I have to admit that I’m a terrible tourist. I love travelling, but I hate feeling like an outsider – I want to know where to get the best coffee, I want to buy fresh bread from a good bakery and make a sandwich for lunch, I want to lie in the sunshine in a cool park and watch the world go by.
I hate running around madly and ticking off the ‘must-see’ sights. I much prefer to actually experience a place, to get under its skin, and feel like I’m part of it – even if it’s only for a few days.
If this sounds like your kind of travel, there are a couple of techniques that you can use to ensure you’re getting a slightly more authentic experience than the package-holiday-style frenzy that seems to characterise a lot of city mini-breaks.
It’s not rocket-science, it’s really just about getting to grips with the day-to-day life of how people live. How do they travel to work? What sort of apartments do they live in? How do they shop? Cook? Eat? This style of travel strategy means that you don’t always see every cathedral, museum, or post-card worthy view of whichever place that you’re visiting, but you always come away feeling like you’ve learnt a little about the world.
Embrace the public transport system. Even if it initially feels a bit overwhelming and confusing, even if it’s all in a language that you don’t understand – getting to grips with a city’s public transport system is a sure-fire way that you’ll get a deeper perspective on how people live and work in the destination that you’re living in.
Not only is it generally a cheaper way to get around town, usually it’s also the quickest way.
Tokyo is a classic example. When you first enter the Tokyo metro system, it’s like a different world – millions of people all on their way somewhere, signs in an alphabet that you can’t read, and a complex system of train lines and ticketing. But once you slow your breathing down and get your focus, it’s really do-able. There’s always some English signage if you look for it, you can get a stored value travel card which sorts out the ticketing for you, and if you ask for help most of the staff will speak enough English to get you where you need to go.
Metro systems in major cities generally all work on the same principles. Once you’ve worked out how the different lines are categorised, how the ticketing works, and where you need to get to, then it’s just basic map-reading. Easy.
Renting an apartment is the best way to really immerse yourself in the day-to-day rhythm of a city, or at least one small part of it.
Barcelona is a city that works particularly well for renting apartments – there’s a huge range of private rentals available, all in pretty central locations. Wander down Las Ramblas, grab some supplies from La Boqueria food market, sit on the beach to work on your tan, have some snacks and drinks, and then wander back to your apartment for a siesta before hitting the bars and clubs. The perfect way to experience one of the world’s greatest cities.
Most cities seem to have a healthy supply of apartments available for private, short-term rental – anywhere from Paris, Berlin, London, or Lisbon. Make sure you choose a location that’s as central as possible, or alternatively in the part of the city that you want to explore. It may not always be as luxurious or convenient as a hotel, but staying in a private apartment will give you a completely different perspective on your chosen destination.
I’m always fascinated to wander around supermarkets and food shops in cities that I’m visiting. There’s always quite a few familiar brands and products on the shelf, but there’s also a heap of things that will have a bit of a local flavour or that you may not have tried before. It’s one of the excuses that I often use for stocking up on beer and crisps - you have to experience the local version. I love the huge range of Kit Kat flavours that you can find in Japan, or grabbing a huge leg of jamon in Spain, or just mooching around a supermarket in France and picking up some cheese and wine.