5 Tips on How to Explore a New City

Whenever you visit a new city, you want to see the sights you’ve heard of, but you also want to glimpse the city’s soul. To fill your senses with it, rather than superficially passing through. Like a sponge absorbing the sounds and smells, textures, tastes and colours. I’m always surprised when people visit the galleries and museums the first time they travel to a city. I’m a big fan of art and history, as you may have gathered, but I think it is the fabric of a place that shows you what and who it is, the quality of the air and even (and I shock myself in saying this, antisocial as I am) the people.

1)      Become Familiar With The Map

It’s very important to me that I get a map of a place stuck in my mind, so that I can mentally locate myself, even if I am lost. I often conceptualise thought processes as being like a machine or computer algorithm. I know the human mind is vastly more complex than either, but the process of recalling a correct piece of information reminds me strongly of an electronic criminal database you see on detective dramas, rapidly skipping through options until it locates a match and freezes the screen. Once I have this map inked into my mind, I can add sensory colour through the experiences I gain. A bit like starting with a tube map and transforming it into a living ordinance survey map.

Psalter Mappa Mundi

The Psalter Mappa Mundi (c. 1260 AD). 10 points to Gryffindor if you can spot anywhere at all that you recognise.

2)      Walk Everywhere

The best way to do this is to walk, rather than using public transport or driving (how I wish I’d bothered learning to drive. I put on a bit of weight at the beginning of sixth form so turned into a fitness fanatic, insisting on walking home from school, town and friends’ houses, despite the fact that this was invariably a 2-3hr trek each time. Driving a car did not fit in with this, but I did get thin again so huzzah.) It may be tiring, and take time away from sightseeing, but it will make the experience more visceral and memorable.

My Paris shoes (Dune), purchased specifically for flâneuring, photographed on the steps of Sacré-Cœur

3)      Ask the Locals for Recommendations

The other absolutely essential bit of advice I can give you is ask the locals for suggestions. Tom is excellent at this, as he has a knack for striking up conversations with everyone we meet. The last time we went to Paris we stopped off at a shop selling wine, intending to have a midnight bottle glass of wine on our private balcony together. We asked the vintner for suggestions, and then if there were any good restaurants nearby that wouldn’t be full of tourists. The suggestions he gave us were all unique, and all fantastic. At each restaurant we tried we asked the waitresses to recommend nearby bars along the same lines, and again found each to be exactly what we’d hoped for. I often see tourists in London wandering, horrified, through Leicester Square or along Oxford Street, and want to grab them and send them in the right direction. Stumbling across somewhere to eat/ drink/ dance the night away on your own is exciting and eternally memorable, but capital cities are big places, and you risk finding the worst of them rather than the best.

The view from our balcony in  Paris

4)      Search for the Right Shots, Don’t Just Photograph Everything You See

Even if you’re not a photography enthusiast do take a camera, as you’ll want something to help you remember the trip and to show people, but don’t use it constantly. Use your eyes as well. I have a bit of a fetish for alleyways, so I’m always looking to either side for a shot. Dark and twisting, uneven paving stones or leaning walls, a secret courtyard or walled garden glimmering at the end… these transport my imagination. Look up, look behind you, peer where you’re not supposed to. Capture the buildings, the trees, the people. I never understand why people stand in front of statues, art work etc to have their photo taken with it. Surely you want to be a part of the environment, interacting with and connecting to it, rather than just shouting I-woz-here with a stupid grin on your face? What use is that?

Paris, books and sunshine

The Eiffel Tower (obviously) at night

5)      Do Nothing

You don’t have to see all the sights, or go everywhere your mum/ best friend/ colleagues advised you to. The best way to explore a city is often to do nothing. Wander around, aimlessly, driven only by a desire to see what’s around the next corner or at the end of that strange, unmarked road. Sit outside cafes for hours, sketching, writing or just watching the world go by. It can be a little scary not really knowing where you are or what you’ll find, but as long as you have that map what does it matter? In a new city the ordinary becomes intriguing and beautiful, and that’s what you’ll remember.

The George V

Looking up in an abandoned building we wandered into

I suppose this last shot could be anywhere, but the feel of the sun on my bare arms and a swirl of sounds and smells ripple through my mind whenever I look at it, so to me it could be nowhere but Paris.

Does anyone else have any tips for exploring new cities?

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9 thoughts on “5 Tips on How to Explore a New City

  1. I agree with you entirely. Although visiting cities usually encompasses a long weekend, we never rush to see the “top ten” places – if we happen upon them, well ok, but we don’t seek them out. I’m also a great mind mapper – if I have a rough idea of the layout of the place in my head then it helps, as you so eloquently put it, to colour it in with experiences.

    • Thanks – friends are always horrified when I go trotting off without consulting the guidebook, but it’s the thrill of the unknown that you remember. Jx

  2. I particularly like #2 and #5. In London, it’s so easy to get the tube and not realise what’s going on above your head. There’s so much to see if you walked some of it!

    As for ‘Doing nothing’, I agree plus would add ‘Getting lost’. Along with walking everywhere, if you go off track a little, sometimes you come across some little know gems or get to see some of the city you hadn’t planned. So getting lost is a good thing!

  3. “Wander aimlessly” is always the term I use too when I travel too, walking of course! Great post!

  4. Very well written. I especially agree with 2 and 3. Walking leads to discoveries you’d never find by being insulated in a car. And taking locals advice may lead to some of the best experiences of a trip.

    You have really captured the essence of absorbing a new place well. Thanks for sharing.

  5. i am totally with you… walking and doing non-tourist things are huge. of course you wouldn’t want to be in paris and miss out on the “touristy” eiffel tower and the louvre, but make sure to sit and read a book for an hour at a sidewalk cafe, too. stop and take in all of the atmosphere and try to understand what it would be like to live in that place.

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