As a city of islands, the waterfront here really is the heart of town and has quietly adapted over time as Stockholm evolves, providing many new and different ways for people to use it. With few traffic-heavy roads along the water, walking and bicycling become great pleasures, enabling people to discover an array of attractions all along the city’s shoreline. What really sets Stockholm apart are the promenades and esplanades that naturally draw people to public destinations on the water, such as the outstanding City Hall (where the Nobel Prizes are awarded) or the wonderful Kungstradgarden (King’s Garden). Then, when you are ready to move away from the water, another pedestrian-oriented path will appear, ready to whisk you off to a destination elsewhere in the city.
Amsterdam may be called the Venice of the North and San Antonio the Venice of the Western Hemisphere, but the real Venice is one-of-a-kind. The quintessential waterfront city, Venice’s famous canals make the streetscape into a seascape — the whole life of the city revolves around waterways. In most cities, roadways are the most problematic aspect of the urban landscape; in Venice, the ‘roadways’ are the most beautiful part. Indeed, getting lost on the footpaths of Venice is the best way to experience the city. In such a picturesque setting, where every scene leaves a lasting imprint in your memory, the challenge is to identify which ingredients can be of use to more contemporary urban environments (see How to Turn a Waterfront Around for lessons drawn from Venice and other great waterfronts).
Located on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea, Helsinki’s compact downtown is almost entirely on the waterfront. In addition to its role as a regional transit center for ferries, tourist boats, and ocean liners, the waterfront serves as a popular gathering spot with markets, parks, and an esplanade. A bike ride along its safe and tranquil paths takes you past numerous neighborhoods centered around small public spaces. These intimate community places are complemented by main destinations of a grander scale, also along the water. The best of these is the central waterfront (which tops our list of waterfront destinations, below). In a sense, all “roads” (including waterways) lead to this focal point. People can intuitively follow an intricate network of small streets and promenades to arrive there, or they can simply follow the water.
San Sebastian, Spain
Though it lacks the media buzz of its Basque country neighbor, Bilbao, San Sebastián offers, in fact, the superior waterfront. Hugging the rim of the Bay of Biscay, its beautiful promenade follows the arcing coast from one end of the city to the other. Dotted with lively public spaces that connect to an ancient street layout well-suited to pedestrian use, this waterfront feels like the center of the city.
One of the most visually stunning bays in the world, Sydney Harbor is also an amazing place to stroll, take a boat ride or just sit a spell. Locations like Circular Quay, The Rocks, and the Botanical Garden fit well with the harbor itself to create a unique waterfront atmosphere. As in Stockholm, Sydney’s waterfront destinations are best accessed by ferry. When people can get around via the water, they are apt to hang around much longer and do more things on the waterfront. The upshot is a constant hum of people having fun at a huge variety of activities, which could easily occupy someone for days on end.
Hamburg is one of Europe’s largest ports, home to an industrial waterfront located on an estuary where the Elbe flows into the North Sea. Despite its sometimes gritty character, the waterfront is accessible to people through a scenic promenade linking the shore to the downtown. Hamburg stands as an excellent example of how cities with working waterfronts can still create active public places without interfering with economic activity.