Last year, I spent around 100 hours taking walks around New York City (with a few diversions in Wisconsin, Iceland, Madrid, Buffalo, and Barcelona) without plugging a destination into my brain. Walking without intent, wandering, getting lost—whatever you want to call it, is surprisingly difficult. In fact, I would go as far as saying it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in recent memory.
As humans navigating an unpredictable world, we’ve been taught to commute between Point A and Point B; the fewer stops in between, the better. Efficiency has been hard-wired into us: extra time is for filling with another intentional activity. All of my walking culminated in a book called “The Art of Flaneuring: How to Wander with Intention and Discover a Better Life” (to buy: $13; amazon.com). Within its chapters, you’ll find anecdotes from my own flaneuring sessions, tips for getting started, sidebars with friends and family on why they choose to walk in a world filled with alternatives, and the many scientific reasons behind why mindful walking is good for the mind.
If you don’t have time to read a whole book—I get it, life is busy!—I broke down a quick explainer on what flaneuring is, who inspired it, and how you can start doing it on your own.
Who Were the Original Flaneurs?
Consider that last point, our beloved (and very intentional) habit of commuting, one thing. Now imagine the complete opposite—and you have flaneuring. I will be the first to admit that the word flaneuring is my own attempt at turning the noun flaneur into an adjective, but stay with me. The word flaneur first came about in turn-of-the-century France and described a certain type of intellectual man who went on long strolls, taking in the sights and savings his observations to inspire poetry, essays, or party talk. These men were romantics, in theory, pulling the extraordinary from the mundane.
Notice how I say men, and not “women,” “people,” or the “general human population.” Calling a woman a flaneur in 1902 was not a compliment; it was the exact opposite. “Suitable” women were not known to wander, inhibitions to the wind. Luckily for everyone, that is no longer the norm. Today, anyone can be a flaneur, no matter your age, race, gender, or physical ability.
How to Flaneur
Now that you know where the word comes from, figuring out how to do it on your own terms is the next obstacle. To start is simple: take a step. It can be outside, inside a shopping mall, in an unfamiliar country, or in your own neighborhood. Set an intention. Mine is always the same: Keep your eyes up and out. If the thought of walking in an unfamiliar space sets you into a spiral of anxiety, try this mantra: no interactions are necessary. In fact, make your single goal to simply observe. Watch how the light changes as you take off on your walk. I recommend leaving the headphones at home; listen in on the chatter happening around you. Take a mental photo of the seasonal greenery surrounding you, or the lack of it. Practice deep breathing and find rhythm in your steps. Start the observations within yourself and your own physical activity and slowly look outward to your surroundings.
The Best Time and Place to Flaneur
It’s much easier to tune into that habitual commute mindset when you’re attempting to wander in a familiar place seeing it through “new eyes.” Make time for an afternoon stroll the next time you’re traveling. There’s plenty of daylight, people are still out and about, and there will also be a bar, restaurant, cafe, or shop to pop into when you find yourself struggling to keep the spontaneity alive.
One important thing to remember: If you’re visiting a new-to-you place, do your research on the neighborhoods before heading out. If there is any spot you should steer clear of, you should know about it. Flaneuring is about ditching your inhibitions for a little bit, but safety is always key. Let someone know the vicinity of where you’ll be, even if it’s just a text sent to a loved one at home.
A Flaneuring Game for Beginners
If you find it hard to stop yourself from planning your route, try this: make a rule for yourself to take a right turn every time you see someone wearing a white pair of sneakers. (You can change that specific trigger, of course.) Stick to it for 10, 15, 20 minutes and you’re likely to find yourself somewhere new.
What You Should Get Out of It
A good stroll inspires a certain feeling: it’s peacefulness, it’s fulfillment, it’s a buzz. The word falls into the same category as “hygge;” truly understanding what it is can be tough until you experience it for yourself. Some choose to journal about their observations—I find myself only able to do so if I witness something that inspires a story—and others follow up their flaneuring with meditation. And then there are those who head straight into whatever else they have to do with their day. There is no wrong way to be a flaneur and that’s the first thing you should take away from all of this. Throw out the idea or possibility of a “successful” or “failed” stroll because it doesn’t exist. If you feel more centered after flaneuring, you are on the right path.
My last piece of advice: make sure to bring a snack. There’s nothing better than munching on some trail mix, an apple, or a sandwich in front of a new view.