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.
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.
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.
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 PÃ¨re-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.