Freewheeling round Europe's best cycling cities

Freewheeling round Europe's best cycling cities

Two wheels trump four in these easygoing, bike-friendly European destinations
Europe's best cycling cities
"Look -- I think that's Den Lille Havfrue."

While it’s simple enough to get on a plane and fly somewhere new for a weekend getaway, one of the trickiest aspects of visiting a different city is the challenge of navigating it to best effect.

Sure -- trains, buses, taxis and all the rest are useful, but it can be a nightmare piecing it all together and making the most of your time in a place. Public transport and hire cars aren’t exactly the highlights of many vacations, after all.

But there is an obvious alternative -- and it’s one that places you, the visitor firmly in control: the good, old bicycle.

Pushing a bike down tiny back streets is often the best way to see Europe’s old cities. Dedicated, cordoned-off bike lanes in many towns ensure you won’t get scythed down by irate car drivers.

And the sheer volume of locals in a lot of these cities who opt for two wheels instead of four means safety in numbers is almost guaranteed.

Plus, there’s the fact that you’ll cover way more ground.

That means you don’t need to tramp around huge city centers in inappropriate footwear before passing out by 8 p.m. and missing out on all those heavy-duty party plans you’d laid so carefully before the trip.

From England to Iceland, Europe’s top cycling cities are varied, beautiful and a joy to ride around. Here are seven of the very best.

Cambridge, England

Europe's best cycling cities"And over here, you'll find England's second best university."

If you want to fit in with the bookish types who run this ancient university town, then a bike is an absolute must-have.

More so than in any other city in the United Kingdom, cycling is the primary means of getting from A to B, as students at Cambridge’s prestigious colleges are not allowed to have cars.

The city’s hellish one-way system is offset by bike lanes galore -- ideal for rooting around the ancient streets and spying into the quadrangles of Cambridge’s academic haunts.

If you don’t fancy striking out on your own, Cambridge Bike Tours offers a range of expeditions from £20 (US$32).

The lineup features rides along the River Cam, including the favorite swimming spot of poets Lord Byron and Rupert Brooke, as well as detours to the best spot for snaps of King’s College.

And you don't get quizzed by a panel of dons before being allowed to “go down to London” at the end either.

Find out more:

Copenhagen, Denmark

Europe's best cycling citiesThat's one more of 1.2 million daily bike kilometers in Copenhagen.

While most cities grapple with the issue of getting ever-heftier inhabitants to ditch their cars, Copenhagen is in the bizarre position of having to deal with bike congestion.

This is a city that’s obsessed with riding, with the tourist board claiming a whacking 55 percent of the population pounds out a mind-boggling 1.2 million kilometers every day. Bike lanes are inescapable, and the Cycle Copenhagen mapping site plots the best way to get between sights such as the Tivoli Gardens and Rosenborg Castle.

It even lets you pick quiet routes so you can listen to tunes while riding or gives you the option to “Copenhagenize” and use only bike lanes, avoiding roads entirely.

Copenhagen’s free cycle-hire scheme is closed in 2013, but Baisikeli Bike Rental has lots of different rides, starting at just DKK 80 (US$14) a day.

Find out more:

Bruges, Belgium

Europe's best cycling citiesEmpty roads and lots of bike paths ensure swift passage.

Bruges’ stunning medieval architecture and cobbled streets will leave you impressed -- that’s for sure.

And you can anticipate that it’ll be without the nagging fear that it’s all about to go belly-up, like in award-winning comedy gangster flick “In Bruges.”

If, unlike Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, you’re not laying low after a botched hit job, then this small town is just about as perfect a destination for cycling as you’ll find in Europe.

While church-hopping can become interminably dull if you’re pounding the pavement, zipping between Bruges’ endless seats of worship is great fun, with empty roads and bike paths ensuring swift passage.

That said, the cobbles will leave your backside a touch tender when it comes to easing yourself down to a bowl of moules frites and a super-strength Belgian beer come the day’s end.

Bikes can be rented for around €12 (US$15) a day and the city’s tourism page has a comprehensive list of where to one pick up.

Find out more:

Bologna, Italy

Europe's best cycling cities"Now, where's that ice cream stand?"

Like Bruges, Bologna’s medieval architecture and ancient streets make it the perfect spot for cruising around by bike.

Being a town with a huge student population, seeing Bologna on two wheels puts you among the ranks of a large chunk of the population, which is fortunate, as you’ll be dealing with Italian motorists and their “unique” approach to driving.

Rental Bike Bologna hires bicycles starting at around €20 a day. That’s ample time to zip between the city’s vibrant food markets and beautiful porticos, before chilling at the spas of Terme Felsinee and Terme San Luca.

Best ditch the bikes after that, though, for the inevitable evening indulgence of a five-course meal and a few glasses of local red.

Find out more:

Reykjavik, Iceland

Europe's best cycling citiesIceland at the peak of summer.

Reykjavik’s population of just 120,000 means donning a bike helmet and taking in the sights on two wheels is pretty much safer than anywhere else in Europe. Here, the cars even stop to give way to you.

Of course, this cyclists’ paradise is offset by bone-chilling temperatures practically all year round.

The average daily high in July is a hardly-balmy 10-13 C. Wrap up warm, though, and you can cover every city sight in a morning.

Reykjavik Bike Tours offers a seven-kilometer ride, for ISK 4,500 (US$35), which takes two and half hours and gives a glimpse of the city’s volcanic coastline, old harbor and Catholic cathedral.

Braver souls can use the same bike-mad tour company for longer trips to the stunning blue lagoon or the so-called Golden Circle, taking in geysers and Gullfoss Golden waterfall. Just remember to bring your thermals.

Find out more:

Oslo, Norway

Europe's best cycling citiesIn Oslo, cyclists even have their own traffic lights.

The Norwegian capital, much like nearby Copenhagen, has got biking on the brain.

That means dedicated bike lanes (although be sure to stay in the right lane to avoid the ire of zippy locals not on the tourist trail) and even traffic lights solely for cyclists.

Like Copenhagen, Oslo has its own city cycle hire scheme, Oslo Bysykkel, so there’s no need to hook up with a bike-hire company or tour guide if that’s not your bag.

You’ll find over 100 spots across the city where you can pick up the '70s-style retro rides. To use one you’ll need a tourist smartcard, which can be snagged from tourist information offices, costing NOK 80 (US$14) for 24 hours.

Just don’t go thinking you can pocket the card as a souvenir. After using it to gain access to the bike scheme, you must return it to the same office where you bought it.

Find out more:

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Europe's best cycling citiesAny color you like, as long as it's ...

No roundup of European cycling hotspots would be complete without mentioning Amsterdam.

The Dutch capital has an unrivaled network of bike lanes and it’s unquestionably the best way to get around.

Best of all, the city’s as flat as a pancake, so the only time you’ll need to make any Bradley Wiggins-like effort is when you need to cross those humpbacked canal bridges.

Bike hire options are plentiful, but Bike City is a great choice. Prices start at €13.50 for half a day. Not dirt cheap, but you do get stylish Dutch-made bikes.

Every model is black too, so you don’t stand out as an obvious tourist.

Find out more:

More on CNN: 10 cycling routes to take your breath away