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Exploring A Strange City

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Rowland Rivron in Paris.

Whether you're on holiday somewhere exotic or just going to the nearest metropolis to shop; whether you're simply wandering around or going somewhere specific; or just in town for a day researching an Entry or having a first look around the place you'll be living for the foreseeable future; whether you've two hours to spend or an entire weekend - sooner or later, you, like everyone else, will face the prospect of quickly familiarising yourself with a strange city. This may seem daunting at first - but, if you keep a few things in mind, the process of acquainting yourself with somewhere new will be painless, and even enjoyable.

These Towns Were Made For Walking

Most city centres were developed long before there were cars, and when wagons were for transporting goods, not people. The best way to really get to know a city in all its facets is as a pedestrian - and it's the cheapest way too. Notable exceptions are places like Los Angeles, where you'll be given funny looks, possibly even picked up by the police, for walking, and where there sometimes aren't even any pavements - so find out before you go whether this is the case. This Entry will assume you've got your walking feet on and a few hours to spend exploring.

What To Bring

Bring as little as possible. Nothing screams 'tourist' like a huge rucksack1, and you won't really need everything that's in it. It will just feel heavier as the day goes by and tire you out unnecessarily. If you're young enough to get away with the student look, you can carry a small backpack. Otherwise, just put what you'd carry for an ordinary day out in your local area into a messenger bag or handbag2. Although it may come as a surprise to you, even foreign cities have shops. If you need fresh socks or something to eat, going into one and trading some money for goods generally works fairly well.

  • If you have luggage, get rid of it. Either leave it in the storage lockers at the train station or airport, see whether you can check in for your flight early and have a few hours to spend in town unencumbered, or take it straight to your hotel - even if you can't have your room yet, there'll most likely be a storage room for luggage.

  • This isn't the time to break in new boots or practice walking in high heels, since you'll be wearing them all day. Choose comfortable shoes with good support and adequate ventilation, and make sure they'll keep your feet dry if it looks like it will rain.

  • Wear something you're comfortable with and other people won't be uncomfortable with. If you dress provocatively, you've no right to complain if someone comments. This means a little research into the local norms if you're going somewhere abroad.

  • Check the weather forecast for your destination before you go - and be prepared for it to be wrong. Since you'll probably be out all day and the temperature can fluctuate a lot in that time, wearing layers is a good idea.

  • Remember to take a few shopping bags - plastic carrier bags fold up small for easy stowing. That way, you can carry any treasures (or groceries) you might acquire, even if you end up somewhere where they aren't given away for free.

  • If it's a hot day, a plastic or aluminium water bottle holding about half a litre to a litre won't weigh you down too much, and you can refill it for free from any source of potable water - even the sinks in the toilet. If you're in an area where it's not recommended you drink tap water, or if there's a sign saying the water isn't for drinking, don't refill. It's better to spend a little money on a drink than risk becoming ill.

  • If you have a map of the area, there's no shame in bringing it - although hopefully you won't need to use it. Don't go waving it around or you'll look like a tourist.

  • Carry a notebook with blank paper and something to write with for taking notes and making sketches, especially if you're researching or will be living in the area. Remember to take enough ink cartridges for your pen or something to sharpen your pencil3!

  • If you're bringing your digital camera rather than relying on written notes, make sure you have enough batteries.

  • A well-charged mobile phone and a wallet with the local currency, a cashpoint card and your identification should be enough to get you out of nearly any situation.

  • Print out any relevant Guide Entries4 - they'll make good reading on the way there, if nothing else.


The most important thing to keep in mind is that, before you start walking, you'll need to know where you want to finish. In most cases, this will be where you started - the train station, a hotel, wherever you said you'd meet your group - but it could be quite somewhere else.

  • Write this location down - especially if you can't pronounce it like the locals - because it'll make asking for directions a lot easier later.

  • If it isn't an important place - just someone's home address - know which places near it are well known, so you can ask for directions to there.

  • These don't have to be points of interest - just something the locals know. The library, a crossing of two important streets, or even just the nearest supermarket, are all good things to ask for.

  • Now that you know where you'll eventually be going, you can start walking. If you have to be back by a specific time - when your train leaves, your youth hostel closes, your meeting starts - keep an eye on the time heading out, so you know how long it would take you to retrace your steps if there isn't a quicker route back.

  • If you're only in town for a little while or just starting to explore your new hometown and need to travel between two locations daily - your hotel and the office, or your flat and the university, for example - take a different route every day. It will let you see more and familiarise yourself with the city.

Finding Your Way Without A Trail Of Breadcrumbs

You probably won't want to spend a lot of time reading and memorising street signs - so it's easier to navigate by landmarks. Since you're exploring rather than just going somewhere, you'll be paying attention to the sights along the way anyway. There are a few ways to fix them in your mind to make navigation easier.

  • Make sure it's reasonably unique - there's nothing quite like making your way toward a church tower for 20 minutes only to find out it's the wrong one!

  • If you'll be out late, keep in mind that things will look different at night. If you can find something that'll be illuminated, that's great - otherwise, make sure you can recognise your chosen landmark after lights out.

  • Get a good idea of the general layout of the city. Is it flat, or are there hills? Does it have a river? Which way does the river run?5 Is it based on a grid, are the streets crooked, has it grown in concentric circles, or is it a merger of several towns?

  • Downtown will generally have the tallest buildings - be they skyscrapers or churches.

  • Besides direction, try to remember whether you were going up or down. The river or harbour will generally be at the lowest point and, since many cities grew along waterways, that's where downtown will be.

  • Learn how to tell compass points from the position of the sun. You can use your watch to help you, provided it isn't digital.

  • Keep an eye out for major obstacles, like a river, a very busy street, or just an area that's considered unsafe. You may have to go out of your way to get around them.

  • Your starting point - be it a friend's house, hotel or transport hub - will likely have a map of the city. If you can't take it along, photograph it with a digital camera or your phone and you can take a look if you need to, rather than having to memorise it. Many cities have free-standing billboards with a map on one side and advertisements on the other.

  • There's often a visitors' centre or information kiosk in a fairly prominent place in a public area. This is a good place to enquire about getting from A to Z, although the people working there will often be surlier than passers-by, since they're paid to help you.

  • If you find the number of the local taxi despatch somewhere, write that down, too; you might need it later. Good places to look are train stations, phone booths, information kiosks, and even cafés, as well as the sides of passing cabs.

  • Remember that places may have local names that are different to the names on the map. Or your map may only have the English versions, which can be wildly different. If you can't read the local alphabet, make sure you memorise the symbols for the more important words: the train station, the name of the street you need, and any other destinations.

  • If you're just exploring, the Dirk Gently6 method may be applied. Simply find someone who looks like they know where they're going and follow them until you end up somewhere interesting. Just don't take this to such extremes that you could be suspected of stalking! Following businesspeople at lunchtime may help you to find a good café, but otherwise they tend to go to rather boring places.

Things To See

The thing about well-known places is that everyone knows them. If you're genuinely interested, there's nothing to stop you from going - but don't feel obligated to see all the usual tourist traps; the byways are often more interesting. You don't have to go to see the Eiffel Tower while you're in Paris if you'd rather have a good look through the book shops... You can always just buy some postcards of the places you're 'meant' to visit.

  • If you are looking for a major attraction, it should be easy enough to find simply by following the posted signs. If there aren't any, ask!

  • Certain places, like museums or famous buildings, might even be easier to find if you ask tourists. They generally know their way around the sights, and will often be carrying maps.

  • If you're in a foreign city, many of the tourists will speak English, possibly making the directions easier to understand than if you asked a local.

  • Visit famous places outside the usual peak tourist times. You'll have more time to enjoy them, rather than standing in line, and it's often cheaper, too. Early in the morning, or in the winter, are usually good. Just be sure they'll be open then!

  • Most museums are closed on Mondays, the world over. If you're in town on a Monday, have a back-up plan.

  • Unfortunately, all those tourists with fat wallets and expensive cameras mean the main attractions will be hotspots for pickpockets. Keep an eye on your bag.

  • If you're looking for a specific address, know how the city's numbering system works! Although the usual model is to have consecutively numbered houses with odd numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the other, there can be tricky variants. In some places, the numbers go up one side of the street and down the other. Some cities assigned numbers at random when the system was first introduced. US cities, especially, have been known to number blocks by their distance from a central point!

Public Transportation

Most cities, especially those with a sizeable student population, have some sort of public transport. It can be very useful for skipping the uninteresting bits between two places you intend to see. However, it can be tricky to find and even trickier to use - it pays to allow plenty of time.

  • Find out how to pay before you ride. Many machines will only accept coins or notes, or only some coins. If you're buying small items, don't pay with your change - you may need it for the underground later.

  • The drivers and machines at smaller stations generally won't sell weekly or group tickets. If you intend to buy one, do so before you leave the main train station.

  • The main station is where you're most likely find a more-or-less helpful person or some brochures to explain the typically complex system of zones and intersecting lines. Make use of the opportunity to figure out which lines you have to take and how much you'll need to pay.

  • Find out when the public transport stops running at night. Never count on catching the last train. Try for the penultimate one.

  • Keep your ticket with you in case of inspections.

  • Once you're on board, watch other passengers to work out how things work. Do you have to push a button or pull a wire to make it stop? Is there sufficient warning when your stop is coming up? Where can you see which stop is next? Do the doors open automatically?

  • Even if you've been on your feet all day, offer your seat to people who need it more. This is especially important where you're representing not just yourself but the country you come from.

  • In places where a car is a status symbol, public transport is used by people who can't afford them. Also, be prepared for buskers, beggars and pickpockets.

  • Don't fall asleep! This is an excellent way to miss your stop, and will help people to steal your things.

  • There'll generally be a bus line that covers a similar route to over-priced tourist buses, for a lot less money - and these will give you a much more authentic feel for the city.

  • If you need to take a taxi, make sure the fare is posted and there's a meter. This is where your notes about your destination may come in handy.

Food And Drink

Since you aren't carrying too much - you aren't, are you? We've discussed this! - you'll need to find sustenance at some point to sustain you on your long march. This can be one of the most enjoyable parts of your outing, if done right.

  • Scout ahead: if you pass any interesting cafés or restaurants during the day, make a note.

  • Also, write down the times they'll be open - ideas about when meals should be served vary greatly from country to country. In Italy, many restaurants are actually closed at what we would consider lunchtime. You wouldn't want to be caught with an empty stomach and nowhere to go.

  • If you're looking for somewhere good to eat, find a place that's crowded at the time when the locals are on their lunch break - it's much more reliable than counting on tourists to find the right places.

  • Before you order, make sure you have enough money, even counting the tip, any taxes etc, or that they'll take your credit card7.

  • Make sure you have a good general idea of the types of food available, so you won't end up having a burger out of desperation. Would you know that a croque monsieur is a ham and cheese sandwich? Or that there's neither liver or cheese in Leberkäse?

  • Don't hesitate to ask the waiting staff for help. But if they take hours explaining the menu to you, be sure to tip accordingly!

  • If you're following some fad diet, don't assume everyone will have heard of it and be able to supply you with something that's part of the plan. If there are large groups of foods you can't eat for medical, religious or ethical reasons8, be prepared to have to spend some time finding something appropriate to eat, especially if the culture is very different.

  • There's a reason why you'll find mostly tourists in the cafés at famous places or in the main squares - the locals know better than to eat there. If you're willing to pay the extra price for the location, go ahead - but there's usually something cheaper, and often better, just a few streets away.

  • You don't have to eat in a restaurant. Most people in the city don't. Locate a supermarket - usually toward the residential areas rather than in the main shopping streets - and buy something to make a picnic. You'll save money and you can eat it wherever you like.

  • City centres will usually have bakers and some kind of market - what could beat fresh bread, cheese and grapes, eaten in a sunny spot in the park? It helps if you carry a pocket knife9 to cut the bread.

And How To Get Rid Of It

The trouble with cities is they don't have undergrowth in which to do your business - it's generally frowned upon even in parks. But walking around with a full bladder is no fun. What to do?

  • Even if you're male, unzipping your trousers in the nearest alley isn't an option. Depending on where you are, it can get you arrested and given a stiff fine very quickly, and it stinks the place up. If you're particularly unlucky or stupid about your choice of location, it might even have international repercussions. So don't.

  • The same goes for your pets - remember to carry plastic bags for cleaning up after them.

  • Depending on how conservative a city is, even changing  (or nursing) a baby in public may count as public indecency - be aware of local laws.

  • Nearly any establishment that serves food will have a toilet, although they may only let you use it if you're a customer - or for a small fee.

  • Shopping centres and big supermarkets will generally have one, too. Just ask, or look at the map. If there isn't a map, try looking at the fire escape plan!

  • Other often overlooked places to try are libraries and other public buildings. Since you're not dressed like a tourist, nobody will know that's why you're there.

  • You might also try hotel lobbies or petrol stations.

  • Fast-food chains are to be avoided for eating, but for the opposite they can come in really handy. You can find them almost anywhere and, with the place busy, nobody will mind, or even notice, if you use the facilities.

  • Remember to carry tissues (or baby wipes), as there might not be toilet paper.


Even if you're generally quite pleased to get away from the phone once in a while, knowing where to find a working one might come in handy. You should certainly know how to call the emergency numbers, wherever you are. In Europe, this is generally 112, and can be called free of charge from any phone.

  • If you intend to use your mobile, before you go make sure it works in the area you're going, that it's charged, and that you have enough money on your card to make a call (if you're using prepaid). Don't drain the battery by taking and looking through too many pictures.

  • Because mobiles are becoming ubiquitous, public pay phones are now much harder to find. To help spot them, know what colour they are. In Germany, for example, they're either yellow or bright pink.

  • Enquire, before you need one urgently, whether phones are coin operated, need calling cards, or can be used with a credit card.

  • You can often find payphones in train stations or hotel lobbies.

  • In an emergency, ask someone local to call an ambulance, since they'll know where to direct it.

  • Know the country codes you're trying to call if you're in a foreign country.

  • Know how to make a reverse-charge call. Don't make one, if it isn't an emergency, unless you want to make yourself unpopular.


Of course, one of the main things that distinguishes a city from a mere accumulation of houses is the prevalence of shops. It's rumoured that nearly everyone enjoys a good look around them, provided they're the right kind of shops. To help you get the most out of your shopping time, keep a few things in mind.

  • If you're travelling to go shopping, find out when the shops open. It seems obvious, but it's no good getting there at 8am to find the shops don't open until 9.30am!

  • It's usually advisable to avoid chains and shopping malls. You can find these elsewhere - probably even in your hometown. Small shops are much quirkier.

  • If you see something you'd like to buy but don't want to carry it around all day - like a hardback book - ask whether you can have it set aside for you. Most shopkeepers will be happy to oblige, and you can pick it up when you're ready to go home.

  • Anything can be a souvenir, so long as it reminds you of where you bought it. It doesn't need to be a plastic reproduction of a major landmark. Choose something sensible.

  • If you find the perfect thing to give someone for Christmas but it's only July - buy it anyway! You might not be back.

If This Seems Too Daunting

Don't panic! Exploring a city on your own - whether by necessity or for fun - can and should be a very fulfilling experience. If you don't feel up to it, you don't have to go by yourself. Of course, the easiest way is to have someone who knows the place show you around. But you'll find their pace is often too rushed and, while they may know some hidden corners, they'll be impatient when you insist on looking at others. For something closer to the real experience, just ask a few friends to accompany you.

Safety In Numbers

Of course, it will require compromise, but there are certain advantages to finding a few people to walk around with. Just make sure you have similar goals and walking paces.

  • A member of your group may speak the local language - just remember to buy them a pint to show your appreciation if you rely on them heavily.

  • You'll have someone with whom to discuss the next step.

  • If you're afraid of being attacked or robbed, a group will help you feel safer.

  • Group tickets are often cheaper. The maximum size of a group varies from location to location, though, so check in advance if possible!

  • You can't10 eat a whole loaf of bread or packet of crisps in one sitting - but a group will demolish it quickly and split the cost.

  • You can't expect children to enjoy spending a day walking around a city. It'll be overwhelmingly full of new impressions and a bit frightening, especially if everyone speaks a different language. Bring a second family along, with children of about the same age, and the outing will turn into a treat! Visiting a zoo or children's museum, or even just stopping for ice cream along the way, can also work wonders.

  • You can take turns carrying heavy parcels or small children.

  • If all else fails, you can split the cost of a taxi to take you back to somewhere familiar.

  • You can borrow money in an emergency - just don't do it too often or you'll make yourself unpopular.

  • At least one of you may remember where you left the car/where the train station is!

  • Like any travelling group, putting this group together takes a bit of thought. Make sure your interests are compatible. It's no good one person wanting to go to a museum while the other wants to go shopping, and a third just wants to sit in the park!

  • Even numbers are generally best, so that everyone will have someone to talk to while walking along. More than two abreast is difficult on pavements. One of the worst combinations is one or more couples and a single person who might grow to resent the self-absorbed lovebirds.


Not everyone can navigate a city the way the majority of people do. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy an outing to a different city - just that it might require more preparation before you go.

  • If you'll need help getting around and are planning on travelling alone, it is especially important to speak the local language so you can make your needs clear. Be aware that aids such as audio signals at road crossings aren't universal.

  • If there's any chance you'll be stuck in a town longer than expected, make sure you're carrying any medications you may need, and wear a medical alert bracelet if you have any conditions that might flare up suddenly.

  • A new satellite-aided navigation system that's currently under development will help wheelchair users to find routes through various cities. Many towns already offer wheelchair access maps on their websites. Alternatively, suggested cycling routes are sometimes helpful.

  • If you'll have enough chances to stop and rest, avoid taking a pram. Carry your baby in a sling or baby carrier instead, especially if you're going somewhere that's cobble-stoned. Having friends along so you can take turns is helpful.

  • There are various Internet fora and websites that offer accessibility tips - whether it be for the entire city or just friendly places to stay or eat, or interesting things to do. A little research ahead of time can really pay off.

  • Before you travel to any foreign cities, find out what their policies on dogs and other animals are, whether they are pets or service animals. For example, many restaurants in Europe will allow dogs so long as they're well-trained. But you'd have to leave your pet dog outside in the US, so it might be better not to bring them in the first place.

  • If you don't feel safe going by yourself, find someone to go with. Exploring a new city should be fun, not stressful.

Local Knowledge

You have a vast and wonderful resource at your fingertips! Not only does h2g2 have many thoroughly informative Entries for your perusal, but there are Researchers from all over the globe here. Stay, chat, make friends, learn something new - be it a slang term you weren't aware of or precise directions to the best place to have lunch in whichever unlikely location you end up in. You might even find someone willing to offer you a guided tour of the highways and byways of their home town!

1Except perhaps the camera around your neck.2Unless you're travelling with a baby, in which case you may need three Sherpas and a mule to pack it all.3And, if you bring a pencil sharpener, make sure it's the kind with the little plastic container to catch the shavings, or you'll have to go look for a bin every time the pencil needs sharpening.4This one, for example!5This is surprisingly easy to forget until it's too late.6The hero, or at least the main character, of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, as well as the unfinished Salmon of Doubt.7Unfortunately, saying you're a Researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide probably won't help, and you'll end up washing dishes.8Or you're just plain picky.9Although some cities can be very, very uptight about you carrying anything that might possibly be considered a weapon. It's best to find out about this beforehand.10Or probably shouldn't, at least.

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