Surviving the Suburbs: An Unconventional Travel Guide

On the list of destinations you’re pining to visit, I would bet there is nary a suburb to be found — or, at least, not one American suburb. There’s good reason for that; as we Statesiders well know, if you’ve been to one godforsaken strip-mall wonderland, you’ve been to them all.

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Yet somehow we all find ourselves in the suburbs every now and then: visiting family, business trips, or perhaps you even live in one (though, if that’s the case, you might’ve taken enough offense by now and stopped reading). It can be tough to not write these trips off as time wasted, to not be reduced to eating at Applebee’s and renting from Blockbuster.

For those who seek enriching experiences from travel, finding culture amid the glittering chain stores is a challenge — but it’s a challenge we’re up to. Use this guide on your next jaunt to the ‘burbs, and turn a stale trip into an unconventional journey:

Starbucks, Dubai
Starbucks, Dubai © jonrawlinson

Seek Out Local Businesses

You wouldn’t go abroad, or even to New York or San Francisco, just to wind up eating at an Outback or sipping coffee at a Starbucks. Why treat the suburbs any differently? Even in the plainest of commuter towns there are usually a few locally-owned holdouts, from Chinese restaurants to bakeries to bookstores. Owners of these joints have often been around since before development went rampant, and can give you a little local flavor and history of the community.

People like to pretend that mom-and-pop shops get squeezed out by national corporations, which is only half the story: local businesses are more often killed by public capitulation to convenience. Even in the suburbs, you shouldn’t be a part of that.

For those who enjoy their morning caffeine, there are a couple online tools to help you find locally-owned coffee shops — and‘s “Starbucks Alternatives” section. Indie Coffee Shops is by far the more thorough of the two, listing over 1200 cafes in 605 cities and suburbs.

Fight Car Culture

I’ll put it out there: follow this tip and you take your life into your own hands. Simply put, suburbs aren’t designed for cyclists, and most suburban drivers have no idea that bicycles have a right to the road.

That said, the best way to connect with a locale is not to zip mindlessly through it. Rent a bike on your next suburban journey, or if you’re visiting your parents, dust off the one that’s probably still sitting in the garage. Take the ‘burbs at a bicyclist’s pace and you’ll notice a lot of details that locals themselves likely miss. This gives you an easy way to scout for local shops without the hassle and expense of driving. If you’re not bicycle-inclined, just walk and use public transit.

Suburbia, Arizona © Kevin Dooley

Find Local Centers of Faith

You’d probably never guess that one of the Seattle area’s largest Buddhist temples is in Auburn, Wash. — a couple miles away from a kitschy theme park — or that the nation’s biggest mosque is in Dearborn, Mich. But centers of faith across the religious spectrum are found in unlikely suburbs, and seeking them out can not only offer an opportunity to see some exquisite architecture but also a chance to connect with a community’s ethnic enclaves.

But before you go, do your homework — you don’t want to just pop by during the middle of a service. Call the faith center or check their web site to see when a good time would be to visit. Avoid proselytizing attempts by letting them know you’re just in town for a few days.

Check Out the Parks

If you’re like me, then you avoid the mall like the plague. But in suburbs that lack interesting neighborhoods, where else to hang out?

No matter where you are, there is likely a park nearby offering a lakeside vista, a pebbly shore or just an open field. For listings, check out the Parks and Recreation department website for the county that you’re visiting. Bring a book, pack a sandwich, and spend a few hours connecting Thoreau-like with nature — contemplating its rapid consumption by man.

Do-it-Yourself Nightlife

With suburbs that shut down after 8:00 p.m., answering the question of what to do at night is the probably the most difficult. The best solution is simply to be creative: weave your bicycle through empty streets and parking lots, go to the theaters solo, or enjoy a late-night slurpee outside the 7-Eleven. Hey, IHOP is always open.

The thing about the suburbs is that it’s all about attitude — you can complain about what’s there, or you can make the best of it. Every travel experience is valuable as long as you’re willing to shift perspectives. One last tip? Ditch your laptop and bring along a journal — avoid whiling away the day wishing you were somewhere else, and take advantage of the slower pace to do some serious reflection.

  1. A bit random, isn’t it. Dearborn also supposedly has the largest concentration of Iraqis living in the U.S.

  2. Good idea, Ben. When I’m traveling on an ultra-budget I often end up in odd hostels way out in the suburbs and you really get a different perspective. In Latvia I remember staying in a hostel way out in the ‘burbs of Riga and it was like stepping back in time to when Latvia still belonged to the USSR.

  3. I think I actually see you in the photo, Wendy. We’ve upgraded to some NASA-style, real-time image capturing here on Vagabondish.

    You’re the one with the latte foam on her nose.

  4. when we get a bit restless but don’t have the means for big trips, we go on local field trips to the ‘burbs. we always cruise the old downtowns looking for the local hangouts, sometimes we score, often we fail. but it’s the hunt that’s exciting, right?

  5. Ben, this is a great recommendation for travellers. For those interested in finding out how locals really live. Visiting Westminister isn’t the same as seeing London, seeing Central in Hong Kong, isn’t the same as seeing Hong Kong.

    Nobody is going to spend days out in the burbs, but it’s a great place to get a real beat on a destination.

  6. I love that kitsch mall (Ibn Battuta) but hate the Starbucks there; there are some great local cafes that should have opened up under that dome instead.

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  9. The largest Hindu temple outside of India is in Lilburn, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. And even though it is right across the street from one of said strip-malls, it is definitely worth a visit

  10. Not all suburbs are created equal. I live in theas Vegas suburbs and the strip mall next to my house has a Walmart, a pharmacy and a Mexican restaurant that are all open 24 hours. There’s also a bar and a hookah bar that I’m pretty sure never close. Anyway….yeah suburbs suck, but some of them are better than others.

  11. I lived in Quebec City for over a year – St. Anne’s Basilica and Montgomery Falls are two attractions definitely in suburban territory and yet, very worth a visit. Chicago’s biggest zoo and several FL Wright houses are in the ‘burbs. (I’m originally from Chicago). There are tons of Americana photos one can get as well.

    Good post. As a city dweller, I get so restless in the suburbs.

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