Finding your way around a new city by trial and error makes for great stories after the fact, but usually isn’t so fun at the time, and wastes a lot of time and money. Go beyond what the guidebooks suggest and find the hidden gems of a new city.
1. Taking a peek at a town’s official visitors website or CVB (convention and visitor’s bureau) or community pages can also be more helpful than you’d imagine, In my hometown of San Francisco www.sanfrancisco.travel allows you to browse by neighborhood, nightlife, and more to pull up results far more original than the Golden Gate Bridge.
2. Focus on your interests and passion. If you love to cook, jog, kayak, go to ball games be creative. Enjoy cooking? Sign up for a walking tour lead by local chefs, or free walking tour of a farmer’s market. You’ll learn more about the city’s culinary offerings as well as be surrounded by like-minded foodies. Before you depart for your trip, look through MeetUp.com, a location-based social network that links people with similar passions, to see if there are any fun activities going on during your stay. If you’re a runner, like me, you might find a local group workout that welcomes visitors. I’ve met people and partied after the run by joining the Hash House Harriers in various cities worldwide.
3. Location, location, location. Assuming you don’t know the city well, it’s imperative to do some research before you plunk down your credit card for accommodations. Before you book, locate the hotel on a map to ensure its proximity to the places you’ll want to visit, as well as restaurants, shopping, etc. If you stay in the center of the action you can walk to many attractions, avoiding expensive cabs (difficult to find in rush hour or rainy weather) and complicated public transportation (which requires exact change).
4. Decide what local attractions interest you. History, architecture, museums, shopping, culinary experiences, nightlife, artsy neighborhoods, or nature excursions? Check out tour company offerings for a good idea of the highlights. Decide how much you can realistically do in the time available, and prioritize. Check the museum sites for free days.
5. Consider how you’ll get to your chosen activities. If you stay in the center of town, can you walk to the major tourist destinations? Does public transportation reach the places you want to see? If you’re planning to use public transportation, be sure to select a hotel located near a major subway station and bus stops.
6. Save money. Check out Airbnb where you might find some great rentals. Do you really need to rent a car? Hotel parking in the city center can be exorbitantly expensive, and you may only need a car if you wish to spend a few days in the countryside. Try Uber instead of taxis.
7. Find out what’s happening. Whether you want to join the fun or perhaps pick a quieter time to visit, it’s good to know what festivals, parades, free concerts, costumed fun runs, and other events are going on at your destination. Check out the “Festivals and Special Events Calendar” on the city websites, and if you’re participating, book a hotel near the event of your choice. Order the free visitor’s guidebook.
8. Buy a good map. Just in case the battery on your cell phone goes dead, or you leave it in the hotel room. A map can help you figure out what areas of interest are in the same neighborhood. You don’t need to memorize the whole city–ideally you’ll walk to the “must-see” attractions from a fairly central location.
9. Figure out airport transportation. Before you leave home, read the “Transportation” section of the city’s website, which offers suggestions for the most convenient transportation between the airport and the city center: shuttles, underground transportation, limos, buses, or car rentals. Listings include contact information. Or call your hotel and ask for their recommendation.
10. Ask a local. Your best source of “on the spot” information will be a local person. They maneuver around the city every day; they know the traffic patterns and the pitfalls of each type of transportation. Before you leave your hotel, ask the front desk clerk or concierge: Can I walk it? What’s the most interesting and fastest way to go? Where’s the bus stop? Do I need correct change?
Would it be easier to take a taxi or subway?
The more you prepare for your city visit, the easier it will be to avoid the pitfalls that snare inexperienced travelers and truly enjoy your trip.