I’m fresh back from a trip to the Twin Cities, where I drank a lot of beer and rode uphill a bunch on a heavy bike. It occurred to me just how different this trip was from my European Excursion. There are the obvious ways: it lasted 5 days instead of 5 weeks, Midwest instead of Europe, and instead of going at it solo, I had the pleasure of being accompanied by a strapping young fellow.
In June, I traveled to 5 unfamiliar cities in as many weeks. At the beginning of my trip, I cannonballed into the toursity, sightseeing aspects of the cities, mostly in order to get them out of the way so I could start doing some exploring on my own. In Barcelona especially; in true Virgo-style, I had my trusty guidebook under my arm and studiously circled what the shops, restaurants and landmarks I wanted to see, and checked them off as I did. The allure of travel eventually dissipated as I went on, and I was more able to relax and wing it.
But I approached this trip differently. While St. Paul-Minneapolis don’t have the exotic appeal or history or must-see’s of Barcelona or Istanbul, there were places I wanted to check out. The difference was I didn’t experience the panic of trying to fit everything in. It was effortless, wayward and casual; we woke up when we were done sleeping, evaluated how we felt, then went off to eat and explore. We managed to hit most of the things we wanted to see and had an amazing time while doing it.
That being said, there are certain things that were very similar between both trips, like the whole idea of getting familiar with a new place. In my own, control freak kinda way, I think I’ve devised a few ways to lay the groundwork for gaining solid knowledge and getting a genuine feel about the place you’re visiting.
1. Get a map
Right off the bat, as quickly as possible. Preferably, get one before you even get to your destination city. Maybe get a couple: for Barcelona, the guidebook I was using had one for each neighborhood along with a list of shops, museums, restaurants and other things to see. Whatever you use, make sure it has metro stop locations, the names of streets (even the little ones) and preferably cool spots to check out along the way. While they’ll always have maps in tourist kiosks, they’re not always good ones. Stop in a grocery or convenience store to score the serious utilitarian maps–the ones at postcard tents will be marked waaay up.
2. Plot your sights
This is another handy thing to do before you arrive; have a good idea of what things, if any, you’d really like to see. If you’re just along for the ride and would rather play it by ear, than more power to you! If you’re like me though, you’ll want to have your must-see’s plotted out on your map. That way, you can hit all your places with maximum efficiency. You can explore by neighborhood if there happens to be a lot of your marks near each other, or–my favorite–by public transportation route. I love picking a line on the Metro and hopping off at different stops. Public transportation is usually pretty inexpensive, and you get the chance to travel to lots of neighborhoods quickly.
3. Find a grocery store
I’m a big proponent of self-catering while I travel: it saves money instead of eating out for every meal, and you have more control of what goes into your body. So as I pulled into a new city in Europe, my grocery and produce radar was on alert. Granted, it’s a bit different overseas–they have separate places for produce and grocery, so that was something to keep in mind. In Spain, I always needed to know where a Dia or a Lidl was, at the very least, and they’re pretty ubiquitous throughout Spain. In the States, keep an eye out for Dominick’s, Jewel’s or Whole Foods, but also be aware of what options there are for local produce or produce-only stores. If you have internet access, see if there are regular farmer’s markets on certain days of the week, or if a co-op is near where you are.
In Minneapolis, co-ops were almost the only option I saw for produce. There were little ethnic grocery stores but they didn’t look like they had much by way of fresh fruits and vegetables. There were also Walmarts and Targets, but…. they were Walmarts and Targets.
Then go stock up of fresh fruits and veggies. Like, right after you get to where you’re staying, go out and get food. I liked to have a couple go-to meals in the form of muesli and fruit for breakfast and a salad for lunch or dinner. So fruit, vegetables, muesli and something to dress the salad were things I liked to have on hand. And a couple of easily transportable snacks, like apples or pears with a baggie of granola, are nice to keep around for long city treks.
4. Get to know Public Transportation
It’s your friend. It’s cheap, quick and how natives get around. Having to worry about a car, parking and gas while trying to enjoy a city is more grief than it’s worth, in my opinion. We rented a car to Minneapolis, but left it near the place we were staying for a majority of our trip. Anyway, this is where buses, trains and bike shares come in. Get to know them! Traveling via bike/train/bus is friendlier to the environment and you get the chance to take in all the sights that driving wouldn’t necessarily allow you to do. Imagine all the cool architecture and views you’d miss if you were stuck in traffic in the Loop instead of taking the Red Line. No one wants that.
5. Get a feeling of the ‘hoods
Any good travel article or guide will have a rundown of what neighborhoods are which in a big city. There’s the hipster ‘hood, the on-the-cusp-of-gentrification artists’ ‘hood, the downtown financial/tourist sights ‘hood, the gay ‘hood, and so on. Figure out which is which. Chicago is great for this: the neighborhoods have their own vibes, and are pretty defined in terms of what lies within them. Barcelona and Madrid were like this as well. Istanbul, not so much. Small towns, not at all. But pay attention to those vibes and where you’d like to spend your time hanging out, if you have the time to.
Of course, there are other ways to get acquainted with a new city: I also like to get familiar with public transportation, visit bars and restaurants where the locals hang out, and take a yoga class at a local studio. But the above steps are meant to be followed upon arrival, and are a nice jumping off point to explore the city you’re visiting on your own terms.
What are some of your must-do’s when visiting a new place?