“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
Before traveling somewhere new, we have so many different visions in our mind.
Our thoughts about a city are already prefabricated based on the photographs and lists of ‘top things to do’ that we read online.
We hear other people’s experiences and unconsciously form them as our own.
So how can you really experience a place to its full potential?
Here are a few tips that might help plan out your journey.
- Walk, walk, and walk
It is by far the best way to understand a city.
If you are constantly taking taxis and different modes of transportation everywhere you go, you won’t get the actual feel of a place or be able to explore that much.
Think about it, we are doing the exact same thing back home when we are going from point A to Z everyday on our way to work or university.
How can we possibly repeat this motion while traveling?
On my trip to Italy in 2007, the only time I sat in a taxi was from and to the airport (I am not exaggerating). And doing that made all the difference.
While I was walking around Venice, I saw a sign near the Rialto bridge of a Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing.
I decided to walk to the location written on the poster. On my way there, I picked up a vegetable panini and it was the most delicious sandwich I have EVER had.
By the time I reached the auditorium, I was lucky enough to get a ticket. It was one of the funniest and most entertaining plays I have been to in my life.
If it hadn’t been for exploring, I would have missed out on the experience!
- Eat as the locals do
When I went to Istanbul this summer, I promised myself I wouldn’t stay at Taksim because I didn’t like the crowded touristy area.
One night I had to meet a friend who was living nearby Taksim. We ended up walking across the entire Istiklal Street in search for a good, less crowded restaurant.
We finally went to a Turkish restaurant that we thought looked good. Our food didn’t arrive for almost an hour and when it did, the meat was half cooked and smelly.
To top it all off, they brought chicken wings instead of shish taouk, which my nephews refused to eat. We left with our stomachs empty and our wallets too!
Lesson learned: don’t EVER eat at tourist spots.
They will always be extremely pricey and the quality of the food will be less than average due to the mass production.
Our best meal was (unfortunately) on our last day in Istanbul at a very authentic Turkish restaurant behind the Blue Mosque.
- Commute like a local
Taking a day pass on the metro or tram is the best way to commute in a city for long distances.
It is much cheaper and gives you the liberty of exploring different areas that are further away.
One thing I have realized is how taxi drivers in cities will almost always take advantage of you.
Since they are aware we are tourists, they take longer routes and overcharge you.
After a late night walk in Sultanahmet, we decided to take a taxi since our hotel was far.
The driver began asking us typical questions of where we are from and all of a sudden, began driving at FULL speed.
It literally felt as though we were part of a Formula One race. We kept telling him to calm down, but it was as though we were talking to the walls.
The endless twists and turns through the narrow, steep roads of Istanbul were making our heads spin. I suddenly got an adrenaline rush and started laughing uncontrollably!
We finally reached our hotel, thankfully in one piece.
My dad took out his wallet to pay and swore that he had given him a 100 lira note because he didn’t have a change.
Since it was dark, the driver craftily swapped the note for a 20 lira bill and said we owe him more.
Once again, my dad gave him another 100 lira note and the same thing happened!
We left completely puzzled and astounded at how skilled these taxi drivers are.
- Stay at a nice hotel
Yes, you heard right.
Many people tend to say the opposite and feel that less money should be spent in accommodation. But I don’t believe in that.
The place where you stay determines your experience. If you aren’t in a comfortable, peaceful environment after a tiring day of exploring the city, your exhaustion levels will increase.
You will end up being in a terrible mood, possibly develop a headache, and try to survive on caffeine to wake yourself up. A good nights sleep is essential to get recharged throughout the day.
I remember the time when I stayed at a small, local hotel in Zurich. It was NOT how the pictures looked at all (don’t trust room sizes in pictures).
There was no AC or fan and that summer there were record breaking high temperatures across Europe.
The walls were so thin that I could hear across other bedrooms. It was difficult to sleep at night and I would turn the TV on to drown out the sounds of people (by more noise).
The light of the screen and CNN anchors hushed voices were somehow more soothing.
It wasn’t a good experience and a lot of my memories of Zurich are only of how uncomfortable I was throughout my few days in the city.
- Learn a little of the local language
I think it is essential to at least know a few basic words to be able to communicate with people.
It is better to assume that locals won’t understand English because you never know what situations you may encounter.
Before I went to Istanbul this summer, I made a list of commonly used words and phrases.
It was a good thing that I did, because most Turkish people I met didn’t speak a word of English! No, hand actions don’t work all the time to explain something.
When I was at a restaurant in Istanbul, the waiter served me warm water. I needed ice and thankfully remembered it is called buz.
Otherwise, it would have taken me a century to explain what I meant!
Another benefit is that it really helps you connect with people.
The waiter was thrilled to hear I knew a few words of Turkish and went out of his way to arrange a table with a nice view and was incredibly friendly and helpful the entire time we were there.
Language is truly the way we communicate and bond in so many different ways.
- Go to the religious sites
I think this makes you learn a lot about a country and their religious practices.
It really helps in understanding people as you look closely at their faith and rituals.
I remember when I visited Bali in 2006 and high above in the cool air of the mountains, I was sitting in a boat.
While bobbing up and down in the serene lake, I suddenly heard a sound which resembled the Friday sermon. But it was actually coming from a temple in the distance.
As we got closer, I noticed how so many people were standing outside the temple to present their offerings to the gods.
Some even had live chickens that they would sacrifice.
I felt as though I was in a revery while watching people and couldn’t help but peak inside one of the temples. It was colorfully decorated from inside and many devotees were giving their offerings.
It really was an indescribable sight to see. Such experiences broaden your mind and help strengthen your own faith.
- You don’t need Lonely Planet or any other travel sites
Before traveling somewhere new, I make sure not to look at these lists. I prefer to read about actual experiences that travel bloggers/vloggers have talked about.
These lists can be helpful in giving you an idea about the main tourist attractions, but they won’t guide you in the off beaten tracks around the city.
If you read up extensively on such lists, they will give you preconceived notions about the place even before reaching your destination.
The first time I went to Malaysia and Singapore I made the mistake of focusing too much on these lists and not on creating my own exploratory path.
The next time you are setting off for a journey, ask yourself: how will YOU write the city?
- You don’t need a map ALL the time
We have ALL seen the staple image of the typical tourist with their head stuck inside a map and camera slung over their shoulder.
Sorry to break it to you, but I don’t think you will need that (not only because of Google Maps).
What happened to spontaneity and going on aimless drifts?
I would recommend taking out atleast one day of your trip to explore the city on foot without a specific destination in mind.
It will be the highlight of your trip, I promise!
- Take your camera, but don’t over do it
Do you have the constant itch of taking photographs EVERYWHERE? I know that I definitely do.
I used to look at the thousands of photos after returning from my trip and would realize only around a maximum of 10 were worthy of sharing.
The rest were completely random and often repetitive. Many of them would be out of focus and only deserved the delete button.
We are the generation of constantly feeling the need to share our lives. It becomes obsessive to the point that our entire trip is spent in going to a place solely to take photographs for Instagram.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing but I think we need to concentrate more on living in the moment.
Most of my experiences were spent in constantly worrying if I took a good photograph, what the positioning of my camera was, and if it was even worthy to share with the world.
We have to grow past that itch and learn to fall in love with the simple things.
The next time you go somewhere, make sure you take in everything.
The glance of a stranger, the sound of the waves, the smell of the foreign air and marvel at the unique architecture.
Get to know the place before feeling the need to capture it!
- You don’t need a tour guide
Trust me, you don’t.
The last time I went to Turkey, I made the mistake of booking a guided tour in Cappadocia.
There were so many places that I thought were repetitive and my time could have been spent in exploring other places, but what was most frustrating is the restriction in terms of timings.
If I want to roam around the stores or photograph a certain site, there was a constant rush because the group and tour guide were running on a planned schedule.
They are also very skilled at taking their commission in other ways.
Our guide made a stop at a pottery factory in Cappadocia because she said it is the best place to buy things and see the impressive skills of the artists.
First, we saw the pottery making and then went to the gallery where many items were displayed.
They treated us like royalty by constantly offering us tea and other refreshments.
In the end, we felt obligated to buy something although everything was ridiculously expensive.
Their prices proved to be steep because it was mainly attracting tourists.
I hope you found these tips useful and if you have any suggestions or just want to share your experience, please comment below!