While I feel the excitement when opening a Lonely Planet of Rough Guide
— leafing through the pages,
envisioning yourself canvassing the night market in Marrakesh or exploring the Alhambra in Granada upon reading the little blurbs,
whipping out a marker whenever you find a highlight until the page is all yellow, —
I do think that a city is best discovered without prejudice, with just a minimum of knowledge. To me as a traveler, this is the perfect way to soak up the atmosphere and discover what a place is about beyond a list of sights and must-dos.
Ask a local
Be it a complete tour, instructions to find an ATM, or a few lunch recommendations — locals are an invaluable source of intel when it comes to discovering a place beyond the guide books.
The locals easiest met are your hosts or the staff at wherever you spend the nights. Some will have standard recommendations they give to everyone (that might be not so different from what the Lonely Planet says), some will tell you about their personal favorite spots away from the tourist areas, and some have the unique gift of customizing the advice by knowing what you are looking for.
Many (European) cities run tourist information offices that can provide maps, intel, tours, accommodation, tickets to events, and even transport. Just beware that sometimes (looking at you, Matera) random tour operators will pop a “Tourist Information” sign in their windows, but instead of providing valuable free info they will only sell their tours.
The tourist office might also have walking maps with set routes you can follow, though you might even discover such marked routes on your own. The marked path is often a great compromise between guide books and self-guided walking; it also is a great way to get into the mindset of exploring a city on your own.
Once you are a little more courageous, you can source local advice from your bar keeper, street vendors, your seat neighbor on the bus,… Get creative!
Note: If you want to research before going out, local/travel Facebook groups are a good place to solicit advice from locals.
Walk, walk, walk
Walking is the best way to make sure you see different aspects of a city. You move slow enough to observe what’s happening around you. And you do so with a level of flexibility that no other means of transport can give you.
If you really can’t walk (anymore), skip the taxi and go for public transport. The price of a single ticket often takes you along the same routes the expensive Hop-on/hop-off buses follow, and beyond those routes you see more of the city than in a cab.
You will also feel a lot closer to a place if you master the public transport — the routes, the ticket purchasing process, finding the stops,…
Switch it up
Even if you move back and forth between the same two places, you can gain new insights by simply choosing a different path. It’s amazing what you can discover this way — markets, ATMs, quiet parks, and lookouts are all places that I just happened to stumble across because I decided to amend a known route slightly.
My absolute favorite sightseeing activity is weaving in and out of smaller streets and bigger streets, turning in tune with my inner compass.
If you’ve never done it there are different ways to approach getting lost:
- Systematically: Come up with a pattern of where to turn at a crossing like “left – right – straight – right” or “follow the white car.” This way, you end up exploring streets that you might otherwise never have turned onto. And who knows what surprises they can hold…
- Along the wall: Today, I walked literally around the Old Town of Jerusalem — I started at Damascus Gate and followed the city walls, sometimes inside, sometimes outside, and occasionally even on the ramparts, until I ended up at my starting point.
- Weave in and out: Some cities lends themselves more to this technique than others — the old towns of Italien Lucca and Montenegrin Kotor, for example, are perfect for beginners. They are relatively small but big enough to spend an hour or two. Most importantly, they are surrounded by walls and therefore you are bound to notice when you are about to go too far. Just go straight from one wall, when you hit the other end, turn to the next street and go back towards your starting wall.
The key to an excellent getting lost experience is confidence. You need to feel like and exude that you are in control of where you are going. That makes it easier for you to enjoy your surroundings in detail and keeps pesky intruders at bay (like those that really, really want you to hire them as a guide). So, practice your traveler faces before attempting to get lost.
Divide and conquer
In larger cities, it can be useful to explore one part of town after the other. Old Town Dubrovnik is good for this because you have a flat bit in the middle, along the main drag with areas rising to the right and left of it, eventually hitting the surrounding wall.
Dividing and conquering can be done by literally picking different parts of town (if it’s not self-evident, by picking train stations or major squares), or by heading into different directions (North, South, East, West) from your accommodation.
Choosing concrete destinations can also help to take the edge off “getting lost”: When I’m in Berlin, I like to walk to Alexanderplatz from wherever I find myself in town. The Fernsehturm (TV tower) on Alexanderplatz, which is visible from almost anywhere in town, is my guidepost on all of these walks.
Follow the light
I’ve gotten into the habit to, at least once in every city, get up before the sun to see it rise above the horizon.
Every photographer will tell you that first light and sunrise provide some of the best natural lighting situations you could ask for. I nice side effect of seeing the city wake up is that you also get all the major sights before the crowds arrive.
The good news is that ditching the guide book doesn’t mean you’ll have to go out there all by yourself. Here’s what I always carry with me when exploring a new city/place:
- Time: I am a slow traveler. Rather than doing seven cities in a week, I’d rather spend a week in one location, so much so that upon check-in I am often greeted with: “You are staying how long?!? Why?” You don’t have to travel as slow as I do. But plan at least two nights in each city, three when it’s Prague, Paris or Beijing.
- Good walking shoes: They’re usually not cute, but they don’t have to be clubby hiking boots. You don’t want to spend half the day worrying about your feet and then another day at the hostel with your feet up when you only have three days to explore the city. My current walking shoe is a barefoot canvas shoe by Vivibarefoot.
- Local money (change): Paying with a big bill fresh from the ATM will earn you at best evil stares, worst case no falafel from the 50-cent falafel man at the corner. So make sure you have at least some coins on you.
- Maps — Google Maps: This is my go-to tool to prop up my self-confidence in big cities with a maze of alleys. Before going anywhere, I download the map. GPS tells me where I am at any given moment (as long as GPS works…), and helps me to decide where to turn next.
- Automated GPS recording: To jot down notes, I have an app called Journey (Android). One of its features is to record the GPS coordinates of where the note was taken. So I can revisit and research spots after I’ve stumbled across them. Google (via the Fit app) can record your full walk, making it even easier to remember where you’ve been.
- Water and snacks: I never leave the house without. a) Because I don’t like paying for water, and b) it’s again about staying in the right mindset to actually discover and not worry about finding water/food (though, admittedly, sometimes it’s fun to go on a treasure hunt for a particular item).