Exploring a new city takes time, dedication, patience and lots of organization. Since we started traveling on our own, Michelle and I have planned every journey away from NYC by ourselves. No travel agency, planner or booking agent involved at all. Just us, our laptops and a few long days of stress, screams, fights, and finally, relief. Every time we’re thinking of a new place to go, we don’t only think of the usual spots and ideas to work our way around town. We try and think as outside of the box as we can. So here is some advice for our travelers turned planners who are doing things the hard way — on their own. Instead of going through the usual routes and roads when you arrive at your next destination, take a more unconventional one. Skip those lame tour buses and ditch those organized travel group thoughts that you might consider out of laziness or frustration. And consider these alternative ways of exploring a city the next time you’ve been caught with the bug.
1. Book A Walking Tour
Walking tours are a great route for any and every traveler exploring a new city. Being so accustomed to taking public transit in New York here at home, I forget that while most cities outside my own are comparably smaller, some with great public transport systems of their own, cities can be completely walkable too. The journey of discovering the secret gems and top tourist attractions just takes a little bit longer to get to by walking. That being said, if you’re a fan of taking your time to take everything in, like we am, then take advantage of these types of tours. Most cities have companies, organizations, hotels or hostels that specialize in walking tours specifically for that city, adding lots of further information and history that you may not have had a chance to know about or research had you done the tour separately. It’s also a great way to meet new people and connect with the culture better. Most times these tours take their time in explaining but don’t necessarily have people go inside museums or pay to get to the top of a tower, for example. But the best part about them is that you’re gaining knowledge and for free!
2. Start Cycling, Boating, Skating, and Beyond
So if you’re not a huge fan of walking, no pressure. Another cool way to explore a new place is by various modes of transportation outside the usual bus, train and tram systems all over the world. Cycling is HUGE in many cities in Europe as well as in the countryside of smaller cities or vacation getaways. I once rented a bike and cycled all around the Hamptons in Long Island, New York with friends and was able to take in the scenery, houses, and of course, the beach, with a different perspective. Boating and ferry rides are also unique options, if you know you don’t get seasick, and so is skating on the piers, bridges and walkways that connect the streets of these places together. Not only are these routes less traveled sometimes, but they allow you to be active during your travels, too. It’s exercising abroad without you even realizing.
3. Use Mobile or Online Apps
I know what you’re thinking: if I’m in a new city, why the hell would I be using my phone downloading apps? Trust me on this one. Forget Facebook and Instagram for a second and think of apps like Meetup (for the social butterflies), Runkeeper (for the athletes), CouchSurfing (for the spontaneous) or a very popular one I’ve since come across but have yet to use, GeoCaching (for the inner geek in us all). I discovered this in Poland when a Spanish family took me in and explained what it was all about. There are tons of apps built for travelers looking for friends, dinner recommendations, even some scavenger hunt fun. What’s also cool about them is that you can find people who are like-minded travelers like you and be able to engage with them in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Of course, there are limits and boundaries to using these apps, including safety, but use your travel intuition. You’d be surprised at who you can meet, what you can do and where you can stay the next time you’re back in said place.
4. Stay Up All Night
Another alternative that may seem strange at first read — staying up all night means having to sacrifice some hours of exploration during the day, doesn’t it? Because who wants wake up at 8AM to beat lines, traffic and hoards of tourists to then stay up all night, too. While some people do in fact do this while traveling, especially those who like late night adventures and a good party or two, I recommend saying some energy during one day of your travels to experience a place at sundown, nightfall and perhaps into the early hours of the morn. Depending on where you are, these are the hours where the true nature of a place comes to life. You see local families taking taking their kids to school, businessmen suited up for work, older generations having their morning stroll, youths exercising or maybe even coming back from a long night of partying. The true essence of a place is in its people and what better way to find that normalcy during times when the tourists are still sleeping? I had this experience in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Berlin and for a second, it made me feel so normal, seeing trains packed with commuters on their way to work or kids being dropped off at daycare. Natives of these huge travel spots have normal lives despite the tourists! Who knew?! (…sarcasm intended).
5. Get Lost!
Getting lost sounds terrifying to a lot of travelers. Michelle and I have been there many times and have had a handful of anxiety attacks because of it. In theory, getting lost isn’t fun, but in practice, you’d be amazed at what you can discover and experience by losing your footing and diverting from the main road. The kindness of strangers also never ceases to surprise me whenever I’m lost or unsure of the next route to take. Getting lost allows you to turn on certain “fight or flight” reactions too, making you more aware of your surroundings and the environments you’re in. A great thing for travelers abroad but also a way to experience a new place in an unconventional way and a guaranteed learning experience!
Have any other alternative routes we should be taking when exploring a new city? Let us know some you’ve considered on your travels and leave them in the comments below!