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Slow cities: where and how to experience slow travel in the city


The concept of slow travel has been steadily moving its way onto the scene in recent years. Whether prompted by the Covid pandemic that forced us into our homes and made us yearn for a connection with our fellow humans, or as a response to the climate crisis, we’re taking a more mindful approach to our holidays. We may not travel as often as before but when we do, we seek out immersive experiences, personalised itineraries, eco-transport, and encounters that take us to the heart of a culture, people and place. 

But this approach tends to be associated with countryside escapes, remote areas and off-the-beaten-track locations, not bustling cities. When we think of cities, chances are it’s for short-hop breaks, jetting in, ticking off a list of ‘must-sees’ and jetting out again. To many people, the fast pace of city life just doesn’t lend itself to slow travel. Yet the ideas behind slow travel can be just as easily applied to many cities across the world, whether choosing those with eco-credentials, thriving cafe cultures, community-led experiences, or museums and galleries to be meditatively meandered through.

With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at a selection of ‘slow cities’ where you can slip into a lower gear and enjoy a more meaningful city break with the help of our local experts. So make a cup of tea, put your feet up, and read on to discover how you can travel slowly in cities across the world. 

Meander through Madrid

As Spain’s capital city, Madrid may not be the first place you consider as a contender for a slow city. But its laid-back living, cafe culture, 200 parks and gardens, and eco-friendly transport tick a lot of boxes. From solar-powered boats to walking and biking tours, the city’s sights can be explored without leaving a carbon footprint. Take a tour with a local guide on an electric bicycle to get your bearings and you’ll then be able to explore Madrid further, watching the world go by over chocolate con churros at a pavement cafe and strolling around the historic, cobbled streets of La Latina or the bohemian Malasaña district to live like a local. In a country known for its dining culture, one of the best ways to truly understand Madrid is to eat – do as the locals do and head to a rooftop bar for sunset before taking your time over tapas, sharing dishes and conversation as the evening hours tick by. 

Madrid’s sights are plentiful and you can spend many hours strolling past great works of art by Goya, Velázquez, Dalí and Picasso in the Museo del Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía. Intersperse these richly cultural encounters with a walk around one of the hundreds of parks, or combine culture and nature with a day at El Retiro, the first urban landscape in Europe to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site. This vast park is home to a rowing lake, the Glass Palace, sculptures, rose gardens, and a Mexican conifer believed to be Madrid’s oldest tree. 

Side street in Madrid with beautiful orange building at the end

Ponder the meaning of life in Pondicherry

Indian cities are perhaps better known for their chaotic pace of life, but take your time and you’ll discover endless opportunities to become enveloped in the fabric of the city. As a more gentle introduction to city living in India, why not explore the tree-lined boulevards and French heritage of Pondicherry? This southern city has chilled-out seaside vibes aplenty with its long promenade – perfect for meditative evening meanders and soul-filling views of the Indian Ocean – while bougainvillea-draped boutique hotels and courtyard cafes catch the eye and invite you in for chai.

Pondicherry is also home to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and taking the time to experience the serenity of the spiritual community offers an immersive encounter with the way of life, beliefs, culture, and work of its members. If time allows, spend a couple of days at the nearby Auroville, an experimental town dedicated to the vision of Sri Aurobindo. At the heart of the town is the Matrimandir, a golden orb where visitors can sit in silent meditation and reflection. Hire a bike and cycle around the town, stopping to sample slow food and organic vegetarian dishes at one of the eateries and chat with people from around the world who’ve made Auroville their home. 

peaceful tree-lined road with buildings and a man on a bike

Explore the great outdoors of Vancouver

Canada’s third-largest city, Vancouver boasts serious green credentials that make slow travel around the city a breeze. Over 90% of its residents live within a five-minute walk of a green space, which isn’t surprising when you realise there are over 230 municipal local parks in the city. Couple that with an enviable location between mountains and ocean, and you have a vibrant, buzzing city where the great outdoors beckons at every turn. Hop on a bike and you have over 279 miles of cycle trails at your disposal, including Stanley Park: 1,000 acres of forested park with a six-mile seawall bringing you to beaches, cultural landmarks, cafes and stunning ocean views. 

If all that cycling has worked up an appetite, Vancouver’s food scene is a vibrant, multicultural delight where street food trucks, farmers’ markets and craft breweries offer a tantalising feast. Food can be a way into another culture and lifestyle, and Vancouver’s cultural diversity plays out in its cuisines. Taste your way through its oldest district as you stroll the cobbled streets of Gastown and wander into Chinatown, where pockets of calm can be found in the traditional gardens amongst the bustle of the lively streets and eateries. 

view of the Lionsgate Bridge in Vancouver with the city skyline and forests in the background

Unpeel layers of history and culture in Hoi An

With cars banned in Hoi An’s old quarter, the city forces you to slow down. Cycling or walking brings you closer to the people and the places you pass, allowing you to see and experience far more than you would in a car. And there’s plenty to see and experience in Hoi An. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a bustling trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, and walking through the maze of merchant’s houses, pagodas and congregation halls allows you to slowly peel back the layers of the many nationalities that lived and traded here, including Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese. 

As a key stop on the Silk Route, Hoi An was also home to a wealth of crafts – and while many have long since faded away, you’ll find plenty to explore as you wander. Have a suit made by a local tailor – you’ll have a few days before you can collect it, which is the perfect excuse to slow down and spend a few days in the area. Book a craft class at Reaching Out, a social enterprise with workshops where visitors can watch the artisans display their skills in metalworking, lacquer-making and papercraft. From the ancient trades of the Silk Route to the local cottage industries of today; just outside the city, the rice paddies and farmland that surround Hoi An are home to thriving workshops where you can join villagers in making rice crackers, swap stories with local families, and become immersed in everyday life. 

lady riding a bike along a quiet lane with flowers overhead

Soak in the Caribbean soul of Cartagena

Colombia’s vibrant coastal city, Cartagena, is a place to press pause and slip into a soulful Caribbean way of life. White-sand beaches and sparkling waters are within easy reach, while a boat trip to the Rosario Islands offers tranquil kayaking through turquoise waters, rainbows of tropical fish, and the electric-blue phosphorescent plankton of Laguna Encantada. 

But you don’t have to leave the city walls to experience Cartagena in slow motion. Slow travel is built into the city’s culture and the best way to enjoy it is by joining the locals on a paseo, a slow afternoon walk that epitomises the languid pace of this grand, historic city. Take a meditative stroll through the labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways that wind around flamboyantly-coloured buildings, before heading to a cafe on the ramparts for the evening sunset.

After slipping into a slower gear on a paseo, take the time to explore the heritage of the city through its food and drink. Head to a local bar in the Getsemani district for a rum tasting and to discover the history of the spirit, then learn how to make ceviche in a cooking class before sitting down to eat and share the fruits of your labour. 

covered markets in yellow arched sidewalk

Practise mindfulness in Bhutan

The remote mountain kingdom of Bhutan could have invented the concept of slow travel. Visitors to the country are limited and a Sustainable Development Fee reduces tourist numbers even further. But with this comes the benefit of space, peace and time which feeds into the country’s guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Combine this with tranquil Buddhist monasteries and pristine Himalayan landscapes, and you have the perfect conditions for a mindful, meditative trip.

The former capital city, Punakha, sits in a fertile valley of orange groves and rice paddies at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu rivers. Take a gentle rafting trip to soak in this natural beauty from the water, become immersed in the beautiful serenity of the Punakha Dzong, and take a walk across rice fields to the eye-opening murals of the 15th-century fertility temple of Chimi Lhakhang. Whether meditating to the melodic chants of evening prayers at a Buddhist monastery or practising the national sport of archery, Bhutan invites visitors into the heart of its culture. 

temple in Punakha beside the river

Make it happen

Using their local knowledge and community ties, our local experts can create meaningful trips built around cultural encounters, immersive experiences and sustainable travel – get in touch with them now to plan your next break.

  1. Madrid, Spain
  2. Pondicherry, India
  3. Vancouver, Canada
  4. Hoi An, Vietnam
  5. Cartagena, Colombia
  6. Punakha, Bhutan

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