America's Coolest River Walks
Visitors and locals alike have a similar reaction to America’s more than 30 river walks: they love the human energy but also the peace, the quiet, the escape to nature within an urban environment—even as the character of each river walk is unique. Some river walks run along major waterways like the Mississippi and Ohio; others follow narrow canals. Some reflect history going back decades, while others represent newer developments designed to revitalize a city.
America’s most well-known river walk, the San Antonio River Walk or Paseo del Rio, began as a WPA flood-control project in the 1930s and now makes a splash controlling the flood of more than five million visitors annually to its four-mile path along the San Antonio River. Cafés, specialty shops, hotels, and musical nightlife abound, but resident Bruce Martin, 53, is impressed that the natural river comes through. “It’s not a manufactured toy,” he says. “It’s a legitimate habitat with yellow-crowned night herons, barred owls, and red-eared slider turtles.”
Whether long or short, paved or wooden, in warm climates or cool ones, river walks draw neighbors and tourists with everything from picnicking and people-watching to tandem bike-riding and food truck “pods.” They’re so popular that many cities—budget cuts aside—are building multimile extensions and, not surprisingly, turning to their riverfronts for additional park space.
Carol Ross Barney, the principal designer of the Chicago Riverwalk, says, “The challenge was taking a formerly working riverfront that had fallen into disuse and making it easy to get to—a relaxing place to be and a green environment on a quieter level below the busy city.”
Jesse Blanco, 41, of Savannah, favors the “character and charm of walking among history” on his city’s mile-long River Street, with its red brick sidewalks and century-old cotton-warehouse buildings. The lack of an open-container law means visitors may legally stroll with a Rum Runner while watching tugboats, paddle-wheel riverboats, and tall-masted sailing ships ply the river.
“You hear so many animated conversations and laughing,” says Portlander Marge Lemieux, who makes this universal observation about river walks: “Everyone has fun.”
San Antonio River Walk (Paseo del Rio), San Antonio
Why It’s Cool: This granddaddy of river walks charms with four miles of cypress-lined cobble- and-flagstone paths along both sides of the narrow San Antonio River. Locals and visitors cool off on the horseshoe-shaped loop downtown, meandering past trendy shops and stopping at hot spots like Boudro’s for a prickly-pear margarita and guacamole prepared tableside.
Don’t Miss: The Museum Reach river walk section, which opened last year and stretches 1.7 miles north, passes the San Antonio Museum of Art. Landscaped with native plants and small water cascades, the route features art installations under every bridge.
Chicago Riverwalk, Chicago
Why It’s Cool: Beneath the Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower, Art Deco NBC Tower, and bling Trump Tower, a garden of hot-pink and purple flowers attracts monarch butterflies to the south bank of the Chicago River. There, two stories below street level, a mile-long walkway creates a respite from city noise. Relax in an Adirondack chair at the dock for Mercury Cruises (where the butterfly garden is), or head to O’Brien’s Riverwalk Café for cold lemonade and a strawberry-watermelon-spinach salad.
Don’t Miss: For the first 10 minutes of each hour, Centennial Fountain at the east end shoots water in a great arc across the river.
Milwaukee RiverWalk, Milwaukee
Why It’s Cool: Stretching three miles along the Milwaukee River, this wooden-plank-and-concrete bike-and-walkway passes through Old World Third Street with its cobblestoned streets and 19th-century European-style faux-half-timbered buildings. Look for such local haunts as the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, which stocks 175 state cheeses; its Cheese Bar sells beer-and-cheese flights pairing Wisconsin blue Affinée, Gruyère, sharp cheddar, and Bellavitano with local Sprecher Special Amber microbrew.
Don’t Miss: The bronze Fonz statue of the character played by Henry Winkler on Happy Days, the television series set in Milwaukee, stands just south of Wells Street.
Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, Minneapolis
Why It’s Cool: As America’s longest continuous urban public parkway, this circular 50-mile asphalt path includes nine miles along the Mississippi River. The 1.2-mile section in the Downtown Riverfront Byway District links to other pedestrian-and-bike trails—which take you to the St. Anthony Main area, where the Main Street cobblestones are as old as the city itself.
Don’t Miss: The goofy Segway Magical History Tour. After tutorials, guides lead tour-goers over Stone Arch Bridge, along the Scenic Byway, and across Boom and Nicollet islands, while dispensing history and local lore.
Bricktown, Oklahoma City
Why It’s Cool: One mile long and 30 feet wide, the garden-lined Bricktown Canal curves through a historic district of restored red brick warehouses, cafés, parks, and shops. Water-taxi captains share local history while delivering passengers to the Oklahoma Land Run Monument. This dramatic series of bronze sculptures depicts life-size horses and pioneers in covered wagons racing west to stake out homesteads.
Don’t Miss: The American Banjo Museum spotlights Oklahoma’s homegrown genre, Red Dirt Music, and features replicas of early banjos that slaves crafted plus intricately decorated instruments from the 1920s.
Three Rivers Heritage Trail, Pittsburgh
Why It’s Cool: Where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio River, 22 miles of riverside paths wind throughout the city limits—and are best explored by bike. Rent a mountain, recumbent, tandem, or surrey cycle at Golden Triangle Bike Rentals, and stop at Over the Bar Café, where vintage and art bikes hang from bicycle-themed murals on the ceiling. Try a locally brewed Pedal Pale Ale with a hamburger—Pittsburghers call them Pitts-Burgers—topped with the city’s traditional fried egg and coleslaw.
Don’t Miss: The Andy Warhol Museum honors local-boy-makes-good with more than 12,000 works of art covering seven stories.
Tom McCall Waterfront Loop, Portland, OR
Why It’s Cool: The three-mile walking-and-bicycling loop includes the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade on the east side of the Willamette River and Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the west. The Saturday Market features Portland residents selling artisanal crafts, like Kitty Baby Love’s egg-shaped kitty crayons. And at Flavour Spot, a food cart in a gourmet “pod” two blocks from the park, Dutch Tacos (pork sausage and maple spread served in a crisp waffle) are a favorite snack.
Don’t Miss: The eight-mile river loop through Springwater and Oaks Bottom wildlife refuges. You might see nesting bald eagles within city limits.
Reno Riverwalk, Reno, NV
Why It’s Cool: The formal downtown river walk follows both banks of the Truckee River for half a mile. Professional kayakers run its up-to-class-3 rapids; during summer, Tahoe Whitewater Tours gives guided inflatable-kayak float trips on the city’s churning waters. More sedentary types like to sip the prosecco-based Ring Toss—named for divorcées tossing rings into the river in this quicky-divorce town—on the patio of the aptly named Wild River Grille.
Don’t Miss: The impressive National Automobile Museum, which features a 1936 Mercedes-Benz Roadster worth more than $3 million.
River Street, Savannah
Why It’s Cool: Made of ballast stone from ships arriving from Europe 250 years ago, River Street gently curves for a mile along the south bank of the Savannah River. Stroll the historic street lined with red brick sidewalks, plazas, and 100-year-old cotton warehouses converted to funky shops and galleries while enjoying a drink to go in this open-container-friendly former pirate haven.
Don’t Miss: The irresistible aroma—and taste—of Savannah’s Candy Kitchen’s buttery pecan pralines, a traditional southern favorite.