Everyone has their own list of “things to do/see/eat” when exploring a new city. Sometimes these things will be very personal, other times they will be accumulated tips from friends, guidebooks, and the good ol’ internet. These lists will vary from city to city, of course. But what do you do when you reach the end of your list? Here are some places and experiences that you can search for in just about any new city to help you get to know it better. See if you can find them all!
Coffee shops (or tea houses, or juice bars) are fairly ubiquitous these days – and popular. This is a good place to start your scavenger hunt, as the familiarity can help you ease into things. Even if you go somewhere you have been before, like a chain, the fact that it will be full of local people is what will make the experience unique. Take an hour and do some people-watching.
Bonus points: find an out-of-the-way place.
Double bonus points: order something you have never heard of before, or ask a server what their most popular drink is and order that.
You may be planning to do your shopping at all those beautiful artisan souvenir shops… which is fair enough. But souvenir shops are the same worldwide. The only thing that changes are the items they actually sell and even those are often repeated. (Souvenir mug, anyone?) Find somewhere that a local would choose to shop. This might be a market, but frankly, it’s more likely to be a strip mall or shopping center.
Bonus points: do something that you would normally do at home, and note all the differences.
Double bonus points: watch a movie made in the country you are visiting.
Triple bonus points: watch it without subtitles.
At a hotel, a resort, or a fancy restaurant, you will find all manner of local dishes. There will probably be everything on your “to eat/drink” list, cooked to perfection… and with you in mind. Places that cater specifically to travelers sometimes tone down the flavors of their dishes to make them more palatable for those unfamiliar with the cuisine. Even if they do not do this, the fancy version you get may bear little resemblance to the way the dish is usually eaten. If you are serious about exploring and getting to know the city, find a diner or cafe that is frequented by locals.
Bonus points: if you can tell that people who work in the city are eating there on their lunch or dinner break.
Double bonus points: if you can’t understand the menu. (Just smile and put yourself at the mercy of the server.)
Place of Worship
Often, culture and religion are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to separate them out. A local place of worship can tell you so much about life in the country you are visiting. Not only this, but you are likely to see the most beautiful art and architecture around. These buildings will often be of great historical significance and are usually some of the oldest buildings in the city.
Bonus points: dress appropriately and respectfully, even if it is not insisted upon, or if there is no-one there to check.
Double bonus points: read up on the history and heritage of the building before you get there.
And I don’t mean those places that sell watercolor prints of city skylines. I mean real art, made with intention and emotion. The kind of place where you can imagine someone in rimless eyeglasses walking around and using words like “interpretive” and “representational”. Every country will have its own art history. Even if you have never studied it, art is often revealing of the society in which it was produced and will tell you something if you let it.
Bonus points: if the artist is putting the exhibition on themselves.
Double bonus points: speak to them about their work, and ask them at least two questions about their inspiration. (If language is an issue, try to find someone you haven’t met before, who does speak your language, and ask them what they think of the artwork.)
This could be anywhere from a park to a bar or club depending on what you prefer. It could even be an event at the university or college, like a music recital or a market. Meeting the students of the city you are exploring carries its own charm. They will have their own understanding of their country’s culture and traditions. They are very likely to have their own interesting ways of dressing and behaving as well. Not that I am recommending hanging around a college campus, but in a social setting, student events are some of the most interesting you can experience.
Bonus points: attend an event with some cultural significance, like traditional music or art. It is more likely to be presented without “touristy” gimmicks.
Double Bonus points: have a conversation with a student or group of students who are busy learning your language.
Triple bonus points: teach them some of your local slang, and have them teach you some of theirs.
Exploring Sunrise Views
There is nothing quite like seeing the sunrise, no matter where you are. The challenge here, of course, is that you have to find a place with a good view of it. This one will take preparation. I recommend that, while exploring, you ask around to see if anyone local has any recommendations. The other challenge – possibly the greater challenge – is that you will have to get up before sunrise in order to witness the event. But it is worth it. A city belongs to everyone during the daytim and anyone at night. In the morning, it belongs to those who know it.
Bonus points: find a high vantage point.
Double bonus points: bring a drink or snack that you discovered since your arrival.
Triple bonus points: bring a friend that you made while you were exploring the city.