Whether you’re going in a city break, planning a long vacation or moving in a whole new city, learning your ways around and getting used to the new scenery can be a stressful transition. And I’m sure you’ve heard tons of suggestions so far, but they are often too general and sound something like: “Get out more”. Well, that not enough, is it?
When I started college, I moved from my small, provincial town to the big, loud and scary capital. Even though I was excited to make a change in my life, the thought of leaving behind everything I’ve ever known and starting over in a new environment terrified me. As an introvert, I found the process even harder. That’s when I first started to create the following list, that I found useful in my travels as well. So without further ado, let’s start looking into 10 ways to discover a new city!
1. Go on a free walking tour
When I get in a new city, one of the first things I do is search for free walking tours. They are popular, easy to find and they are also free! With just a quick search over the Internet you can find these tours almost anywhere in the world, especially in major cities, but not only. I tried this method in several European cities, like Brussels or Berlin, and I haven’t been disappointed. Not even once! If you aren’t familiar with the concept of free walking tours, here is how they work: You sign up for a tour at a certain date and time, you show up at the meeting point and you enjoy the next 2-3 hours in the company of a charismatic guide and a group of cool people just like you, eager to discover the city. During this time, you will walk around the city center, you will hear stories about the its history, architecture, culture, as well as fun facts about your surroundings.
All this knowledge gained in 2 hours will be your most solid starting point to further continue your exploration. The best thing about these kind of tours? You’re not forced to pay a fee to participate, but if you do want to reward your guide, you can give him as much as you’re willing. It’s totally up to you. And one more thing: If you’re scared of going alone, don’t worry. You will definitely not be the only one! Take the chance to initiate a conversation with someone, be nice and polite and by the end of the day you might end up with at least one new friend!
2. Move around with public transportation
Now that you know your way around the city center, let’s get an idea of the city layout. One quick way to do this is by using public transportation. Take a random bus or tram and see where it takes you. Pay attention to your surroundings and try to remember the route. If something catches your eye while looking out the window, get off and start exploring! If you are scared of getting lost, just make sure to check the bus itineraries and mark them on a map before starting your adventure. That way, you’ll have at least an idea of where you are and how to get back to your starting point. There are many cities that have hop on hop off bus tours, so if you want further guidance around the city, you should consider the option.
3. Use travel apps
As you know, in the past years mobile apps had become more and more popular. They are convenient, easy to use, always within reach and free (most of them). When it comes to travel, there are many ways in which an app can make your life much easier when you find yourself in a new place. Whether you need an online/offline map, some help with the language barrier, indications for the public transport network or some ideas of what to do around town, a travel app can be a reliable companion.
4. Seek the best view in town
Scientific fact: humans are 90% visual beings. So let’s see how you can use this in your favor. The trick is to find a place that offers panoramic views over the city. It can be a tower, a tall building or just a hilltop. Once you’re there, locate where you are on a map and try to pinpoint parks, buildings, boulevards, neighborhoods based on what you see. Seeing the big picture will help you learn the city much faster. You can enjoy the experience while drinking a coffee in a rooftop restaurant or while having a picnic in an outdoor location. No matter what your preference is, this is a great idea for having a moment of relaxation.
5. Search for places to eat and drink
When you’re out there exploring all day, you need to recharge your batteries from time to time. Whether you get hungry, thirsty or maybe both, you should start looking for places that match your preferences. Are you a coffee lover? Then go on a hunt for the best coffee shops in town. Go out to eat, whether it is from a street vendor’s cart or from a fancy restaurant. Search for cool pubs, listen to some music, get a drink. Don’t be scared to make mistakes and don’t say no to something just because you assume you won’t like it. Follow advice from others, but make sure to pick random locations too, because you can never know where your next favorite place might be hiding.
6. Turn to social media groups
Maybe you’re planning a trip, searching for interesting things to do or looking to make new connections. Or maybe you just have a bunch of questions about a place that you can’t seem to find a trustworthy answer to. If you have friends or family that have already been to that destination, you will ask them for recommendations. But what if you find yourself in a new ground that nobody seems to know much about? Who do you ask then? The answer is simple: find some social media groups (you can start with Facebook) and just introduce yourself. Write some info about who you are, what you background is, what is your current (or future) location and what your questions are. If you’re bold enough, tell them that you’re new in town and that you would like to grab a cup of coffee with either a local or a traveler that happens to be around too.
7. Attend local events
There are times when you want a specific reason to leave the house, not just to wander the streets without an aim. If that’s the case, do a quick search for local events such as concerts, festivals, movies, fairs, art shows, sports events and so on. And since I mentioned sports events, may I give you a particular suggestion? If you have the chance, run a marathon. This will give you a new perspective of the city, while it will also keep you in shape. Depending on how strong and confident you feel, you can choose a full marathon or you can begin with a half marathon. There are just so many options when it comes to local events! Pick one or more, according to your interests, find its program and location and discover the city’s true spirit.
8. Take your camera everywhere
Over the time, I’ve heard some people say: “When you want to really explore a place, leave your camera and your phone at home. No distractions. Just fully emerge in the experience”. I normally agree with the words, but only if we were to speak about a city somehow familiar. In this case, where you get to experience a new scenery with every step you take, I recommend going for a different approach: take your camera everywhere and use it on anything that stirs your interest. Taking pictures of your surroundings will help you document the itinerary and retrace your steps if necessary. Still, don’t look at everything only through your camera’s lens. After you take a photograph make sure you take a minute to look around and let all your senses create a vivid memory of that place. Useful tip: Before you leave the house make sure you have a picture of your address or at least a picture of a nearby popular sight. If you get to a point where you can’t find your way back, you can show the picture to a local and ask for directions. For me this was a lifesaver on countless occasions!
9. Ask locals for advice
Locals are gold mines if you want to find the non touristy side of the city. There are always great places that you can’t find in any brochures, travel guides or blogs. Moreover, locals’ recommendations are even more useful when you have very specific inquiries. For example, if you want to start a street art hunt, if you’re searching for the tastiest burgers in town, best places to play board games or the best jazz clubs, you should just stop and ask somebody. If you’re not too invasive, people will help you and sometimes will even volunteer to be your guide. Useful tip: Usually people are proud of their city and feel good when others appreciate it too. Therefore, you can think about making a subtle compliment about their city, before actually asking a question or firing a request.
10. Trust your instincts
This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned while travelling. There were times when people told me to stay away from certain neighborhoods, not talk with certain types of people or not get out of the house after dark. I guess there is no need to say that most of the times these pieces of advice are simply misconceptions. Make sure you listen to what they have to say, weigh the arguments, but in the end do what your instincts tell you. Don’t be reckless, but don’t be paranoid either. If you still want to do it, then do it!
There are also other aspects of trusting your instincts when exploring a new place. For example, I often feel the need to change my course or to have a closer look at something. This is how I found many hidden gems of the cities I explored, so I learned to trust my gut more and more over time. My genuine curiosity has helped me more than it generated problems, so it was worth it. You must find what works best for you, what you consider safe and what not, and what are the risks you’re willing to take. The rest will come by itself.
So here it is, my list of “10 ways to discover a new city” is now complete. What do you think about it? Do you have any other suggestion? I would love to hear your experiences! Share the knowledge by commenting below!
For me, it’s easier to discover a city when there’s someone who could guide you around. Maybe a friend who has been living there for quite sometime? But, if you’re a solo traveler, it could be easier to connect with the locals out there or crowdsource. Nevertheless, I’m taking note of this in case I travel! :)
I have to say, some of the most fun things we did while on vacation were things either recommended to us by a local or we just so happened to stumble upon ourselves. You have some great tips here to help make a out of towner to feel quite welcome. Google and a local yard sale fb page were of great assistance to us while on vacation.
Trusting your instincts is definitely a good tool when exploring an unfamiliar town. I usually take pictures whether I am familiar with the place or not, I usually end up finding things that I had previously overlooked. I’m curious what places have you been to?
I agree with all the points, though I hardly have time to do 6 and 7 because of time constraint in every city. :/
These are some handy tips. We tend to use public transport as much as possible during our vacations. Walking tours in Europe are better organized. I remember we walked and used the MRT to explore the most of Singapore.
I love free walking tours. It is a great way of meeting new people, getting tips on additional sights to see and learning new information about a city. I always look to see if they do one in any new city I go to.
I like the idea of taking a photo of where you are staying or a major landmark nearby but also I always drop a pin on Googlemaps. Then I can follow my way back.
Some great tips here. Thanks.
I love to do free walking tours they are a great way of seeing a city. I too always use public transport, I always like to see a place as a local. I will also find a place for a great viewpoint, whether its a rooftop bar or an observation deck.
You’re right about the walking tour, I’ve met many friends on these, which is good for taking pictures later on. You are right about taking public transport too, it’s cheap and takes you places away from tourists. Trusting your instincts works too, doing this you can stumble across lots of random and new things.
Awesome list! I really loved the thing about walking tours. That definitely is the best way to gain interesting insights into the local history, culture, and traditions.
Great list. Public transport and walking tours are my favorite ways of exploring new places. Somehow, bus routes make you familiar with the roads and different regions very soon
I generally take the public transportation. It works for the best to feel the city. Esp I had a very different feel about Paris unlike my friends who took a tourist bus!!! And ofcourse, I always look out to local places to eat & drink, it also works out cheaper!!! And I completely agree about trusting instincts!!!
Would have to agree with you on all the above points. But most of all, the free walking tour. Sometimes, we follow the same trail a second time, just for the photos.