Go the Wrong Way
This is true in so many ways. Going to the Vatican Museum? Explore, as Martina and I did, some amazing and uncrowded Egyptian and Etruscan collections. Going to Venice? Take the turn away from St. Mark's Square to, very easily, find yourself walking along an uncrowded street, along a tiny canal and into a square with local kids kicking around a soccer ball. The world has become a well-traveled place, but even in those most-traveled places, there are still secrets and delights to be found.
Use the Train
Or the bus, or the tram, or whatever form of public transport the locals take. Overnight train rides in Ukraine have provided me with more than one indelible memory. I've now done rush hour metro rides in cities like Beijing, Tokyo and Rome. Take your time, ask for help, and just do it. You'll feel a part of city life in a different way and keep down your environmental footprint.
A ryokan in Kyoto, a neighborhood apartment in Florence. a tiny Paris hotel with a cat-themed lobby, and a friend's apartment in the Pigneto neighborhood of Rome. Each one led me into a different neighborhood and unique experiences, different than any hotel chain could ever provide. When you stay somewhere like this, also make sure you check out the neighborhood and make a place your own. Go to the same place for coffee every morning; visit the same little wine shop or greengrocer. Even for only a week, you'll feel a tiny bit like a local.
It seems like this should go without saying but as I watch my fellow travelers I can see it's not always the case. I really don't speak any other language, other than a few phrases, and I'm amazed at how nice and helpful people can be. In Beijing, I was on a subway train headed, I thought, to the airport. But I wasn't--and I only learned that because a young couple spotting my suitcase and my probably confused expressed, came back on the train to lead me off and direct me to the right platform. Same thing happened in Berlin coming from the airport. Niceness and a smile, sappy as it sounds, repay exponentially.
It's a big world out there, and often people are thrilled to share their knowledge with you. Ask questions. Ask about the food you're eating, the objects you're seeing, the neighborhood you're in. You'll be surprised at how many people take the time to connect with you, in whatever language the two of you can figure out, to share their pride in their community.
Restaurants are just like hotels. Big chains provide food like everywhere. Boring. Try and seek out what and where local people are doing. I'm not always successful in this, but English language bloggers almost everywhere love food, so check out recommendations in places you're headed to. Order what's in season and try some of those foods outside your comfort zone. Along with eating locally, seek out local festivals. Above, my Context colleagues Martina and Carolyn enjoy a street festival in a Roman neighborhood.
Access Local Knowledge
There's lots to learn no matter where you go. I've been tremendously lucky to be able to go on Context walks--but you can do that too. Read about where you're headed before you go. I'm a big fan of reading fiction or non-fiction about the place you're in. Shanghai appears entirely different while reading Death and Life in Shanghai by Nien Cheng and Venice acquires a mysterious fog while reading Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries.
There are museums everywhere. I've become braver about getting in touch with unknown colleagues if I'm headed their way. The results this year: an amazing snowy and museum-filled day in Berlin with Katrin Hieke (resulting in a new collaboration we'll be announcing soon); a chance to speak to staff at the National Ethnographic Museum in Beijing, and thanks to Elizabeth Merritt at the Center for the Future of Museums, an inspiring, lively, fast-paced conversation with the director, James Bradburne and other staff members at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence whose innovative projects are setting a great standard. And the follow-on advice: stay in touch and always, always, say thank you!
I don't mean bungee-jumping or getting drunk on a park bench, but I have clambered aboard a moving train in Ukraine and hopped aboard a tea shop owner's scooter in Shanghai for a trip to the ATM. It's been my experience, repeated over and over again around the world, that people are basically good and that your willingness to try something new, something you might not do, can result in indelible memories and often a shift in your thinking, a reconsideration of the world. Be open.
And what else? pack lightly, buy the thing you love when you see it, and pay for the data plan on your phone. Google maps public transport option has often gotten me from place to place!
What's your travel advice? What else do you want to know?