- Research your city beforehand. I find my trips ten times more fulfilling when I know some background about the place before I arrive. Check out a guidebook or two from the library and definitely hit the internet for recommendations on places to stay, eat and explore. I also make it a point to peruse a handful of resources about historical sites and stories in order to contextualize my experience of a new place. For instance, I’m fascinated by world religions so I always read up on local houses of worship and the religious background of the place that I’m visiting. This research should be exciting—not tiresome—so follow your passions.
- Ask around. Find out if any of your friends or colleagues have visited or lived in your destination. Nothing beats the insider perspective.
- Plan realistically. Whether you’re taking a day trip or a two-week vacation, your time is precious. This probably doesn’t mean cramming in 4 museums in one afternoon (unless you go hard like that), but it does mean nailing down a list of museums (or parks or shops or churches) you do want to see and figuring out where they can fit into your schedule. Consider your obligations like arrival and departure times, or pre-planned outings with family in the area. Additionally, cultivate balance. If you love operas but your travel partner loves specialty food shops, set aside time for both activities in a given day (or couple of days) so that you don’t overdo it on anything.
- Allow for space in your schedule. Recent trips with new travel partners have opened my eyes to the beauty of slowing down. Sometimes, the best possible thing to do in a new city is to simply sit at a coffee shop for a couple hours, perhaps with your book or merely your thoughts and conversation. When you devise a schedule for your trip, make sure to leave some openings for sunlit naps, getting lost down a winding street or lingering at an outdoor concert you might stumble upon.
- Pack light. My parents are devotees of travel-writer, Rick Steves, a man who suggests packing three pairs of underwear for a three-week trip and washing them in the sink every few nights. While we don’t go that far in our family, I do know that packing versatile, resilient, non-tourist-looking items in a single suitcase will make your trip much easier than traveling with your entire wardrobe and worldly comforts.
- Find a good map and wander freely. This is where the magic happens.
- Use public transit or walk. You’ll save money and you’re likely to experience the city more naturally, as residents do. Half the fun of being somewhere new is observing the sights around you.
- Eat at local restaurants and stay in local lodgings. This is especially relevant if you’re abroad but it applies to any new city; getting the true flavor of the place means no McDonald’s and no Best Western. If you’re worried about cost, know that cheap dining and lodging options abound almost everywhere. Buy food from the grocery store and consider hostels or sites like Airbnb in order to immerse in a new place on a budget.
- Splurge when it’s worth it. In your research, you’ll undoubtedly come across a few top-notch restaurants or recommended shows that seem extravagant, but in my mind, these are opportunities you may never get again and thus are worth saving for. Stay at a cheaper hotel. Eat a cheaper breakfast and lunch. Then allow yourself the pleasure of enjoying an evening out.
- Consider a day on your own. Blogger Joanna Goddard suggests taking a day by yourself if you’re traveling with one or two other people and you have enough time in your schedule. This allows everyone to explore the things that their companions may not be interested in, and it gives you all something unique to discuss at dinner that night.
ADDITION: One of my favorite food sites, The Kitchn, just posted a great article with tips for eating like the locals when you’re traveling. Check it out here.
Do you have any favorite travel/exploration tips?Photo up top is from my trip to Istanbul, Turkey last spring. And if you’re not reading the latest news on Turkey, you should be.