5 Ways to Be a Better Tourist in Your Own City

Our big trip comes up in conversation a lot. And that’s not a surprise. To tread the fine-line between egoism and self-deprecation, it’s the most interesting thing about us, and it’s more interesting than your average small talk. Uber drives, store clerks, pickleball partners…there are tons of strangers who know about our trip.

And a funny thing has happened. People ask us what we’ve done. And it turns out…we often experience more in their cities than they ever have. Things that we think are just incredible and indispensable parts of a city’s scene, they’ve never been to.

A few examples here in Pittsburgh include admission-free Randy Land (which I talked about in a post here); and the National Aviary, which although it’s (almost) all birds (and an armadillo, a few flying foxes, and a sloth) is like the best zoo you’ve never been to (our friend Alesha mentions this in her post here). The aviary is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that, if you want to, you can go to every day if you live in Pittsburgh. You can walk through immersive habitats with exotic birds of all kinds from around the world, free to roam and fly, free of cages, in Pittsburgh! Why this city hasn’t created an entire marketing campaign around the National Aviary is beyond me.

But it’s a lesson. Travelling is fun, travelling is something that everyone should do, to see other parts of their country and world, experience other cultures, and meet other people. But not everyone has the option to do what we do, and live their lives on the road. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained by being a tourist in your own city. And it doesn’t even have to be a big, elaborate ‘Staycation’ where you get a hotel downtown (though that’s always a fun time too). It can be as simple as putting on your tourist pants and searching for new, fun events the way you would if you were a tourist who had to fill a day.

We’ve been to lots of cities around the world. A-list cities, B-list cities, D-list cities, and some that aren’t cities at all. They all have something special to offer, and sometimes the experience at the smaller cities can be even more special than the bigger cities (where they’ve truly white-washed many experience to cater to…well…tourist).

Here’s 5 tips for how to be a tourist in your own city (there’s lots of Houston references, because most of our friends are from Houston, but the principles apply to all cities).

Braden’s Guide to Being a Better Tourist in Your Own City

  1. Headliners – Yeah, so you’ve been to the big art museum, you’ve been to the symphony, you’ve been to the ballet, you’ve been to the mural. You’ve seen it once, you don’t need to see it again, right? Wrong. Time to revisit some of the old favorites. Pull up the annual calendar for your city’s best museum and entertainment venues (be that classical or more modern). Peg an event that jumps out at you (most cities, including Houston, have POPS series that can be a fun twist on the same old orchestra). Schedule a docent tour at a museum you’ve only done solo before. Don’t rely on hearing about things from your friends – usually that doesn’t happen until too late. These large institutions are well-funded and professionally-programmed. They always have new exhibits and shows rotating through. See the old favorites in a new light.
  2. Google (City) Event Calendar – This is my #1 most-searched Google term. Every city has a number of them, some better than others. Usually the ones put out by the city or the visitors bureau hits the highlights, the big city-wide celebrations, but dig deeper. My two favorites in Houston are the CultureMap Houston Events Calendar and the ArtsHound Calendar (which is now the Houston Arts Alliance Calendar). These are not foolproof for every city (Houston orgs are better at using them than Pittsburgh orgs, for example), but they’re a great starting point. And don’t just look at the first page. Some of the best gems are hidden 4 or 5 or 6 pages deep.
  3. GoldStar – This app sells discounted tickets to shows around the country and the world. It’s far more active in some places than others, but in Houston it’s got incredible deals, from local theater all the way up to Cirque de Soleil. In addition to #2 above, this is a great way to find out about smaller, local groups that are putting on parties or festivals or shows that might not make the headlines on your Facebook feed. They even have discounted sports tickets sometimes – both to the major events and to smaller events that can be fun too (minor league baseball, minor league soccer).
  4. Take Chances – Something sounds weird? Well, guess what – it’s happening for a reason. Earth is filled with talented people, and usually people who do the work to get their events in the above 3 avenues have some talent, have a real plan, and have some production value. Not everything is on scale of the Nutcracker, but don’t be afraid to try these ‘oddball’ events. Some of our best finds have been stuff that isn’t obviously great. If you ever visit Boston, you can visit a mural that we helped paint while on vacation in Jamaica Plain.
    If you’re ever in Boston, say hello to our mural. Courtesy: JPNDC

    5. Visit a New Neighborhood – Humans, like most animals, are territorial creatures. If you open all of the cages at the zoo, most of the animals wouldn’t leave unless they were chasing food (and if they did leave, they’d probably come back if you left the door open). We’re all kind of the same way – we go to the same restaurants, the same malls, the same movie theaters, the same parks – where we’re comfortable, where we know we’ll fit in, where we’ll like the vibe. But, travelling is about stepping outside of those most comfortable zones (nobody eats at Applebee’s while they’re on vacation. Well, except maybe my parents, who really love Applebee’s). To be a tourist in a new city, find a new neighborhood, with a new restaurant, a new local musician, a new block to walk around, and new shops to visit. Or reverse engineer it – find your favorite local musician, and look for him or her to play a new bar or honky tonk in a part of town you don’t usually go to. Then there’s some comfort (you know you’ll like the musician) and something new. Or find a bar with a fun cocktail menu that you’d like to try.

At the end of the day, when you travel, it’s easy to make a tourist day. You pinpoint one item that you want to do or see, then you build around it, you go to a restaurant nearby, you walk there and pop in to a local clothing store on your way there, you check out a few landmarks in the neighborhood. When you’re travelling, everything is new, so you don’t have to think about assembling these kinds of days. At home, it has to be a little more conscious, but armed with the trips above, it can be a rewarding experience that scratches the itch in between vacations.

Happy travelling!

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