I enjoy telling a local where I’ve been and having them ask How did you even find that place? (National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago). I once told someone from Chicago I’d eaten at a specific restaurant and he said That place is so new I haven’t had a chance to get there yet. Or the cab driver who turned around to question why I wanted to go to a certain address in Las Vegas (artists’ lofts, though he pointed out the 60’s store from the AmEx commercial). Leave the tourist zone. Explore where you are as if you lived there.
Half the fun of traveling is being somewhere else. Don’t limit yourself to what’s in the guide book. Get out and stretch your legs. Cover new ground with your eyes and ears open, camera at the ready.
One of my favorite tricks is to take a cab or a bus somewhere and then walk back to my hotel. Engage the driver in an honest conversation and maybe you’ll learn a little more about your destination. Remember: it’s all about neighborhoods.
Take a camera and really make an effort to use it. Use it as a tool to help you see not just look at things. Or double up and use your cell phone’s camera. You can upload photos immediately if the resolution is good enough you don’t need to carry another gadget with you.
When our kids were young we gravitated towards school yards and nice city parks. Both are visible on maps. Or ask other parents. Once again, this gets you out into a neighborhood. Kids meet other kids no matter where they are. We’ve also bought lunch and headed to a park for a picnic.
Take the bus. Don’t laugh I’ve done it in San Francisco, D.C., and Lausanne. It’s intensely local by nature. Bus lines go from point A and point B, often on main drags or from residential to business or along rivers or ridges. Public transportation guarantees an encounter with the local public. Ride the bus, subway, or ferry. Getting there is half the fun. Getting lost is the other half.
Ask the locals where they go. Start with the hotel staff and/or restaurant staff. Don’t laugh, it seems cliched, but believe me I would have never found that Salvadoran restaurant in the Mission District in SF or the better walk from the hotel to Goose Island Brewing in Chicago if not for the hotel staff.
Surf the local alternative weekly newspaper’s web site before you go as well as Google Maps. Look for clusters of art galleries, interesting restaurants, music stores, bookstores, etc. Such clusters represent the neighborhoods you’ll want to explore (or not).
How can you leave town without checking out the local museums? They’re guaranteed to be different than what you have at home. Often closed on Monday’s but low cost other days of the week. Don’t forget the small local museums including historical societies.
When in Rome... I find it a kick to listen to local weather forecasts and traffic reports. It assumes a shared geography complete with nicknames that you’re not privy to. For instance everyone in Seattle knows where the S curves and the Mercer Mess are.
When done right, travel is magic.