“Whether you’re trekking to an exotic locale or revisiting an old haunt, get more pleasure from your vacation with these pointers.
Visiting a new town is like having a conversation. Places ask questions of you just as searchingly as you question them. And, as in any conversation, it helps to listen with an open mind, so you can be led somewhere unexpected. The more you leave assumptions at home, I’ve found, the better you can hear whatever it is that a destination is trying to say to you.
While in Venice a few months ago, I asked myself (and it) whether its art stood in the way of other things, like modernity and convenience. And with each turn I took, Venice asked me why I didn’t just accept its art for what it was. I haven’t quite worked it out, but asking the question made me more focused while there and led to deeper questions that I’m still asking back at home.
With that in mind, here are the things that I always do to set the conversation in motion.
1. Savor every moment of your first few hours. First impressions really are worth a thousand others. I often scribble a hundred pages of notes when I visit somewhere new. But then, when I get home, it’s always the first page or two – the taxi ride in from the airport, my first foray out onto the streets – that captures something vivid and essential before my ideas and prejudices begin to harden. So stay away from e-mail, CNN, and anything that reminds you of home and just soak the place in.
2. Embrace the prospect of being a tourist. Some snooty types will tell you that they’re “travelers,” not tourists. But if being a tourist means wanting to see all the attractions that make a town unique, then what’s so bad about that? Take the three-hour city tour on your first day so you know where things are and what you wish to return to. When traveling abroad, visit the shops recommended by tour guides, if only to see what’s available from people who speak English. Don’t be shy about asking a local stranger how to find the national museum; she may just offer you a guided tour along the way.
3. Devour the hotel literature. Don’t ignore the glossy magazines placed on your desk or lists of sightseeing activities in the guest-services brochure. They may tell you what is happening in town.
4. Run an errand for a friend. She’s asked you to get, say, a special face cream in Paris. The very search for what someone else wants or values (and it doesn’t really matter what it is) will lead you to places you would otherwise never see.
5. Take in a performance or a sporting event. A ball game or a symphony is transporting and doesn’t require you to speak the language. And watching opera in Beijing or soccer in Rio will be nothing like seeing opera or soccer at home.
6. Check out a bookstore. It’s a great way to learn about the interests of the locals. Poking into even the smallest of these places not only opens a new door to a city but also offers the promise of a good read to keep you company at night.
7. Ride a bus to the end of the line. It isn’t wise to do this everywhere, but riding the bus to even the next six stops can be useful. At the very least, you’ll see something of the city, get a front-seat view (literally) of what the Romans do in Rome, and end up in surprising destinations. I did this in Miami once and found myself in a spicy part of Little Havana that nobody would have mistaken for South Beach, and yet it seemed to capture the essence of the city.
8. Read the daily newspaper. Almost every big city anywhere has an English-language paper, and even papers you can’t read will startle you with their pictures and their different types of tiny print. Newspapers always tell you much more about a place than they think they’re telling.
9. Go to McDonald’s. In Kyoto, you could see chicken tatsuta burgers, corn-potage soup, and, in autumn, moon-viewing burgers on the menu, and your fellow diners might be dressed in Vivienne Westwood or Dior. In Bolivia, the McDonald’s I visited was so exotic that society ladies sipped their McCoffees under the watchful eye of a security guard. What else are we looking for in travel (and in love and in life) but a tasty mix of the strange and the familiar?
10. Get lost. (In the nicest sense.)
By Pico Iyer (from Real Simple Magazine and edited by me)