More than 33 million U.S. travelers took road trips for Memorial Day 2021. While 77 percent of Americans report feeling ready to travel this year, 60 percent of those say ballooning gas and rental car prices will affect their plans.
Choosing a car-free destination is a way both to save at the pump and help save the planet. Places that prohibit, or at least greatly restrict, motorized vehicles range from the well-known (Venice, Italy, the world’s largest pedestrian zone), to the less-charted Geithoorn in the Netherlands and Holbox Island in Mexico.
A horn-free, less-hurried vacation can be more relaxing. “Traveling without a vehicle alleviates the stresses of route-finding under pressure, the headache, and expense of finding parking spots in busy city centers, and allows people to slow down and soak in a destination at walking speed,” says Paul Melhus, CEO and cofounder of ToursByLocals, which leads trips to auto-free zones, including Dubrovnik in Croatia, Governor’s Island in New York, and Hydra Island in Greece.
Here are 10 places where you can ditch your wheels and start unplugging immediately.
Inhabited since the Stone Age and just 1.4 square miles, Denmark’s Tunø is easy to explore on foot, bike, scooter, and traxas, the island’s tractor taxis. Travelers arrive via a scenic hour-long ferry from Hou (on the Odder Coast of Jutland), perhaps spotting seals and porpoises along the way.
Covered in lush green hills that rise above sandy, stony beaches, the island lures hikers and birders. The best views come at the tower of the 14th-century Tunø Church, an unusual combination of chapel and lighthouse surrounded by apple trees and blackberry bushes.
Tunø has several restaurants and a microbrewery, as well as a former dairy converted into a soothing and affordable seaside inn.
Located on Lake Huron between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, Mackinac Island has been a popular vacation spot since the late 19th century. More than 80 percent of the 3.8-square-mile island is covered by Mackinac Island State Park, with its natural trails and butterfly conservatory.
Historic buildings in the postcard-pretty downtown hold boutiques and restaurants including coffeeshop/art school the Watercolor Café and the Ice House BBQ with its expansive garden. The island’s seven confectionaries crank out 10,000 pounds of fudge a day.
The Grand Hotel, built in 1887 and home to the world’s longest front porch, just added a new BMX bike path, a miniature golf course, pickleball courts, and a greenhouse nature center.
(Explore why it’s important to preserve historic hotels.)
One of the largest contiguous car-free urban locations in the world, the 690-acre Medina of Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the best-preserved medieval town in Morocco. Its 9,400 narrow, meandering streets are open only to foot and donkey traffic. Beyond its souks—which sell food, spices, lanterns, and leather—the medina holds centuries-old palaces, mosques, fountains, and schools.
The Bab Boujloud (blue gate), is the main entrance to the old town. Dar Batha, a palace museum, has an excellent collection of local artifacts, especially textiles and embroidery, plus a garden with a mosaic patio and fountain.
Stay at one of the city’s many riads, historic mansions that have been transformed into boutique hotels. While non-Muslims are prohibited from entering most mosques, the library of the ornate Al Quaraouiyine Mosque is open to the public.
A UNESCO World Heritage site with Hellenistic roots (B.C. 323-33), this small island settlement in the Adriatic features architecture from Roman to Baroque. Located an hour west of Split—reachable by bus, taxi, or water taxi—Trogir holds a quaint, cobblestoned Old Town with pristinely preserved medieval buildings. The finest might be the 13th-century Cathedral of St. Lawrence with its 150-foot bell tower, three naves, and a stone portal featuring intricately carved nude images of Adam and Eve.
A short-but-dazzling waterfront promenade is lined with palm trees, seafood restaurants, and cafés. Local guide Dino Ivančić jokes, “I can’t keep up with them all. They are like mushrooms, popping out after the rain.” Several music festivals take place here in the summer.
For the sunny Adriatic beaches Croatia is known for, Čiovo is a quick walk over a pedestrian bridge.
A spit of land once frequented by pirates, Little Corn Island feels like a lost tropical paradise. Maybe that’s because getting here requires a flight to Great Corn Island, about 50 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, then an eight-mile boat ride onward in the Caribbean.
Although tourism is Little Corn’s biggest business, even high season is crowd-free. Walk the one-square-mile island under mango, breadfruit, and coconut trees. Or sink into a hammock on palm-shaded beaches. If you’re not daunted by heights, climb the vertical metal ladder to the top of the Little Corn Lighthouse, a lightless tower with impressive views of the island and its candy-colored sunsets.
Hiking and horseback riding paths head into the jungle and along the shoreline. The idyllic waters surrounding Little Corn can be explored via paddleboard, kayak, or Miskito, a type of primitive wooden sailboat named after the Indigenous people who created them.
A 10-minute water shuttle from the Cote d’Azur zips nature and history fans to Porquerolles, the most-visited of France’s Golden Isles. Its pristine stretches of sand, limestone cliffs, and lush greenery can be explored via hiking and biking trails that crisscross the seemingly trapped-in-time island, 80 percent of which forms Port-Cros National Park. Beaches, including secluded Notre Dame, can be reached by ferry, foot, or the many e-bikes for rent.
Tour gardens and several historic fortresses, including the 14-century Sainte-Agathe Fort. The Villa Carmignac, a Provençal farmhouse-turned-museum, fills 21,000 square feet with contemporary art.
The main village, founded in the 19th century, claims the bulk of the island’s 22 restaurants and several shops. There are also dozens of lodgings options, from boutique hotels and villas to houseboats. The blissful surrounds draw thousands of visitors a day in the summer, making spring or early fall the best time to come.
Wildlife watchers, kayakers, and hikers find crowd-free, car-free nature in California’s windswept Channel Islands National Park. Five of these eight small islands off the coast of Santa Barbara can be accessed by private plane or boat or via ferries which operate several times a week in season. The trip through the Pacific takes between one hour to four hours each way; upon arrival you’ll need your own water—and a tent if you want to stay over.
(Take this epic trail around Canada’s Prince Edward Island.)
Isolation and a unique mix of warm and cool ocean waters fuel biodiversity on both land and sea. In the depths off Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa islands, snorkelers and divers might see giant black sea bass and California moray eel amid kelp forests and sea caves. Worthwhile hiking trails include a flat walk to Water Canyon Beach on Santa Rosa Island and a grueling 16-miler on foggy, challenging-to-reach San Miguel Island, best attempted with a guide.
Birders come to the islands to spot Western gulls, Brandt’s cormorants, Scripps’s murrelets, and the only nesting population of California brown pelicans along the West Coast.
Scenic and compact, Hội An is a former colonial trading port on the Thu Bồn River in central Vietnam. Its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features 1,000 buildings dating from the 15th through 19th centuries, including shophouses and pagodas. Its most photographed spot? A 400-year-old Japanese bridge, built, some believe, to prevent the mythical Japanese monster Namazu from thrashing about and causing earthquakes.
The nights here are ambient and lantern-lit; days buzz with cruises on round, Vietnamese basket boats, cooking classes, or visits to one of Hội An’s legendary tailors, who can whip up a custom dress or suit in 48 hours.
Less than an hour’s drive southwest from Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra (the capital of a Galician province by the same name) went car-free in 1999, helped by a government program that created 1,600 free parking spaces around its perimeter.
Now travelers can traverse Pontevedra’s Old Town end-to-end in a 25-minute walk, taking in handsome stone buildings, including the Gothic-style Santa Maria Basilica and the barrel-shaped Church of the Pilgrim Virgin, who is said to guide voyagers along the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago.
(Learn why the pandemic spurred a pilgrimage travel boom.)
Pontevedra Museum showcases Celtic coins, religious iconography, and contemporary paintings. The city’s tree-lined central plaza, Plaza de la Herrería, is surrounded by restaurants and bars, most pouring the crisp white wines of the nearby Rías Baixas. After lunch, walk over the Lérez River via the Burgo Bridge, a medieval crossing built over a Roman one.
Water and wildlife are the big draws at Rottnest Island (“Rotto” to locals), a short ferry ride from Perth, amid the coral reefs and shipwrecks off Australia’s western coast. Dozens of beaches offer swimming, snorkeling, sea bikes, and other watery diversions. Glass-bottomed boat trips spotlight marine life such as bottlenose dolphins and 400 species of fish.
Rottnest (a mere seven miles by three miles) is small enough to walk in a day, but is best seen via hop-on, hop-off buses that loop around the island, or on an e-bike or Segway. Or explore hidden coves and shorebird-rich wetlands on the Wadjemup Bidi, a 27-mile network of walking trails. Keep an eye out for quokkas, native wallabies with upturned lips that some say are the happiest animal in the world.