Whether exploring somewhere new or simply looking beyond your regular patch, wander a little to get to know a city
Getting under the skin of a city, old or new is one of the greatest experiences. Says Erin Spens, “I’ve found over the years the best way to get to know a city is to spend real time in it exploring, listening and following the locals. My strategy has always been to arrive in a city with as little foreknowledge as possible, apart from the necessities, which I’ll get to in a second. Don’t get me wrong, I am endlessly reading travel stories and good travel magazines but (unless I’m working on an issue of Boat magazine) I don’t research a place beforeI go.
"My reason for this is twofold. Firstly, my love for exploring cities grew out of my own time exploring New York City and reading the great travel writers, and neither involved smart phones preloaded with all the information in the world. Those were the days when getting lost really did mean getting lost and so I try to stay true to the way I found my first love: by exploring the streets and the far-flung neighbourhoods like a young, wide-eyed Midwestern girl who’s somehow landed in the city of her dreams.
"The second reason I don’t research the hell out of a place before I get there is because I’ve found that the only constant in a great city is change. Even if you go back to a city you’ve already visited multiple times, or to a neighbourhood in your own hometown that you don’t often frequent, it will be different. An open mind on every single trip helps you to see it fresh each time, noticing the new things rather than seeking out what you remember from last time, or what you’ve read about, or what you’ve seen getting hashtagged.”
Erin’s tips for reading without researching*
THE LITTLE BOOKROOM BOOKS
If you need a bit more structure and you’ve got time to mosey around a city searching for a random vintage fabric shop or the perfect pain au chocolat, these books are ideal. I once built a whole trip to Paris around things I found in them. littlebookroom.com
GRAB A NOVEL that’s set in the city you’re headed to. At goodreads.com, you’ll find lists of travel books and you can search by location. The ‘Women Travelers’ series from Restless Books is fantastic, too.
BRING A PHRASE BOOK to refer to when talking to locals. I don’t find it easy to pick up new languages, but I find that locals respond to me making an effort and I’ve had great (if choppy) conversations that lead to secret spots I would never have stumbled upon myself. Penguin’s are very pretty: penguin.co.uk. Lonely Planet’s are a classic: shop.lonelyplanet.com
* If you prefer to be slightly more prepared when you go exploring, turn to page 76 of January’s The Simple Things to read about Herb Lester, which publishes city guides with a difference
Erin Spens is founder and editor of Boat magazine - an independent travel and culture publication that focuses on a different, inspiring city for each issue. From Sarajevo to Reykjavik to Lima, Boat Magazine shines a different kind of light on cities with big stories to tell.
For more of this feature, turn to page 74 of January’s The Simple Things.