Unless you’re off on a beach vacation, you probably want to do something when you’re traveling: check out the museums, catch a show, or shop in a local market. Here’s how to find the best things to do.
When it comes to doing things when you’re traveling, it’s important to be realistic about how much you’ll get done in a day. While you might technically be able to squeeze everything in, you’ll enjoy it more if you take a leisurely pace. Don’t prebook dozens of activities and then feel you have to rush between them. Try aiming for one main activity a day along with one or two optional extras, depending on how everyone is feeling.
Do the Usual Research
If you’re visiting Paris, the odds are you want to see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. And you should, they’re both incredible. But what if you’re visiting, say, Cleveland? You might not know off the top of your head, but that’s where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is located.
The popular tourist sites end up popular tourist sites for a reason: they’re generally really entertaining, visually stunning, culturally important, or some combo of the three. If you’re traveling somewhere new, it’s worth at least considering a visit to what guidebooks and fellow travelers consider the “must-sees.”
If you hate museums—are you even human?—you can skip the Louvre and the Met but, for most people, they’ll be worth at least a cursory look.
Figuring out the usual highlights only takes a few moments. We suggest that you:
- Check out TripAdvisor’s listings for the city, though be warned; they prioritize paid tours over free cultural experiences.
- Google “Things to Do [Location].” Google will normally suggest a list of top rated activities at the top of the results.
- Flick through a guidebook. I’m a huge fan of what the Lonely Planet puts out. It’s all human curated so free and low key things get equal consideration as full-on tourist extravaganzas.
Once you’ve got an idea of what things people are going to be like, “Oh my God, what did you think of [Their Favorite Tourist Site in City]?” when they hear you went, you can start to plan which things you want to do, which you want to skip, and start looking at more niche activities.
Think About Your Hobbies
I love great drinks, hiking, and photography, so every time I travel to a new place, I try to work all of them into my visit somewhere. If you’ve got some hobbies, you should do the same. I’m going to use a recent trip I took to New York as an example.
Since I’m a huge fan of nice craft beers and well-made cocktails, for every new city I visit, I try to find either an over the top local beer pub or the best cocktail bar. For New York, it took about two minutes Googling to find the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, a cocktail bar (founded by two Northern Irishmen) that’s consistently ranked in the World’s 50 Best Bars. A 35-minute subway ride from our hotel and we were enjoying incredible cocktails in awesome surroundings.
For hiking, things were a little trickier since, in case you hadn’t noticed, New York is pretty built up. That didn’t mean there weren’t walks we could do: the Highline is a 1.5-mile walk along a disused rail track on the Westside. It was a great way to explore the city from an unusual perspective. Sure, it wasn’t climbing a hill, but with the walk to and from the hotel, plus the full walk along the Highline and back, and a stop for a coffee, we spent the best part of an afternoon out on our feet.
Photography was simple, but also the hardest. I knew I wanted a sunrise shot of Manhattan so, as soon as my redeye from LA landed, I hopped on the train into the city and got a taxi out to New Jersey so I could get my shot. I was pushing buttons on my camera like a zombie, but the picture was worth it. I also checked out the incredible Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition in the International Center of Photography.
While I adored the Met and The Phantom of the Opera, it was these personal things that made the trip. Whatever you’re into, there’s sure to be some way to work it into your vacation. Find other practitioners of what you do, or look for museums or galleries related to it. If you love a book or TV show set in the place you’re visiting, maybe try and see some of the locations of the big scenes.
Your hobbies are yours so, really, all I can recommend is take the internet: use Google, use forums, use trade websites, and find something related to your hobby to do. You won’t regret it.
It’s become a bit of a cliché to look for a more “authentic” experience when traveling, but there is something to be said for asking locals what they love to do in their cities. A lot will be the usual things—go outdoors, visit the cinema, hang out with friends—but most people have a couple of specific tips they recommend to anyone visiting.
Before you go, hit up your network on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you know anyone in the city you’re visiting, reach out to them directly. If not, do a general post asking for recommendations. Maybe it will come to naught, or maybe you’ll get the tip that makes the trip.
There’s also a growing industry of sites and travel bloggers that look to give the tourist advice you don’t find in guidebooks. My favorite of them is Roads and Kingdoms (I actually wrote their Dublin guide). Your best bet for finding them is to google the city you’re going to and “locals advice” or “tips from a local” and see what turns up.
Finally, as long as your trip isn’t planned too rigidly, you can always ask locals when you get there. The receptionists and concierges wherever you’re staying will have a lot of ideas, but you can also just ask anyone you meet. I’ve got great tips from baristas, people I’ve matched with on Tinder, and random strangers I just ended up talking to.
Booking Your Activities
It’s certainly tempting to book everything in advance online and have a rigid schedule, but I’d advise against it. It locks you into a set itinerary regardless of weather and anything else that happens. Also, while booking online can be cheaper and help you skip queues for some attraction, it’s the rare tourist attraction that really sells out.
My advice is to book the following online in advance:
- Any shows, concerts, or events with limited tickets that will legitimately sell out.
- Any general passes that last the entire length of your trip—city passes, bus passes, or the like.
- Anything where the tour will only run if the minimum number of people required is met.
- Anything you know for sure you will be doing on a set day at a certain time.
You can either book things directly through the service’s website or using an aggregator like Viator.
For everything else, I’d recommend waiting. You can almost always book tickets to museums and tourist attractions online the day you want to go. That way, you can wait until a rainy day to hit up all the museums and still skip the big queues.
In case it isn’t obvious, I love exploring new cities. Use the tips above, and you will too.