I don’t know if it’s a “millennial thing” or what but I’ve noticed more young people choosing to spend their vacation time in cities. Whereas places like New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago have always drawn visitors because of their top notch museums and historic and cultural sites, smaller and trendier cities are starting to become tourist destinations as well. Although I’m not sure most of their visitors would like being labeled a “tourist.” More people than ever are flocking to cities like Austin, Nashville, Asheville, Portland, and Seattle to spend a long weekend doing seemingly normal “non-vacation” things.
I’m not sure what to credit this travel trend to but I kind of like it (don’t get me wrong, I’m a beach vacation girl at heart) and it’s always fun to see what it would be like to live in a different place.
Whenever I’m heading to a new city, I usually have a list of places I want to hit, sites I want to see, and food I want to eat. Some cities (or towns) have some pretty famous sites that are definite must sees but besides just touring, I like to plan a little time to explore that city like a local. But how can you do that when you’ve never been there before? Here are a few ways to explore a new place and really get a feel for what it’s like besides just seeing the touristy stuff:
Stay at a local boutique hotel. While staying at a hotel chain can be convenient (especially if you’re part of a loyalty program), staying at a boutique hotel will give you a more local experience and you’ll get a better feel for the “vibe” of the city. Boutique hotels have a lot of personality and since they’re usually locally owned and operated, the management and staff are sometimes much more involved in the local community and can give you some tips for some local exploring. These types of hotels are also often located in the trendier or more historic parts of town.
I know, I know, I know. A lot of people like staying in Airbnbs for this reason, but I have an issue staying in non-condo (or places that are zoned for short term vacation rentals) rentals in cities in particular. I feel like the expansion of Airbnb is a major contributor to housing crises in many areas.
Explore local neighborhoods. Especially if you’re visiting a big city, it’s easy to get lost in the touristy areas and not get a feel for local life. If you can pinpoint a few neighborhoods to explore, you’ll probably end up finding some hidden treasures and get to know what the city is really like. A big city may have dozens and dozens of neighborhoods, some broken down by ethnicity (Little Italy, Chinatown, etc.) historic areas, or just a revitalization of a particular part of town. When you pick a neighborhood and explore its shops, restaurants, and streets, you’ll really get to know the personality of a place.
Check out the local art scene. Different places may be notable for different types and styles of art, may be the home of a famous artist or movement, or could be the birth place of an up and coming movement. Check out museums and art centers as well as small galleries and even studios that give lessons. I ALWAYS do a little research on what kind of street art a city has before I visit and try to check out a few spots.
Hang out in local coffee shops. This is one of my favorite ways to get to know a new place. Coffee shops are often a hub of the community and a good place to catch up on work (or reading) or just stop in for fuel in the middle of your day.
Visit cultural and historic centers and sites. Most of my “to dos” when I visit a new place revolve around its history. Visiting important sites (I’m on a mission to visit all 412 of the historic sties operated by the National Park Service) is a must do for me but visiting cultural centers or historic centers that offer an interpretive history of the event or area is equally important. I’ll admit it’s not a terribly “local” thing to do, but most locals don’t often take advantage of what’s around them (you probably don’t where you live) unless it was on a class field trip as a kid.
Take a walking tour or admire the architecture. A city or town is literally made up of its buildings so noticing their architectural style or historic significance is pretty important. One of the best ways to do this is a walking tour of a specific neighborhood/area or a bus or trolley tour is the area is bigger. A tour guide will be able to point out sites of interest and give some context and back story that you would otherwise miss. I think this is especially a must do if the town or city is known for a particular style of architecture. I’m from Tulsa (OK) and most people don’t realize how many art deco style building there are here (the third most per capita in the country behind NYC and Miami).
Shop local. In keeping with the local theme here, forgo shopping at the mall and hit up some local stores instead. They’re usually clustered in areas that have been revitalized. It’s also fun to always find a particular type of store when you’re in a new place. I like to visit local bookstores for example.
Eat the food the place is famous for. Different cities (or regions) are famous for different things and when in Rome…or rather…when in the south, eat barbeque. When in New York, eat pizza, and when in Texas, eat Mexican food, etc. I also like to try out any famous local institutions a city has to offer. Trip Advisor is a good resource to find these.
Spend time in parks, recreation areas, and botanical gardens. When you’re in a new place, don’t forget to get OUTSIDE and actually see it. I LOVE visiting botanical gardens in different cities. Maybe start a fun tradition like visiting the zoo in every city you go to?
Attend local events. You’ll have to do some research in advance if you want to hit a particular event or festival while you’re in town but look for sporting events, cultural festivals, concerts, and weekly or monthly events that bring certain neighborhoods together.
Follow locals on Instagram. With so many amazing Instagram accounts these days, it’s pretty easy to find someone who lives in the city or area you’ll be visiting. Search hashtags or geotags or look up a big account like the visitor’s bureau to see who they’re following from the area. Local “influencers” always have the pulse on what’s going on in town.