Sublime (and unusual) city experiences
September 28, 2016 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Help me find unusual and sublime experiences that others might not think of as 'things to do'.

Watching the Eurostar hum its way into the baby blue train shed at Kings Cross St Pancras. Sitting on a giant cushion in the Wellcome Collection reading room. The way the U1 train rushes over the bridge through Alte Donau. The eerily beautiful sculptures and buildings of Broadgate Circle.

These are all intriguing things to see – but few guidebooks seem to mention them. They're sort of sublime experiences, but not exactly 'attractions' or 'things to do'.

Where can I find more of them? What should I call experiences like these?
posted by henryaj to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Not very exciting if it's within your own country, but I love going in to the largest and best supermarkets of a foreign city.
posted by ReluctantViking at 5:30 PM on September 28, 2016 [30 favorites]

My apartment overlooks a highway. You might think this is a negative, but I've been surprised how it connects me to rhythm of the city--I get to see its veins and arteries pumping and circulating.

The traffic tells a story, too. Sometimes it crawls and I think of those who are stuck in it, and where they'd rather be instead. Sometimes sirens scream by, and I say my little prayer that I say when I hear a siren. Even on holidays, there are still cars permanently whizzing by and I wonder about whether they're going to family or escaping it. I can see how quickly (really!) a traffic jam clears and how quickly one develops.

Not sure how you might locate a place to simply watch traffic, but I think it gets at what you're wanting.
posted by Liesl at 5:48 PM on September 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd call them interstitial geographies, innerscursions, or flaneurial moments.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:49 PM on September 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Or meta-qatsi moments (riffing off of the "neutral observer of life" point of view in the Koyaanisqatsi films).
posted by cocoagirl at 5:58 PM on September 28, 2016

The best experience I've had like this was in Luzern. We went for a walk in a neighborhood behind the Lion, and we found a few of the Stations of the Cross along a little residential street. So obscure that I've never even been able to find anything on google about them, but beautiful and indicative of the city's history (Luzern led the Catholic resistance to the Reformation is Switzerland).

Since your other examples are all European, this may not be so out of the way for you.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:07 PM on September 28, 2016

Do you mean sublime in the colloquial sense or in the Burkean sense of an overwhelming aesthetic experiance? For the latter, trains and such. Draining - exploring drainpipes and catacombs - can also lead to interesting experiances.
For tips of making all your walks interesting, read up on Situationism related concepts, like psychogeography and the Flaneur. Learn the trick of the Situationist derive, where you wander a city in an unplanned manner, intoxicated or not, and find novel sitautions - or treat ordinary situations as novel. Think of it as a form of offline Pokemon Go, or a personal Augmented Reality.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:42 PM on September 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

I like finding labyrinths and walking them. Some are in the city, some you have to hike to. I don't think many people do this -- my friends and I are usually the only ones there. It's very meditative.
posted by ananci at 6:52 PM on September 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Making up a scavenger hunt (a lion! a queen! ten ladies in purple!) and then having dessert somewhere that you can see foot traffic, can really improve people-watching. Maybe that sounds nuts, but it's something I love to do on dates, and I've always wanted to do it in a foreign city.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:10 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know what you mean... like, in NYC the spots in the city that have the coolest geometric fire escapes. Avenue 6 1/2. Finding where to get the best hot chocolate (by sweet trial and error). Noticing that old US mailboxes have the year they were made stamped on them. Toynbee tiles.
Over the years I've randomly found my way to some kindred-spirited blogs - largely blogs that center around their authors' photography of such moments. It's silly but I do keep a document full of notes of idiosyncratically wonderful things to check out if I'm ever in a particular part of the world.
A selection of interesting blogs (mostly NYC/ US-oriented):
spitalfieldslife (UK),, atlasobscura, pylonofthemonth,
bldgblog, walkersinthecity
posted by blu_stocking at 8:56 PM on September 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

I found this through urban exploring in Chicago. Climbing abandoned railroad bridges, playing free jazz in grain silos, canoeing down the Chicago River, and generally being in sort of in-between and forgotten and forbidden places and soaking myself in the immediacy and there-ness of that place. Scouring Google Maps is one way to find potential places of the outdoor variety; wandering and just paying attention is another.

And wandering can be its own reward, though true random walks might work better to discover moments of sublimity in cities you know somewhat already than in cities that are completely unfamiliar. I've discovered late-night outdoor community musical traditions in strange places by bicycling. And I feel like there is little than can top riding the El across the southside of Chicago and watching the neighborhoods change from above.
posted by cnidaria at 9:57 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's just across from San Francisco, but if you can hit the right time of year for an inversion layer, you can stand in the Marin Headlands in California and look out at San Francisco and the Bay as fog pours in below you through the Golden Gate. (my time lapse, taken yesterday; this phenomenon is most common in our summer, September.) I will never get tired of this.
posted by rtha at 10:46 PM on September 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Finding streets or buildings with interesting murals, street art, or graffiti. Also, decorated or unusual public stairways.
posted by ananci at 10:47 PM on September 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

More London (and some other cities):

Drive the bus - take a regular bus route, sit in the front seats of the top deck and watch London happen. You can also drive the DLR.

Go mudlarking on the Thames foreshore (you don't need a permit if you are not going to dig or scrape, but there are a few areas where you can't pick up finds which are in that link).
posted by Helga-woo at 11:47 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a spot nearby, down a little sidestreet, that ends at the river (it's actually an ocean inlet, but feels more like a wide river up there) across from the auto wreckers. They barge in the old beaters and I can sit and watch them crushed down into those little cubes for hours.

Modern Meditation maybe? I think this kind of thing doesn't have a name by definition, it's individual moments you have to stumble upon in your own individual way.
posted by mannequito at 12:06 AM on September 29, 2016

Go swimming outside. In London there's swimming in the Serpentine among other places.
posted by hazyjane at 3:31 AM on September 29, 2016

The Brunkeberg Tunnel in Stockholm - I walked through it when it was empty and it was weirdly moving and also felt like I had traveled back to the 1960s.

Riding the escalator in the Black Diamond in Copenhagen is also pretty wonderful, and, although it is a little touristy, cisternerne is pretty magical if you can get it all to yourself.
posted by snaw at 5:49 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

(1) Get up early and go to commercial squares. By early I mean before the crowds/commuters (varies by place). You'll get to see the shop keepers and the goods suppliers getting everything ready for the day.

(2) Catch the largest old structures in a given place around sun-up/sun-down. Often times these were designed exactly for peak 'wow' around times where light/shadows play with their features. A good example are churches that haven't been shrouded by new construction.

(3) If it's a coastal city, try catching areas during low-tide when there's a noticable change in the landscape (& smell ;>).
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:14 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love grocery stores/drug stores/little shops local people use day to day. I found the world's best crackers at a grocery store in Rome. Even when I'm just visiting a different state/city, I like to pop into a grocery store and see what they have.
posted by sperose at 8:28 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love to find a library while I'm visiting a place, specifically, to sit in the current periodicals section and read the newspaper.
posted by zem at 10:12 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seeing a city at night is often quite lovely.

The Sydney Opera House at night looks amazing. Many European cities put a lot of effort into properly lighting various attractions at night.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:19 AM on September 29, 2016

This radio series blind man roams the world has different ways of travelling, largely through sound.

He writes about it in this article.

one technique i liked was flipping thru local radio when you arrive.
posted by squishles at 2:09 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Riding a bicycle around a city at 3am when there's no traffic and nobody around, and it feels like the whole place belongs just to you.
posted by borsboom at 3:06 PM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

2-4 am.
For several years I got home from work early in the morning and still had to walk my dog.
Winter after a snow was especially magical. It was very quiet and the snow would look like it had been sprinkled with glitter under the street lights.
In the summer we would often see foxes, coyotes and sometimes a waddling raccoon, even though we're in the middle of Denver.
Train whistles are particularly haunting and we have a Northern Screech Owl that lives in a pine tree up the block.
posted by BoscosMom at 3:18 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

In Toronto, Canada: Riding the entire length of the 501 streetcar.
Foreign cemeteries can be fascinating places for a wander.
posted by Rora at 5:19 PM on September 29, 2016

My friends and I go on lots of walks looking at graffiti and stencil art. Maybe do that, or even put up some of your own.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:42 PM on September 29, 2016

Finding a local park/market and watch how people go about their daily life.
Take a streetcar/bus/surface transportation to get a lay of the city.
Go to the local grocery store and do shopping, if you can't read the language even better( makes it adventurous and you try something that was not meant for tourists).
posted by radsqd at 8:28 AM on September 30, 2016

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