While there is no right or wrong way to do your sightseeing in new cities, there are some things you can do that will help you get the most out of your day, save you a little money, and just generally have an all round better experience. I’ve definitely done my fair share of sightseeing over the years and I’ve learned a lot of little tips and tricks along the way that continue to increase my enjoyment and today I’d like to share some of them with you.
Opening photo credit: © Warren Goldswain / Dollar Photo Club
- Walk as much as you can. Not only do you get a great view of the city (as opposed to being underground all the time on a subway), but you’ll get to be a part of the action as you mix with all the local folks out and about in their daily routines. Walking also allows you to see things at your own pace. You can stop and take photos when you want, or pick up the pace to get to the next sight. And if there are walking tours offered in the city you’re visiting, even better! They are a great way to learn all kinds of interesting tidbits about the history, architecture, and the people of the city that you might have missed if you just hop from sight to sight. One walking tour not to miss- the Mayor of Bath’s Honorary Guides free walking tour.
- If you’re going to be walking then you need to wear comfortable shoes. You’d think this goes without saying eh? But nope, I have seen women in 4 inch heels teetering along cobblestone streets. No high heels are obvious but make sure your flat shoes are good for walking in too because not all flat shoes are. I have a pair of ballet flats, for example, that I could never in a million years sightsee in and I’ve come to discover that a good pair of walking shoes are an invaluable investment. They can truly make or break a trip. My mom had told me about Clarks brand shoes and at first I thought they were a little “old ladyish” but I finally tried a pair. They are, in a word, awesome. I wear mine all the time and they are holding up brilliantly. They are my go-to shoe when I know I’ll be out walking for the day. And they have a lot of styles so you don’t have to get the “old ladyish” ones. :-)
- As much as I’d encourage you to walk, sometimes that just isn’t feasible, so the next best thing is to use public transportation if it’s available. Many of the big well known cities have excellent transportation systems (think London Tube and Paris Métro) that you’d be crazy to forgo in favour of a car. While easy to use once you get the hang of it, it is always a good idea to research the system a little ahead of time so you can hit the ground running when you arrive. There are also some great apps that can help you plan your routes like this London Underground App that I use (especially good because it can be used offline).
- Pack a small snack. If you tend to get a little (OK a lot) moody and “hangry” like I do when you’re hungry it is worth taking up the space in your purse for a snack. Even something as simple as a granola bar is enough to curb the hunger so you don’t give up on a great sight early because the only thing you can think about is having lunch. Plus it keeps your fellow travelers happier as you won’t turn into a raving lunatic on them and leave them wondering why in the world they ever thought traveling with you would be such a good idea.
- Learn a little of the local language. Even if it’s just “please” and “thank you” as those three words will go a long way.
- Be selective. You can’t see everything and you really won’t appreciate all the things you do see if you try and do it all. Try for a good mix of popular landmarks, museums, churches and cathedrals, and some lighter, perhaps not so typical things (Clue Quest Escape Room in London is one such fun thing). I absolutely love a grand cathedral and will stand in awe admiring the architecture and beauty but if I visited half a dozen of them in a day eventually even I would be cathedral-ed out. Pick just a couple of any one type of attraction for a trip and then really, really soak those ones in.
TYPES OF ATTRACTIONS
- Yes, go and see them! They may be “touristy” but they are popular for a reason. Don’t be afraid to be a “tourist”. I know some people don’t seem to like that term but you don’t live there so by definition isn’t that what you are- someone that is traveling and visiting for pleasure?
- It also pays to research the popular sights beforehand so you are well armed with knowledge about what the busiest times are and days they might be closed so you don’t miss anything, or spend hours in line needlessly.
- If they aren’t free, many are included in City Passes offered by big cities so it is also worth spending a little time upfront to see if these passes will be a good fit for your travel plans. If you’re planning a trip to Paris I’ve done some of the comparison shopping for you already at this post.
Another popular type of attraction to visit and again, worth a little research ahead of time (that seems to be the general theme here eh?) so you can:
- Find out what masterpieces and your personal favourites are there that you absolutely don’t want to miss so you can plan your visit accordingly. You’ll never be able to see a whole museum in one trip, unless you want to spend the whole day (or more!) there so take a quick virtual visit to the museum’s website for their latest exhibits, to get the lay of the land, and formulate your plan of attack. Once inside, hit the things on your must-see list first so you get to them while you’re fresh, then if time and energy permit check out some of the other exhibits. If they are really neat you’ll be glad you saw then, if they aren’t so great you’ll be glad you didn’t risk missing the other things to see them.
- Learn a little about art, the artists, and history before you go. You don’t have to have a master’s degree to enjoy museums but even learning a little about a particular time period or artist is a good start and will really bring the pieces to life when you get to see them in person. And then again, some pieces you’ll enjoy simply because they are just beautiful and it won’t matter who painted/sculpted them or what technique they used.
- Take advantage of free audio tours, either offered by the museum itself or ones you find online. My favourites are by Rick Steves (yes I know I talk about him a lot…promise I’m not being paid to I just really love his stuff that much). You can also listen in as tour guides are giving their groups a lesson on a particular piece but I don’t think I’d be so bold as to follow them through the whole museum! Maybe just a tidbit or two here and there as unobtrusively as possible from the back of the group.
- Have fun and be silly sometimes. Especially if you’re with the kiddos and they might be starting to drag. Or even if you’re not and you just want to be a little nuts. Museums don’t have to be all serious and no fun.
Places of Worship
- Be aware of possible attire restrictions and dress accordingly. You’d hate to come all that way to find out that if you hadn’t worn that sundress with the spaghetti straps, cute and fashionable as it is, you would have been allowed in.
- Do a little pre-visit studying. Again with research eh? It’s like I’m taking all the fun out of this trip aren’t I? But imagine coming home only to find out there was a priceless work of art by one of the great masters and you missed it because you decided to forgo one of the little chapels that housed it? And all because you didn’t look it up ahead of time. I’d be gutted for you if that happened.
- For the full experience attend a service, or even a choral evensong. They are free and a great experience but you won’t get to roam freely or take photos that you might wish to take. But sometimes the experience is worth it.
- Above all, and I think this goes without saying, we need to be respectful. There are all types of places of worship around the world and there is beauty to be found in each of them. While we may not be of that particular faith, or any faith, we should be thoughtful and respectful visitors so as to not disturb those that are there to worship.
Archeological Sites and Ruins
- Be careful! Typically ruins mean lots of uneven surfaces and a sprained ankle could really put a damper on the whole trip.
- Again a little pre-trip studying about the site can really make it much more enjoyable and memorable. Sometimes they can seem like just a pile of rocks (I’m looking at you Stonehenge!) but really there is a story behind all of them. It might not be your favourite part of history but knowing a little can make them a lot more meaningful.
- Definitely take them up on any offers of audio or written guides. This was a great feature of our recent trip to Stonehenge, as admittedly I had not done much research ahead of time (What? Not following my own tips? I’m still learning too. :-) ) so I really relied on the audio guide to tell me what the heck I was looking at.
In the end I guess you can figure out what my number one tip is – a little planning has never hurt anyone (I may have mentioned it a time or two). Many people think that planning takes all the fun out of the trip but I say planning makes the trip more fun because you don’t miss out on the things you want to see and do. If you don’t plan at all then you run the risk of following along to what others think makes for a great trip, and that might not be the things that will make you ooh and ahh, give you chills, and make you so glad you’re in that moment.
A loose itinerary is all that’s needed (but hey, if you want an hour by hour spreadsheet I can totally get on board with that type of plan too). With a simple plan in place you can save yourself money (know about free admission times, savings on pre-purchased tickets, or use a City or Museum pass), save yourself time (everything is mapped out so no wasted time back-tracking), and you find out about a few of the ‘secret’ and lesser known places and they turn out to be some of the most memorable places you ever get to see.