Photo, “Turkey travel,” by Minamie’s Photo.
Sometimes, in the course of traveling, we find ourselves in foreign cities for a regrettably short time — perhaps we only have two weeks vacation and want to see as much as we can. Obviously, this is not the optimal mode for travel, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Here are my tips on how to best get to know a city in such a limited time:
If you have time to plan ahead, choose a hotel or hostel near to the places you’re most interested in seeing.
A vital part of getting to know a city within a limited amount of time is cutting down on travel time as much as possible, so although you may want to stay in a beautiful hostel half an hour outside of town, consider that you will be traveling at least an hour each day to get to and from your hotel.
Another great option when you’re staying somewhere for a limited time is “couchsurfing.” In general, the people you stay with are locals and will be happy to show you around to some of their favorite places. One of my favorite experiences traveling through Ecuador was couchsurfing in Otavalo, where I was only staying for one night. My host took me to a hill overlooking the valley, topped by a tree sacred to the indigenous people of the area. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen the entire trip. Later, he took me to a couple of local bars where I got to meet and chat with his friends. I got into arguments about the state of world politics and the importance of travel. It was wonderful.
If you don’t relish the idea of staying with a complete stranger, Couchsurfing.com also hosts meetup events all over the world. These are often great opportunities to meet other travelers and locals. You might even find a travel companion for the time you’re in the city! Just go to the website and search a city to find upcoming meetups.
Talk to and/or make friends with the staff at your hostel and with other travelers
Tell them what kinds of things you are interested in and then ask what some of their favorite things to do in the city are. While traveling, it’s almost always beneficial to you to bow to the wisdom and experience of those who have been there and done that before you. Again, you’ll probably learn about things you won’t find in any guidebook, and you’ll also find out which, if any, tourist attractions are worth seeing.
Take a moment to consider your interests
Are you an adventurous person? A booklover? A foodie? Or perhaps you’re really into surrealist post-modern art. In any case, taking the time to think about the things you’re most interested in will help you curate what you will do in the limited time you have. Once you’ve done this, do a little bit of research, either on the internet or in a travel guide. If you’re a book lover in Dublin, Ireland, you might find it worthwhile to spend some of your precious time in the Dublin Writer’s Museum or on a literary pub crawl. A foodie in Lima? Well, lucky you. You’ve found yourself in one of the foremost gastronomic destinations in South America. Maybe you should go check out the world-famous ceviche restaurant, Canta Rana, in the Miraflores district or find a bar that serves Cusqueña’s signature quinoa beer.
I am a big advocate of traveling without much of a plan, but that is a luxury reserved for those who have time to wander. When you have a limited amount of time, planning is your friend. That doesn’t mean you should schedule your entire day. (Really, don’t do that.) Instead, choose 3-4 things you want to do in a day. Half of them should be in one neighborhood or at least the same vicinity and the rest in the other. With big cities, trying to do more than a couple of neighborhoods or areas in a day will have you spending most of your time going from one place to the next, and will most likely burn you out.
For example, in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, maybe you really want to go to the huge mercado central, which is in the historic center. In which case, maybe you should also check out the Basílica del Voto Nacional or the overly gaudy but still beautiful Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, which are all in the same area. Then perhaps you’ll want to see the wonderful Guayasamín Museum, which houses the work of Ecuador’s most famous artist. Since this is also close to Parque Carolina and the Mariscal District, choose another place or two in these areas in order to avoid shuttling yourself from one part of the city to the other haphazardly, thereby wasting valuable time.
Do go to the main market
If there isn’t an open market where you are, go to a supermarket. One of the truest insights into a place’s denizens is what they eat. In France, for example, entire aisles are dedicated to cheeses and wines, while Mexico had more fresh fruit, sausages, and tequilas than I had ever seen. If it’s an open market, try the food they serve. Go to whatever stall has the most locals eating there. Yes, there’s a risk of a stomach bug, but actually that risk isn’t much higher for street food than it is for restaurants in most countries. And if travel isn’t about taking some risks, you might as well stay home.
Find out what some of the typical dishes are in the city you’re in.
Oftentimes these can be found in the open markets, but sometimes there’s a restaurant that’s famous for it. Try cuy in Cuenca or rellenitos in Antigua, Guatemala. On the same note, if there’s a national liquor or beer, go sit in a local bar and have a drink or two. Drink aguardiente de Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia, or palinka in Hungary. Chat up some locals. Make friends. You can never know a city without knowing its people to a degree. Of course, knowing the language always helps, but if you know any words at all, don’t be afraid to practice. People tend to appreciate that you respect them enough to at least try speaking their national language, even if your vocabulary consists of “Hello, my name is…”
While traveling by bus or taxi is always going to be more convenient, walking around a city is one of the best ways to get to know its true flavor. This is also a great way to stumble upon restaurants, museums, shops, and parks that aren’t mentioned in guide books. However, in many places, it is necessary to observe some safety precautions while walking around the city. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or visible expensive cameras or other gadgets. When taking photos, be aware of your surroundings. Carry only as much cash as you will need for the day and a copy of your passport, and leave credit cards and the actual passport at your hotel. If something is too far away to walk, take public transportation as opposed to a taxi if you can. It’s cheaper and once again, you get up close and personal with how people live.
Bypass the big tourist attractions unless you’re really, really interested in them. They tend to cost a lot of money and, in my experience, are rarely worth it.
I spent a month in Paris once without ever going to the Eiffel Tower. I got to see it instead from the top of Notre Dame cathedral, where you can climb the towers for a small fee. That was way more interesting to me, especially as I was at that moment reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For example, Quito’s Mitad del Mundo is a waste of time (although the adjacent Inti Ñan Museum is much more interesting) and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is about ten thousand different kinds of tourist trap. Believe me, there’s better clam chowder elsewhere in the city. The big attractions tend to take a lot of time out of your day and you’re usually accompanied by hordes of other tourists. Your time could be spent more wisely, especially when you have so little of it. Exceptions should be made of course for attractions like Peru’s Machu Picchu or Mexico’s Teotihuacan.
Accept the fact that you won’t be able to see everything
If you really like a place, either change your travel plans or come back some other time. You often end up enjoying your time less if you’re rushing from place to place trying to see absolutely everything you can. The memory will be a lot more valuable if you take your time. Just take my word for it.
So next time you find yourself in a foreign city with a limited amount of time on your hands, I hope you’ll keep in mind some of these tips. They’ve served me well. Bon voyage!