It is no accident that some of the world’s most important cities are situated riverside—historically, rivers meant travelers, intercultural and commerce. Ancient Mesopotamia built the world’s first metropolis by the Euphrates, Egyptian civilization sprang up around the Nile and Rome revolutionized the Western world from the banks of the Tiber.
In today’s age of air travel and the Internet, the globe’s great cities are no longer solely reliant on bodies of water to connect them to the world. A river’s significance is often symbolic rather than practical: In a place like Paris, the Seine went from being the city’s lifeline to its soul. A quick walk along it can include a jaunt through the former royal gardens, Les Jardins des Tuileries; a hop across the Pont Neuf, the oldest-standing bridge on the river; and a visit to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame.
In Varanasi, India, the Ganges is seen as much more than a body of water—she’s a Hindu goddess, and pilgrims arrive daily to worship on her banks and bathe. Temples line the riverbanks and majestic staircases, called ghats, descend into the river. There are dozens of ghats to see in Varanasi, but those lucky enough to stroll by the Dasaswamedh Ghat at dusk can witness worshippers setting thousands of ceramic lamps adrift, where they remain floating until long after dark.
Stateside, rivers anchor attractions and activities not to be missed, providing a compelling combination of natural beauty and cultural enlightenment all available via a pleasant stroll. Pittsburgh’s North Shore Trail, for instance—part of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and its 22 miles of walking paths along the mouth of the Ohio River—begins a few steps from the city’s Andy Warhol Museum.
Plot a route (we’ve helped with starting points and major draws along the way), slip on some comfortable shoes and head out to explore our list of unforgettable river walks. An afternoon stroll never sounded so good.