There's nothing more exciting than arriving in a new place where you know hardly anything about the local culture or attractions. The thrill of traveling somewhere new to you and being ready to adventure and experience something different is the ultimate feeling for a traveler.
But sometimes it can be really overwhelming too. How do you know where to start exploring? How do you make sure you experience real local life while avoiding money-sucking tourist traps? Every city is unique, but here's a game plan that will help you have a stress-free and fun first few days in just about any place.
Do only a little research
Okay, this part is actually a little trickier than it seems. One of the easiest ways to ruin a travel experience is to try to learn too much about a place before you arrive. This may seem counter intuitive -- wouldn't you want to know as much as possible before you go? In my experience, not really. You don't want to build up expectations solely based on what you read online from travel guides or random travelers who may not have the same interests as you.
To truly learn about a place, you have to go and experience it yourself and be open to just about anything that may happen. That being said, you still don't want to arrive knowing absolutely nothing. Look into basic things like how the public transit system works, key phrases in the local language, and try to find out what the city is known for as far as new kinds of food, nightlife, and art.
Ask for recommendations
Exploring a new city on foot or by bike with no destination in mind is a great way to get a feel for the culture and vibe of the people. It can be a lot of fun as long as you are in a vibrant area. Ask the hostel staff or locals where the happening business or arts districts are and head that way. For some cities, it's downtown or the city center that's lively while other cities may have specific neighborhoods that are more fun.
If you are asking for recommendations on restaurants or bars, make sure to find out why someone likes a certain spot. Just knowing that someone loves a place doesn't help you know if you'll like it - one person's perfect spot could be your worst nightmare.
But still stay open to new ideas. If the suggestion sounds like a bizarre place, it may be worth checking out for the experience. And of course, if a city is famous for a certain dish or type of restaurant, you should try it out even if it feels super touristy.
Adapt to the culture
There's no point in traveling to a new place if you are only going to do things you'd normally do at home. Your destination is not your hometown, so don't arrive assuming certain things will be the same. I've made that mistake before when traveling and it will only leave you dissatisfied with your trip and blind to the unique beauty your destination does offer.
The best way to explore and enjoy a new city is to accept each place for what it has to offer and to try to make connections with local people. Leave your expectations and any emotional baggage at the train station and enter your new city willing to learn and interact with new people. After all, traveling is oftentimes more about who you meet on the journey, not where the journey ends up.
The most helpful travel advice I've ever gotten is this: Don't do something just to check it off your list. Don't feel like there are certain things you have to do at your destination as a rite of passage just because everyone else does them. If you really aren't that interested in a certain attraction, don't feel like you lost out by skipping it. The best moments always end up happening at hole-in-the-wall local joints or just by hanging out in public squares and parks anyway.
(Brought to you by Ally Thibault)