Humankind has been drawn to rivers for as long as we’ve drawn breath. Songs and poems have been written about rivers, and many world mythologies have at least one important story about a river. In mythology, crossing a river marks an important part of a journey. The River Styx in Greek mythology was the border between the living world and the Underworld (Hades). In Hebrew mythology, the waters of the Jordan river parted to allow Joshua and the Israelites to cross. To Buddhists, rivers are used as metaphors for life itself, as it is constantly changing. Just naming some of the largest rivers in the world conjures up images of romance and adventure travel:The Amazon, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Mississippi, the Danube, the Rhine.
Many of the greatest cities in the world were built up around rivers for obvious reasons: They were sources of clean water and the primary means of transportation and shipping goods from one place to another. Some are still used for shipping, though nobody in their right mind would drink from them. So when you want to put your finger on the pulse of a city, look to its river.
Walking along a river is one of my favorite ways to explore and get to know a new city. I’ve met interesting people along rivers. I usually see things that surprise me. I’ve had hours of quiet contemplation. A great river walk gives me time to indulge in photography and commune with nature–such as it is in the heart of a city. And of course, walking is a great way to stay physically fit.
If you love a good walk as much as I do, here are 5 recommended river walks from my travels:
The Seine – Paris, France
People who daydream about visiting Paris often picture themselves going for a stroll along the Seine. It is one of the quintessential Paris experiences. A stretch of the Seine has even been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can take a narrated boat cruise of the Seine, but it’s still nice to walk it as well. You get a completely different perspective by walking.
So many major sites lie along the river—the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, the Musee D’Orsay. You can see the Eiffel Tower and Place de la Concorde from the Seine. The area around the Notre Dame, Île de la Cité, and Latin Quarter is a lovely walk; be sure to stop and browse the kiosks selling books and art prints. Another walk I enjoyed was from the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero down to the Pont Alexandre III (bridge). I saw a lot of boats along this route.
I had someone try the Ring Scam on me while walking along the Seine (luckily, I’d read about it before my trip, so I just kept on walking). But one of my fondest memories was my encounter with a young Eastern European couple who wanted me to take their picture in front of Pont Alexandre III. I took their photo for them, and then they took mine for me. We had to communicate with one another using gestures, because I didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak any that I knew. It was one of those neat travel moments that stays with you.
The Arno – Florence, Italy
Whether or not you’ve heard of the Arno River in Florence, you should definitely go for a walk along it. You won’t want to miss The Ponte Vecchio, a famous and picturesque bridge lined with little shops selling jewelry and other souvenirs that spans the Arno River (seen in the photo above). It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and a heavily visited attraction in Florence.
With just five and a half hours in Florence, I thought I would just go see the bridge and then move on to some other tourist attraction on my list. But I found myself reluctant to leave. As I walked along its edges, I saw sunbathers down below next to the river, I saw rowers in their sculls, and I kept gazing across the river at the brightly colored buildings and the lush, green landscape beyond. I strolled along the river enjoying the view for as long as I could until I had to head back to the meeting point for my bus back to my cruise ship. With more time in Florence, I could happily go for many more strolls along this river.
The Tiber – Rome, Italy
The Tiber in Rome has a prominent role in Roman mythology as the location where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were found as infants by the she-wolf who raised them. I had very little time to enjoy the river, but I made the most of what I had, walking along the stretch where the Castel Sant’Angelo, Ponte Sant’Angelo, the ancient bridge leading to the Castel, and the Vatican are all located. I highly recommend a stroll along this section of the river.
I made my way from Metro Spagna to the river, where I was treated to the sight of boats and rowers gliding and some stunning vistas of Rome. The Ponte Sant’Angelo was thick with tourists that day, and the usual street vendors trying to sell art prints and other trinkets to visitors. Rows of stone angels flanked either side of the bridge, watching over travelers as they crossed back and forth.
The Riverwalk (“Paseo del Rio”) – San Antonio, Texas
The San Antonio River is at the heart of San Antonio and has become a key focal point for tourists, thanks to architect Robert H. H. Hugman, who dreamed up the concept of the Riverwalk in 1929. The main area of the Riverwalk is a 2-mile downtown loop which winds its way among the Convention Center, Rivercenter Mall, La Villita arts neighborhood, and numerous hotels, restaurants and bars. The city is in the process of expanding the Riverwalk to 13 miles. The northern stretch of the Riverwalk is known as the Museum Reach, while the southern end is known as the Mission Reach. You can walk, bike and jog along the Riverwalk.
As I noted last week in my musings on San Antonio, it’s easy to get turned around on the Downtown Riverwalk, especially at night, and not all areas are well lit at night. But during the day, it’s a beautiful and shaded walk, well-landscaped, with cute stone arch pedestrian bridges criss-crossing the river and colorful river taxis humming by on a regular basis. To me, the Riverwalk seemed to be a sort of “second San Antonio” that exists beneath the street level San Antonio.
The Mississippi – New Orleans, Louisiana
The Mississippi River extends from Minnesota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It would be quite a challenge to walk the entire length, don’t you think? More than I want to try, anyway.
Instead, I walked along the edges of the Mississippi in New Orleans during my trip there in 2008. The Mississippi retains much of its shipping character, but the city has made attempts at taking advantage of the location to draw tourists as well, with the Rivercenter Mall and Aquarium of the Americas at the foot of Canal Street and a promenade along the waterfront with some public art. Make your way from Canal Street through Woldenburg Park, past the lighthouse at the foot of Toulouse Street, to the area around Jackson Square and then reward yourself with a beignet at Cafe du Monde.
While this walk is very different from the others mentioned above, it’s no less enjoyable or interesting. This is the “Mighty Mississippi,” after all, and the Mississippi has its own romantic allure for lovers of American history. Face the Steamboat Natchez, then close your eyes for a moment, and you can almost imagine Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on an adventure just up river.
What’s your favorite river walk from your travels?