5 Best U.S. Cities for a Car-Free Vacation

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

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You’re booking travel to relax, unwind, and explore for a long weekend. Plane tickets? Check. Hotel? Check. Activities? Check.

Now, have you thought about renting a car? How much more will that cost with taxes and fees, and where’s the closest gas station to the airport so you can turn in your car with a full tank of gas? Does the hotel offer free parking? If not, how much does that add to the hotel bill? And do you really want to be spending all day driving and hunting for parking when you could be savoring the destination instead?

With some destinations, it’s entirely feasible to enjoy all that a city has to offer without lugging along a car for the duration. Each of the locales below (in no particular order) has a compact city center with plenty of lodging options, a good public transit system, and attractions that are walkable or otherwise easily reached without a car.

Anaheim, California

Disneyland in Anaheim California
The Happiest Place on Earth might be even happier without a car. (Christian Wardlaw)

You might not think of Anaheim, a suburb in the greater Los Angeles area, as a walkable city. But if the Land of the Mouse is your main destination, there’s no reason to have a car. Save the $25 daily parking fee in the Mickey and Friends garage and use that cash to buy Dole Whip and corn dogs instead.

The hotels at the resort will also charge $25 per day for parking, and few of the lodging options close to Disneyland offer free parking. Instead, Lyft, Uber, or cab into town from the airport (some hotels even offer a free shuttle service) and choose a hotel that’s within walking distance to the Harbor Boulevard entrance.

There’s a long list of dining options at Downtown Disney, as well as along Harbor and Katella boulevards. If big chain restaurants aren’t your thing, just take a short Lyft ride to Garden Grove, which is just a few miles away and offers a plethora of delicious Vietnamese and Korean joints.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Man playing violin in New Orleans
The Big Easy is easier to see without a vehicle. (Unsplash)

There’s no way to appreciate all the nooks and crannies of this delicate yet ferociously strong city if you’re driving its legendary streets in a car.

Around every turn is a historical marker, or a charming courtyard, or an Instagram-worthy mossy wall. In every alley, strains of jazz waft out, and every block boasts its own world-famous seafood specialty. This seduction of the senses can only happen if you’re walking around, and not hermetically sealed in a car.

The slightly haunted French Quarter is undoubtedly the most Continental of city centers in the States, with human-scale grandeur and details that must be explored up close. Literary references are abundant, and without a car, it’s easier to pop into a shop to savor a beignet and chicory coffee with your chapter of Faulkner.

I’ve heard that a few people come to New Orleans to enjoy its libations. For obvious reasons, cars and partying do not mix, and really, those hurricane glasses don’t fit into a cup holder anyway.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco California Skyline
You can leave your heart in San Francisco and leave your car at home. (Unsplash)

Fans of the movie “Bullitt” may have fantasies of launching their ‘Stang from the crests of San Francisco’s crazy hills, but in reality, the fine gendarmes of the SFPD will quickly respond to complaints from the snooty wealthy citizens and put a stop to these shenanigans. Even Lombard Street, supposedly the crookedest in the world, is more interesting to walk down than drive.

Chuck it all and leave the car at home. While San Francisco, with its crazy steep hills, isn’t the most walkable of cities, there is no shortage of taxis and ride-hail options to get you up and over that peak, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is quite comprehensive.

One of my favorite things to do in San Francisco is to take the cable car – worth trying at least once, for the novelty – to the vertiginous top of Nob Hill and walk then down to any of many destinations. And the Golden Gate Bridge is more pleasurable to walk or bike across than drive – just remember to bundle up, because it will always be colder than you thought.

Without worrying about a car, you’ll be free to wonder at the vistas stretching out across the oceans, get lost in the curious scents amid the maze of Chinatown, and visit the finest museums that America has to offer. Even those without kids will want to spend a whole day poking around the Exploratorium or the California Academy of Sciences complex.

Waikiki Beach, Hawaii

Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
Breathe in Waikiki Beach’s coconut-scented air and release your cynicism. (Unsplash)

It’s hard to overstate the picture-postcard beauty of Waikiki Beach, with its palm and plumeria trees, the warm, sparkling ocean beyond, and Diamond Head looming in the background. You’ll find an endless array of hotels, shops, and restaurants strolling along Kalakua Avenue, and if you missed your chance at getting some sunscreen at the ABC store, don’t worry, there’s another one or three on the next block.

Sure, Waikiki Beach represents mass commercialism at its finest, but rather than criticize it, just take in the sunset and enjoy the sultry breeze. Revel in the cliché of the slack-key rendition of “Pearly Shells” strumming from the Mai Tai Bar while sipping a Blue Hawaiian, because life will seem pretty damn good. And you can always dip down one of the side streets for more authentic and affordable fare than what’s offered at the big hotels on the beach.

Of course, Waikiki is popular, and you can find the abundance of oil-slicked bodies overwhelming. For a little more breathing room, consider renting a car just for the day to explore Oahu’s more remote destinations. You won’t want to miss the powder white sand of Lanikai Beach, the delectable shave ice at Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, glorious snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, or the fragrance of the garlic shrimp trucks along the northeastern edge of the island.

Washington, D.C.

Washington DC Metro Station
Thankfully, the dysfunction in D.C. doesn’t extend to the Metro system. (Pixabay)

Visiting our beloved nation’s capital, the center of America’s political might and folly, makes it easier to see and believe that the United States is bigger than any one party or politician. And D.C. happens to be one of the best cities to navigate without a car, as long as you’re situated in lodgings near a Metro stop. My hotel in downtown D.C. had one conveniently located adjacent to the cavernous lobby.

The D.C. Metro is one of the most extensive public transit systems in the city, clean, efficient, and easy to use. Almost every destination is easily accessible and is surrounded by a variety of restaurants and souvenir shops.

If you’re planning to walk the length of the National Mall, though, be aware that it’s farther than it looks. It personally takes me about an hour to walk the 2.5-mile length from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. You might want to grab a Bird or Lime for the trek.

Or portion out the walk to visit the museums and memorials along the way. Remember, visiting the treasures of the 19 museums and the zoo that comprise part of the Smithsonian Institution is free and requires no reservation. Hooray for America!

Let others see the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet

Aerial view of Manhattan at night
It goes without saying that New York City is one of the best places to visit without a car. (Pixabay)

For centuries, European city centers have flourished, designed solely for walkers and vehicles pulled by beasts of burden. It’s a lot easier to imagine visiting Rome or Paris without a car. America is younger and built by machines, and navigating much of its vast land mass requires the use of an automobile.

Fortunately, there are still destinations like the ones above – and I didn’t even touch upon the glories of Manhattan, where driving a car into town requires equal parts bravery and masochism – where truly exploring a city beckons you to put the keys away and get your walking shoes out.

About the Author

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

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