Driving can be a cumbersome way to see a city, what with traffic congestion and expensive parking. And while walking gets you up-close and personal, it’s hard to cover a lot of ground on foot — especially when the places you want to visit are far apart. Touring a city by bike, on the other hand, gives you that closer look while getting you farther in less time. Plus, fantastic cities like Seattle and Washington, DC, are becoming even friendlier to cyclists by adding bike lanes, welcoming bike-share providers, and rethinking traffic to better serve cyclists. So start planning your next active city break at one of these seven US cities that are best explored by bike.
1. Portland, Oregon
There’s a reason why Portland has the highest percentage (over seven percent) of commuters who choose to travel by bike. Named a “platinum” bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists and the number one bike-friendly city by Bicycling magazine many years running, Portland has over 350 miles of bikeways. These include over 77 miles of neighborhood greenways, 188 miles of bike lanes, and 85 miles of bike paths. Its BikeTown rideshare program has more than 1,000 bikes available across the city — a great option should you choose to join one of the city’s more popular events, the annual World Naked Bike Ride.
Beautiful places to cycle in Portland include riding along the Willamette River and crossing its historic bridges, including the Broadway, Steel, Hawthorne, and Tilikum bridges. You can also ride from the Portland Art Museum to the galleries and shops of the creative Pearl District along NW 10th Avenue. The Alberta Arts District on the east side of town is easy to get around by bike and has some of the hippest shops, restaurants, bars, and art galleries you’ll find in Portland. From there, ride south down Martin Luther King Jr. to the Buckman area for breweries, delicious food, and the super funky Portland Flea.
2. Seattle, Washington
Seattle is as famous for its snow-capped peaks as it is for its terrible traffic, so if you’d like to experience the beauty of the Emerald City, your best bet is to do it by bike. Though hills may prove a challenge to some, they can be worked around with some creative planning. Almost one-third of Seattle residents bike regularly, and there are hundreds of miles of bike lanes, multi-use paths, and trails to choose from. Seattle does not have an official bike-share program, but LimeBike offers about 7,000 bikes available for rent throughout the city.
One great route within the city is the protected (and downhill) bike lane that runs from the Seattle Center to historic Pioneer Square and the International District. A second is the paved ride along the tree-lined shores of Lake Washington to Seward Park. It’s easy to pop your bike onto a Metro bus or the Light Rail any time you get tired or decide you want to explore a different route. In fact, adding public transportation into your bike plans is also a great way to see the sights outside of the city. Popular options include taking the King County Water Taxi from the Seattle waterfront to West Seattle and biking along scenic Alki Beach or riding onto one of the larger car ferries for the 45-minute crossing to cruise Winslow, Bainbridge Island’s charming waterfront town.
3. Chicago, Illinois
Everything about Chicago seems big — from the buildings to the lake to the pizza slices — but the sights of this city can be made much more manageable by bike. Chicago currently has more than 200 miles of on-street, protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes, in addition to miles of off-street paths. So, for many, it’s easier to get around on two wheels than it is on public transit. The city’s Divvy bike share has 580 stations across Chicago and Oak Park, including heavily trafficked tourist spots such as the Navy Pier, Shedd Aquarium, and Field Museum.
The most popular bike ride in the city is the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail. It passes wetlands, sand dunes, beaches, and museums, all the while offering incredible views of the city and Lake Michigan. If you want to discover some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, the 606 is a 2.7-mile elevated trail, formerly a railroad track, which connects the Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square neighborhoods. For more variety, the North Shore Channel Trail heads all the way to Evanston from Lincoln Square. The path is asphalt, limestone, and dirt, and it winds through wilderness areas along both sides of the North Shore Channel and the northern tip of the Chicago River.
4. Denver, Colorado
Despite being next door to some of the best skiing on the continent, the mile-high city is actually on a plateau and, in fact, one of the US’s flattest cities. But with those nearby mountains, Denver draws plenty of outdoor lovers, making its residents some of the fittest people in the country. When you combine that flatness with that level of fitness, you’re going to have a lot of people choosing bikes as their primary mode of transportation — and a city tailor-made for exploring by bike. Denver B-Cycle, with its 88 stations, is the leading bike-share option in the city.
Denver’s most famous bike route is the Cherry Creek Trail, which takes you 40 miles from downtown to the Cherry Creek Reservoir. You could ride your bike from one beautiful city park — like Confluence Park, Washington Park, and Huston Lake Park — to another or seek cultural enrichment at the Denver Art Museum instead. Next to the museum, climb the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol for incredible mountain views. Break up your day of cycling with lunch at one of the city’s many food halls, like Avanti F&B, or one of the eateries inside Denver Union Station. The Station is the hub for Denver’s hip LoDo (Lower Downtown) neighborhood, which is full of cafés and craft breweries. If you didn’t ascend the rotunda at the Capitol, you can opt to see the mountains and fuel up at the same time. An eight-minute ride from Union Station brings you to the Ale House, which has excellent New American food, amazing brews, and some of the best views in the city.
5. New Orleans, Louisiana
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans jumped on the opportunity to invest in aiding cyclists, boosting its bike lanes from only 11 miles to over 100. It’s now one of the most bicycled cities in the country thanks to that investment, not to mention its gentle topography and pleasant weather. NOLA’s Blue Bikes bike-share program has over 70 stations with 700 bikes, making it easy to cruise everything from the bustling French Quarter to beautiful countryside.
Popular rides from town include the Mississippi River Trail where you can ride for miles atop the levee from Audubon Park to the spillway. The Lafitte Greenway, a green corridor connecting neighborhoods from Armstrong Park to City Park, attracts local and visiting bikers with its paved, car-free paths. Just at the end of the Greenway, stop in at the Parkway Tavern & Bakery for a beer and classic po’ boy before continuing on to lush City Park. It’s one the country’s oldest public parks, and its 1,300 acres are jammed with beautiful sights, including the world’s largest stand of mature live oaks and the treasures of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
6. Washington, DC
One of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, Washington, DC, is a dream seen from the seat of a bike. Capital Bikeshare stations are easy to find, and skirting traffic on two wheels saves a lot of time when you’re looking to cram in all the sights of this historic city. Bikes will shorten the travel time from neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom into the Mall. On the Mall itself, the over two-mile walk from one end to the other can feel very long — especially in the heat of summer. Biking will make it easy to get from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial in a jiffy; you can even tack on a visit to the FDR and MLK Jr. Memorials and take a spin around the Potomac Tidal Basin next to the mall.
Or go out the Potomac River itself. From Georgetown, the Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath, a 184-mile ride that follows the Potomac to Cumberland, Maryland, is a great way to see the natural beauty of the area. Hot spots along this popular ride include picturesque Great Falls, Harper’s Ferry, and the Paw Paw tunnel. The city offers bicycle maps to make planning your visit even easier.
7. San Diego, California
The year-round balmy weather and Discover Bike cycle-share program make San Diego an ideal city to explore by bike. You can choose from a multitude of adventures, most of them on designated bike and multi-use paths that run just about everywhere you might want to visit — from downtown Embarcadero to beaches and parks.
If you want a longer ride, you can cruise the Pacific Coast Highway. For a more laid-back option, the “Silver Strand” is an easy 10-mile portion of the Bayshore Bikeway stretching from Coronado to Imperial Beach. This route parallels the beach along San Diego Bay, considered by many the most beautiful bike route in Southern California. Balboa Park is another popular option with trails throughout the park leading to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, Japanese Friendship Garden, and the Botanical Building, a stunning flower and plant conservatory that was built a century ago.