How do you travel?
October 27, 2010 12:50 PM   Subscribe

If you've eschewed the museum-church-ruins guidebook dance when you travel, what do you do instead? How do you get a feel on the place you're visiting in a short time and figure out what you want to see and who you want to meet?

I've found this to be easier (1) in places without a strong tourist infrastructure than with (e.g., it's easier in Mozambique than in Thailand) and (2) in places where I have more time than less. So bonus points for answers that relate to experiences in heavily-touristed areas and don't require a month.
posted by pollex to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Grocery store.

Everybody needs to eat, and the kinds of products and the way the sell them provide fascinating glimpses at a culture.

Also good is just sitting in a plaza, drinking the local speciality and watching the world go by.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:01 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Rick Steves has basically made a career answering that question. he has guidebooks for those that don't want to do the standard guidebook tours, he has a radio program wherein he dispenses with "how to avoid the touristy crap and enjoy the parts of the countries that the tourbus won't take you to", etc.
posted by radiosilents at 1:02 PM on October 27, 2010

I haven't used a guidebook in years. I simply rely on teh wiki, looking up the places there, follow the details which may or may not interest me, and build up google maps accordingly.

As a result, it's a tailor-made trip, I follow my own instincts rather than some guidebook author's, and I'm guaranteed to have a more interesting trip as a result. Yes, there's research work involved beforehand, and the trip becomes somewhat regimented, but I've wasted no time on seeing things just to have seen them because everyone sees them.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:07 PM on October 27, 2010

This only really works in cities, but I tend to just wander around and stick my head into anywhere that looks interesting. That, and personal recommendations (in which I include AskMe) help.

I also like to take time to do nothing - just kick back and watch the world go by.
posted by djgh at 1:11 PM on October 27, 2010

I pretty much like to figure out what neighborhood(s) have stores I like to visit and food I like to eat, and then just go walk around. Stopping to eat, drink, and shop as needed. Obviously this tactic applies to cities, which tend to be where I go for vacations.
posted by grapesaresour at 1:13 PM on October 27, 2010

When I travel I tend to focus on eating, drinking, shopping, and generally enjoying the everyday life of the place I'm in. So, I like hanging out in bars and cafes and just talking to locals. Get their suggestions on where to eat or where to buy [awesome product only available in this place], or even ask if there's some interesting festival or event happening in town that week.

Also, wander by foot or bike a lot and stop whenever you see something that seems interesting.

I actually feel like this is much easier to do in a heavily-touristed area, especially if you can easily differentiate between the locals and the tourists. Just avoid the places where the crowds of foreigners are packed in.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:13 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

This also only works in cities, but I'll find a branch of quirky store I like (like Fluevog shoes or Lush bath products) and head down that way. It's always in a nice boutique-y/arty part of town.
posted by JoanArkham at 1:17 PM on October 27, 2010

Back in the day I used to haunt used book stores and used record/CD stores. So whenever I traveled somewhere, I'd make it a point to seek out used book stores and used record/CD stores. That way I'd get off the tourist track and out where serendipity would have half a chance to lead me further astray.

You can try this with stuff other than used books and records/CDs. On our first visit to Japan, my wife and I made it a point to buy a digital camera -- in Yokohama, and not in Akihabra. We got the camera -- and learned there was an "El Torito" restaurant at the top of Yokohama's tallest building, which we visited later. Great view. So-so tacos.

On our most recent trip, after visiting the Great Buddha in Kamakura, we decided to walk to the beach instead of hopping on the train back to the station. What'd we find? The Sea Castle, a fifty year old German restaurant. So-so view. Great frankfurters.
posted by notyou at 1:23 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Most of my travel, foreign and domestic, has been for work, and I've found the work itself a good way to meet people of like interests--not surprisingly. There may be some relevant trade or professional organization that could put you in touch, there may be some kind of simple assignment you could take on or create for yourself. The idea, pretty obviously, is to have someone there to meet, who will then connect you to the local community, and do it in a way that has interesting content for you.
It can make the difference between standing stupidly on a street corner wondering what to do first, as I did for an hour on my first ill-prepared trip to NYC back in the Jurassic, and having a name, number and address to head for immediately. Instant plug-in.
Travel safe.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:36 PM on October 27, 2010

Second hand stores and flea markets can be loads of fun in a foreign country.
I also like visiting hardware stores - but I'm a tool junkie. I find it interesting to see what kinds of tools are available, are they better made (or worse), and pricing. My favorite bowls are a nesting set I bought at a hardware store in Florence years ago, for very little money - it wasn't as much fun lugging them around the rest of my trip...
posted by dbmcd at 1:45 PM on October 27, 2010

I check out a few things beforehand like Wikimedia Commons photos of the place and Flickr photos of the place, see what looks interesting. I Google the name of the place and the words quirky/weird/unusual/strange/interesting and see what shows up. When I'm there I stay with people [if I can, via or] or someplace that's not a chain hotel and someplace preferably that is not in the chain hotel district. I try to take public transportation everywhere [not cabs if possible] and/or walk or get rides with hosts. I go to the public library and usually walk around that area since libraries are rarely in empty out of the way places. If there's a university nearby I'll go to their library and go to their student center and look at flyers and see what else is going on. I'll get the local paper [if there is one in my language] and see what sorts of things are going on at night.

I think finding things that are interesting to you personally is not that hard -- I sometimes think of creating scavenger hunts for myself "find a postcard and a stamp and send it" "take a picture and print it out at a drugstore and mail it" "get yourself a latte at a non-chain coffeeshop with wifi" "figure out which restaurant is frequented by cab drivers and try to eat there -- but what's harder is dealing with the people who say "Oh you went to $PLACE and you didn't see &CLICHE_THING???" as if you're sort of slow. A lot of traveling successfully is, to me, figuring out what sorts of things bring you happiness and not letting other people's idea of what a trip to someplace is supposed to be about poison it for you.
posted by jessamyn at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

At your hotel, don't ask the concierge or front desk staff for tips about what to see or do. Ask people who work in the restaurant or behind the scenes. This likely will result in recommendations that is more of an "insider's" knowledge.

And hey, please talk to strangers.

I was just in Myanmar and walking through a small village in Inle Lake, I stopped to say hello and take a picture of some cute kids playing with spin tops. Their grandfather popped out to see why the kids were laughing and making so much noise.

He invited me to see how his family makes delicious molasses snacks for sale in local markets, then to come over to his house to drink tea. I spent an hour with his delightful family and had a great time despite a significant language barrier, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, sharing oranges, and teasing the kids.

So much better than visiting yet another pagoda.
posted by HeyAllie at 2:01 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Pretty much what others have said above:

Find a friendly cafe in what looks to be an interesting part of the town and talk to the locals. Usually one that's close to my hotel and looks like it's family run so I can go there every day and become a regular, which helps people open up.

Open air markets/farmer's markets are a great place to talk with people who are never short of local advice.

Personally a good social bar is also a goldmine.

And learn at least a bit of the local language. Even if you massacre it the locals will almost always appreciate the effort.

This advice is best in parts of the world where you explore a city on foot. Many large American cities need not apply.
posted by Ookseer at 3:07 PM on October 27, 2010

Didn't see where anyone had mentioned this already: couchsurfing. Me mail me for more info since I'm on my mobile.
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:19 PM on October 27, 2010

If you've any interest in modern and contemporary architecture, MIMOA is a user-contributed architecture database that tends to cover a good base of the well-known, the quirky, and the occasionally interesting self-promoter. Architecture is kind of my thing and, with record shops and independent bookshops and contemporary art and checking local live music for bands I like, it allows me to start planning itineraries that guide me off the main trail and give me interesting places to wander.

Talking to people in those places leads to more things and gets me way off the tourist trail.
posted by carbide at 3:50 PM on October 27, 2010

I usually shoot off a few messages to CouchSurfing folks in the area. Even if I'm not looking to crash, they can usually give you the lowdown.

Also, I really like UNESCO sites. Some of them are touristy, but a lot of them are just super interesting and have been utterly deserted when I arrived.
posted by GilloD at 5:24 PM on October 27, 2010

In my experience people who talk up the idea that they "don't use a guidebook" and don't like to visit traditional tourist attractions like museums, historical sites, sacred places, places of local significance, etc. are stoners who really mean "I just like to get wasted on the back porch of the hostel all day".

Though, yeah, what others have said here is definitely true. I love grocery shopping in a new place, and eating in little local restaurants. Long walks are good. Window shopping, people watching, hanging out in places local people congregate. It's also fun to accomplish mundane tasks like mailing a postcard or buying some small necessity in a pharmacy, especially if there's a language barrier or I'm in a part of the world where things work really differently than I'd expect them to.
posted by Sara C. at 7:19 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like to take local public transportation. Take a metro or city bus line to the end. Walk around that suburban or country neighbourhood that you don't know much about. Take a walk around, eat or drink something in a cafe, check out what kinds of shops they have. Or if you're not in a big city, take a regional bus to a nearish non-touristy town.

Things I've found this way:
~ Some of the best gringas ever from a market catering to truck drivers in a remote Guatemalan town
~ A biscuit (cookie/chocolate bar) factory that gave away whole bags of reject biscuits for $2
~ Lots of lovely cafes and parks to read in for an hour or two
~ Friendly locals on the buses, some of whom have then given me rides out to their favourite place in that neighbourhood
~ Some great little truckstop diners (especially good in Mexico/Central America - I swear the food you get at the truck stop/bus station diners is always the best)
~ Some beautiful churches that aren't in any guidebooks but that are just as beautiful or interesting as the ones that are. Often in the smaller towns there are actual people in these churches using them, instead of just tourists with cameras.
~ Graveyards
~ Been tear gassed in a cafe as police tried to disperse the rioting supporters of the local soccer team
~ Small locals markets with super fresh regional produce
~ A local university theatre group doing their dress rehearsal of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (sung in Czech of course) in an old mansion
~ Local sports matches, complete with the popular local snack food
~ A full re-enactment of Jesus being arrested, beaten and hung on the cross, complete with 200 local men in costume on horseback riding roughshod through the vary narrow town streets

I think my favourite thing about going to some random neighbourhood or town is that you don't know what to expect before you go and you just have to be patient and open to experience. You might end up having a very quiet day reading in a square/garden/cafe and then go home. But you might also find something really cool, something you couldn't have even dreamed of when you got up that morning.
posted by mosessis at 9:31 PM on October 27, 2010

Lots of good ideas above; a few more I've thought of:
- Variety. The ruin-castle-museum treadmill gets unrewarding faster than the ruin-shopping district-park treadmill, just because they hit different centres.
- If you have some time in a big city, split your stay into two different districts. NYC is very different seen from the Upper West Side versus from Chinatown. It forces you off of establishing a beaten path, and it may even be better from a logistics or cost point of view.
- Many cliché spots are actually clichés because they are totally awesome. (Of course, some, like Fisherman's Wharf, do serve primarily to ensnare and remove tourists from the local ecosystem.) Despite your admirable goal of being an independent voyager, we're all still goddamn tourists at some level.
- I take pictures of every meal; often thinking of the meal rushes back all of the emotions I was thinking at the time. An occasional long trip to find the very best local specialty can provide a memorable experience and take you places you weren't going to go. I've both met mayors and appeared on Maryland Public Television this way. Chowhound is great for the US and Canada, more hit and miss elsewhere.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:43 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I walk a lot. Grab a map of the centre city and walk around randomly, stopping to look in shops or other interesting places you pass. Take a book with you and if you find a nice park or beach or interesting cafe, you can sit a while.

I also spend a LOT of time in cafes and just generally eating and drinking. I love trying different cuisines and getting a feel for what locals do when they go out. I try to go places that are not full of obvious tourists.

Talk to people if you can - I'm shy so I don't very much, but some of my best travelling experiences have come out of the few conversations I have had with locals.
posted by lollusc at 11:46 PM on October 27, 2010

Get your own wheels and travel by them as much as possible. Bicycles for smallish cities, motorbikes where you can get one and cars when you want to move around a lot.

I think a large part of the reason people get stuck doing the same old boring stuff when they travel is that it's just not easy to get around unless you're in a city with good public transportation, and even then you're limited to areas around stations. Almost all of the great experiences I've had came from aimlessly exploring, but if you're on foot your range is fairly small. When you're totally, completely in control of where you go it changes your entire paradigm and you don't even have to think about getting stuck doing boring touristy stuff.
posted by borkingchikapa at 1:49 AM on October 28, 2010

I think the key is just to leave yourself time to do this stuff. I usually try to mix in the museums/ruins/castles stuff with the laundry/grocery shopping/lunch counter stuff. I wouldn't have wanted to miss the Prado or Aya Sofia or the Acropolis, but I am really glad I was able to hang out and have a beer and a squid sandwich and relax on the beach and go to the laundromat and the grocery store.

Also, personally I'm afraid of bicycling in unfamiliar cities because cycling culture and rules seem to be so different in different places (this is true of driving, too, to a lesser extent) but I'm a big fan of taking random public transport. Tourists rarely get on the city bus, and you can see a lot that way.
posted by mskyle at 8:49 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even in less exotic cities, a bus can be a good way to go. Every time I see one of those stupid double decker tour buses around Manhattan, all I want to do is herd the passengers onto one of the longer city bus routes. You see all the same stuff, get a better angle on the life of the streets since you can actually see it from where you're sitting, and it only costs $2.25.
posted by Sara C. at 8:56 AM on October 28, 2010

Oh and I forgot ferries! If you are visiting a city that has a commuter ferry, it is generally going to be money well spent. When I lived in Boston I would try to get visitors on the Charlestown-Long Wharf ferry whenever possible. Much nicer than the subway or the bus.
posted by mskyle at 10:36 AM on October 28, 2010

I think the key is just to leave yourself time to do this stuff.

Yeah, that, absolutely. I love the museum/architecture stuff but make sure to take my time getting there. I usually start out in a new city with a vague plan to check out a few used book and record stores I found online, then make random turns along the way, keeping the general direction vaguely in mind but never rushing and not caring if I never arrive if other stuff pulls me away.

How do you get a feel on the place you're visiting in a short time

Bike. If I'm driving, I toss my bike in the trunk and leave the car parked when I arrive. If not, I'll rent a bike when I get there. I don't have mskyle's fear of biking in an unfamiliar place at all; nothing helps me feel more connected to and mobile in a new city than biking its streets. It's fun, quick and friendly; people just assume you belong when you show up on two wheels. Extended walking with random turns works almost as well but if time is limited you'll want the bike.
posted by mediareport at 11:05 PM on October 28, 2010

Don't be afraid to go to the same place more than once. You can see the rest the next time you visit.

If you can, buy an unlimited transit pass. It will radically change for the better the way you move about the area.
posted by clorox at 12:43 AM on October 30, 2010

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