I’m immediately disoriented the first time I show up in a new place. Especially if that new place is a giant chaotic city where English isn’t the first language.
You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’d like to say I’m brave and I take action right away, but sometimes I just shut myself away in my room for a day (…or two) and ignore the traffic noises and sirens outside my window.
What can I possibly teach you about your first five hours in a new place, then? Well, I may not always get this right, but at least I try.
Go for a walk
I explore places on foot. If my destination is an hour away, so be it. I like familiarizing myself with the busy streets and landmarks to guide my way home. Also, I hate public transit.
Some of my favourite walks were in Italy, through narrow cobbled alleys and crowded sidewalks. I loved finding quieter thoroughfares and peeking into cured meat shops and cafes. I also learned the art of stepping into busy traffic at a crosswalk, and acting like I own the place (while praying that a scooter doesn’t hit me).
It usually takes me a while to work up the nerve to do these walks, but they’re worth it. For me, there’s no better way to absorb a place’s atmosphere than to slowly take it all in, on foot. Plus, I can burn off all the tiramisu and wine.
Go on a free walking tour
Clearly I like walking. Whenever someone asks me for travel advice, I always, always recommend free walking tours. They work because you have to tip the guide at the end of the tour, so the guides try their darnedest to rock your world. A quick Google will find you some highly rated tours.
Why does this work? You’ll get oriented. You’ll learn some general history of the place, and you’ll find your bearings. Also, local guides tend to be a fountain of information for good places to eat, interesting sights to see, etc. And they’ll readily dish out the information.
Hit up your hosts/concierge for suggestions
A long time ago I learned that the appropriate question to pose to a local isn’t “Where should I go eat?” but “Where do YOU like to eat?” (Or where do you like to spend your Friday nights, etc.)
A lot of locals figure tourists want to experience the most popular destinations. The hippest restaurant in town; the trendiest club. But if you’re like me, you’re not into that. You wanna sit shoulder to shoulder with the punk rockers at a dingy basement bar in Berlin, slinging back euro shots of Mexicaners. Also, you’re probably broke.
Whether you’re checking into a hostel, hotel, or another property, some simple questions might lead you to some really awesome places.
Grab a drink and sit in a sidewalk cafe
I generally just spend a great deal of time doing this one. It’s another of my favourite things.
I do love sightseeing, don’t get me wrong. But it gets exhausting. I love the Italian “dolce far niente” — the sweetness of doing nothing. So I practice it a lot. In Venice I grabbed a spritzer and sat on a busy sidewalk journalling and people watching; in Krakow I ordered pierogi in the main square and observed the buskers.
People watching is a fine art. Especially if you’re tired and you’ve just arrived in a new city and it’s too late to do much else. And, again, you might be surprised by how much you learn by doing nothing. I’m constantly amazed by the different experiences I have doing this in every country. Every city has a distinctly different vibe.
Learn your history
I don’t care if you’re not a history fan, this is important. I will straight-up judge you if you don’t learn at least a little about the country/city you’re visiting. Not only does it make you respect your destination, but you can express yourself as an educated traveller to the locals instead of just another ill-informed tourist.
Ideally, you’d do this beforehand. But sometimes museums and galleries and tours are your biggest muses. Personally, I try to find documentaries and YouTube videos, especially for significant events. BBC often has free documentaries on YouTube — it’s where I dived into a deeper understanding of the Yugoslavian War and the Berlin Wall, while visiting the Balkans and Berlin (respectively). Podcasts also make for lovely learning sessions, especially on flights.
Start recording your journey as soon as you arrive. If you’re like me and you want to keep a video diary, start right away.