole quarrel with his Venice,” Mr Henry James wrote in Italian Hours, “is that he has too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original; to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries.” And in a way this is the flâneur’s ultimate quest wherever he might be. In Venice, you’d think, it’d be more difficult, for as Mr James, said, “Venice of today,” this, in 1909, “is a vast museum, where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers.” Except that no place cultivates the sensation of having a unique experience, having a singular perspective (if not on the Titians and Tintorettos at the Accademia, then perhaps on some stumbled-upon piazza), than Venice. Even if everyone and their lover’s other lover from the days of “café society” has a famous story at Florian, every afternoon coffee there can put the present day flâneur on the perfect plane – that fantastical realm where lore and legend blend with capital-R romance of travel. And, despite its (deserved) reputation for overcrowding and (undeservedly) for bad food, there are a zillion wonderful old spots to take a little ombra from the heat and crowd – like the ancient cicchetti pub Cantina di Mori around the corner from the fish market off the Rialto.
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Row of Edwardian houses, London. Photograph by Mr A. Astes/Alamy Photo
“London is a muddle,” Mr EM Forster wrote, in his essay of the same name, “and not always an unpleasant one.” Especially, we imagine, if one is taking it in at a stroll, heedless of time or direction. Less on an errand than on a walk to clear one’s head – in search of, say, a pencil, as Ms Virginia Woolf was in Street Haunting, her essay about, well, essaying through the English capital, setting out at just about cocktail hour.
“How beautiful a London street is then,” she wrote, “with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally... But this is London, we are reminded... this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences... Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty, as if the tide of trade which deposits its burden so punctually and prosaically upon the shores of Oxford Street had this night cast up nothing but treasure. With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances.”
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View of Brooklyn Bridge through the Manhattan skyline. Photograph by Mr Sinisa Kukic/Getty Images
No town has a richer history of flâneurs than Manhattan – from Mr Joseph Mitchell jotting down his famous bits for The New Yorker right on down to The Beats – and for good reason: no major city in the world is better suited to long wanders, or more rewarding all along the way. From the outlandish characters to which Mr Mitchell was attracted, and whom he lovingly described throughout Up In The Old Hotel, to the dizzying (and ever-changing) array of windows from which to shop, New York, New York is the richest eye-candy store on Earth. On the easily navigable grid, or off on the intrinsically discursive byways – like Bowery (from the Old Dutch for “farm road”), or Bleecker Street, which follows the footpath through Mr Anthony Bleecker’s farm, or the canted angle melee of the West Village – the density of the city makes for entertaining promenades, many of them dotted, at regular frequency, by the perfect little pubs into which you can escape the heat, the snow, the rain, or from other New Yorkers.
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HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photograph by Mr John Davidson/Alamy Photo
“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam,” the narrator, Fowler, says in Mr Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. “That everything is so intense? The colours, the taste, even the rain... They say whatever you're looking for, you will find here.”
Whether you know what you are looking for, or, in the traditional manner of the flâneur, have no inkling, there is no better way to go in search of it than on the back of a scooter, balmy breeze in your face, and the magical tones of the buildings buzzing by – melon, mint, mustard. And then there is “the smell,” as Fowler said. “That’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from.”
Up and down Dong Khoi in the historic district, from about the Continental Hotel where Fowler narrowly missed being bombed to bits, down toward the river, the shops, sidewalk stalls, and late-night nomadic pho stands which materialise after dark, are filled with the smell and the heat and the colours that make this city so incredible, so resonant. But it is off the beaten path, in the bánh bèo stalls you stumble upon in the back alleys, or in the nighttime shops selling crab in tamarind sauce around Ben Thanh Market, in the little discoveries you make through the Chinatown here, Cho Lon, that you find you Saigon. And once it has gotten you, as Fowler said, “Nothing can ever be the same again.”