How to explore a city – even if it’s your own

Yo, yo, yo, what’s up! Your travel expert and trip advisor V. speaking.

It’s 2015, the era of low-cost airlines and cheap flight tickets, which means you probably have a couple of city trips in the pipeline, and if you do not, you are working on it.

I started doing regular city trips way back when I was a student in 2005, always jetting off to near and faraway destinations. However, then and now, I’ve always been of the opinion that exploring another city by way of guided sightseeing tours through old buildings and monuments, such as the Colosseum in Rome, Schloss Neu-Schwanstein around Munich or up the Statue of Liberty in New York, wasn’t quite what I wanted out of a trip to another country. History is nice and all, but I’d rather explore what the life there is like now.

How do I do that?

A special focus on shopping and food makes a lot of sense when traveling, because this way you dive right into the city locals’ multi-faceted modern culture, can watch them go about their every day life and observe the dominating fashion and street style. This way, you bring back home precious inspiration alongside kitschy souvenirs.

To float through a city on a whim and just get lost in it without a care is nice for a day or two. But the traveling FOMO is real. So to get definitely the most out of your trip(s), let’s talk how you can prepare and plan your city trip itinerary.

The best part?

You don’t need expensive guide books to plan an itinerary and you can follow most of these steps even if you’re not going anywhere this year. Re-discover your own city and look at it from a new angle – it can hold unexpected surprises in store too.

OK, what do we start with? Of course, Google.

1. Google “shopping in city x

The best way to start preparing for your trip is figuring out the hotspots in town. With hotspots I mean the high traffic areas with lots to see, buy and eat. Usually, those are the major shopping districts, such as Mitte in Berlin, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco or Ramblas in Barcelona.

Google “shopping in city x,” and you’ll get a good idea of which areas to predominantly steer your attention towards. You’d also be well-advised to take your accommodation there, because if an area is high traffic, that means it’s convenient with lots of convenience stores, banking as well as info points, and especially well connected to public transport. Granted, focussing on the major shopping areas will make encounters with large throngs of international tourists inevitable. But even then, there will be plenty of less well-trodden paths to explore, and some areas are also a little less mainstream than others, so don’t dismiss them yet.

Stay-at-homes: As you might have guessed, this point of the planning is probably unnecessary if you’re exploring your own city. You will already know which areas are the most popular, so good for you!

2. Search for “city x sights”

Yes, despite focussing first and foremost on indulgences, I do sightseeing too. It’s like paying respect to the city you’re in, I think. And you can take pretty pictures.

Empire State Building,
Blocking the view on the Empire State Building in New York, 2006.
Quan Cong-Temple in Hoi An with my mother, 2015.
Venice, Piazza San Marco
In front of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, 2005.

Google “sights in city x“, and pick the spots  you’re most interested in, or which are closest to the areas you were planning to visit anyway. No need to visit all of them, just the ones that look the nicest or touch upon an aspect you think is fascinating, such as architecture, an era in the country’s history or because it has the best view on the city.

Write down your favorite sights and add a little comment as to why you’d like to see them. This will later help you remember specifics about each place, and get your priorities straight when you’re running out of time and have to shorten your itinerary.

Also, mark them in a map, (I use Google Maps until I find a better alternative,) and if possible, assign your sights a specific color.

Stay-at-homes: You probably know most big sightseeing spots in your own city, but it still pays to research and include a wider variety of points of interest that are a little lesser known. There surely are a number of sights you’ve never bothered visiting!

3. Find out the “must eats in country y

OK, let’s say you’re going to a foreign land which you don’t know about a lot just yet. Then googling “must eats” or “things to eat in” will stir your appetite, and make you curious for more.

To put it simply, food culture is the best, perfect and most rewarding entryway to any culture. Learning about what and how people in Turkey, Denmark or Brazil eat will give you a lot of ideas and inspiration for your trip. Did you know, for instance, that in Singapore, supper at a hawker center is a popular after work pastime, or that the Swedish love licorice?

Write down the things you most want to try, add what it is in your own words, and don’t forget to also note the original names of the dishes. In case you land in a really local, hole in the wall kind of spot where your patron does not speak your language or English, you still can order then.

Stay-at-homes: Even in your own home country, there certainly are dishes you have never tried yet. It can be from your own country’s cuisine, or something foreign. Now is a good time to sample a few of them :)

4. Be specific, like “best gyokai tonkotsu tsukemen in Tokyo” or “best jazz bar in Budapest”

Bless blogs!

The next step I take when preparing for a city trip is googling “best ___ in city x,” and this is a great thing to do for city trips as well as when you want to re-discover your own city. Having a specific mission gives you not only something to do, but will also invariably guide you into areas you’d have probably never sought out without having a goal, such as quaint residential or lesser known shopping areas.

Gyokai tonkotsu tsukemen
Gyokai tonkotsu tsukemen, Fukuoka, 2012

So avoid the tourist traps, and begin by searching for “best ___” lists of what you want – for example: “best night view in Shanghai” (Bar Rouge!) or “best burger in Oslo” (Illegal Burger!) – and compare them to each other. Find three or four such lists, either from tourist guides online, like TimeOut, Lonely Planet and Frommers, or food and travel blogs. 

If it’s about food, check pages such as foursquare.com or yelp.com in addition – not for the ratings, but the pictures of each place. If you like what you see, write down the names as well as their most popular or best dish. Then open your map again, and place pins where you want to go. Again, if possible, assign food places their own color.

Stay-at-homes: Start to follow food and/or event blogs or pages that cover your own city and continuously add pins to your map for places you want to try. For Berlin, for example, Stil in Berlin, Finding Berlin and iheartberlin are excellent resources covering anything from the best Berlin summer snacks, local designers shops, and iconic escapes into the outskirts of Berlin. Assign a day at least once a month when you will go to one of the suggested places.

5. Include bad weather alternatives!

Let’s all hope you have the best of weathers on your side throughout your whole trip, but since you can never know, add at least a day’s worth of bad weather alternatives to your list: museums and galleries, food halls/courts, or shopping during the day, and bars or clubs at night are good options everywhere. But visiting a sauna in Finland, beer hall in Germany or jjimjilbang in Korea add a cultural dimension to your travel experience. And yes, I said guided tours aren’t my thing, but do consider guided or hop-on-hop-off bus tours around the city. They are convenient for taking in most of the sights even in bad weather.

Martin-Gropius-Bau
Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin houses a variety of great exhibitions every year, such as the David Bowie exhibition in 2014.

Oh, and one more thing: please consider scorching hot (30°C <) and sunny weather bad weather as well! The unbearable heat and aggressive sun in places such as Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia are no joke. It will leave you exhausted with a headache and potentially harmful sun damage! Adjust your city trip plans accordingly.

6. How to get recommendations from your friends and acquaintances

If you know someone who’s recently been to where you’re going, or maybe even lives or has lived there, and they have similar interests to you, ask them for one or two recommendations – not more.

Why?

I often get asked “Any tips for Tokyo? Seoul? I know you lived there and I’m going there soon.” But if you don’t specify what exactly you mean with tips or what you want, it’s overwhelming just to think about it, so it usually makes me want to not answer that, or my reply will be half-hearted. However, if you ask for only my most favorite shopping destination or something, I’ll gladly give you some good tips.

Also, it’s unlikely you will follow all of the tips you’ll be given anyway, so why bother the other person with such an extensive request? If you only ask for one or two, your friend or acquaintance will more likely share only the things they really, really liked.

Extra tip: I’m sure that, considering the popularity of Facebook, we’re all semi-professional at stalking by now. Take advantage of your friend’s uploaded photo album from their trip, and if there’s something interesting, inquire about it.

A friend in Tokyo of mine, for example, is a huge ramen and tsukemen fan, and documents a lot of his pursuits through his point-and-shoot. For my research, I simply went onto his profile and clicked through his photo archive. Luckily for me, he captioned most of his pictures, and I got a slew of clues from him this way. :) Thanks, J!

7. How to organize your to-do-list

map of Paris,
My edited map of Paris

Travelers and stay-at-homes: if you’ve diligently made notes during research, and placed pins all over your city map, then that’s great! All there’s left to do now is organize your findings.

Sort sights, eats, and points of interest depending on the areas they’re in. So let’s say in Paris, group together items in Le Marais or Saint Germain. Then sort the single items under each area according to priority or their optimal order.

For example, my first starting point is usually food places. So a breakfast spot should come first, after that a little sightseeing, then lunch, more sightseeing or shopping, a café to rest a little, dinner, maybe drinks. But throughout the day, the locations of my to-eat-spots generally determine what our route is.

Save your list as a document, upload it to a cloud using either Evernote, Google Drive or Dropbox, which you can all access from everywhere in the world. Then print it out and staple it together. Voilà, now you have your own personal little city trip guide with only items you want to see and try.

Extra tip for shopping aficionados

Don’t leave your city trip shopping to chance! Make a list with brands, shops and products you cannot find or are more expensive at home, and research in advance where specifically you can buy them! I once even sent an email inquiry to this one shop in Paris that carried Alpha-H to make sure they have Liquid Gold in stock. Fortunately, they promptly answered yes, and I took the substantial detour on me just to obtain a bottle.

I’m not going to lie, all that research will take you extensive time and effort.

However, I always find myself growing more and more excited about my trip whenever my research on it progresses and it’s times like those that I understand the German saying “anticipation is half the pleasure” completely. So don’t give up! There’s nothing worse than getting ripped off for mediocre food and experiences just because you don’t know where else to go during your travels.

So have lots of fun both while you plan your city trip and of course throughout your trip as well! If there’s still any questions, just leave me a comment ↓

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2 thoughts on “How to explore a city – even if it’s your own”

  1. Hi V.,

    I had to laugh when you said your ‘to-eat spots generally determine what your route is’ – finally I have found someone who shares the same philosophy! My stomach and tastebuds always lead my travels and I will happy go out of my way just for a meal. Food first. Always :D

    The tip about shopping smartly is definitely true. I keep a list of items I want to buy according to the country/destination and update these whenever I come across a product I like on blogs or whatever. This way, if ever I do go to that destination, I can refer to my list straight away, rather than racking my brain and drawing a blank because it’s easy to forget these things.

    Any chance you will write up a post on your personal Berlin guide? Since we share the same interests and you are a resident Berliner, I’d be very interested in your views.

    Like

    1. Hehe, agreed! Food first – always!

      Err, I wrote a personal Berlin guide? But sure can do. Most likely I will focus on food, though. But I figure you wouldn’t mind ;)

      Like

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