Tips For Getting To Know A New City

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“Buenos Aires is one of the most overrated destinations I’ve ever been,” says the author in this article. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that everyone has to like everything that I like (though my boyfriend, and many of my friends would tell you differently).

But, I do think that you have to give cities, especially large, populous, bustling metropolises, a little more than a few days to seduce you. I’ve lived in Chicago, Buenos Aires, and Houston. Three massive cities that all take time to really know what makes them tick.

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It’s kind of like my rule for deciding if I like a new album. Before I become obsessed or throw it out the window, I at least listen to an entire album, three times through.

The first time, I get the sound.

The second time, I get the meaning.

And the third time, I either love it, like it, or don’t need it.

To truly get underneath a new city’s facade, you must curate your city experience.

Most cities are not meant to please the traveler. They’re meant for the local. It’s the secrets, the whispers, the spots hidden away, that reveal a city’s true colors. I rarely stumble into a restaurant in Chicago. I spend hours, days, researching places that I want to check out. Why would I stumble anywhere in Rome? Or Buenos Aires? No, its the recommendations from locals that show you the truth of a city’s culture.

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Buenos Aires may have many “cookie cutter” (his words) streets that look too familiar. That is, if you’re walking down the major roads, Corrientes, Cordoba, and Santa Fe. Instead, take out your Guia T (even the locals use use this map-bible) and stumble down the cobblestones of San Telmo, Palermo or Recoleta, instead. 

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” ― Charles Baudelaire

There are dilapidated buildings situated safely down the street from historic, ivy-covered mansions. You’ll find sardine-packed cobblestone roads just around the corner from an underground speakeasy.

But that’s the beauty of Buenos Aires. It isn’t out in plain view. There are picturesque neighborhoods like Palermo and Recoleta, but if you walk down Cordoba or Avenida 9 De Julio, you’re not going to fall in love with this city. It’s a concrete jungle with scars from a decade-long recession. At best you’ll get pushed to the side and at worst someone may slap you in the face so they can rip off your grandfather’s gold necklace.

Buenos Aires was home to me for a year and I fell in love fast.

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Sipping mate in a park, savoring a steak and wine and dancing until dawn with my local porteño friends are just a few of the many reasons that keep me swooning over the city to this day, five years after I left.  

But, I arrived having done research. I knew where to get a drink, a bite to eat and shop. While my travel planning looks very different when I’m about to go immerse myself in nature, I don’t leave cities up to chance, especially when I have limited time.

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TIP #1: RESEARCH BEFORE YOU GO

My advice for travelers heading to a new city is to do some digging first. If you know someone, ask them to show you around or even just give you suggestions. I tend to check out something simple that I trust, like the New York Times 36 Hours Series, to get me started. Review a brief history of the city – even Wikipedia can work for a quick background check. Didn’t get the chance to learn before you left? Ask the cabbies, they know everything. 

TIP #2: WALKING TOUR

During my first trip abroad to Israel for five weeks when I was 15, I learned that to know a city is to walk it. The footsteps that you share with those that have laughed and cried through the streets of a city reveal its soul.

Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. ― Rebecca Solnit

You can choose to do a group walking tour, but I always do some exploring on my own. I take a map, sometimes with major landmarks on it, or use an app like Lonely Planet that has self-guided walking tours, and I just get going.

And please, wear comfortable shoes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed myself for trying to look good instead of protecting my feet.

TIP #3: DO AS THE LOCALS DO

This is where I tell you do as the locals do! Go eat a restaurant that is filled with people who are speaking the native language of the city you’re visiting – and I mean PACKED. I never eat somewhere that’s empty. It’s bad food juju. Wait in the damn line.

Check out one of the bars that you researched before you left. Spark up a conversation with someone in that bar or restaurant and ask for another recommendation. Or, grab a coffee and people watch.

Go do whatever it looks like the locals are doing.

Talk to people.

Share your story.

Ask about theirs. 

TIP #4: EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY

Food drives much of my travels. I have spoiled taste buds, so I like to know that the food I’m going to encounter will be representative of the delicious and diverse food culture of a city. From street food to high-end restaurants, I plan ahead. 

In Chicago, I use lists like Thrillist to find new, trending places and user-generated LTH Forum for hole-in-the-wall discoveries. In Buenos Aires, I quickly discovered Guia Oleo  (restaurant guide sans user reviews) and for my culinary journey. In Italy (Rome, Bologna and Florence), I compiled lists from friends and ultimately used a packet of recommendations created by a high-end travel agent from my father’s previous trip. 

The longer I get to know the city, the more I dive into more locally-sourced resources.

TIP #5: DON’T JUDGE TOO QUICK

I didn’t fall in love with Lima.

I only spent two days there, did zero research before I arrived, and came in with a bias because I was so smitten with Buenos Aires. I regret not taking the time to really get to know the city and I hope I have the chance to go back one day. But the thing about cities is, the weather might be crappy.

You may get ripped off by a cab driver. You might find yourself in a really touristy area and get overwhelmed by the millions of people that are passing by you. Just try your best to keep an open mind and look for what makes a city special. Especially in big cities, millions of people live there for a reason.

Make it your job to find that reason. 

 

Can you share any tips for visiting a new city?

 

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I'm Emily - a twenty-something female travel-enthusiast - here to serve and inspire you. Need help planning your next trip? Email me at emily [at] letsroamwild [dot] com and tag your own travel pics to share with the world @letsroamwild.

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8 Responses to Tips For Getting To Know A New City

  1. Rachel of Hippie in Heels May 13, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    walking tours are so great esp when you can tip what you think is fair and in your budget. I did them all over Europe. When I first came to India I said I hate bombay after 4 days there- every travelers I met agreed. EVERY SINGLE ONE. then I moved to INdia. Now, 1.5 years later, I LOVE bombay. It took time to figure out the city and where the alternative nightlife was and now I crave weekends up there to party away from the beach where I can put on a club dress and some heels & watch my friends DJ
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted…When to Travel to India: Everything You Need to KnowMy Profile

    • Emily Moyer May 13, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

      It’s all about figuring out what makes a city tick. There have been so many instances where I haven’t put any effort into researching a city beforehand and I leave with such a shallow understanding of all that city has to offer. I rarely do organized walking tours, but instead will use a map, wikipedia or an app on my iphone (did that all over Italy). I’ll have to try out an organized one on my next trip! Especially for big cities, I feel like that’d be worth it!

  2. Joella in Beijing May 14, 2014 at 4:22 am #

    Ahh Buenos Aires! I haven’t been there for many years, but it still holds a big part of my heart 🙂 My favourite way to get to know a city is literally just to walk around it as much as I can! it’s the best way to stumble upon interesting places.
    Joella in Beijing recently posted…Unusual Places: Airplane Beach in Sint MaartenMy Profile

    • Emily Moyer May 17, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      I swear its one of those cities that just captures a part of you. I can’t wait to go back one day!

  3. Agness May 17, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

    I love this post because it reflects exactly what I do and how I explore new places when travelling. I do what locals do and always follow fellow travelers’ recommendations! It feels great to eat local food, dance on the beach and go absolutely crazy with visiting hidden and undiscovered by ordinary travelers places!
    Agness recently posted…5 Ways To Beat Homesickness When TravellingMy Profile

    • Emily Moyer May 18, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      I agree. And while I find myself in my happy place in nature, I really am a city girl too and just love finding great, hidden spots!

  4. Steve May 18, 2014 at 2:44 am #

    I agree with everything you have said. It is a great way of getting into the underbelly of a city. I will be following the tips on my trip to Portugal next month.
    Steve recently posted…Photo Essay – Ice CreamMy Profile

    • Emily Moyer May 18, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      Thanks, Steve! Like anything, doing a little prep beforehand about a city really can make or break your experience.

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