The 3 Best Cities to See by Bike This Summer

Save money and the planet by touring on two wheels in Nashville, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
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Apr 29, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to and numerous national magazines.

Whether your motivation is to free your sightseeing from the stress of traffic, see a city from a new perspective, save the planet, or just save yourself from exorbitant hotel parking charges, one of the best ways to go green when traveling is to ditch the car. While that’s not possible everywhere, it’s the perfect way to experience these three cities, which have made easy-access biking a priority for visitors as well as residents.

Nashville, Tennessee

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When you think of Nashville, the first thing that probably comes to mind is music, followed by Music City’s surging food, art, and entrepreneurial DIY business scenes.

But on a recent trip to Music City, what I noticed were the omnipresent bright-red bikes and wide, easy-to-navigate bike lanes, which lured me to try out the city’s new B-cycle network. A little more than a year old, B-cycle allows you to check out a bike from any of its 29 kiosks and return it to any other. It’s cheap; a 24-hour membership is $5, with the first hour of use free and $3 for each additional hour. B-cycle is easy to use, especially if you download the service’s NashVitality app, which gives you interactive route maps complete with locations of pickup and drop-off stations. For those staying in the many hotels out by Opryland and the airport, there’s Bike the Greenway, which rents bikes and maps routes from the nearby Two Rivers trailhead, including a half-hour ride into downtown.

Either way, it’s easy to zip between the city’s key attractions, from the Country Music Hall of Fame with its popular new exhibit Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats to the Frist Center for the Arts, located in the city’s renovated art deco post office. But the real thrill of bike sharing is getting to check out Nashville’s eclectic and distinct neighborhoods, such as hipster central 12 South, foodie haven East Nashville, and up-and-coming Wedgewood-Houston.

Most bike routes are pleasantly protected, and you can navigate much of the distance via a network of trails and greenways, including the new Music City Bikeway, a 26-mile route linking east and west Nashville. There is one problem, though: Nashville has hills, and somehow they just don’t look as big from the window of the car. Still, if you’re willing to get a bit of a workout, you can get most places you want to go.

For longer stays, you can join GreenBikes, a free bike-sharing system funded by a partnership between the Nashville public health and parks and recreation departments that offers bikes for pickup in most of the city’s most popular parks.

Don’t want to venture out on your own? The “Signature City” tour from Green Fleet bike tours gets you out to explore Germantown, the Gulch, and Marathon Village, a sprawling conglomeration of brick-walled warehouses that shelter art galleries and craft businesses. Those include Corsair, a small-batch distiller, the home of Antique Archaeology, and music venue the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor, with its acclaimed Sunday brunch jam. In addition to the “Signature” tour, you can also take more traditional tours of Music Row and the downtown highlights.


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Look at any four- or five-day itinerary of must-dos in Chicago and your first reaction will be “No way.” After all, you could easily spend an entire day in the Art Institute and another exploring the Magnificent Mile. But what about Navy Pier, the Museum of Science and Industry, Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the riverfront, Lake Michigan, Lincoln Park, and the many historic sites and colorful neighborhoods? Factor in Chicago’s notorious traffic (not to mention the maze of one-way streets, El crossings, and bridges), and you’re ready to give up.

To the rescue come the Windy City’s two bike services, Divvy Bikes and Bike and Roll Chicago, both of which make sightseeing a breeze. (Pun intended.) And novices will be relieved to hear that unlike Nashville, Chicago is flat: Look down from the Navy Pier Ferris wheel or Willis Tower, and you won’t see a hill in sight. So the only thing forcing you to change gears will be the headwinds that give the Windy City its moniker.

If you plan to do most of your sightseeing by bike and want the convenience of easy lock-ups, go with Divvy; take a quick look at Divvy’s map of stations and you’ll see downtown blanketed with blue dots. Dowtown, stations are as close as a block apart; you can pick up a bike at one end of the State Street bridge and drop it off at the other if that saves you a few minutes. Divvy is a bit of a commitment, though, as its service operates via annual membership, the cheapest level of which is $75. But that still saves you money over a three-day car rental, not to mention parking fees.

If you’re only going to ride for an afternoon, traditional bike rentals are available from Bike and Roll Chicago at just $9 an hour, complete with helmet and lock. Bike and Roll also offers tours, a great way to see many of the top attractions without having to constantly pull out a map, and they’re guided by someone who knows the ropes.

Either way, it’s a great feeling to whiz past the honking backup on Lake Shore Drive. Chicago’s bike scene is only going to get better. When Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was first elected in 2011, he promised a 645-mile network of bike paths and designated lanes by 2020, which doesn’t seem altogether far-fetched based on the rapid progress so far.

Take the über-ambitious Bloomingdale Trail, the rails-to-trails project that’s in the process of transforming an out-of-use elevated railway line along Bloomingdale Avenue linking several of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Part of a park and trails system known as the 606 (after the area code), the long-awaited greenway opens June 6.

Washington, D.C.

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Summer after summer, visitors mob the capital for a peek into the workings of government and the almost endless supply of free museums and exhibits. But have you ever tried to walk from the Air and Space Museum to the Washington Monument in July? If you have, you’ll know why the breeze that comes with biking is so welcome—and why there are a host of companies, such as Bike and Roll DC and Capital City Bike Tours, offering two-wheel tours of the capital’s sights.

For those ready to head out on their own, there’s Capital Bikeshare, until recently the largest bike-sharing system in the country, with more than 300 stations extending all the way out through Arlington and Montgomery counties and now second only to New York City. A great option is the Daily Key membership; set it up before you depart and you can skip the hassle of entering information on a kiosk touch pad. Your $10 membership comes with one 24-hour access period preloaded into your system key, which you activate online. After that, anytime you want a bike you use your key to unlock one, activating another 24-hour period, at a cost of $7. Capital Bike Share also maps an array of routes on its interactive map.

Bike and Roll also has short-term rentals, complete with helmet, lock, map, and directions, a great deal at $8 an hour with a two-hour minimum. As in Chicago, Bike and Roll also offers bike tours, such as the monuments tour, which gets you conveniently close to each of the famous monoliths in record time.

For longer rides, look to Bike Washington, which maps out routes like the 18-mile ride to Mount Vernon and rails-to-trails conversions like the 13-mile Capital Crescent and the 46-mile historic Washington and Old Dominion Trail.