Beyond the city: activities just outside Barcelona, Paris, Berlin
We find some of the best things to do within an hour of our favourite major cities
Just an hour from downtown Manhattan, the Bear Mountain Bridge, located in Bear Mountain State Park, New York, spans the Hudson River. Photograph: Getty Images
An hour from New York
There is no better way to cope with jet lag after landing in New York than by getting straight into the sea. Not many people realise that JFK airport is just a few kilometres from Long Island, with its famous long, sandy beaches on the Atlantic side or lagoons and luscious woodland on the north Long Island Sound side.
Most of it is accessible by Long Island Railroad, which you can connect to from the airport (mta.info/lirr). Get yourself to Freeport station, for example, and then take a shuttle bus to Jones Beach State Park (parks.ny.gov/parks/jonesbeach), although there are beaches everywhere, of course. Being an island. And long.
For some serious hiking, the nearest mountains that are only an hour north of Manhattan can be found in Bear Mountain State Park, which also merges into Harriman State Park to create a lot of hiking trails (nynjtc.org/park/harriman-bear-mountain-state-park).
State parks in the US are not to be confused with city parks in our part of the world. These are vast protected areas of forests and mountains and you need to take all the usual hiking precautions when walking there. Check out a traditional upstate lodge style hotel, Bear Mountain Inn (visitbearmountain.com) if you want to make it more than a day trip.
Heading north, take a train up the Hudson Valley on the Metro North Railroad for an hour’s journey to the tiny town of Dobbs Ferry, where you can hire a bike at Endless Trail Bikeworx (endlesstrailbw.com), just a walk from the station, and then cycle down the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. This takes you into that upstate other world of small towns, rich parkland, and finally down to Croton Park Point, a wooded peninsula and great picnic spot that juts out into the Hudson River.
An hour from Berlin
It is hard to imagine wanting to get out of Berlin as there is so much going on. However, Germans are just brilliant at enabling easy access to all things green and gorgeous. No wonder they invented the word wanderlust, which means, literally, a lust for hiking.
One of the cycling trails follows the Berlin Wall route, which starts in the city centre at Potsdamer Platz and then on into Potsdam. The excellent tourist board website brandenburg-tourism.com, gives you plenty of details of trails. Hire a bike in Berlin (berlinandbike.com) and then put it on the suburban S-Bahn train (never a problem in Germany), or go on a guided cycling tour.
Another option is to hire a bike at Potsdam main station and cycle along the River Havel cycle path, or Havel Radweg. That goes on for 300km, so you won’t run out of greenway. Seeing Potsdam from the water is more my style, pottering around on the River Havel by raft. Bring your togs for this one and join the local people diving in (huckleberrys-tour.de).
Back in Berlin, try an urban kayaking experience through this historic city, along the Landwehrkanal and the Spree River, to really escape the tourist crowds (kajakberlintours.de).
An hour from Barcelona
As the Gaudi and Gothic sites are starting to groan under the number of tourists packing into them, Barcelona authorities are finding ways to clamp down on tourist numbers. While they get their heads around that, you can easily get yours out of the city centre and into the real Catalonia that Barcelonians run to when the tourists invade.
There is an excellent network of trains and buses. Within an hour from Las Ramblas, you can be rambling or cycling in Montseny Natural Park (turisme-montseny.com). Take the train from Plaça Catalunya to Sant Martí de Centelles and then take hiking route GR5 for a glorious 5.5km route to Tagamanent. But there are nearly 30 hiking trails to choose from here.
Montserrat is one of the most well known escapes from the city, taking you into the serene world of its monastery, way up there at 1,236m, in the not so low Catalan lowlands. It is also not always serene either, particularly during religious festivals, as it is top of the pilgrim wish list. It is an ethereal spot for sure, accessible by train from Plaça d’Espanya to Montserrat-Aeri, where you pick up the cable car. If you want to spend a night up there, and enjoy the vertiginous walking trails through the mountainous magnificence of Monsterrat Natural Park from dawn until dusk, you can also stay in hostel-style accommodation at the monastery (montserratvisita.com).
Keen swimmers may also want to explore the open water swimming lanes that have been created in Barcelona and along the coast, known as Vies Braves (viesbraves.com). It’s a bit like Park Run, but in the sea, inviting swimmers of all standards to take the plunge. Founded in 2014 by passionate open water swimmer Miquel Sunyer, there are currently six Vies in five towns near Barcelona, and four in the city itself. You can even opt for the nonstop option and then swim all day, 8-10km. Although you can dip in and out, of course. Check out the website for maps and events. It’s not all about the winning. Just the swimming.
An hour from Paris
About six months after my second son was born, I was invited to a very old friend’s birthday party in Paris. We had once been neighbours in the 1st arrondissement, back in our youth, and I confess to feeling slightly cheated that she was now well ensconced in family life out in the chic suburban of St Germain-en-Laye.
Until I discovered that this is no half-baked ’burb, but home to a Château boasting garden views all the way to the Eiffel Tower, on a good day, and also the less flashy but very charming Musée Maurice Denis, with wonderful landscaping to linger in too (saintgermainenlaye-tourisme.fr). And so, I quickly forgave my friend, and thanked her for introducing me to the fact that although we can still love the beating heart of a city, there are so many other wonderful paths to take.
This discovery of life just beyond Paris has taken me back twice since then, with my kids to stay at fantastic campsites both an hour from Paris, one just outside Versailles, and the other in Rambouillet in the Yvelines département. They are both run by Huttopia (huttopia.com), and you can rent a cool canvas tent, swim in the eco pool and go walking in the nearby forests, or use it as a base to let your kids go feral one day and then, by hopping on the train, all citified and cultured the next.
Cycling in Paris also brings you into a whole other world, and there are many options. You can use the city bike Velib (velib.paris) and just follow your nose along the Seine. Or you can take the train to somewhere gorgeous such as Fontainebleau and go cycling on trails through its famous forest. Hire a bike in the town (fontainebleau-bike-tours.fr) and cycle independently, or join one of the guided tours.
Another option is to rent a bike in Paris (parisvelosympa.com/en) and follow a route such as that along the Canal de l’Ourq, starting at Parc de la Villette. After negotiating some urban terrain, you hit the Sevran Forest, also known as Parc de la Poudrerie. You can take a return RER train either at Sevran Livry or Vert Galant back to the city centre. All in all, it is about 30km, with plenty of picnic spots en route. For more ideas of cycling out of Paris, with plenty of information in English, see freewheelingfrance.com and look up their Île de France section.
And last, but not least, Paris boasts some of the most magnificent outdoor swimming pools. Many are well under the hour from the city centre, such as the Josephine Baker pool, which literally floats on the Seine (piscine-baker.fr), or the iconic Georges-Vallerey pool, built for the 1924 Olympic Games (piscine-vallerey.fr). Both have retractable roofs for when the sun comes out. Check out paris.fr/piscines for details of more outdoor swimming fun in Paris.
An hour from London
The South Downs National Park is the closest national park to London and a blissful breathing space. You can just about do it in an hour, if you get a direct train from London Victoria station to Winchester, one of the gateway towns to the park (southdowns.gov.uk).
In Winchester you can not only enjoy this historic city, but also get yourself onto the long distance South Downs Way, which cuts through the park. Take on a section such as the Winchester City to Beacon Hill national nature reserve (17.7km), come back via the fine Milbury’s Inn for a well deserved pint and call a cab back to the city (visitwinchester.co.uk).
Brighton, on the south coast, also borders the national park, and it is just under an hour from London too, if you get a direct train. Lovely swimming, shopping and supping here too, depending on what floats your Brighton boat (visitbrighton.com). You can also get shuttle buses to the national park from here, although you are stretching the ‘hour from’ concept if you do that.
For a bit of an adrenaline rush, the Lee Valley White Water Centre (gowhitewater.co.uk) is a superb spot, and one that was completely revamped for the 2012 London Olympics, as it was used for the white water events.
You can go white water rafting down the Legacy loop, do some white water kayaking, learning a few skills from some of the country’s finest instructors, or just go for a walk through the country park and the banks of the River Lee. They have a great cafe here too, with a terrace overlooking the water, so you can easily hang out here for the whole day, especially as it is just a 25-minute train journey from Liverpool Street station. If you want to stay overnight, check out the wooden cabins at the nearby youth hostel, part of the Lee Valley Country Park (yha.org.uk).
Everyone knows that it is very tough to get into Cambridge, but what many people don’t realise is that the quickest way there is by train from Kings Cross station in London, which takes 50 minutes. From here you can either explore the colleges and cathedral, or you could do what all good Cambridgians do, and punt. It is not a cheap thing to do, but this is one of the most traditional ways to enjoy the timeless waters of the Cam, and you pay by the boat, so if there are a few of you, it works out better value. (scudamores.com/punt-hire).
Or you can just walk the river, taking the 7km riverside walk to Grantchester, following in the footsteps of many a poet and scholar, and swimmer – the Grantchester Meadows being a favourite wild swimming spot of old.
See Catherine Mack’s guide to Adventures within an hour of Dublin here