CITY breaks and holidays may seem like a distant memory and I’m sure that many of us are using time in the Island to look back at holidays we have had and think about those we are hoping to go on. If city breaks are on your list, then I suggest taking a bike tour.
In the past few years my husband, Kevin, and I have gone to a number of cities – usually between kayak trips – and have found that the best way to discover a city, rather than taking the more sedentary hop-on-hop-off bus, is to take a bike tour.
We have explored Barcelona, Prague, Vienna, Toronto and Washington on guided tours and London, New York, Amsterdam and Seoul on self-guided trips using hire bikes.
The first tour was in Barcelona. We were there one February half-term and, not knowing the city, we decided to take a ‘Fat Tires’ tour.
The guide was a young student in the city with a wealth of stories about the city’s history which she conveyed enthusiastically to a group of eight visitors. She also gave us many local insights about where to go, what to see and places to eat.
We cycled on routes avoiding the traffic which, if you were on your own, you may not have realised you could ride along, and saw many of the usual tourist sites such as the Sagrada Familia and the Gothic Quarter but also some less-visited sections of the city. We ended up at the beach for lunch in an area we may never have found on our own.
Bike tours cover so much more ground and mean that, for the rest of the visit, you have a better idea about the city’s layout and of places worth revisiting. Since that first trip, I have been to Barcelona many times and have made use of the ‘Donkey’ Bikes but that first tour gave us an insight into the city and the confidence to cycle more.
Our Prague visit was during another February, but here it was considerably colder than in Barcelona. This tour was again led by a student and took us through some beautiful parks and along the Vlatava river past the amazing opera house, but also went out into some of the Soviet-era estates with their brutalist architecture. We would not have found these on our own. The tour ended at a small café by the river which, weirdly, sold Breton cider from the Rance, making us feel quite at home.
The bikes on these tours are always functional. They may not be the lightest but the speed is usually gentle and, in a morning, you can easily cover between ten and 15 miles.
The tour of Toronto took us into areas we certainly would not have found on our own. We were there on the ‘White Night’ which is when art installations take over the city, so our route took in many of these, as well as Chinatown and some of the gentrified areas with fancy craft shops and coffee bars.
In Washington the tour took us around all the memorials in the centre, which would have been a long tiring walk, but on bikes was easy and enjoyable. These tours were again taken by local students with knowledge of, and love for, their cities.
For those who prefer to do things themselves without going on a guided tour, most cities now have bike-rental schemes. There are also many traditional bike-rental centres where the bikes may be of better quality.
More and more places now provide an ebike alternative, such as Jersey’s EvieBikes and islandebikes.
On a visit to Seoul we were cycling along green routes by the Han river along miles of dedicated bike lanes with no cars in sight. For such a busy city, it was a real pleasure to escape the streets. In New York it is possible to ride for many miles in Central Park and along the waterfronts, again on dedicated lanes.
City cycling has become so much more mainstream and more and more places have dedicated routes, more bike racks and bike-friendly retail, food and cultural centres. I have never seen as many bikes as we saw in Amsterdam, especially outside Amsterdam Central Station with multi-storey and underground parking areas just for cycles.
Each time I have visited the city, I have hired a bike for the duration of the visit. It is by far the best way to travel, although it is easy to forget where you parked your bike, as all are ‘sit up and beg’ bikes and each canal bridge begins to look the same. St Helier has a lot to learn.
If you are planning a city break when we can leave the Island, then think about including a bike tour. It is so easy to organise and to find bike tours in most cities. If you are exploring without a guide, use Strava or Komoot or local bike websites to find some great routes. You will gain a new perspective on city life, the way it could and should be. I am sure you won’t be disappointed.