Midway down the precipitous stairs known somewhat endearingly as the Stone Stairs of Death, I no longer wonder why this 33-step stairwell requires a posted sign warning “Historic Steps, Use at Your Own Risk.” I do wonder, however, if there’s an easier way down (and later discover there are many, including an ADA-compliant outdoor elevator). When I safely reach the bottom and catch my breath on the cobblestone street, I’m rewarded with a front-row view of one of Georgia’s crown jewels: River Street and the adjoining Savannah Riverwalk.
Hugging a mile-long bank of the mighty Savannah River and made of ballast stone from ships arriving from Europe more than a century-and-a-half ago, historic River Street is lined in brick sidewalks flanked by cavernous old cotton warehouses that have been converted to house some 75 restaurants, bars, art galleries, antiques stores, clothing boutiques and more.
River Street in Savannah; Courtesy of Visit SavannahUnfolding from River Street, wide expanses of the red-brick Savannah Riverwalk invite visitors to stroll the waterfront, taking in scenes of old-fashioned riverboats, tall-mast sailboats and colossal container ships plying the water (it’s amazing to see these ships seemingly defy physics as they squeeze under the Talmadge Memorial Bridge). The river walk boasts fountains, sculptures and historical monuments (among them, the African American monument and the World War II monument), and local musicians entertain passersby with impromptu performances. Another favorite pastime: simply parking yourself on a bench to people-watch and absorb views of the sunset over the river.
RHYTHMS OF THE RIVER WALK
America loves its river walks, indeed, and with an estimated 3.5 million miles of rivers throughout the US, there’s no shortage of river-walk real estate. While some river walks began as flood-control projects, most serve as centerpieces of urban revitalization efforts. Sometimes, they accomplish both.
The San Antonio River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, for example, began as a Works Progress Administration flood-control project in the 1930s. Today, this 15-mile series of cobblestone and flagstone paths and footbridges skirting the San Antonio River is a world-renowned attraction. In fact, its hometown architect, the late Robert H. H. Hugman, is recognized as “the father of the river walk.”
San Antonio River Walk; Photo by Al Rendon
Some spans of the walk are nature-infused urban oases, while others bustle with activity as they connect high-rise hotels, specialty shops, sidewalk cafés, art galleries and more. The river walk also provides easy access to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, home to four historic Spanish colonial missions, as well as the legendary Alamo; together, the five missions are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Experiencing the river walk from the water is also here, with open-air barges featuring narrated sightseeing tours and boat taxis providing scenic rides to riverside hot spots.
River walks aren’t staples only of the South, of course; in the North, the world-famous Chicago Riverwalk blends a relaxing green space with iconic attractions smack-dab in the middle of the country’s third-largest city. Set against the backdrop of a curtain of skyscrapers and running along historic Wacker Drive (with access down to the river walk from street-level intersections), the one-and-a-quarter-mile walk along the south bank of the Chicago River offers diversions aplenty, from restaurants, cafés, shops and a seasonal community marketplace to galleries, museums, public art installations and children’s play structures.
While gazing at Chicago’s skyscrapers from the river walk is impressive, many visitors opt for a guided boat tour (typically operating May through October) to delve deeper into the city’s architecture and history. Notable among them is the Chicago Architecture Center’s river cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady. You can also see the sights via party boat, water taxi, kayak or motorboat rental. Hourly boat docking allows boaters to tie up at the river walk and grab lunch at an alfresco café.
Chicago Riverwalk; Photo by Ranvestel Photographic/Courtesy of Choose Chicago
The city’s other significant river-walk attractions include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, one of the country’s largest such memorials outside DC, and the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, where you can get an up-close look at the gigantic gears of this moveable bridge and ascend the five-story-tall bridge house for sweeping views. If fishing is your thing, you can drop a line from the river walk’s jetty (be sure first to get a license from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources).
MORE TO EXPLORE
If there’s a city with a river, there’s likely a picturesque river walk to delight in. We share some of our favorites throughout the country.
3 RIVER WALKS IN THE EAST
RIVERWALK PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
On a spring or summer day, you might for a moment think you’re in Venice, Italy, when you arrive at RiverWalk Providence and the adjoining Waterplace Park. Perhaps it’s the Venetian-style bridges and gondolas with gondoliers in traditional dress ferrying passengers up and down the Providence River.
RiverWalk Providence; Photo by digidreamgrafix/stock.adobe.com
Or maybe it’s the numerous quaint shops and alfresco dining spots lining the nearly mile-long cobblestone walk. Or it could be the entertaining street artists or spectacular WaterFire art installation, featuring bonfires on the water accompanied by atmospheric music (held annually, several times a month from May to November).
There’s also contemplative history, including a Memorial Park comprising a Korean War Memorial, World War I and World War II Memorials, and a Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial. But it’s likely all of these things that make this river walk a place to unwind, socialize and ponder life on the waterfront. For more information, visit goprovidence.com
WILMINGTON RIVERFRONT, DELAWARE
What was once an industrial wasteland is now a thriving riverfront with a nearly one-and-a-half-mile river walk along the Christina River, stretching from Tubman–Garrett Riverfront Park to the DuPont Environmental Education Center and trailhead of the Jack A. Markell Trail, a 7.9-mile hiking and biking trail connecting the Wilmington Riverfront to New Castle’s Battery Park.
New hotels, restaurants and shops have been popping up on the Wilmington Riverfront in recent years, and attractions ranging from a seasonal miniature golf course to a seasonal beer garden entertain visitors.
Wilmington Riverfront; Photo by Leslie Kipp
Last summer, Paradise Tiki Huts introduced cruises on the Christina River aboard a custom-built tiki boat. Public cruises (operating select days from April through October) feature music and a cash bar in addition to beautiful scenery. During special events along the riverfront, keep posted for sailings and tours of the replica tall ship the Kalmar Nyckel, known as the Swedish Mayflower.
You’ll also find the buzzy Riverfront Market, Delaware Children’s Museum and AAA Club Alliance’s headquarters. Nature lovers will enjoy the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge, one of the country’s few urban wildlife areas, and they can take in a wealth of native flora—including more than 5,000 trees and shrubs; 36,000 grasses, perennials and annuals; and 27,600 wetland plants—all along the riverfront. Visit riverfrontwilm.com for more information.
POTOMAC RIVER WATERFRONT, ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA
DC may be only eight miles up the road, but life feels a world away on the Potomac River Waterfront in Alexandria. Watch sailboats bob on the water as you dine at a riverfront café.
Browse one-of-a-kind shops, and catch impressive street performances. Stroll through lush green parks with public art installations, and see the last-surviving riverside lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Alexandria waterfront; Courtesy of Visit Alexandria
You’ll also want to stop by the iconic Torpedo Factory Art Center, which houses the country’s largest concentration of publicly accessible artists’ studios under one roof. You can embark, too, on a self-guided tour of the mile-long African American Heritage Trail, which highlights the history of the African American community in Alexandria over the past several centuries.
Of course, you may also want to get out on the water on a cruise, water taxi, kayak or paddleboard rental. Or board the replica tall ship Providence, which is commanded by a John Paul Jones reenactor and offers dock tours and seasonal sailings (April through October). Want more information? Visit visitalexandriava.com.
3 RIVER WALKS IN THE CENTRAL STATES
JOHN G. AND PHYLLIS W. SMALE RIVERFRONT PARK, CINCINNATI, OHIO
While the 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park in the Queen City provides flood mitigation and erosion control along the edge of the mighty Ohio River, this amenity-rich “destination park” also offers the community an inviting green space to stroll, dine, shop, enjoy concerts and so much more.
Bookended by the Great American Ballpark and Paul Brown Stadium, the park’s web of pedestrian pathways leads past lush gardens and tree groves, splashing fountains, climbable play structures, canopied oversize swings and art installations. All along the riverfront, you can absorb views of the historic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge as well as scenes of riverboats ferrying passengers along the river.
Swings with a view of the Ohio River at Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park; Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Parks
You can also take a spin on a classic carousel, or venture on a bike tour along the Ohio River Trail, part of which runs through the park. And, take time to pause at the Black Brigade Monument, commemorating the 700 men who built critical fortifications during the US Civil War.
For refreshments, stop by the Moerlein Lager House, which has a working brewery and both indoor and outdoor seating. Or grab snacks from one of the seasonal pushcart vendors for a picnic on the pretty Castellini Esplanade. Fore more information, visit mysmaleriverfrontpark.org.
CHATTANOOGA RIVERWALK, TENNESSEE
Chattanooga is nicknamed The Scenic City, and a tapestry of that remarkable scenery is showcased along the more than 16 miles of paved river walk skirting the southern banks of the Tennessee River, from St. Elmo to the Chickamauga Dam (with many access points in between).
Cycling is big here, with several Bike Chattanooga bike-sharing stations convenient to the river walk. Getting out on the water is also de rigueur, of course, with local outfitters renting everything from eFoil surfboards to electric paddleboards to water bikes. Want to drop a line in the river? There are a half-dozen fishing piers from which to do so.
Downtown Chattanooga’s Riverwalk offers stunning views of the Tennesee River; Photo by DenisTangneyJr/istockphoto.com
You can also peruse art galleries and shops along a small stretch of the walk in the Bluff View Art District, which is also home to a charming coffeehouse, restaurant, bakery and the two-acre Bluff View Sculpture Garden. Don’t miss the Tennessee Aquarium, an ideal launching point for exploring the river walk. Or begin your walk with lunch at The Boathouse and a visit to the Hunter Museum of American Art, which also features an outdoor sculpture garden.
And if you get to the end of the river walk near the Chickamauga Dam and want to explore more, you’re in luck: the walk connects with the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway for another nine miles of attractive paths. Got to visitchattanooga.com for more information.
WATERFRONT PARK, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
What was an aging industrial landscape a few decades ago has become an 85-acre urban oasis along the Ohio River—with a 22-acre expansion in the planning. With a paved river walk, sprawling lawns, playgrounds, art installations, seasonal concession stands and a performance stage for special events, Louisville’s Waterfront Park is a popular community gathering spot. It’s also an excellent place to get active both on land and on water. Bring your bike, or rent a surrey, e-bike, tandem bike or standard bike from Wheel Fun Rentals (open April to September or October, weather permitting) to cruise the bike pathways.
Louisville, Kentucky’s Waterfront Park with the illuminated Big Four Bridge in the foreground; Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism
Adjacent to the park is the iconic 1895 Big Four Bridge, which once functioned as a railroad truss bridge, connecting Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana. Now open to pedestrians and bicyclists, the six-span bridge is set aglow with colorful LED lights nightly from dusk to 1 a.m. Visit the Vietnam Memorial at the base of the bridge. And, on select weekends, stop by Comfy Cow Ice Cream, which sets up shop by the bridge.
For some R & R on the water, take a sightseeing cruise on the Belle of Louisville, a century-old steamboat and National Historic Landmark, or the Belle’s sister riverboat, the Mary M. Miller. Two boat docks for your personal watercraft are also available, as are kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals from local outfitters. Along with great photo ops of the river scenery, be sure to get a snapshot with the 12-foot-tall sculpture of Abraham Lincoln overlooking the river, which pays homage to the 16th president’s Kentucky roots. Want more information? Visit ourwaterfront.org.
3 RIVER WALKS IN THE GREAT PLAINS
BOATHHOUSE DISTRICT AND BRICKTOWN ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT, OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
The Boathouse District along the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City features some 13 miles of paved trails for running, walking, hiking and biking as well as water activities, including kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and rowing on the river. Unique to OKC, the RIVERSPORT Rapids riverside white-water rafting and kayaking facility offers fun for the whole family as well as provides a venue for athletic training; in fact, it’s the official US Olympic and Paralympic Training Site for rowing and canoeing/kayaking. RIVERSPORT Rapids also features the 80-foot-tall SandRidge Sky Trail climbing course and the SandRidge Sky Zip, which whisks you across the Oklahoma River and back on a 700-foot zip line.
Oklahoma City's Bricktown
As a bonus, neighboring Bricktown, a former warehouse district set on a mile-long canal, brims with restaurants, bars, art galleries, shops and fun-filled attractions—including a banjo museum as well as a ballpark, home to the Oklahoma City Dodgers. Here, you can stroll the charming canal walk or take in the scenery on a 40-minute narrated water taxi ride that cruises from the eastern edge of downtown to the Oklahoma River. Learn more at visitokc.com/districts/boathouse-district and/or visitokc.com/districts/bricktown.
ARKANSAS RIVER WALK, WICHITA, KANSAS
Some 192 miles of the Arkansas River is designated as a National Water Trail, and that includes the waters that run through downtown Wichita. Ply the river on a kayak, pedal boat or paddleboard, or walk, run or bike the several miles of paved river walk that wind along the riverbanks.
Other must-do’s include visits to the five Museums on the River: Botanica Wichita, home to four gardens and a horticultural library; Exploration Place, with a special focus on aviation, Kansas geography, and math and science; the Mid-America All-Indian Museum, showcasing American Indian artifacts, artwork, gifts and more; the Old Cowtown Museum, which transports visitors back in time to 1865 Wichita; and the Wichita Art Museum, housing some 10,000 works with an emphasis on American art.
Wichita Veterans Memorial Park with sculpture, Keeper of the Plains, in the background; Photo courtesy of Visit Wichita
Also, be sure to check out the Wichita Veterans Memorial Park with 17 memorials representing six wars and every branch of the military. And, you can’t miss the 44-foot-tall, five-ton steel sculpture Keeper of the Plains, which stands sentry on a 30-foot pedestal at the convergence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers and presents a spectacular Ring of Fire firepot lighting nightly. The sculpture was donated to the city in 1974 by Native American artist Blackbear Bosin.
Marking its 50th year in 2022, Wichita Riverfest—this year, June 3 to 11—will celebrate the natural and cultural treasures of the river with music concerts, a fireworks show, a downtown parade, kayak and paddleboard tours, a food fair and more. Find more to do at visitwichita.com/things-to-do/uniquely-wichita.
GRAND ROUNDS, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
The downtown river walk area in Minneapolis showcases more than two miles of paved trails flanking both sides of the mighty Mississippi. (The parkway that parallels the river walk is part of the 51-mile-loop Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, which is the country’s only scenic byway nestled completely in an urban setting.)
Along the river walk, admire views of the historic Stone Arch Bridge, a former railroad bridge and top photo op. (For an unparalleled view of the skyline, head to the east side of the bridge.) Another must-see is Saint Anthony Falls, the Mississippi River’s only naturally occurring falls, which once served as a key energy source for the downtown flour mills and helped make the city the flour milling capital of the world for a half-century.
Stone Arch Bridge and Minneapolis skyline; Photo by Dan Anderson/Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis
With easy access from the river walk, you can visit Fort Snelling, which details more than two centuries of history as a fort and more than 10,000 years of history of human habitation on the site. You can also access the Mill City Museum, showcasing the role of the flour milling industry in the city’s early years, and Guthrie Theater, celebrating its 60th year, which presents performances year-round. There are parks and restaurants to enjoy, too.
You can also take to the river on a water taxi or a kayak, with rentals available through a first-of-its-kind paddle-share program on Boom Island (which, despite its name, is not an island). Be adventurous and learn more at minneapolis.org/things-to-do/nature-outdoors/rivers.