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Embrace Urban Strolling and Become a Flaneur

As I wandered the wide sidewalk along SF’s Crissy Field, I paused to watch a guy very mysteriously stacking a series of rocks into a precarious cairn. This, after I had already waded through the throngs of morning commuters exiting the train station, peeked into the narrow alleyways on Pier 24, and marveled at the energetic intent of a Mommy strollercize class. My purpose was to walk the full length of the Embarcadero in San Francisco, observing city life up close.

That day, I walked San Francisco as a Flaneur, an urban stroller. And as a Flaneur, I prefer to experience any city up close and on foot.

What is a Flaneur?

A Flaneur is an urban stroller. Visualize the 19th century dandy in top hat and morning coat strolling the wide boulevards of Paris as he observes the urban spectacle. The term was popularized by Baudelaire whose written works explored the “overwhelming social forces” of the modern city life. He called for a new way for artists to experience the city…by flaneuring. This is not about walking a city with the intent to get somewhere particular. It’s not about seeking out a specific thing. But nor is it idleness. The Flaneur has an intent– which is to flow out into the city and experience what the city chooses to offer.  

Now, I’m not an urban dandy. I left my top hat and morning coat at the cleaners and do my urban strolling in jeans. I view the city with both my eyes and the viewfinder of my modern camera. But I’m not so different from the early Flaneurs in that I enjoy moving through the city as a spectator. 

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…”
          -Baudelaire, 1863

How Flaneuring is Different From Hiking

Much credit is due to the nature walker. We praise Thoreau for walking around his pond. We laughed with Bill Bryson as he walked in the woods and cried with Cheryl Strayed as she went Wild on the Pacific Crest Trail. Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking. Hikers are rewarded with solitude and the full force of Mother Nature’s beautiful display. 

Flaneuring will seldom offer you solitude or that fresh pine scent, but it will enrich your sense of place and force you to engage with the art of the everyday. Being a Flaneur is more about attitude than altitude. You know that you can only truly own a city when you discover it on foot.

Urban Stroll with Flaneur in Sintra Portugal

The Lure of Flaneuring

Many travelers will tell you that their preferred way of getting to know a new city is via the hop on/hop off bus. They claim that doing so gets you a grand tour in an unfamiliar city. But a Flaneur would beg to differ. The only thing that a hop on/hop off bus gets you is a grand tour of the most touristed sites of a city. Better to hit the pavement and see the city at ground level. There, you see (smell and hear) small things that the bus passes by. You spot that cute little pocket park. You get lured into the bakery for a fresh cookie. You stop and listen to the busker.

I would not have found that weird little pharmacy museum in Lisbon if I hadn’t been wandering around. Nor would I have stuffed myself in that great tapas place in London’s Soho if I hadn’t been strolling its dark alleyways. Flaneuring is a doorway to the most delightful and intriguing corners of the city. 

A Flaneur in London's Soho

“There is nothing more beautiful than getting lost in a new city. Wandering around gives you the possibility to see the real life of local people, discover unique places that you could never find in a guide book…strolling without a specific agenda is definitely more relaxing for us than sticking to the fixed plan of sightseeing.”
-from Karolina of karolinapatryk.com

5 Tips for becoming an Expert Flaneur

Flaneuring is both an art form and a form of exercise. And you can become a master Flaneur by following these 5 tips:

  • Don’t have a purpose (other than to walk around). Ditch the itinerary and list of must-see sights and just wander around. Kill at least a half day doing it.
  • Pick a residential neighborhood. If you are in NYC, skip Times Square and wander around SoHo or Dumbo in Brooklyn. If you are in SF, skip Fisherman’s Warf and stroll street art in the Mission District.
  • Don’t be brisk. Flaneuring will give you plenty of exercise, you don’t need to be in a hurry about it. Walk a bit. Stare up at a cool building. Walk a bit. Peek into that storefront. Walk a bit. Then slow down even further for some people watching.
  • Eat frequently. Replace all of those burned calories by stopping frequently for a nibble. Doing so will help you top up your energy and also give you the opportunity to nosh on some local delights.
  • Talk to people. While you are in the bakery getting that cookie, ask the baker about what’s cool in the neighborhood. They’ll tell you where to find the best coffee shop, bookstore or watering hole.

Take Baudelaire’s advice and “enter into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy”. That energy will provide you, the Flaneur, with a profoundly satisfying experience.

For further reading, wander around the world with these great walks:

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A Flaneur is an urban stroller--someone who likes to experience a city up close and on foot. Take a self-guided walking tour and discover the lure of flaneuring

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