When it comes to spending free time, I’m a city boy through and through. Give me a choice between a sunny beach and a historically and culturally rich city, and I will probably… do both 😉 But if that’s impossible, I would much rather take a stroll down some narrow alleyways of an old town than suntan (especially if it’s 40C and the old town in question is fountain-rich Grenada)
That said, even I can get bored or tired of asphalt and concrete. When that time comes, I venture forth in search of some oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of the city. All good cities have them: either public parks, or temple gardens, or urban forests. But the ones that really remain in memory are places that have that little something extra; a spark of brilliance or a touch of history that makes them stand out from the rest.
Here’s a list of my top 5 favourite of such getaways: all five are free to enter, though not always free to get to. You will notice these are also one of the top cities to live in, according to various surveys. It’s no coincidence; the best governed cities have also the best public spaces.
An old military fortress (parts of it still in use) may seem an unlikely place to recommend for a family picnic, but the island of Suomenlinna is not your typical fortress. Wonderfully and painstakingly transformed into a combination of open-air museum, city park and historical attraction, easily accessible by a short waterbus ride from the central harbour, it is one of the best places to spend a day out in a city already blessed with a variety of gorgeous open spaces.
My favourite time on Suomenlinna is during an autumn storm, when the gale winds sweep across the island, shattering the billowing waves of the Baltic against the fortifications. There are very few capital cities in Europe where one can feel so alone against the fiercest powers of nature.
All cities with big rivers running through them suffer from the same fate: so much water, so little fun! The rivers are dirty, busy, dangerous. The best they can usually offer in terms of entertainment is a promenade, a marina, or a water bus route.
Not so in Vienna. A city sits on the shore of the second of the greatest of European rivers, and in summer can turn unbearably hot. Luckily, it has the Neue Donau: a 21-km long stretch of clean water split off from, and running parallel to, the Danube proper.
The enterprise started as a major flood relief project, but once the channel was there it was easy to turn it to public use. The water here is much cleaner than in the main stream (crucially, clean enough to swim in), free from river traffic, easily accessible from the grass-covered shores of the artificial Danube Island. The island itself sports beaches (nude and regular), water sports centre, nightclubs, cafes and, according to one reddit poster, a family of beavers.
At nearly 300km, the Thames Path, running alongside the river from its source in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier beyond Greenwich, is a hiking trail steeped in natural beauty, history and cultural references, famous enough to have had its spot at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. The London segment of the path – 45km from Richmond to Thames Barrier – is, of course, the most interesting one.
With all due respect to Manhattan, no other skyline in the world is as iconic as that of London along the Thames. From Big Ben to the Tower Bridge, a stroll along the South Bank feels like walking onto a movie set (and often is). But the rest of the Thames Path is even more exciting. It’s a 24/7 reality show; the river changes constantly, and no two bits of the shore look the same. Whether you’re a fan of wild nature, or people watching; whether you’re looking for a pint of good ale and chips or a posh restaurant; whether you like historical monuments or modern architecture – everyone will find something intriguing on the Thames Path.
And when you’ve seen it all at high tide, come back again when the river ebbs and you will see a completely different landscape. You might even try your luck in some amateur archaeology!
There are many ways to deal with the corporate dehumanisation and the humdrum of everyday office life. Some escape to the tropical beaches, others engage in extreme sports. But to me, nothing says “freedom” like a visit to Freetown Christiania. This remarkable place started out as a 1970’s hippie commune, but unlike most of these social experiments, it managed to defend its freedom from the Danish government (helped in great part by the Copenhagen tradition of giving autonomy to various parts of the city). While it is perhaps the best known among accidental tourists for the ubiquitous whiff of the ‘special cigarettes’ sold pretty much openly on the Pusher Street, Christiania is much, much more than just a place to get good quality cannabinoids.
It’s self-governed, but it’s not anarchy; it’s based on humanist principles, and yet it’s profitable – in fact, the amount of taxes Christiania brings to the city treasury is one of the best arguments for leaving it alone. Its people are tolerant, supportive of freedoms all over the world (there are separate spaces dedicated to the struggle of the Inuit and Tibetan peoples). They brew their own beer and make their own bikes. But most of all, and rather unexpectedly, Christiania is a beautiful place. Just take a stroll beyond the main, “touristy” part, beyond the grass-covered bulwarks of the old fortifications, and you enter another world; a paradise of water, trees, and birds. Gravel alleyways lined with houses constructed without the aid of architects but perfectly functional. Children’s playgrounds and sandy beaches. It’s colourful, it’s peaceful it’s clean, and it’s completely free – in all meanings of the word.
Kyoto’s public spaces would be enough to fill the top 10 spots on any list of world city attractions. You can hardly walk a block without stumbling onto a stunning temple garden, a peaceful monastery or a cherry-lined canal. But there is one location that holds a special place in my mind and heart: that little bit of the Kamo riverside at the foot of the Sanjo bridge.
It has everything that is best about Japan and Kyoto, concentrated on a narrow strip of shingle and grass. Although it is slap bang in the middle of a million plus city, it is an oasis of calm. The river babbles peacefully (unless it’s the rainy season, when it roars with a strength of a dozen waterfalls); the herons stand on the cobbles, watchful; an amateur j-pop band plays in the background – the music is pleasant, not obnoxious; an itinerant monk stands on the bridge, welcoming alms; a Lawson konbini nearby provides cup-fulls of sake and plum wine for the thirsty, while an old lady across the street sells traditional candy and rice crackers; the restaurants on Sanjo street are cheap and excellent. The Sanjo Bridge is the one place in the world where everything is just perfect.
Other recommended spots in Kyoto: far too many to mention, but for the perfect getaway try a hike up the Daimonji Mountain or a stroll along the Philosopher’s Walk.
Other similar places: Unfortunately, nothing compares to Kamogawa at dusk…
While the access to Yuyuan Gardens is not free, at 40 RMB it’s hardly something worth mentioning.
The people who live in the most densely populated country in the world, in one of its most densely populated cities, know the price of peace and space better than anyone. That they have managed to create this oasis in the middle of Shanghai is a testament to their genius and hard work.
When you approach the Gardens, you may get quite dismayed; the bridges leading to the entrance are filled with tourists, throngs of people making photos and shouting at each other. But like with so many things in China, persevere and you will be rewarded: for beyond the gates lies a secret world. The Gardens are designed like a labyrinth of passages, walls and gates; the pathways are twisting and winding, condensed like the DNA inside a nucleus. That way, despite the crowds and despite the entire complex taking very little of the precious Shanghai real estate, anyone can find a moment of calm and respite from the insanity of the 40 mln-strong city outside – if not for very long.
So, there you go. These are my favourites. I’m sure you know more similar places all around the world – why not share your recommendations in the comments?