I created Bluffworks to solve one of my biggest travel problems: clothes that are versatile and durable enough for any situation a trip could throw at me. But one problem still remains: finding the best walking shoes for Europe when you’re going from hiking in the Alps to a nice dinner in a single day — as I like to do.
I’ll admit right up front: I don’t have a perfect solution (yet). But I have tried a lot of different shoes in my years of travel, and I’ve come up with a very specific list of what I want and need in a travel shoe. They must be:
- Supportive for walking and standing long periods
- Breathable, not too hot
- Stylish — typically in conflict with the above
- Not too heavy (but not so light that they lack support)
- Possibly waterproof (depending on the details of the trip)
And let me tell you: finding one pair of shoes that ticks all these boxes is tricky. If a shoe is super supportive, it tends to also be heavy and ugly. If it’s cool and stylish, it tends to be flimsy and murder on my feet. You can’t have a sports car that’s also a Mack truck. One solution might be to pack two pairs, but if you’re backpacking or cycling and have to carry everything for many miles each day… That can get tricky too. Like anything in life, you’ve got to find the balance that works for you, your personality, and your itinerary. Hopefully this list will help you make a more informed decision.
Hiking Boots and Lightweight Hikers
Pros: Great soles and stability for hiking. Sometimes waterproof (sort of).
Cons: Never look cool. Heavy and bulky.
At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got hiking boots and lightweight hikers that are awesome for serious trail hiking and strenuous walking. They have thick, solid rubber soles and good lacing to keep them on your foot. Hiking boots have what’s called a shank, a piece inside the sole for stability, and you want to look for a plastic (not metal) shank to keep them more lightweight. Lightweight hikers tend to be less heavy duty and may or may not have any shank for stability. Both come in high or low tops and many have some Goretex or other kind of waterproofing. But while they work in sporty settings, they don’t work well off the trail. They’re also super heavy compared to most of the other shoes on this list, which can be a concern for packing. Unless I’m spending most of my trip hiking the Alps, these wouldn’t be my top pick for a single pair to take.
My Pick: Palladiums
I’ve worn these lightweight hikers for many years as an option to bridge the gap between hiking boots and more stylish shoes. They come with a leather or a canvas upper, though I prefer the leather, and sturdy rubber soles. They’re kind of a mashup of a leather boot (see below) and a lightweight hiker. They’re pretty good for hiking and definitely good for walking long distances in town. And although the rubber toe and hefty tread make them a little sporty, I’ve sometimes dressed them up for more formal occasions. For me, the performance of being lightweight and supportive balances out the slightly sporty style.
Pros: Can be found with good styling and good looks. Midweight.
Cons: Depending on the boot, these can be murder on your feet.
Leather boots are popular and considered stylish here at home, but you’ll see fewer people wearing them in Europe. While you can get very nice versions with classic topstitching that make them look more stylish, many pairs look like work boots: very utilitarian. And if you go with this style, you must go for a rubber outsole; some have a leather outsole that is just murder on your feet. I find many options in this category uncomfortable for long hikes and long walks, so be sure to test yours before you take them on a trip.
Pros: Look great, lightweight.
Cons: Sometimes don’t provide enough support for hiking if you chose the wrong pair. Suede and leather can stain.
Chukkas are great in concept, but I haven’t found them to hold up in practice. Conceptually, they’re a lightweight, stylish boot that would go with any outfit and get you into pretty much any event or venue. In practice, they don’t have enough lacing or support to be comfortable on long hikes, and they’re often made of leather or suede that can stain and has to be babied. So while they look pretty great, they may not work for every situation.
I’ve recently fallen in love with Chukkas as a great balance between fashion and support. The right pair can have midweight, flexible leather and a good sole. Sorrel makes a few cool versions, as does Danner. These are the boots I’ve chosen for photo shoots and field testing this year. We found these the most attractive with our clothes, with enough performance aspects to make them a good choice for my crazy stunts (like when I borrow a horse, jump in a river, or take a ride on an antique bicycle, even on photo shoots.) They have a little bit more style than Palladiums, include full lace up for support, and good solid sole.
Three good options:
- Sorel Men’s Madson Chukka Waterproof Boot
- Sorel Men’s Madson Moc Toe Waterproof Boot
- Danner Forest Heights II Piedmont Boot
Fashion Sneakers / Sport City Shoes
Pros: Better looking than athletic shoes; more support than dress shoes.
Cons: Not enough support for serious trekking. Some styles can still be pretty goofy.
What you will see more and more of in Europe are fashion sneakers. These have some of the benefits of an athletic shoe (some have more support than others), can be very lightweight, and can be stylish. A newer addition to this category are the sport city shoes that look like a classic dress shoe on top, with a rubber outsole borrowed from an athletic shoe on the bottom. For me, I find that they don’t have enough support for hiking. If I were packing for a trip that would be exclusively city touring, I might consider a sport city shoe, but most of my trips include getting off the beaten (and paved) path, and these shoes don’t have enough support or comfort for that. Still, they might work as a second pair of shoes if your first pair was more like a light hiker or other boot.
My Pick: Cole Haan
These are a good example of the trend to have a classic dress shoe look attached to a more athletic sole. I like the wingtip look of these shoes combined with the lightweight breathability of the knit upper. Unfortunately, the sole is too flexible for my tastes and doesn’t provide enough support for a full day of walking or any kind of hiking. Still, these are a good choice if you’re spending most of your time in the city and don’t mind a more flexible sole.
Pros: Decent support and comfort for lots of walking. Lighter weight than hiking boots.
Cons: Look goofy in formal settings.
This category includes multi-sport trail runners, running shoes, and walking shoes in my mind. I’ve heard people say that the best way to get spotted as an American in Europe is to wear your athletic shoes. While I’m not sure that’s totally true, you won’t see a lot of Europeans wandering around town in their workout clothes or shoes. While athletic shoes might give you some support for lots of walking, they’re not typically enough support for me on long days. And while they are definitely lighter than hiking boots, they still have the problem of looking inappropriate in more formal settings. Walking shoes try to bridge the gap, and may be slightly more stylish than running shoes, but I don’t know anyone under the age of 65 or so who wears them. Of course, if you’re a regular runner and need your shoes to get in your daily run, more power to you.
My Picks: Allbirds
While I tend to prefer a stronger, less flexible sole, these are super popular, especially with Millennials. They are cool and very lightweight, which makes them great for packing and good in hot weather. They also look a lot more fashionable than your standard running shoes. If you can get away with it, these are a good option for travel.
Pros: Lightweight, breathable.
Cons: Not supportive enough for me, or fit for town.
Sandals don’t work for me, due to the support and overall feel. I know some people live in sandals, and women in particular can often find a great pair of sandals that can do double duty as a walking shoe and a dressier shoe. But there certainly are men who wear sandals in Europe. It also depends on what you’re planning to do on your trip. If you’re planning lots of lazy days beachcombing and enjoying the sun, sandals might be perfect for you. But I’d say probably only as a second pair if you have any other days with lots of walking.
My Pick: Crosskix
The only time I use sandal-type shoes are in sporty water situations, and then I use Crosskix. They they’re like a cross between Crocs and an athletic shoe that I can actually run in. They look very recreational if you wear them around town, but they’re great for being in and around water, work well for sports stuff, and are very lightweight and easy to pack as a second pair. Once, I went to Belize for a week with just my Crosskix and wetsuit booties; but Europe? Ehhhh. I’d be very hesitant.
For me, the hardest part of picking and packing my wardrobe is finding the best travel shoes. And as I mentioned, I haven’t found the perfect pair that meet all my criteria. But who knows? Maybe we’ll get a chance to tackle that in the future too.