Seeing a City the Old-Fashioned Way: One Step at a Time

Strolling the village of Grasse, France.

Last year, Butterfield & Robinson, the Canada-based travel company founded in 1966, reported a 20 percent average increase in yearly walking tour departures. Yet that growth was part of a broader, ongoing trend: The company’s total number of walking trips in 2016 was up 188 percent from 2010.

Backroads, the adventure travel company created in California in 1979, has also reported that walking and hiking tours are its fastest-growing segment, with double-digit growth. In March, the company reported that its walking and hiking segment more than tripled in size over the last five years — and it expects the numbers to continue to climb. This year alone it has new walking and hiking trips in Croatia and Slovenia; the Italian, French and Swiss Alps; Maine, Morocco, Namibia and Zimbabwe, Portugal, Provence and the French Riviera, and Scotland.

“Walking will be the ultimate way to explore” in 2018, the travel site predicted last year, adding that 56 percent of travelers said they wanted to go on walking or hiking trips this year.

Walking, of course, has already been the ultimate way to explore — it’s a positively ancient way to travel. And the walking tour is an industry classic, predating smartphones, selfie sticks and status updates. Yet it’s a tour style that appears to be enjoying a bit of a boom, attracting ever more travelers interested in seeing a city in a slow fashion: on foot.

In addition to being able to better interact with a place and its people, companies have reported that many travelers have also taken an interest in the health benefits of walking or hiking while touring a destination. And for those who prefer privacy and going at their own pace, self-guided walking tours are blossoming — particularly in Europe.

Country Walkers, which has been offering tours for more than 38 years, has reported growing demand from travelers who want to explore destinations without a guide. In response, this year the company is offering new self-guided tours in popular places, including Andalusia, Spain and Portugal. The “Spain: Andalusia & Seville” self-guided tour begins in Seville and includes walks through cork oak forests and stays at family-owned inns (from $2,698 a person, based on double occupancy). Other self-guided tours include “Portugal: Porto, Minho & Douro Valley” (from $3,898 a person, double occupancy) and “Portugal: Lisbon & Undiscovered Alentejo” (from $3,798 a person, double occupancy).

Also this year, Butterfield & Robinson is adding “Cotswolds Self-Guided Walking,” a tour through five Cotswolds counties, along with guided tours like “Holland Walking” and “Basque Country Walking,” which includes the Pyrenean summits, Spain and San Sebastián.

On Foot Holidays, a travel company based in Britain that offers some 32 self-guided walking routes in more than a dozen European countries, is offering a new “all-coastal,” self-guided, 124-mile walking route along the Costa da Morte in Galicia, Spain, called “Lighthouse Way” (from £830 a person, or about $1,127, double occupancy, including 10 nights in bed-and-breakfasts, luggage transfers and route notes; seven nights from £660 a person; five nights from £555 a person. Airfare and transfers are not included).

Meanwhile, in cities like London, Rome and San Francisco, has introduced an antidote of sorts to the hop-on, hop-off bus tour: The “Walk On Walk Off” tour pass, which gives travelers the flexibility to show up for whichever itineraries they like at the times they prefer over the course of several days.

Yet it’s not just travel companies that are introducing and expanding tours. A number of cities have designed their own walking tours. Historic Denver, for instance, offers several ($12 to $20; combination tickets for some tours are also available).The Denver Post reported last year that the program has seen significant growth since its introduction in 2014, beginning with tours of Lower Downtown and then expanding to Capitol Hill, Larimer Square and 16th Street.

Many cities and parks also offer free, guided walking tours to visitors. Some, especially those in popular European cities, are advertised as free, though tips are expected, even requested. Free Walking Tours Amsterdam is “pay what you like,” while other tours are completely free.

In New York City, the Central Park Conservancy offers paid and free tours, like “Stroll to Strawberry Fields” and a “Southern Welcome Tour” that includes the Pond, Gapstow Bridge, the Chess & Checkers House, and the Dairy, as well as self-guided tours. You can check out for seasonal offerings. Big Apple Greeter, founded in 1992, also offers New York City tours thanks to local volunteers (visitors must request a greeter at least three to four weeks before arriving). Volunteer-run greeter programs in some other cities can be found through the Global Greeter Network.

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