How to make the most of a city break

For long term slow travellers, the idea of quick getaways and cheap city breaks can sound like a drop in the ocean – how can you possibly get a proper taste of a place in a few days?

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Professional traveller Paul Theroux had a theory that once you’ve been on the road for a while, you get a feel for new destinations the moment you arrive in them. Perhaps this is true for some people, but many of us might argue that this approach runs the risk of missing out on hidden secrets. But how do you sniff out the best of a place when you only have a few days there?


Bin the itinerary

So many people, when faced with a short visit (their own or worse, someone who is visiting them) respond by compiling a pell-mell itinerary, rushing exhaustingly from sight to sight because they think the trip will be wasted if you don’t pack in as much as possible.

If you are one of these people – stop it! It’s really dull and annoying! And it means you pretty much guarantee that you (or your guest) won’t get a proper feel for the place you’re exploring.

Instead, take time to orientate yourself first. Spend the first morning visiting a few areas of interest and wandering about, relaxing your muscles, looking up above the modern shopfronts, sensing the vibe and seeing what’s on offer. Browsing, and sniffing things out. Then you’ll have a feel for where you might like to have dinner, where people seem friendliest. Leave ticking off those galleries, museums and landmarks until day two.


Walk where you can

Something about cruising around a place in a vehicle – more specifically, behind glass – can really separate you from the sensory clamour that defines it. Although you won’t be wanting to walk from airport to hotel, or across the urban residential areas that usually sit between pockets of urban liveliness – and bearing in mind that there may be safety considerations – do try to get out and deploy shanks pony whenever you have the chance. You’ll see, hear and smell a lot more.


Finding a good place to eat

This rule may not apply everywhere & you’ll probably have a few examples that don’t fit, but to find the best food with the most relaxed atmosphere, try places that don’t draw masses of attention to themselves but are still full of people. This normally means they have a good reputation and don’t need to neurotically point to themselves shouting “pick me! pick me!” to stay in business.


City passes and travel cards

Some cities offer a combined pass that covers public transport and entry to a list of museums, galleries, boat trips or whatever. These are usually only good value if you are highly energetic (or one of those people with the hectic itineraries) and can fit more than three attractions AND the free boat trip/cycle tour AND lots of transport-use into your break. So be honest with yourself about how much you want to cram in, compared to how much you’d rather explore under your own steam; if you err towards the latter, it’s often more economical to buy a travel pass that covers your stay, and pay individually for attractions.