So, you’re in a new city and ready to explore! Lucky for you, we are in the age of Internet-induced information overload, so there are tourist maps, audio guides, ‘best kept secrets’ and ‘must-see’ lists, double-decker bus tours, local meet-ups, and self-guided walking tours. For every city you end up in there are 192 different people with 47 different ways to see the city. So if you go to Google, prepare to scroll for a few hours.
OR, you could get creative.
By the end of day one in Athens, we realized that we had just about seen it all. The only thing left on our list (based primarily on icons we circled on a tourism map we picked up at the airport) was a hill on the other side of the city from which we wanted to watch the sunset. Other than that, we had seen the ‘must-sees’ and experienced the famed pieces of ancient history. Athens is small, my friends, and Josh and I have discovered that we are excellent speed walkers. So as we were making our list for day two, we circled one additional location on the map for ‘funsies,’ and then asked, “Now what?”
In between our two destinations were an overwhelming and perhaps anxiety inducing number of squares (or, plazas, as they might be less confusingly referred to). They were central spots of every variety: shopping centers, chapels, theaters, restaurants, and statues. They were little plots of land dedicated to one or multiple elements of a meaningful – or at least interesting – experience.
So we decided to circle the squares.
We spent some time locating each of the squares that lay in between our beginning and end point, and circled them on the map. And by the time we finished, there were 13 extra items on our list. We drafted out a route and hit the city that following day, allowing our path to be dictated by which square (*ahem*, plaza) was coming next.
The results were not what I expected, as we discovered unique attributes of Athens we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
We found side streets and hidden cafes, giant ducks and a pond full of turtles, unique street art and delicious gelato, and even a semi-terrifying alleyway dedicated to an excessive number of Christmas decorations and themed restaurants. There were surprises around every corner (and not just because we were navigating via squares).
We walked into unique shops that aren’t listed on the ‘top-ten’s, ran into a bookseller who shared in our love of Paulo Coelho, and came across artists whose works we could enjoy outside the walls of a museum.
I’ll admit at one point we did end up in a pretty sketchy area, to which we responded by keeping our heads down, clinging to the backpack, and picking up the pace. It was one of those, ‘Find the nearest exit’ alleyways that seemed to have no light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think we were ever in danger, but the energy changed so abruptly from “la-dee-dah” to “Oh, shit,” that it took me half an hour to get my stomach to return to its rightful place. Because when your boyfriend turns to you and says, “I’m pretty sure that guy was shooting up in the corner,” you don’t think twice about an alternate route. So, cautionary warnings certainly apply to this strategy of exploration. Don’t go alone, or at least do some additional research into precisely the areas of the city in which you might find yourself.
Circling the squares is a concept that can be applied to any theme or interest. You like coffee? Circle the cafes. Interested in street art? Circle those. Do you just like walking down uniquely-named streets? Do it! Safely, of course.
Honor the city you’re in; don’t just hit the ‘top-ten’s and ‘best-of’s. Take the time to experience the city to its core.
You can create your own tour with enough structure to have a plan, but enough freedom to end up on a unique journey. And that is what travel, for me, is all about. It’s not comparing your experiences to those who came before you, or copying someone else’s itinerary simply because it has 5 stars; it is about connecting with the city and immersing yourself in a way that is unique to you. And no tour guide or blog post can create that. It is simply something you must create as you go.
How have you challenged yourself while traveling? What do you do to connect with the city? Comment on the post below! ◡̈