Our short-term rental in Coimbra, Portugal, looked so promising on the Airbnb site, with its pretty views and not one but two balconies. The host even supplied breakfast! But after arriving, we realized we were right above a narrow street paved with cobblestones, which amplified the clackety sound of traffic. Worse, the next morning we woke to the harsh clang of a jackhammer. “Ah, the merry sound of construction,” sighed my ex-engineer husband.
Sound and noise are technically the same — both are vibrations in the air or in water that we discern with our ears. The difference is perception. Sound is neutral — whatever we happen to hear — whereas noise is what we don’t want to hear. I love the sound of rain pattering on the roof and the banter of birds, but the groan of motor traffic and construction machinery are unpleasant noises.
I’ve lived in some of North America’s most interesting cities, including New Orleans; Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle; and Boston. But as I get older, I’m drawn to quieter places because I react more to noise. It turns out I’m not alone — a Canadian study found that many people become more sensitive to noise as they age.
The world is getting louder wherever we are, and it’s harder to escape noise, even in places like pristine wilderness, where the drone of airplanes high overhead can disturb the very tranquility we hope to find. Unlike litter or graffiti, noise is invisible and leaves no trace, so it’s easy to minimize.
The good news is that low-sound environments do exist if you know where to look. Here’s my list of favorite quiet environments to seek out while traveling.
The public library is one of the best places in any community to find not only quiet but comfortable seating for reading, writing, or daydreaming. Also keep an eye out for branch libraries, state libraries, children’s libraries, and university libraries. Many are not only pleasing to the ear but to the eye. A recent issue of Town & Country magazine featured an article called “The 50 Best Libraries in the United States” that highlights one great library per state.
2. The Outdoors
Unless you’re walking along on a busy, wide avenue, your chances of finding quiet are better outdoors than in. Most towns and cities contain parks of different sizes, from tiny pocket parks to huge ones like San Diego’s Balboa Park, Vancouver’s Stanley Park, and New York’s Central Park.
Quiet Parks international (QPI), a nonprofit whose mission is “to save quiet for the benefit of all life,” gives awards to wilderness, urban, and marine environments that meet their qualifications, including Taiwan’s Yangmingshan National Park, London’s Hampstead Heath, several parks in Stockholm, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In addition, QPI has located more than 250 spots around the world that have the potential to be Designated Quiet Places, among them The Rambles, a woodland area in New York City’s Central Park, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gordon Hempton, the founder of QPI, considers the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park one of the quietest places in the U.S.
When you’re outside, look for water. Antonella Radicchi, a soundscape scientist and architect at the Technical University of Berlin, found that quiet areas tend to be located along waterways like rivers and canals.
You don’t have to subscribe to the faith of a church to enjoy its serene atmosphere. I love to walk around a church, inhale the musty smell, and sit on a pew, admiring the stained glass windows and how the colors refract on the walls. The only obstacle is that most churches in the U.S. are closed except during hours of worship, so you’ll have better luck abroad.
4. Hotel Lobbies
In large hotels, you can often find comfortable chairs in the lounge, where you can relax and leisurely people watch. There’s no rule against sitting there — just walk in, take a seat, and act like you belong. You may find company there. According to The New York Times, some hotels are encouraging people to use their lobbies as working spaces, so you may see people using their laptops.
If you’re seeking quiet, you need to pick your museum, because the famous ones tend to attract crowds and tour groups, often led by a guide talking loud enough to be heard by the group. I have found more success with smaller museums, such as the Frick Collection in New York City, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and my favorite lesser-known museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Museum restaurants are good bets, too.
6. Japanese Tea Gardens, Arboretums, And Botanical Gardens
There are over 200 Japanese tea gardens in the U.S. With rock sculptures, waterfalls, graceful bridges, paving stones, koi ponds, and lanterns, these aesthetic gardens exude a sense of calm and silence. Some offer ceremonial tea at scheduled times during the month. You can find Japanese gardens all over the country, from Tampa and San Antonio to Seattle and Portland.
Botanical gardens and arboretums are other sanctuaries of quiet. One of the largest is Kew Gardens, outside London, home to the world’s largest collection of living plants. If you happen to be visiting British Columbia, spend an afternoon at the luscious Butchart Gardens, located near British Columbia’s capital, Victoria, on Vancouver Island. The Botanical Art And Artists website includes a partial list of gardens around the U.S., but there are hundreds more.
7. University Campuses
A college campus is like a mini-town, only better — complete with small squares, quads, courtyards, historic, ivy-covered buildings, passageways, arches, ponds, viewpoints, and walking trails.
Perhaps because reading is a quiet activity, bookstores tend to be calm, unhurried, and hushed, and many of them have comfortable chairs for thumbing through books and cafes attached. The town Hay-on-Wye in Wales, famous as a center for antiquarian and secondhand bookshops, has inspired other book towns all over the world, which you can read about here.
9. Steam Baths, Saunas, And Bathhouses
Originating from different cultures, like Japanese sentos, Finnish saunas, and Turkish hammams, bathhouses offer not only quiet but also sensory body pleasure. For instance, when I went to Kabuki Springs in San Francisco’s Japantown, I spent two blissful hours soaking and sweating in different heated pools and saunas. You can find bathhouses in different parts of the U.S. as well as in Berlin, Budapest, Reykjavik, and Istanbul. If you’re modest, be prepared! Many of these places are clothing-optional.
Good luck finding a quiet restaurant! Restaurants are noisier than they used to be, mainly because of design changes. However, you can go early before a restaurant gets crowded, request a quiet table, and ask for the music to be turned down. Download the app SoundPrint, called “the Yelp of quiet restaurants,” to find a quieter place to eat.
Cemeteries are universally quiet, and many in the U.S. are both historic and beautiful. The tombstones in Savannah’s romantic Bonaventure Cemetery, for example, are enshrouded in Spanish moss. Wherever we are, my husband and I like to check out the town cemetery, read the historical markers, and sometimes enjoy a picnic among the departed.
12. Areas Within Airports
With the constant barrage of TSA announcements, airports are hardly noise-free. Even so, you can usually find oases of quiet. Most hubs now offer an interfaith chapel where you can sit or kneel. Others offer yoga studios and outdoor areas. And airport lounges are much calmer than the rest of the airport. If you don’t want to spring for an annual membership, you can often find a one-day pass on eBay.
Additional Tips For Finding Quiet While Traveling
Besides seeking out locations, I find quiet by choosing my timing. The same place at a different hour (early in the morning, especially) can be much calmer.
Speaking up helps, too. Just before the pandemic, traveling through the San Francisco Airport, I was so annoyed by the unending, intrusive announcements that I wrote a complaint on their site, only to receive a reply from Guest Services soon after, agreeing with me. Since then, the airport has instituted a Fly Quiet Program, eliminating over 90 minutes of announcements each day.
Finally, I adjust my attitude. For example, I notice that my reaction to noise depends a lot on the context. Towards the end of a hike, when I’m tired and ready to stop, the sound of motor traffic — a noise that usually grates on me — is very welcome. I’m almost there!
One of the few things I miss about the pandemic was how quiet life was. But that was not a natural state, and in fact, pure quiet isn’t natural, either. There is no such thing as complete silence, unless you’re in outer space, and I’m not planning to travel there any time soon. So I remind myself that the churning, the gurgling, the crackling, the buzzing are all signs of life being lived, and I too am part of the symphony of sound.