City travel: How to make it an enriching experience?

Agreed that cities can not provide the allure of nature. But what cities have in abundance are people. Which means opportunities to make new friends and make a special travel memory. City travel is the perfect starting point to understand the pulse of a new place and ease into a new culture.

When it comes to travel, cities often get a bad rap.Cities are just a stopover to the actual destination. While travelers consider mountains or beaches exciting, they are often not happy with the city travel experience.

Agreed that cities can not provide the allure of nature. But what cities have in abundance are people. Which means opportunities to make new friends and make a special travel memory. City travel is the perfect starting point to understand the pulse of a new place and ease into a new culture.

“Touch-and-go” is never the best way to explore a place and this can’t be truer when it comes to cities. Think of cities as complex creatures which take time to understand. But once you let yourself absorb in its flavour, city travel can be rewarding. A few small things like a local friend, a reliable mobile network and heeding to local advice can make a huge difference to your impression of a city.

These are some tips we have learnt to make city travel an enriching travel experience.

Make friends in the city you plan to visit BEFORE you get there

Having a friend in a new city has two main advantages.

  • First, just knowing someone personally takes the “stranger” feeling out and makes you comfortable with the idea of being in a new place.
  • Second, this friend is a local in this new city you are visiting hence automatically becomes your source of local information.

But how do you make a friend in a place you have never ever visited? Couchsurfing is our go-to website for this. If we can find a host in a new city, it’s the ideal case scenario for us. Staying with a local family in their home gives us a local perspective of the city we are visiting. It is the perfect starting point for us to start our city exploration.

Get the local “essentials”

What is the first thing you do when you travel at home? Inform your family that you have reached safely, right? That’s exactly what you should be doing in a new city as well.

In India, having a reliable network like Airtel has eased our entry into many new places. Not just to inform family back home about our safe arrival but also to get in touch with our local contact.

When we landed in Kochi, there was some sort of a taxi strike going on and the cab drivers who were on the ground were quoting atrocious amounts. A quick phone call to Kevin, our homestay host told us that there were regular AC buses, we could just wait at the airport till the bus got there. For sure, we reached the place for a tenth of the cost the cab drivers were asking. Having an assured network gets the hassles out from the planning.

Early on in our travels abroad, we learnt our lesson about why we should have a reliable mobile network. We were doing a free walking tour in Rio de Janeiro. While I was busy listening to the insights our guide was giving us, Chetan got busy taking photos. We were at the Copacabana beach, as famous for its beauty as for stories of crime. The group waited, but after a while, I asked them to go ahead and that we would catch up. Minutes passed, panic struck as it started to get dark. Had something happened? Had he been robbed? Had he lost his way? Was the water wild? Crazy thoughts. I ran back all the way, only to find him engrossed in taking photos of the setting sun. He had only just lost track of time. Just having a working phone number could’ve made things so much easier!

  • Public transport is our favourite mode of transport. If it works for the people who live in the city, it’s good for us. Are there any bus/metro/train cards that ease local travel? Get these cards.
  • Are there any apps that everyone’s using in the city you are travelling in?

e.g. IRCTC in India, M-indicator for Mumbai. There might be some city-specific event apps. Download these apps on your phone and register with the local number you just obtained.

Get the local newspaper, even if it’s a language you can’t understand. See the ads, see the event listings – even if you can’t read about them. You can then always search for related news online.

Choose accommodation AWAY from the tourist attractions

This might sound counter-intuitive, but allow us to explain.

A city is not just about the monuments or museums or the gardens. A city is about the life that exists in it – and it’s certainly not in these “top attraction” spots.

  • The real life in a city is in its local markets, in its CBDs, in the local pubs.
  • It’s in the small lanes where people take their pets for a walk.
  • It’s on the random streets lined with houses.
  • We love wandering around these areas, just observing and getting a sense of common, day-to-day life of the city.

Staying a little away means having to commute – which again means more conversation opportunities. This is also where a reliable mobile network works. While offline maps can be downloaded beforehand, you need a good network to find the latest updates on traffic and the best mode of transport.

The Airtel network had played an instrumental role in making our first visit to Ahmedabad a relaxing experience. It never failed us while finding the exact bus routes. We would choose the destination where traffic was low at that time of the day. This also meant our fellow commuters weren’t in a rush. We would start by asking if they had visited the place we were visiting. In most cases, the conversation would end with an exchange of phone numbers, sometimes even an invitation to visit them.

Choose the time of your visit to the city wisely

  • Is there a famous event happening in the city? Are you travelling to this city particularly for this event? Then try to reach the city a few days before the event starts. This will give you a chance to see everyone in the city gearing up for the event. Maybe, you too could participate in the fervour. This will definitely add a different dimension to your experience.
  • Reaching a few days before the action starts will also give you time and space to acquaint yourself to the city before it starts to get crowded. Crowds can be overwhelming, but being prepared will help in dealing with them better.

Say, you are visiting Mumbai during the Ganesh visarjan. There’s crazy energy everywhere. There’s music, dancing, prayers, announcements – it’s one big street party. There’s action all around and we would often lose track of each other as we got engrossed in taking pictures. But this time, we weren’t worried. Despite being somewhere in the middle of the crowds in different locations, we were constantly in touch on our mobiles. If we spotted something really interesting, we would call the other person over. “Where should I come?” “I am sending you the location.” Even in these dense crowds we were relieved that the Airtel network worked bang on. Being able to instantly call each other not only helped us experience more but also gave us a huge sense of security.

Don’t forget the hidden treasures

Besides the popular attractions, every city has some hidden treasures – cultural, historical or even culinary! While all tourists in Hyderabad throng to Paradise Biryani, it takes a local to tell you to try the biryani at Shadab.

Walking tours are our favourite starting points to exploring a new city. A local person, who has a sense of belonging to every place is telling you about them. How much more real can it get? In our experience, the guides themselves are fond of travelling and one of their reasons for taking up this job is to connect with travellers from across the world. Naturally, they are open to your questions and will give you loads of suggestions. But more importantly, they become your local contact, someone whose help you can rely on if something goes wrong.

Take it slow

City travel is not to be rushed through just to tick off the “things to see and do”. Even a city which doesn’t have much to see has much to experience. Buying bread and milk every day, for the few days you visit, from the same vendor in a different corner of the world is a wonderful experience.

We had been visiting a bakery in Buenos Aires every day. We were staying with friends and would go to this bakery in their neighbourhood every morning to buy breakfast for everyone. The first time we went, through sign language and broken English and Spanish, we had explained all of this to the owner of the bakery. A few days later, we were there when another customer walked in. He probably asked the owner about us, and without having to ask us anything, he told this customer who we were. We know because the word India came up! The song “where everybody knows your name, and they are always glad you came” started playing in our ears.

We had just experienced the joy of being at home in a city halfway across the world!