Beyond Guidebooks and Reputations: How to Get to the Modern Heart of a Well-Known City

by Ekua on May 12, 2012 in d.i.y. travel,listastic,slow travel

When I travel, I want more than to see a place, I want to experience a place. I want to plunge into the local psyche and see what makes it like nowhere else in the world. I’m often amazed how with globalization looming over the world, places can be so different when you get to the heart of them.

It’s easy to scrape the surface of or completely miss the reality of a well-known city. As a travel lover who lives in a popular city to travel to, I notice it all the time. Some come here and get caught up in a quest for an idealized version of a past San Francisco. While San Francisco’s history is obviously important in making it what it is today, you’re not going to find some blissful hippie haven à la 1967 in the Haight. Others will not go beyond the recommended tourist attractions. I understand the bay side appeal of Pier 39, but what’s contained in it has little or nothing to do with what San Francisco is to the people who live here now

To get to the true heart of the city, you have to go beyond what you think you know about it and beyond the tourist recommendations. Why bother? Because your travels will be much richer. Because you’ll open yourself up to serendipitous moments. Because you’ll come home knowing one place much better and therefore know the world a bit better. Just about everything out there has already been discovered by someone else, but the souls of places are always out there waiting to be discovered by you. Here’s how to get started:

» Spend a good amount of time in one city. Spend time away from the tourist center. Stay in or heartily explore more than one neighborhood. Discover the complex layers that make a unique whole.

» Use public transportation. Move around the city with everyday people living their everyday lives.

» Wander through local shopping centers, from open air produce markets to the mall. Sample a fruit you’ve never tried before. Try on a type of clothing you’ve never worn before.

» Check out galleries and look out for street art. Look around you for the local concerns, the current popular aesthetic, and glimpses of where a place might be heading.

» Attend festivals and parades. Celebrate, participate in traditions, get immersed in colorful culture.

» Post up in cafes, parks, plazas, or other gathering places. People watch. Talk to people. Let people talk to you.

» Join people at a popular street food stand or cheap eatery. Stand on the sidewalk or sit on a stool while trying a popular local dish.

» Visit the local bars and clubs. Get loose and interact. Enjoy the local drink.

» Connect with residents to meet up with before you go. Or don’t and make connections along the way. Just try to connect.

» Walk until your feet hurt. Make turns on a whim. Find out where you are by getting lost.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Isaac Ohel May 13, 2012 at 9:13 am

Your advice is tested and true. Beyond the tourist highlights, experiencing a place is meeting it’s people. To do so, takes time and opportunity. Your bullets provide practical guidelines on how to generate the opportunity.

Oh yes, tasting the street food is very important too.

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InsideJourneys May 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Great tips. Agree wholeheartedly.

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Ekua May 15, 2012 at 10:53 pm

@Isaac and @Marcia – Glad you enjoyed the post! I hit up the highlights most places I go, but think it’s so important to take steps beyond that!

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