I live in a big city and I see people like you every day: getting off of trains, bursting with enthusiasm; pouring into the hostels and out of the museums; rubbing your hands together and asking, “So, what’s next?” I have been in your shoes many times, because I love visiting new cities too. But to be honest, feeling like an outsider kind of drives me nuts.
Maybe it’s because I live in a big city, but I dislike awkwardly navigating a new social landscape for the very first time and wondering where I fit in. Because of that, I’ve tried to learn as many shortcuts as I can for bypassing that outsider stage.
This might sound like counterintuitive advice because, well, what’s the point of travelling if you’re not going to step outside your comfort zone? But ideally, stepping outside of your culture will take you far enough as it is. There is no need to force the issue by stepping outside of yourself, as well.
However, it is a tricky line to tread; for example, seeking out the nearest Big Mac is definitely staying way too close to what you already know! But by gravitating towards the same interests that you do back home, you’ll see and hear plenty of regional differences that will give you a taste of the exotic unknown. Absorbing all of those differences will probably teach you more about the culture than bombarding yourself with completely foreign sensations will do. Better yet, you’ll be experiencing them in a context that you already understand, making the local colours easier to see and appreciate.
So I guess the bottom line is that, when I travel, I usually search for people, groups and activities that share an ethos like mine, rather than ones that just look the same as what I already know or have back home. Basically I’m trying to look past the outward similarities (and differences) of the culture, to find a deeper connection.
For example, I like the open air party scene in Berlin, which is mostly ad hoc and unofficial. When I visited Montreal one year, I couldn’t find any open air parties but I did hear about a weekly drumming circle in Mount Royal Park, which is kind of the same thing: people gathering to hear music in a free, natural setting. It was a perfect fit for me while still being foreign and exotic: the best of both worlds!
Once you have that personal focus, the rest of your city trip will unfold naturally as a local strolling from one favourite haunt to another…. just as long as you follow your intuition, that is.
Unlike many other travel destinations – the beach, or a set of ruins – a city is a dazzling mix of all things at once: landmarks, people, cultures, nature, and history. Even after you’ve narrowed your focus down, checking out all the things that you want to see can send you into a tailspin!
Look at the locals and you’ll notice that they’re not scurrying around, trying to compress as much as they can into a few hours or days. They know that’s impossible! Instead, they take in as much as their focus allows every day, honing in on a couple of the most compelling activities instead of half-doing several things.
As a ballpark figure, I usually take whatever the minimum amount of time that a guidebook recommends I need to “do” the city and then multiply that by three if I’m planning on “doing it like a local”.
If you spot something cool, wait until you’ve seen it a couple of times before snapping a shot of it; that way, you’ll absorb its meaning and context first and get the local’s eye view. The locals here weren’t born with cameras in their hands, after all, and their impressions of the city will have grown on them over time. So when travelling like a local, I always aim to let them grow on me the same way.
Besides, taking time to see your subject on different days and in different lights, before you record it on film, gives you a perfect excuse to get to know the ‘hood a little better. Which brings me to my next point…
This seems like another counterintuitive tip because, surely, the whole point of going abroad is to go as far as possible. Again, I’d tend to disagree – you don’t have to go far to explore!
Besides, your favourite ‘hood is your favourite because it’s a little piece of you that’s taken root in this foreign town. Stick around there and you’ll probably find the local equivalents of you and your friends there, doing the same things you do… but differently. Again, this gives you a chance to see how the same characteristics manifest differently elsewhere.
When visiting a new city, it’s best to make sure that you are the theme of your trip. It might sound a bit arrogant but it’s not because, in a way, every city was made for people like you. Cities are artificial entities born entirely of individuals and their achievements, journeys and dreams. Add a little bit of your own to the mix and you’ll fit right in.