We all know that many of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — New York, London, Tokyo — have such comprehensive public transportation systems that you wouldn’t even think about renting your own car.
Luckily for the expense-averse, this list includes much of Europe. Not only do cities such as Berlin and Barcelona have comprehensive subway and bus systems in town, you can easily connect to nearby attractions in the countryside, making day trips more accessible.
But what about those smaller cities, the places that — at first glance — might seem to require a rental vehicle to make your vacation worthwhile? While I’m not averse to getting a car when it’s a necessity (in, say, Los Angeles), I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past few years by being able to go car-free in some locations you might not expect.
To me, South Beach always personified Miami — and to get the full feel, there’s nothing like tooling past its art deco architecture in an equally retro rental (preferably a convertible). But hip neighborhoods such as Wynwood, Brickell Village and the Design District have made staying downtown more appealing — and public transportation options such as the Metromover and Miami Trolley mean you won’t miss much. Best of all? Both are free.
Where You Can Go: Bayside Market Place, Mary Brickell Village, Bicentennial Park, Museum Park (home to the new Perez Art Museum), and American Airlines Arena are all on the Metromover route (you can reach Wynwood and the Design District easily by bus from the Adrienne Arsht Center). Trolleys can take you to Marlins Park, Coral Gables and, yes, Miami Beach.
Where You Can’t: You’ll still need a car to spot alligators in the Everglades or catch a Key West sunset.
This busy Asian city has traffic jams so notorious that a separate class of vehicle has emerged to weave in and out of them (tuk tuks). Its elevated Skytrain has signs in English as well as air-conditioning, a must if you’re not used to the humidity. Also consider the Chao Phraya river, which winds through Bangkok; it’s often the quickest route between two places. Water taxis and traditional khlong (canal) boats are available.
Where You Can Go: Wat Arun, Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw, Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Khao San Road (if you want to mix with other tourists).
Where You Can’t: The famous World War II site, the bridge over the River Kwai, is in Kanchanaburi, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. While buses do run there, you’re better off hiring a driver or guide. Whatever you do, don’t take the train; it’s a local, meaning the conditions are basic (you’re likely to share a wooden seat with chickens), and it can take up to five hours.
San Antonio, Texas
If you’re deep in the heart of Texas, you expect cities with suburbs that sprawl for miles (we’re talking to you, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth) — which is what makes San Antonio such a pleasant surprise. The Riverwalk, originally a WPA project, has been extended so it hooks up with the 10-mile Mission Reach trail. Rent bikes in trendy King William and make a day of it. The central hub of the Riverwalk is an attraction unto itself, with restaurants and bars aplenty (boat rides are fun too).
Where You Can Go: All five of San Antonio’s missions, including the Alamo; Pearl Brewery, San Antonio Art Museum, restaurants and bars.
Where You Can’t: The vineyards of nearby Hill Country require external transportation (preferably a private driver so you can taste at will).
St. Petersburg, Russia
The subway system in St. Petersburg is a major tourist sight for a reason. Conceived during Stalin’s tenure, the stations were considered “the people’s palaces” and given the design to match. You don’t even have to have a destination in mind to enjoy the elaborate chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and Soviet-era symbols found along the lines (fun fact: this is also the world’s deepest subway system).
Where You Can Go: Nevsky Prospekt, Church of the Spilled Blood, Hermitage, major theaters (for operas and ballet), and Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great’s grand palace, Peterhof, is reachable by hydrofoil.
Where You Can’t: Catherine’s Palace, with the famous Amber Room, is in Pushkin (about 15 miles away) and is only open limited hours for people not in groups. It’s best to go with a guide.
Known for its eco ethic, Seattle should have a better public transportation system than it does (while a light rail connects SEA-TAC airport with downtown, it regularly draws complaints for its geographical limitations). Luckily, the bus routes make up for it.
Where You Can Go: Pike Place Market and original Starbucks, Pioneer Square, Space Needle and Seattle Center (home to EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center and Chilhuly Garden and Glass), both stadiums, Capitol Hill, Alki Beach (by water taxi), Bainbridge Island (by Washington State Ferry).
Where You Can’t: To go hiking in any of the mountain range parks that surround Seattle — Mt. Rainier, the Cascades or the Olympics — you’ll need a car.
— written by Chris Gray Faust