5 Car-Free Areas Around the World That are a Breath of Fresh Air

Don't you wish we had more of these?  
Australia's rottnest island
Rottnest Island, Australia. Photo: JTB Photo/JTB Photo Communications, Inc/Dinodia

Governments, urban designers, and transport planners around the world are pushing to create spaces that are more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, but some places made this choice a long time ago. These tucked-away sanctuaries have cocooned their environment by imposing outright bans on motor vehicles. Hop aboard their train of thought.

Matheran, India

Matheran, India. Photo: Hira Punjab/ Getty Images

Matheran, India. Photo: Hira Punjab/Getty Images

The name that loosely translates to “forest overhead,” hints at the idyllic charm of this preserved paradise 800 m above sea level. It was once a treasured getaway for British and Parsi families of colonial India. The most picturesque way to get to Matheran is aboard the century-old steam locomotive “Phulrani,” an antique narrow-gauge train that departs from the town of Neral at the base of the hill. The 21-km journey takes three hours uphill and 1.5 hours downhill. In the monsoon, when the train service is suspended, hiking up to the hill station past blooming wildflowers and milky waterfalls is highly recommended.

A ban on cars ensures that these woods and the unspoilt old-world township within can only be explored on foot, horseback, or in a hand-pulled rickshaw. Hikers are rewarded with sightings of exotic butterflies and birds and will of course encounter the now well-known and cheeky population of bonnet macaques. Besides chikki, the one souvenir every visitor leaves with is the lasting memory of soul-invigorating vistas from points like Sunset and Panorama.

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy. Photo: Federica Gentile/Getty Images

Perched on terraced cliffs on the coast of the Ligurian Sea, this is an expanse of five (“cinque” in Italian) medieval fishing villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. Many of the brightly coloured three- and four-storey stone houses that overlook the harbour here, date back to the Middle Ages, as do numerous castles and churches that dot the area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 17 years now.

Its magnificent, time-chiselled cliffs are a magnet for tourists. The town centres of Cinque Terre have been declared car-free, and the best way to explore the terrain is still on foot. Buy a Cinque Terre Card that allows you to use eco-friendly trains, and includes access to all walking trails. Follow the Sentiero Azzurro, or blue path, a five-hour pedestrian course which cuts through vineyards and lemon and olive groves, while also offering glimpses of the beautiful coast. Start at Riomaggiore and you can end your walk by soaking your tired feet in the pristine waters of Monterosso al Mare’s petite beach.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands. Photo: Christopher Hill/ Alamy/ Indiapicture

Giethoorn, Netherlands. Photo: Christopher Hill/Alamy/Indiapicture

A train journey of just 2.5 hours from Amsterdam takes you to a watery Eden—the village of Giethoorn that has a network of several shallow canals, negotiated via more than 180 storybook-pretty arched wooden bridges. For a while, there wasn’t a single road—only a couple of cycling paths—in this northern Dutch village located at the fringe of Weerribben-Wieden National Park. Giethoorn is accessed mainly by punter boats similar to Venetian gondolas earning it the sobriquet, “Venice of the Netherlands”. A cycling tour however, is the most conducive way to appreciate the 18th-century chocolate-box farmhouses that peek out from the green. The tiny private islands on this hamlet erupt with activity in the summer but quiet winter holidays include ice-skating over the frozen canals and trips to the local museum.

La Cumbrecita, Argentina

La Cumbrecita, Argentina. Photo: C2070 Rolf Haid/ Corbis Wire/ Corbis/ Imagelibrary

La Cumbrecita, Argentina. Photo: C2070 Rolf Haid/Corbis Wire/Corbis/Imagelibrary

At 1,450 metres above sea level, amidst a pine and spruce forest in the Córdoba Mountains, you’ll find a lovely alpine-style hamlet. This village sprang from an idea Helmut Cabjolsky—an employee of a German company in Buenos Aires—had to recreate the lush vistas of the fatherland in the bare, treeless Argentine landscape during the 1930s. He started out with one cottage, which is now known as Hotel La Cumbrecita. Visitors to the settlement must park their vehicles at a parking lot on the outskirts of town and proceed on foot. La Olla (Spanish for “the pot”), a pool into which the rejuve­nating waters of Río Almbach flow, is the village’s main attraction, aside from the peak of Cerro Wank, which affords gorgeous views of the Calamuchita Valley. When you’re done trekking, sit back and enjoy fondue and strudel at the restaurants in Paseo Bajo.

Rottnest Island, Australia

Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh dubbed this tiny landmass off the western coast of Australia “Rat’s Nest Island” in the 17th century. What he thought were giant rats were actually quokkas, a unique marsupial species native to this A-class nature reserve. Visitors are escorted on walking and snorkelling trips that introduce them to these foot-tall critters, and as many as 400 species of fish, several varieties of coral, and numerous exotic birds such as the red-capped dotterel and the curlew sandpiper. Sectioned into 63 beaches, the island’s soft, white sandy coast lends itself well to water sports and events, such as the Swim Thru Rottnest, a 1,600-metre race through these crystal waters held every year in early December since 1977. Eco-conscious tourists can sign up to plant seeds, monitor fauna, and assist with beach clean-ups.

Appeared as “Park It!” in the December 2014 issue.

  • Anjana is a freelance journalist and an author of children's books. Passionate about world cultures and cuisines, she also enjoys hiking and diving with her daughters.

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