Off the Tourist Trail: 5 Places the Travel Brochures Won’t Tell You About

Check any guide book or tourist brochure and you’ll definitely find a ton of museums, art galleries and monuments to visit. Of course, they’re often worth visiting, but if you do want to see more than the ground the average tour bus covers, there are a bunch of ordinary places to turn to in almost every city. Here are my favorite ideas for places to visit to get off the tourist trail.

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#1: University Campuses

Call me a geek (go on, I can take it), but there’s something special to me about visiting a college or university campus. I mean, I have T-shirts from universities across the United States, Australia, Denmark and even Taiwan. But don’t think that I head to a campus just to get the T-shirt.

A university or college is often one of the most buzzing parts of a city. There’s a high concentration of young people, of course, plus a whole lot of intellectual interest. Many campuses also include small museums that don’t rate a mention in guide books but are well worth visiting. You can check out a campus cafeteria for a cheap meal, read the notice boards to find out about film or music events coming up, or even get chatting to a few local students to get some tips on what else to do in the city.

Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City
Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City © Eneas

#2: Libraries

So I’m definitely a geek. But let me tell you what’s good about visiting libraries in the cities that you visit. The first thing is obvious: they are full of information. Local magazines and newspapers, more notice boards, and helpful librarians who want to tell you whatever you want to know.

Second, libraries are excellent places to take a break from bad weather, sometimes to access your email (maybe for free!), or to have a rest in a comfortable chair with a good book. If you’re in a non-English-speaking country, head for the largest library on the map and they’ll very often have English-language books or newspapers — good for a time-out on a long backpacking trip when you want to touch base with your own reality again.

#3: Train and Bus Stations

Depending on the city you’re visiting and your mode of travel, you actually might not get to see many local train or bus stations. (Alternatively, you might be sick to death of them, in which case you’ve already had these benefits, plus more). Make an effort to check out a few of the largest train or bus stations in the city you’re visiting.

Why? These are where everyday people do everyday life. You’ll see the different classes of people who use public transport and where they’re going, and at a large train station you can ogle the long lists of exotic destinations that could tempt you to change your plans.

Some train stations in particular can be architectural marvels. In Moscow or Saint Petersburg, the underground train stations are artworks that can make up a half-day excursion. Newer bus stations can also be full of interesting shops, exhibits and viewing platforms.

#4: Supermarkets

Plenty of long-term travelers already have local supermarkets on their must-see lists. They’re great places both to pick up some cheap supplies, and to learn about local customs. If you’re traveling to a foreign country for the first time, I’d reserve a morning for a thorough exploration of a large supermarket. You’ll be amazed to discover unusual fruits and vegetables, familiar branded products with funny, unfamiliar labels, and there are always a handful of products that you can barely describe, let alone identify.

I love to spend a lunchtime in a new city having a supermarket picnic — but the rule is to buy as many items as possible that I really can’t identify. Find a peaceful park bench and let your taste buds explore the city too.

Grave Keeper, Warsaw Jewish Cemetery
Grave Keeper, Warsaw Jewish Cemetery © Roman Poretski ‘chagabunga

#5: Cemeteries

I don’t mean this in a morbid way. Cemeteries are just really fascinating places. There are, of course, a couple of really famous cemeteries that have made it onto the tourist route —the Père-Lachaise Cemetery of Paris springs immediately to mind — but it’s also worthwhile to visit lesser known cemeteries in the city you’re visiting.

When you’re at a cemetery, take a look around at the ages and names of the dearly departed. You might discover some sad childhood deaths, some couples who slipped away together, or even the odd celebrity. Taking a gentle stroll around a cemetery is a great way to spend an hour or two on a quiet afternoon, away from crowds.

So when you next travel, take your camera, or a notebook, or just a really open mind, and explore these otherwise ordinary places. These are the kinds of experiences that will provide you with stories to tell your friends back home, and give you ideas about the local way of life that you might not otherwise find.

Does anyone have another ordinary kind of place that they like to visit when they’re on the road? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Thanks for the great suggestions Amanda.

    I totally agree with the library idea in particular. There’s some really beautiful libraries around the world that are worth visiting just for the architecture. The added bonus of (often) free internet, decent toilets and newspapers in your own language make it well worth the time.

  2. I love to go to cemeteries. One of my most memorable travel-experiences to date was being lucky enough to be in Warsaw, Poland on November 1st. On this day, almost all Polish people (even my non-religious/atheist friends go to the cemeteries, to pay respect to the dead. Of course these include their deceased friends and family, but also complete strangers.
    My friend took me to the buggest cemetaries in Warsaw durign the evening. Every single grave (and I mean _every_ single grave) has a candle burning on it. Some graves, like on from a famous politician, have literally hundreds of lights on them (see: http://gallery.walterheck.com/displayimage.php?album=44&pos=91 ). The whole cemetary lights up.
    For me it was extra nice, because my Polish friend told me lots of stories about who was buried where and why they were loved so much.

    I have also been to the cemetary in Sao Paolo, where some of the graves are almost churches (see: http://gallery.walterheck.com/displayimage.php?album=52&pos=23 )

  3. I am a cinema fan so each new city I travel to I check imdb.com for movies that were filmed there. Locals that have lived in the city for years usually remember the movie being shot there and can give you more detailed directions to the locations. Most movies shot legally have to obtain permission from the city to film in public places and the information is available to the public. I stumbled upon one being shot in Guanajuato Mexico and got to be an extra for the day playing the role of scared tourist #6(with free lunch). Now I have my own photos of the trip and a copy of the DVD as a bonus.

  4. Some very simple and cool ideas … I especially love the supermarket picnic one … best & easy way to get a taste of the local stuff.

  5. Brilliant post! On my travels, these have been some of my favorite places – train stations, libraries and cemeteries. These places give travelers insight into the local culture.

  6. I love these ideas, and it’s amazing how one-size-fits-all they are, workable in any city. But I have a sixth to add. When I’m in a new city I always ask around for the best local bus that takes you across a swath of the city. It’s the perfect way to get a flavor of the city, its topography and its people. (You never know who’ll sit next to you.)

    Here in New York I’d recommend the #5, which runs from South Ferry at the bottom tip of Manhattan to the Cloisters Museum near the top of the island.It’s a glorious ride. In Paris try the 69, from the Eiffel Tower to Pere Lachaise. Every city has an all-purpose bus.

  7. really loved the Cemeteries idea, i have in mind the once where i’ve visited mahdia’s cimetery in tunisia. it was in the evening, i was following a little road which reach you to a neighbourhood in the other side of the city. while i was walking looking around, trying to find a wall or a big door that indicates the entrance, baam, i found myself in the middle of it. the cimetery is located near the sea and it’s crossed by a road that locals uses everyday. so, you can’t be afraid alone inside.
    take a look: http://www.vvt360.com/visite-virtuelle-tunisie/plage-mahdia

  8. There are a lot of cemeteries with amazing backdrops in E Europe and and Australia. A bit sad if you read the headstones, but cool too see anyway.

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