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5 Cities with Great Urban and Outdoor Adventure

3/13/17 by Matt Wastradowski

Many of us associate the outdoors with long trips into the wilderness, little (if any) cell reception, and sleeping bags in chilly weather. And in many cities around the world, the outdoors isn’t more than a short drive from downtown—if it’s even a drive at all. Whistler offers some of the most scenic skiing in North America less than two hours from Vancouver, British Columbia, for instance, while tourists in Cape Town, South Africa, need only look south to Table Mountain National Park, which towers over the town, for breathtaking beauty and adventure. At the same time, these hotspots are full of endless opportunities for urban exploration, too, with excellent museums, shopping, and nightlife.

Here are five of your best bets for cities that beautifully blend urban and outdoor adventure. Your biggest challenge during a visit? Trying to figure out how to fit it all in.

1. Vancouver, British Columbia

Visitors traverse the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver.
Visitors traverse the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of ExOfficio

The abundance of outdoor opportunities surrounding British Columbia’s thriving seaport means there’s always something to please active-minded travelers, no matter the season. When winter hits, there’s no better destination than the ski resort town of Whistler, roughly an hour-and-a-half from town. Whistler hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the area continues to attract thousands of skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers every year. Interested in a warm-weather trip? Whistler hosts hiking trails, world-class mountain biking, ziplining, and more.

Closer to town, Capilano Suspension Bridge Park introduces visitors to the British Columbia wilderness. Beyond the thrilling, 450-foot-long suspension bridge, hikers can enjoy several suspended bridges 110 feet above the forest floor and a boardwalk that showcases the region’s rich forests.

Of course, you needn’t leave Vancouver for accessible outdoor fun. A great starting point for exploration is the 17-mile Seaside Greenway, an uninterrupted pathway along the city’s scenic waterfront. Hikers, joggers, and cyclists can enjoy Vancouver’s most breathtaking views in Stanley Park—a must-do for any visit. And for another perspective on Vancouver’s endless natural beauty, hop in a canoe or kayak for a paddling tour of local waterways.

Once you’re done for the day: Vancouver is the culinary capital of British Columbia, brimming with world-class restaurants and some of Canada’s top chefs. And if you have any energy left from a day of exploration, check out its hopping nightlife scene. Granville Street, flush with neon signs, welcomes young visitors craving nightclubs and live music, while Yaletown’s brewpubs and cocktail lounges draw more mature crowds.

2. Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta’s BeltLine is a multi-purpose trail that connects neighborhoods throughout the city, with stops at various shopping and retail areas.
    Blane Bachelor
Atlanta’s BeltLine is a multi-purpose trail that connects neighborhoods throughout the city, with stops at various shopping and retail areas. Blane Bachelor

Most outsiders don’t associate Atlanta with a thriving outdoor scene. But "The City in a Forest", as it’s sometimes known, boasts innumerable opportunities for adventure—both in and out of the city. History buffs can check out 10 local monuments, landmarks, trails, and historic sites as part of the National Park System, including the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, which is home to more than 22 miles of interpretive trails. It’s a popular spot for the local trail running scene, and on weekends, dozens of runners take to its hilly terrain.

Runners, cyclists, and hikers can work up a sweat on the Atlanta BeltLine, the largest urban revitalization effort in the city’s history. Using the old railroad corridors that once encircled Atlanta, the project will ultimately connect 45 in-town neighborhoods via a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails, modern streetcar, and parks. Currently, several sections of trail are already open and have become hugely popular among runners, cyclists, and walkers. The trails connect Atlanta landmarks like Piedmont Park and the Historic Fourth Ward Park, showing off the city’s blend of urban and natural beauty.

Outside Atlanta, the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area hosts 50 miles of wooded hiking trails, 48 miles of river, roughly seven miles of trails for cyclists, and more. In the summertime, join locals in the long-standing Atlanta tradition of "shooting the Hooch:" leisurely paddling or tubing down the river, usually with a cooler full of adult beverages.

Once you’re done for the day: Thanks in part to the BeltLine, Atlanta has experienced a remarkable urban renaissance over the last several years that has transformed many in-town neighborhoods. The historic Old Fourth Ward is a must-do for some of the city’s best new restaurants, while shopping-minded visitors can head to the swanky Buckhead neighborhood north of downtown, which has undergone a massive facelift thanks to a street revitalization project and the influx of dozens of upscale stores and eateries.

3. Christchurch, New Zealand

New Zealand is the birthplace of bungee jumping, but you can find plenty of other, less extreme ways to enjoy its famed outdoors.
New Zealand is the birthplace of bungee jumping, but you can find plenty of other, less extreme ways to enjoy its famed outdoors. Los viajes del Cangrejo

New Zealand is known as the birthplace of bungee (bungy) jumping—the first commercial bungee jumping site opened on Kawarau Bridge in 1988. But the picturesque country is a mecca for thrill-seekers of all stripes, in all seasons, especially its amazing hikes. Milford Track, known as "the finest walk in the world," is an unforgettable multi-day hike, brimming with history and stunning scenery including fiords, granite stone formations, forests, and vast lakes.

Just 90 minutes from the capital city of Christchurch, Mt. Hutt Ski Area is the region’s largest skiing and snowboarding destination, complete with a 2,240-foot vertical drop and more than a dozen trails catering to beginners and experts alike. Hikers, kayakers, and paddlers will find a lot to love in the towering peaks, emerald waterways, and fresh mountain air just outside of town. Check out Hooker Valley, Washpen Falls, and Godley Head for some of the island’s most scenic outposts.

Once you’re done for the day: Stop by the Re:START shopping center—fashioned from repurposed shipping containers—for food, clothing, gifts, and more. The Canterbury region, meanwhile, hosts art galleries, markets, museums, and year-round festivals for tourists with an eye for local culture.

4. Cape Town, South Africa

Table Mountain, one of the most iconic landmarks of Cape Town, beckons adventurous visitors with several rigorous hiking routes to its summit.
    Blane Bachelor
Table Mountain, one of the most iconic landmarks of Cape Town, beckons adventurous visitors with several rigorous hiking routes to its summit. Blane Bachelor

One of the city’s most iconic landmarks, 3,558-foot Table Mountain, the centerpiece of Table Mountain National Park, dominates the city’s skyline and entices outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world. One could spend a week exploring the flat-topped mountain without enjoying all it has to offer; the park’s many attractions include hiking (both day and overnight trips), scuba diving, trail running, mountain biking, rock climbing, abseiling, horseback riding, surfing, and paragliding.

Elsewhere, adrenaline junkies can sign up to join a kloofing trip, where a guide leads groups through gorges and into the heart of the South African wilderness. Each trip typically ends at a secluded swimming hole; along the way, an adventure may include some combination of swimming, bouldering, hiking, rappelling, and other extreme sports. The scarily named Suicide Gorge, about 56 miles from Cape Town, is among the country’s most popular kloofing destinations. And for the serious adrenaline-seekers, shark diving—in which brave souls come face-to-tooth with great whites from inside a steel cage—is another bucket-list adventure.

Once you’re done for the day: For all its connection to nature and the outdoors, the Mother City is home to world-class art galleries, museums (including the Two Oceans Aquarium), and an engaging nightlife scene. Be sure to check out the emerging neighborhoods of Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and the surrounding Foreshore. In September 2017, the highly anticipated Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which will house one of the world’s largest collections of African art, will opens its doors in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront neighborhood, a burgeoning mecca of local artists and makers. The Foreshore, meanwhile, has become a foodie haven, with some of the city’s hottest restaurants and markets. And a visit to Cape Town must include a trip to some of the area’s famed wineries, which are an easy drive from the city.

5. Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjadalur is one of Iceland’s many famed hot springs.
Reykjadalur is one of Iceland’s many famed hot springs. El Coleccionista de Instantes

You can’t separate Reykjavík from its natural beauty—or the stunning scenery surrounding it. Hikers should tackle Mount Esja, which lords over Reykjavík’s northern skyline and hosts several trails for reaching the summit (some more difficult than others). Elsewhere, a half hour out of town, Mount Keilir challenges hikers on the Reykjanes Peninsula with a steep, unforgiving climb to its summit. Those who make the trek, however, are rewarded with 360-degree views in every direction.

But there are far more adventure opportunities to choose from. Several tour operators promote whale-watching tours, mountain biking adventures, cycling tours of the Reykjavík coastline, volcano tours, countryside horseback trips, glacier tours, and more.

Looking for a restorative antidote to all that activity? Iceland is known for its calming hot springs. You’ve probably heard of the Blue Lagoon, but other worthy picks include Seljavallalaug, Laugarvatn Fontana, and Reykjadalur.

Once you’re done for the day: There’s never a dull moment in the capital city, which hosts myriad festivals, award-winning restaurants, museums, downtown shopping, a hopping nightlife scene, and more. Catch a music festival or Iceland Symphony Orchestra concert at the world-renowned Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre. Just make sure you have some wiggle room in your bank account: While Reykjavík is one of the world’s most exciting cities, it’s also one of the most expensive.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.