I love exploring the world and I especially love exploring cities. I love pretending I’m from a place I visit so I try to learn a few words so that at least for a few seconds of interaction I can pretend I belong! I also love to eat local. Apart from the pretty obvious ‘eat local’, here are my favourite ways to get the most out of a few days in a new city.
- Get up early, walk around and feel the clean, fresh, air of an unused day. Then keep walking, just walk and walk and walk.
- Find a local cafe for breakfast. In Paris with friends recently we stumbled across a great place on Place Victor Hugo, where we enjoyed an enormous brunch that set us up for the entire day: what felt like a dozen eggs, fruit, bread, juice and coffee. Wowsers, and all for about 12 Euros each.
- Wander around parks and green spaces. Every nation seems to do them differently. I spent a few weeks studying Russian in Odessa, Ukraine, in my mid-20s and every morning I went for a run through the parks of the city. Not only did I get to experience that clean, still air, but I also got to see statues, small forests and even find my way down to the beach. Different people use parks at different times of day so there’s always something going on, and something to see.
- Explore local supermarkets and markets. I get this from my mum and dad. They love a good foreign supermarket exploration! The most memorable for me must be some the food markets in Chengdu, China. We were brave enough to stop and ask if we could take pictures of the more ‘exotic’ (to us) food items.
- See neighbourhoods where people actually live. In Kathmandu in 2010, we spent days just wandering around, keeping out of more touristy areas, seeing ‘who’ the city was. These days left stronger impressions than the famous monuments we saw in the same city.
- Get up high, find a building or a wall to climb to see the city from above. The most fun experience I have had was probably the dual experience of waiting in line with everyone else for hours in Shanghai to climb the Shanghai World Financial Center, being pushed around by thousands of Chinese tourists…and then realising we could go to the bar on the floor below for a far more serene experience! Just this weekend I put this knowledge to use and headed for Tour de Montparnasse, in Paris, to relax with a coffee and cheese plate whilst studying the magnificence of the Tour Eiffel and the city spread out below me. Well worth the €28 for two coffees and the cheese to sit in a beautiful place rather than pay €17 each for a ten minute stroll around an observation deck. I believe that is called a ‘tourism win’!
- Eat ice-cream, everywhere, preferably interesting flavours. My two favourites ice cream experiences are finding avocado ice-cream in Tokyo and then repeating the experience in Pola, a newish ice cream bar in Mérida, Mexico.
- Really look at what you’re seeing and think about why places developed the way they did. It took me a long time, in Merida, for example, to realise why some pavements are so much higher than others…because when it rains heavily, certain areas are more prone to flooding than others. Makes sense, once you know.
- Find somewhere busy with people and just sit. Maybe read, maybe write, but mainly just sit and watch people go about their daily bustle. We spent hours just sitting and watching in Delhi. We watched people coming and going. It’s also incredible to sit and watch in my home city of London. I could spend hours just watching people.
- Visit a gallery of local, modern art. I always feel I get to know the heart of a place through its offerings of local art. Sometimes I even buy something. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe I had a wonderful trip around an art gallery, made friends with a woman working in the shop and was even able to buy a couple of pieces that still hang in my house ten years later. I’ll never forget the mingling of excitement and guilt: excitement because it was the first time I’d bought ‘real’ art, and sadness that I could only afford to do it because Zimbabwe was in such dire straits, financially. I consoled myself that some money was better than no money for the artist, I hope that was right.
How do you get to know a city? What are your favourite ways to explore a place? Do you think I’m mad to want to get up early to explore? Do you feel more comfortable getting up later and taking it slowly? What about in your home city? How do you reconnect with the fun at home? Read all about my tips for doing just this, right here.