Best Cities to Vacation in That Don’t Require Renting a Car

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When planning a vacation, there’s enough to worry about without stressing over renting a car, where to park it, and whether you can afford the extra insurance. What if you simply choose a location designed for people without cars and skip the rental car altogether? You could plan on walking, rent an e-Bike, or Uber when the occasion calls for it. It will still be cheaper than renting a car. Here are some of the absolute best cities for vacationing without getting behind the wheel. 

1. Mackinac Island, MI

Mackinac Island bikers
Image Credit: Karee Blunt | Our Woven Journey.

Mackinac Island, located in Michigan’s Lake Huron, is a dream destination for those wanting a car-free experience. The entire island has banned personal vehicles since the late 19th century, embracing horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and foot travel as the primary means of transportation. As a result, visitors can revel in its pristine natural beauty, historic architecture, and charming downtown without the noise and hustle of modern vehicles. This unique policy not only preserves the island’s tranquil ambiance but also makes it one of the most environmentally friendly tourist spots in the U.S.

“We just returned from spending a few days on this beautiful island, and it definitely lives up to all the hype! It’s easy to stand back and look at the beautiful turn-of-the-century homes, see the horse-drawn carriages on the streets and people walking by and imagine what it must have been like 100 years ago. It’s quite a charming little island!” Karee Blunt, Our Woven Journey

2. San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, CA
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This picturesque West Coast city has arguably done more to allow its citizens and visitors to traverse the city without a car than any other in the U.S. Secret San Francisco rounded up nearly a dozen ways to get around carless, from busses, shuttles, historic street cars, and cable cars, to walking, biking, or renting an e-Bike. There’s also more than enough to do in the city, from visiting the iconic Golden Gate Bridge or history-rich Alcatraz Island to seeing the city’s sea lions and Lombard Street. Take a walking tour through the city’s historic neighborhoods and get to know it from street level. 

“I would definitely recommend not renting a car while on vacation in San Francisco. Street parking is hard to come by, garage parking is expensive, and smashed windows and break-ins have become a big problem in the city,” says Elise Armitage, Travel Blogger at What The Fab.

“Instead, opt for BART, which you can take from the airport to downtown, as well as along Market Street to popular areas like Union Square and the Embarcadero by the water. If you want to get to other areas in SF that aren’t along Market Street, the MUNI bus is an option, as well as plentiful Lyfts and Ubers.”

3. Fire Island, New York

Fire Island, New York
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Just off Long Island’s South Shore, about two hours from the busy streets of Manhattan is the quiet, 32-mile-long barrier island of Fire Island. There are no cars permitted on the island. Small towns are separated by high dunes and old forests, like the 40-acre Sunken Forest, one of the last maritime forests on the East Coast. This National Seashore faces the Atlantic and has long stretches of fine white sand perfect for sunbathing, surfing, fishing, boating, and watching birds. To get there, you can easily catch a ferry from Long Island. 

4. Nantucket, MA

Nantucket, MA
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Nantucket’s small cobblestone streets were not made for cars, so they are best seen on foot or by bike. Follow the island’s curvy roads, and you’ll see historic wooden homes of sea captains and buildings erected before the Civil War. Many of these buildings are now shops and galleries; one is where the island’s famous Whaling Museum is located. You can get to this beautiful former Whaling Capital of the World by taking a fast boat from Hyannis, Massachusetts, or a short flight from most of the big towns in New England. You can try out your sea legs with various water sports at the beach or bike around the pretty town and stop for ice cream, window shopping, or golf. 

5. Seattle, WA

Seattle skyline
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Seattle is a favorite city on the West Coast because it is easy to get around on foot and has a lot to do. Buses, light rail, a train, street cars, and bike sharing are all part of the public transportation system. Start your trip with a kayaking trip on Elliot Bay, then head to Pike Place to try various local foods from the food stalls and look around the craft shops. Make sure you’re at Pike Place Fish Market for the fish throwing. Outside downtown is Discovery Park, a 534-acre park with many trails for walking and biking. The Seattle Space Needle and the Seattle Aquarium are two of the most iconic sightseeing destinations in the city, and they’re easily accessible by public transportation. 

Frequent traveler Casandra Karpiak from British Columbia says, “Every year, my family travels to Seattle when the Toronto Blue Jays are in town to play the Seattle Mariners. We fly into SeaTac and take the train downtown to our hotel, so there is no need to rent a car. We take the train to the baseball stadium and spend the rest of the time walking to the areas we want to visit in the city. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to explore the city!”

6. Washington, D.C.

Washington DC and flag
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People who don’t have a car often choose to visit the nation’s capital. The fact that there are so many free things to do makes this place even more affordable, at least if you’re ready to plan your trip well. The landmarks and Smithsonian museums are clear winners, but the parks, street markets, and ethnic food in less-visited areas are just as good and cheaper.

There are all kinds of buses to Washington, D.C., from cheap ones in Chinatown to high-end ones. Trains are also a good option for many states and given how much competition there is, even flights can be cheap.

“Due to the constant traffic in Washington, DC, the Metro is my choice of transportation,” says frequent traveler Jason of My Money Chronicles. “The train lines are color-coded and marked, making it easy to use. They have trains and buses that go all over DC and the surrounding areas.”

7. New York, NY

New York, NY
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The public transportation in New York is the best in the country. Don’t worry if you don’t care for the subway. Taxis and pedal vehicles are easily found instead, especially in Central Park and Times Square. There are many “hop-on, hop-off” bus trips and places to rent bikes and scooters. Take the beautiful East River Ferry to visit New York’s biggest Chinatown in Queens or watch the fun otters at the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn. The river gives you some of the best views of New York’s famous scenery.

“New York is one of the most accessible cities to visit without renting a car,” share Sarah Borg Barthet. “The fastest, easiest and most cost effective way of getting around is to hit the subway. It will get you where you need to go without having to battle New York traffic.”

“That said, if you do want to take a car, the stereotypical New York yellow cabs can be found on every street,” Barthet continues. “If those are hard to come by, particularly in adverse weather conditions, travelers can always resort to apps like Uber to get wherever they need to go. Between any of these three options, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll need to rent a car. In fact, you’re likely to save so much more time without one!”

8. Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL
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Fort Lauderdale has more than 150 miles of usable rivers, so boats are often the best way to get around. The city’s Water Trolley is free and runs daily along the New River. People can also buy a day pass or an evening pass for the Water Taxi, which has 11 stops and lets you get on and off whenever possible. Ride the Jungle Queen Riverboat if you want a boat ride with storytelling to discover whose ships and homes you are passing. A Segway trip is another great way to get to know a place.

9. Milwaukee, WI

Milwaukee, WI
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We didn’t forget about the Midwest. Milwaukee is a great place to be in the summer if you don’t have a car. The city is small enough to use the Bublr bike share program to get around and enjoy the smooth trails along the lakeshore. You’ll also be happy to know you can get to a few craft breweries by bike or boat along the Milwaukee River.

The Milwaukee Intermodal Station is right across the river from the Harley-Davidson Museum. It is used by Amtrak, Megabus, and several regional bus lines all over the Midwest. You can also take a boat from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan, during the summer.

“I recently spent a weekend in Milwaukee with my teenage son,” Texas-based travel writer Jill Robbins says. “We stayed in the Iron Horse Hotel, which is located about six miles from the airport and about a mile from most places we wanted to explore in downtown Milwaukee. We did not rent a car but relied on using ride-shares and walking. The city also has a bike share program through Bublr if you want to explore Milwaukee on two wheels. All in all, it’s an easy city break to do without renting a car.”

10. Chicago, IL

river in Chicago
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The Windy City is another Midwestern city great for getting around without a car. You can take Amtrak from basically any nearby city for very affordable rates. Once in the city, taxis and the Metro can take you from the bustling Navy Pier to the Millennium Park Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known by locals as “The Bean.” The L train, or elevated train, and the city’s bus system, are also great, affordable ways to get from one place to another. 

“I have visited Chicago a few times as a tourist, and I love that you don’t need to rent a car to explore this fantastic city! With its extensive public transportation system (ranking second in the US), including buses and trains, getting around Chicago is a breeze. Plus, the city is incredibly pedestrian-friendly, with plenty of walkable neighborhoods and attractions. And if you’re looking for a fun and eco-friendly way to explore the city, be sure to check out Divvy bike share, which offers tons of bike rentals at stations all throughout the city.” – Bella Bucchiotti at xoxoBella

11. New Orleans, LA

horse and carriage in New Orleans
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“The Big Easy” is famous for its streetcars, but you can also use ferries, taxis, pedicabs, and ridesharing bikes to get around this southern city. In fact, it’s often faster to walk or bike places during busy times of the day. If you take Uber or a cab during Mardi Gras, expect to pay more in “surge prices.” If you want to go to swamps and other famous places outside of the city but don’t want to rent a car, tour operators like Gray Line and Cajun Encounters will set up transportation and tour packages to the places on your list.

“I visited New Orleans this Spring with a group of friends, and we didn’t feel the need to rent a car, even though there were six of us,” said Monica Fish, a frequent traveler. Even with our large group, it was easy to get a Uber to and from the airport and around town, no matter the time of day. Also, don’t overlook the four streetcar routes. They are a fun way to tour the city and see gorgeous neighborhoods like the Garden District, and a day pass is only $3 a person.”

12. Estes Park, CO

Estes Park, CO
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When you think of places with public transportation, the first thing that usually comes to mind is an urban area. But Estes Park is the reverse of that. This small vacation town has fun things for people of all ages to do, like mini-golf, off-road tours, shopping, and eating along the main street. You can leave town on one of seven free shuttles or take the overhead railway for a bird’s-eye view. You can use the plentiful public transportation to get to Rocky Mountain National Park, the biggest attraction for the town. 

13. Greenville, SC

Greenville, SC
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Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport is just a 15-minute Uber ride from downtown Greenville, which has one of the country’s most beautiful and walkable main thoroughfares. Most hotels, museums, art galleries, restaurants, and shops are within a few city blocks of downtown. You can also take one of the free trolleys that run through downtown, rent a bike, or sign up for a scenic Segway tour. 

Mikkel Woodruff of Sometimes Home shares, “If you are traveling to Greenville, SC it’s easy to get around car-free if you stay downtown. Book accommodations near the city’s main downtown attraction, called Falls Park on the Reedy, for access to great restaurants, shopping, and bars. The downtown area is very walkable or you can take advantage of the city’s free trolley with five downtown routes that runs Thursdays to Sundays.” 

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This article was produced by Our Woven Journey. Featured Image Credit: Deposit Photos.

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Karee Blunt is a nationally syndicated travel journalist, focused on discovering destinations and experiences that captivate and inspire others through her writing. She is also the founder of Our Woven Journey, a travel site focused on inspiring others to create memory-making adventures with their loved ones. Karee is passionate about encouraging others to step out of their comfort zone and live the life they dream of. She is the mother of six kids, including four through adoption, and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest. You can learn more about Karee on her about me page.