This was the first time I was actually planning to spend time in cities. ‘Planning to’ is the key phrase. So of course, I have visited cities before, but I had never really planned to spend a considerable part of my vacation in cities. It always just happened – I was travelling on work, and decided to spend the weekend exploring the city; or a friend had invited me to visit her place, and she took me ‘sight-seeing’ as they say; or most often, in transit – that is, when we had to go to the countryside, or to the forest, you still need a city for the airplane to land, or the train to start. So, this was the first time I was actually planning to spend a significant amount of time of my holiday in cities. Well, I had done that with London, but London is different, and that’s an altogether different post.
Well, to come back to my European sojourn this year, I planned to spend time in three different cities – Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. For someone who knows me, this would be quite strange. I am a nature lover, and vacation time being so littleand precious, I have always invested maximum time in mountains, forests, and the sea. It’s not that I hated cities, I was always curious about life in cities abroad, but when it came down to choice, cities always came a distinct second, and therefore received step-daughter treatment.
So yeah, for this trip, I decided that I would do things a bit differently. I put on my planning hat, set my chai to brew, told the hubby about my grand intentions, increased the volume of the music, finally sat in front of the computer….and drew a blank.
I realized that I really didn’t know where to start. This might feel strange to people who have traveled to all the famous cities – Paris, New York, Vienna, London, Sydney bla bla bla. And to those who have loved the buzz of cities, and have wrapped themselves in it. But me, I had planned for hikes, and walks; I had researched small towns and quaint villages; I had looked for quiet sea side, non-touristy villages.
What was I supposed to look for in cities? Where did I start? What exactly could you do in cities for so long?
Well, I am back, and I have to say that I enjoyed my stay, much more than what I expected. So, based on this and previous experiences, here’s my list of tips for exploring a city.
1. Tourism Office – Well, this is the most obvious one. But I have noted that most often, people do not really use this facility. You should. Most tourist offices provide you with city maps, free brochures and a whole lot of good advice. This of course does not mean that you do only the ‘touristy’ things recommended by the person at the counter. It just means that you get more local information, and sometimes, a different perspective. It also doesn’t mean that you do not do any prior research; it just means that you use the research to ask more pointed questions, and you get more specific information.
Example: In Budapest, I was looking for cultural shows, and it was recommended that I go for a Hungarian folk show, as well as for the Opera in Hungarian State Opera. This was the typical touristy stuff to do. However, I was keen to watch ballet, and had read about the Erkel theatre in Budapest. This theatre did not have the grandeur of the old palaces or the old theatre, but it was supposed to have conducted the best shows in town. The theatre is in a modern building, the seating is plush and comfortable, but best of all – it’s a really local experience. The theatre is supposed to have been built so that locals could also enjoy the best of the arts at a fraction of the tourist prices. The tourism office does not really advertise this place, but on checking with them, they gave me good directions, and I watched the most incredible show of my life – modern ballet.
2. Maps – Again, a pretty obvious one right? I include this here, because I am horrible at maps, and never really used them optimally. During my solo trip, I had made a conscious decision to use public transportation as much as I could; and once that was done, there was no other option, but to rely on maps. For people who know me, they know how directionally challenged I am – I could get lost within my own apartment complex! I am still not great at it, but I have gotten better.
Once I figured out how easy it was to read the maps for the subway and trams, I was much more confident about venturing into different parts of the city. The more I ventured, the more I discovered.
3. Public Transportation – Well, in Europe this is really well sorted, and unbelievably cheap. The best way to really get a sense of the city is through its streets, or in places where the locals would be. And where else would this be – in the subways, trains, buses. When I was on a business trip in Germany, every day I would walk to the railway station, wait with all formally dressed commuters in the station, join the crowds as they walked into the trains, listen to music on my phone like they did, walk down the platforms, grab a pretzel from one of the stands, and then walk to office. It was the highlight of my trip. I would feel like I was a part of the German life, that for a few minutes, I was ‘local’, and there was this whole buzz of the city that was claiming me.
My super-useful tip of the day – Take a day pass. Most cities have the option of taking a 24-hour pass, or a 48-hour pass. I did. And loved it. So 5 euros in Prague – and you can take any public transportation – buses, trams, metro, unlimited number of times. This gives you unlimited freedom – go anywhere, get lost, want to explore more – you can do all of that, without worrying about getting new tickets!
4. Streets – Okay, this is not a reiteration of the previous point. But as I said, a city breathes in its streets. As you explore it’s streets, you breathe in the essence of the city. The architecture, the colors, the tree-lined avenues, the traffic, the shops, the fashion, and most importantly, the people you meet on the streets – give you clues about the city. So walk! Walk in all possible directions, get lost, get muddled – you will find your way back, you will find the most unusual treasures in the most unexpected places.
5. Cuisine – So, before anybody says much, I know this is quite difficult for the budget traveler. If I had to try out local cuisine all the time, well – I wouldn’t be a budget traveler then. But there are ways, as I discovered, and you really don’t have to compromise much. First – always plan for one local delicacy, and make sure you definitely spend your time and money on it. That way, you feel that you have at least got a ‘taste’ of the place, and anything else is a surplus. And there’s always something’s cheap – something you definitely can afford! So yeah, the cocktails were 4 euros in Tkalciceva street in Zagreb, but Croatian beer was one euro! So yeah, a beer, a plate of barbeque pork ribs, and watching the world go by in Zagreb’s party street – all for less than 5 euros – what could be better than that?
P.S – and food does give you different perspectives about a place. Don’t believe me. After seeing so many doner kebab shops in Germany, I enquired with a German friend, and he told me that Turkish food is the most popular fast food in Germany. Not pizza, not schnitzel, not Mcdonalds – but Turkish food! Interesting isn’t it?
6. Shows – Okay, so this is the most non-obvious one. But a lot of cities, especially historical ones, have a very vibrant art and cultural scene. So I understand it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but explore! I did, and while I didn’t likes ome parts of it, I quite enjoyed a major part of it. So I didn’t quite like the concert I attended in Vienna, but hey, I never thought I would have watched the ‘Viennese Waltz’ in Vienna. It was great! So were the modern ballet and the Hungarian folk dance I saw in Hungary. Again, it was not just the performance (which was spectacular), it was the whole experience – going to the theater, dressing up, watching the locals, watching the fashion, talking to people (and pretending you know about art! J ) and of course, enjoying the final performance.
7. Try not to be touristy – Okay, so this is a contradiction to the first point. But let me see if I can explain. Most people think that a tour is the best way to see all the prominent places in a city. I wouldn’t disagree completely – but well, a city is not about the sights, or the monuments. So while a hop-on, hop-off tour is good when you have half a day in a city, it’s the not the best to get a feel of the city. With me, there’s usually a trigger that sets me off, and I use that as a starting point – it could be a book I read about an alley in the city, it could be a story I read about a historical monument, it could even be food I saw on the TLC channel. When I went to Prague, I couldn’t help but remember Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Similarly, as I walked through the rest of Eastern Europe, I couldn’t help but remember it’s communist past. So even though I didn’t really visit the museum of communism, I imagined life in the city in that era. A slice of time in a different era.
8. People – A city belongs to its people. A city is ‘its’ people. Try to make friends with the locals, and they will take you the best places in town. I was lucky enough to have a German friend come along with me while I explored Hamburg, and she showed me a side of Hamburg, I would have never ever seen if I had just explored it through the tourism office. I met her friends, went for dinner with them, visited local eateries and pubs, and had a gala time. My impressions of Germans was that of – well, a serious bunch of extremely reserved people – but as I interacted with them, I saw a completely different side to them. They were helpful, sweet, fun, and as strange as it sounds, funny!
So yeah – a city is not always the first choice for holidays, but it has it’s perks, it’s quirks, and it’s quite, quite enjoyable. So go on, enjoy! And tell me about your best moments in cities!