How do you get under a city’s skin? Without really meaning to, I’ve developed a bit of a ritual of working my way through the following 7 things that I do in every city I visit. There are always surprises and new experiences, but I find the following activities leave me with a fairly well-rounded experience of a new city.
7 Things I Do in Every City I Visit
1. Relax in parks & gardens
Brimming with native trees and flowers and often with a lake or two thrown in for good measure, parks and gardens are a beautiful reprieve from the chaos of the city. The general concept is pretty much the same the world over but local plant life keeps them a little different everywhere you go.
Spending time in parks and gardens is not just a break from the overwhelm of an urban jungle, they’re also home to markets, buskers and historic buildings and monuments, art installations and temples.
Parks and gardens are usually free, which is not only popular with my wallet but also means that they’re open to people of all walks of life, allowing for a more diverse snapshot of local citizens than if you’d stuck to certain neighbourhoods, hotels or bars. Parks are for everyone, so they become the backdrop for the routines and rituals of citydwellers, whether that’s Upper East Side trophy wives lapping the Jackie Onassis Reservoir in Central Park, Parisians working on their tan in the Jardin des Tuileries or Japanese families dressed in traditional clothes making their way to special ceremonies in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.
2. Explore neighbourhoods outside the city centre
It seems like a no brainer, but it’s easy to forget that the city centre does not reflect the character of most of the city, especially when you’re already outside of your comfort zone. I usually plan my time in a city by neighbourhood. I’ve often got a particular shop, cafe, attraction or even just a main street in mind, and I leave my plans pretty open ended so I have plenty of time just to wander the streets, get a feel for the neighourhood and stumble upon a few surprises.
Favourite Neighbourhoods: Battery Point in Hobart, Nishiazabu in Tokyo, Montparnasse in Paris and Coogee in Sydney.
3. Browse the markets
I don’t often buy, but I love to browse. Food markets are my go-to, but I can never walk away empty handed from a good antiques market.
Favourite Markets: Eat Street Markets in Brisbane, the Old Town Antiques Markets in Nice, South Melbourne Markets in Melbourne and the Tsukiji Markets in Tokyo.
4. Do something and eat somewhere super touristy
They’re popular for a reason right? While I don’t want to spend my whole stay bouncing between tourist traps, I think a city’s top tourist spots say a lot about a place. The way a city sells itself to the world gives away more than you’d think, even if locals wouldn’t be caught dead there. Seeing some of the major sights and eating a few “iconic” meals is a nice counterpoint to experiencing lesser-known
And yes, there’s always the risk it’ll be downright awful (I’m looking at about half the bars in Bourbon Street in New Orleans).
Favourite touristy spots: Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, Brunch at The Boathouse after a morning of paddling on the lake in Central Park, New York City and dinner at Gonpatchi in Tokyo.
5. Treat myself to a splurge
How splurgey I am depends on my budget at the time – my idea of a splurge has changed drastically in the last couple of years. It doesn’t need to break the bank, but I love to do something that I wouldn’t normally treat myself to at home when I’m overseas. When I was a student, a $10 foot massage on the beach in Amalfi was bliss, after weeks of walking all day every day in crappy sandals. Now? Slightly scarier times for my bank balance.
Favourite splurges: An afternoon spent on a front row beach lounge at a beach club in Nice, dinner at Balthazar and lunch at BG Restaurant in New York City, a foot massage on Amalfi Beach, cocktails that cost more than dinner for two at Library Lounge These in Tokyo and a three course meal enjoying local specialties at Magnolia in Charleston.
6. Enjoying one super local dish
It might be obvious to slurp ramen and savour sashimi in Tokyo, but what regional or even hyper-local foods could you try in a city in your own country? What’s the specialty that does the town you’re visiting proud? Double points if you’re near a wine region and there’s a local wine (or gin, whiskey or craft beer) to match your meal.
Favourite local dishes: New York slices in you know where, Tonkatsu pork at Butagumi in Tokyo, every dish we had at Magnolia in Charleston and the po’ boys, muffalettas, beignets and gumbo we had in New Orleans.
7. Soaking up a great view
There’s something about seeing a city from above. While I’m way too chicken for a helicopter tour, I do love a good observation deck, tower or even a good old fashioned mountain.
Things I’d like to do more often
And then there are the things I wish I did. I’m making a conscious effort to do more of the things on this list on my upcoming trips – stay tuned for the results!
I also wish I’d take better notes while I’m on the road. I bring a travel journal with me every time and solemnly swear that I’ll take notes each night or during the day, but time after time I come home with only one entry – rom the plane on the flight over. This one’s a bit of a work in progress.
1. Museums and galleries
I’d like to be a bit more consistent with this one.
I love how much of an impact the Beatles Museum in Liverpool had on my sister when she traveled through England last year and an exhibition on caricaturist Al Hirschfeld at the New York Historical Society inspired me to put pen to paper far more often. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum one bit, but went with my boyfriend to be a good sport (I’ve dragged him into more than my fair share of art museums). I left feeling like my mind was about to explode, as it swelled with the ideas and possibilities and stories shared at the museum.
I had plenty of time in New York to check out major and smaller museums and I’ve been to several museums across Europe. When I’m on a shorter time frame and know less about a city (case in point: Tokyo), I didn’t visit a museum because I was intimidated by the scale of the Tokyo National Museum and as for the others, I didn’t know where to start! Next time I’m in a new city, I’d like to visit at least one museum or gallery – even if it’s a small one.
Favourite Museums: Musee de Moyen Age and Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris, New Acropolis Museum in Athens, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and the Frick Collection in New York City.
2. Walking tours
A good local guide is worth their weight in gold. I’d love to do more walking tours, especially ones with a focus on architecture, history, street art or my favourite topic, food. I’ve been particularly inspired by Alex in Wanderland’s posts about street art tours she took in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as a locally owned and operated favela tour she took in Rio.
Our local guide at Ancient Ephesus in Turkey had me hanging off her every word and the guide who led me on a tour through Pompeii made me forget about the shocking back pain I was experiencing as I hobbled around the ancient Italian city.
I love history, but even so a dull guide will send me to sleep – or wandering away from the tour and getting lost. I was pretty disappointed in the guide that led our tour group through the Acropolis, the guide who took us through the Vatican and the guide who took us on a three-hour walking tour through on a bitterly frosty night in Berlin. All five of these guides were local guides, contracted by a Contiki tour to guide us through sites where Contiki guides are not allowed to operate. You win some, you lose some. I think booking my own guides will have a much better success rate!
Favourite Walking Tours: Ephesus in Turkey, Pompeii in Italy. Technically not a walking tour, but I learned so much about Charleston’s history on a carriage tour through the city. Architecture and history rolled into one! I also loved my locally guided eco tour of the Daintree Rainforest and Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas when I was in Tropical North Queensland.
3. Events: Sport, shows and festivals
I get claustrophobic in crowds and get antsy waiting for the throngs of tourists to thin at popular sites, so super popular events and festivals don’t often make it onto my list. I hate the pressure of trying to get in, get a good seat, get a drink or a snack, or a good vantage point or photo in over-crowded situations, which usually turns me off world class events entirely.
Which is kind of a shame, don’t you think?
Plus, there are plenty of events on a smaller scale which are just as memorable. Listening to jazz at Preservation Hall in New Orleans and stumbling across Charleston’s Second Sundays street party are both super memorable experiences are were both deliciously low key.
Favourite events: The Lido on the Champs-Elysee in Paris, The US Open and a Yankees vs Red Sox baseball game in New York City, listening to jazz in a standing room only concert at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, Second Sundays street party in Charleston, Phantom of the Opera on Broadway in New York City.
4. Get outta town and into nature
During a week-long trip to Tokyo, my boyfriend and I spent a day visiting Mt Fuji and the beautiful Hakone region, which included a gondola ride to the top of Mt Hakone and a cruise across the eerily beautiful Lake Ashi. We really struggled to choose just one day trip from Tokyo, as there were several beautiful natural sights outside the city. On a day trip from Paris, I explored the rolling hills and charming French provincial towns of the Champagne region. In Charleston, we took a swamp tour which had me on the edge of my seat and my jaw constantly on the floor.
It made me wish that I’d swapped the city for the nearest forest or beach town for at least a day during my two-month stay in New York City or made the effort to arrange a trip to Niagara Falls.
Even when the nearest natural beauty or charming small town isn’t as iconic as Mt Fuji or Niagara Falls, I’d like to take the opportunity to see another corner of the world more often.
Favourites Day Trips: Mt Fuji from Tokyo and the Champagne region from Paris.
What do you do when you’re in a new city?