How to smellwalk your city

Stick your nose in it_strip
Stills from How to master your sense of smell – Alexandra Horowitz TED-ED

I can thank my dog, Lutz, for my interest in smellwalking. On our wanderings he diligently sticks his nose into everything. He smells deeply, ponders the information and processes it. Although we only have about 5 million smell receptor cells compared to a dog’s 300 million, using our noses to tune into the variety and richness of urban smellscapes offers a new and tantalising perspective.

I buried my nose into my cat’s belly. Her skin smelled dusky-sweet, spiked with cayenne pepper.

The following tips are distilled from smellscape gurus Victoria Henshaw and Kate McLean as well as from my own smellwalking stints.

1. Head colds are spoilers and so are olfactory snobs

There’s no point smellwalking when you have a cold. And don’t bother if the whiff of urine makes you gag. Our cities are crammed with smells – car exhaust fumes, rancid oil-soaked chips, vomit and piss; as well as steaming hot coffee, saffron rice fragrant with spices, the waft of roasting chestnuts.

Just as an appreciation of bitter notes in food is regained after cutting back sugar, our pleasure in smelling is enhanced when we embrace the spectrum.

2. Be intrepid – follow wherever your nose goes

Be Intrepid
Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen

The more varied the spaces you smell out the more variety of smells you’ll experience. If you’re a serious smell sleuth take note of sensory mapper Kate McLean’s distinction between ‘smell catching’ and ‘smell hunting’. Catching smells is a meandering way of encountering smells, while stalking them is a lot more fun. You target a smell and then pathologically track it down.

3. Don’t just sniff – stick your nose in it

Smelling doesn’t mean mean-spirited little sniffs. You need to inhale to get your smell receptors excited. McLean’s advice is: ‘If you find a dog, stick your nose into its fur, don’t just sniff around it.’ My dog was grumpy so I turned my cat upside down and buried my nose into her belly. Her skin smelled dusky-sweet, spiked with cayenne pepper.

The trick is to focus. Isolate the smell and then breathe it in, deeply.

4. Once you’ve snared a smell the challenge is to describe it

Smell is ephemeral and often tricky to pin down with words. Our experience of smell is subjective and layered with cultural associations and memories. The whiff of horse droppings in Swanston Street Melbourne evokes fresh-cut hay, transporting me back to childhood summers on my grandfather’s farm.

If a smell is too elusive for the usual descriptors a great way to extend your smell vocabulary is to read wine reviews – ‘laser-like’, ‘clinging salty tide’, ‘sweaty but attractive saddle leather-like notes’ – are some I’ve gleaned.

5. Use your other senses to help find smells

Smell Sleuth
Photo by Ahmed Saffu

In a smellwalk our nose is queen, but other senses can help alert us that interesting smells are beckoning. If you spy plumes spilling from a city dwelling, a hedgerow of Backhusia citriodora edging a city square or hear the clippity-clop of police horses doing their rounds, head over, there will be an abundance of smells to stick your nose into.

6. Don’t forget to pamper tired smell receptors

After about 45 minutes of hard work your smell receptors become fatigued. Urban smellscaper Victoria Henshaw’s tip is to stick your nose into the crook of your arm and breathe in your skin. I love this return to self as a way to refresh.

Once your smell receptors have revived you are ready to head off once more into the giddy maelstrom of smells that make us love  our cities.




3 thoughts on “How to smellwalk your city

  1. Thanks for the tip about reading wine reviews to help with describing smells. Very useful for a writer. Thanks, too, for the idea of smell-walking. What a good tool for living fully!


  2. I’ve never tried smellwalking, but living in student accommodation gives me the opportunity to find unusual scents in my very own home. In the last month alone I’ve been exposed to my roommate’s fake tan machine (a sort of biscuit/cheesy potato combo), stranger vomit (vaguely carroty), my neighbours’ dinners (often wonderfully oniony) and a candle I purchased just because it had a neat design on the side (sickly sweet, like a carnival candy apple). When I get home I’ll have a go smellwalking the halls, though I definitely won’t be sticking my nose into anyone’s spew!


  3. I love this idea! Walking to work most days this is something I can practice regularly. There is a cafe on my way that often smells of chicken schnitzel, which at 8 am is surprisingly appealing. I take a deep breath and know that I have no need to eat it because the aroma is just so satisfying. Thanks to your post I am feeling inspired to start sniffing around my streets in search of the scents of autumn.


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