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bangkok skytrainWe 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.

Miami, Florida
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.

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Bangkok, Thailand
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.

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Seattle, Washington
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

7 Responses to “5 Surprising Cities Where You Don’t Need a Rental Car”

  1. Daniel Kraft says:

    I would like to see more postings on this theme since we are looking for interesting places in Europe where you don’t have to have a car to travel to.
    We are specifically looking for places where we would be able to stay for 4-8 weeks at a time without needing a car to get to know the surrounding area.

    • Glenn Lane says:

      Malaga, Spain area along the Mediterranean coast. There are lots of public transportation options for travel to locations such as Sevilla, Gibraltar, Granada (the Alhambra), Ronda (the white villages), a variety of towns up and down the Costa Del Sol, and even an easy day trip to Melilla in Africa (via an Iberia commuter flight – there’s direct access to Malaga airport via the local commuter train which runs part of the way along the coast). In addition to rail travel there are local bus as well long distance public and day tour coach tours. If you stay in the Torremolinos area, there are many pedestrian options for walks in-town as well as along the multi-mile seaside promenade. We go here every year staying in a little seaside efficiency apartment specifically because of the variety of activities which are available without the need for a car!

  2. John says:

    We spent several days in Sydney, San Francisco & Boston, no rental car, we used public transportation, mostly the subways, also ferry in Sydney & cable cars in SF, it was great. They all have passes for unlimited rides for X amount of days. In SF, we even took BART from the airport into downtown, just a couple blocsks from our hotel. In Boston, we took the T Subway everywhere, to/from the airport and when we went most places, including Fenway, GO RED SOX!

  3. Wendy says:

    I’m not sure if these cities are surprising in not needing are a car, but we have traveled extensively in them without a car…San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; Milan; Venice; Paris; Rome; London and Cambridge, England. Public transportation and walking worked the best for seeing and doing everything we wanted.

  4. carole says:

    San Antonio was great. So relaxing and may become my new quicky weekend getaway.

  5. AZIZ FIKRY MOHAMMAD says:

    For the expense averse, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia provides a comprehensive public transportation system comprising of buses and trains. The system also covers the two main airports – KLIA & LCCT.

  6. Colleen says:

    All you need for a “car-free” Europe visit is a multi-country Eurail Pass. They’re available from many sellers, raileurope.com is one of them. On the site you can determine which Pass is right for your travel plans. A pass will take you from country to country and on occasion, be honored to an extent on certain rail or boat lines. Once you’ve arrived into a majority of European cities you will find they will have either good local public transit OR the the city is walkable….perhaps not entirely in one day, but over a few.

    I’ve lost count of my trips to Europe and I’ve yet to rent a car. At times I’ve been there with local friends who had one, but otherwise thus far, I’ve not wanted to bother with it because going from county to country w/a rental can be a hassle (one country easier) and I enjoy train rides!

    The other option now too are low cost intra Europe airlines if you need to save time and cover big distances. There are several carriers to choose from regionally within Europe. Airports just aren’t always located so close to main city but it can often be worth it/easy to make the transfer.

    Have a fun trip. One or two months in Europe is awesome, I did over two months last year. Enjoy!!

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