Tips for city sightseeing

Ian Carroll

When you find yourself in an unfamiliar city, it can be pretty hard to get your bearings. Cities often hold some of the most interesting people and experiences, yet they can also hide their secrets up small alleyways, behind unremarkable doors, or in labyrinth markets. Cities aren’t just places where you’ll find beautiful sights and delicious food. You may also find overflowing dumpsters, enclaves of the homeless, and unending streets of unremarkable concrete. If you don’t go about it right, you can easily spend an entire day in a city seeing things you’d rather not. Even in some of the most remarkable cities in the world, there are places you’d rather skip, or avoid altogether.

Learning how to go about approaching a new city is a skill that every traveler should have. Yet, it’s not as easy as you might think. You’ve got to visit a lot of cities to figure it out. Even then, each country, and continent are different. Today we’ll go over a couple of tips and tricks for city sightseeing to help you make the most of your time in the next new city you visit.

Look up the tourist attractions

Exploring the city
Exploring the city

Yes, the first thing you should do is look up what the tourists are doing. After all, there’s a reason why they’re all doing the things they’re doing. The tourist attractions are pretty cool! Besides, clustered around the tourist attractions, you’re likely to find cafes, shops, and other accessible businesses.

Doing a few of these things will help you to get your bearings, acclimate to the people and culture, and decide where to go next. Often, these attractions are near to water, on hilltops, or near to other obvious landmarks. This can be a great way to develop some awareness of the basic geography of a place.

That way, when you start exploring the rest of town, you’ll have an idea of where you’re going and how to get back to where you’re familiar. Furthermore, there are a lot of cities out there that just aren’t as interesting outside of the tourist spaces. You might enjoy walking the rest of town for a couple of hours just to see what’s out there. However, I often find myself drawn back to the beach, or the ‘city center’ because it’s just where there’s more going on. It will depend on what type of traveler you are where you wind up deciding to spend your time.

Check the map

Anytime you visit a new city, you should pull up Google maps before you arrive. There are a number of landmarks you should look for. If you’ve looked up some of the main tourist attractions in town, pinpoint them on the map and see if they’re clustered in certain parts of town. If so, that gives you a big hint as to where you’ll find all the other travelers and tourists. It may also be a good place to park your car and look around.

Exploring the city with just a map
Exploring the city with just a map

The other things I look for when I pull into town are natural features, parks, and landmarks. On Google maps, that essentially means that I’m looking for blue or green. If I see any large green spaces, chances are good that it’s a big park or interesting place to stretch my legs and explore.

Take Austin, Texas for example. I visited for the first time last December and pulled in with nearly no foreknowledge or expectations. However, as soon as I looked at Google Maps, I saw a wide green area with a river winding all the way through the city. That’s the Greenbelt, and it’s a famous park in the middle of Austin.

Once I started getting recommendations from locals and rock climbers who knew the city, they all told me to go check out the Greenbelt. Miles of a beautiful park with rock climbing winding along the river through the heart of Austin. Now, not all cities are as cool as Austin, but it’s a good proof of concept.

Park the car

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you visit a new city is to judge it from inside your car. It’s easy to drive around in circles looking for somewhere that looks nice, only to be disappointed. If you really want to see a city, you’ve got to do a little legwork. Whether it’s a small town or a booming metropolis, there’s guaranteed to be things you won’t catch from inside your car.

Park the car and start walking.
Park the car and start walking.

I recommend finding the downtown area, or the area with the most tourist attractions and finding parking. Give yourself an hour. Even if you have no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing, just walk around. See the sights, pop into shops and cafes, talk to people. This is one of the best ways to get a feel for a city.

A lot of cities can look pretty ugly from the curbside. However, walking between buildings, up alleyways, through parks, will all give you a different and more human perspective. After all, there are probably thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people that live here. Why do they all choose to stay? If you can figure that out, then you’re doing something right.

Ask the locals

I’ve already mentioned it at least once, and it’s something that comes up again and again, no matter what I’m writing about. Talk to the locals. They’re the ones that are going to know what’s worth seeing and what’s worth skipping. They’re the ones that are going to give you a feel for what the city’s all about. And most importantly, they’re the ones that can direct you to secret spots you won’t find on the internet or in the guidebooks.

Make sure you ask the right local though. After all, everyone is different, and you can find all sorts of people in just about any city. It won’t do you any good to ask a cranky old man where his favorite nightclub is. Look for people who are happy, who feel kind and warm, and who engage with you when you talk to them instead of acting like you’re annoying them. No point in fighting an uphill battle with someone who wants you to leave.

I recommend chatting up the staff at businesses you visit or people that are hanging out in public spaces. Some may be too busy or too idle to want to talk much. However, you’re likely to find someone chatty sooner or later. Once you do, keep them talking and see how much you can learn. Maybe even try to get their contact info and make a friend. Then you’ll really be in.

Follow your nose, or your ears

One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its food. That’s especially true if you’re like me and will eat just about anything that’s put in front of you. But all jokes aside, cooking and eating are one of the most central parts of friendship and family in every culture around the world. Getting to know the local cuisine can give you an inside look at some of the history and customs you might be missing all around you.

Trying exotic foods can be fun and also scary.
Trying exotic foods can be fun and also scary.

This is especially true if you’re traveling internationally or in another part of your country where customs are different. I just arrived in Oaxaca province in Mexico. One of the first foods I was offered by a lady walking past on the beach was a mole tamale. I’d heard that Oaxaca is famous for its mole and immediately bought two of them. They did not disappoint. If you’re not sure what local cuisine looks like, then try reading the menu at every eatery you pass. Whatever you see on every menu, especially if you don’t know what it is, is what you should order for lunch.

So when you’re walking the streets, keep your ears and eyes open. Look for crowds of people, listen for live music, and smell of powerful aromas. You might find your way into bustling markets, old world bakeries, or wild parties. Traveling is a sensual experience, so be sure to use yours. They will rarely lead you astray.

Know when to move on

Although traveling and exploring new cities is exciting and all about trying new experiences, it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes you’re wrong, and you park your car near what you thought would be a really cool public park. However, it just turns out to be a big field in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe what you thought would be a really cool business district turns out to be an industrial area or a bunch of strip malls. That’s part of the game.

Some places are worth seeing, other’s are best skipped.
Some places are worth seeing, other’s are best skipped.

You never know what you’re going to find. So don’t be ashamed when you guess wrong or wind up in a boring part of town. Like we said before, cities can be pretty big, and not every corner of them is going to be interesting. Knowing when to call it and go back to the car is just as important as knowing when to park and get out of the car.

I don’t really have any criteria that can generalize when it’s time to move on. For me, it’s more of a feeling. After all, you know when you’re not having fun. It’s sometimes hard to admit to yourself, but you also know when you’re not inspired by your surroundings. Listen to those feelings, voice them to your travel partners, and ask if they’re also thinking of moving along. You’re probably not alone in the way you feel.

Keep an open mind

Whatever you do and see, be sure to keep an open mind. That’s what travel is all about. You didn’t leave home and come to a new city to see the same things you’ve seen before. So remember that you might be surprised, confused, or uncomfortable at first. Give yourself time to adjust, try things out and learn.

You never know what you’ll find.
You never know what you’ll find.

At the end of the day, even if this new city isn’t for you, it will certainly have lessons and experiences to offer you. With open eyes and an open mind, you’re sure to make the most of each thing you find. If you can do that, you’re doing it right.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival