Short Trip, Big Plans: How to See a City on a Time Budget

Every city has a unique personality, and it takes time to slowly discover the secrets and quirks of each. It would take weeks or even months to fully explore any one city we visit. However, short vacations or budget limitations leave many of us with very little time to tour some of the most amazing cities in the world. So how can you feel like you’ve really experienced a city in only a few days?

Ask the Experts

Tempelhof Park, Berlin

As soon as you arrive, start asking the locals to recommend their personal favourite places and activities. You can ask taxi drivers, hostel/guesthouse staff, servers, or really anyone you meet. The best pizza I’ve ever eaten was recommended by a man promoting night clubs on a street corner in Italy. In Berlin, our server suggested visiting Tempelhof Park, which ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Locals know the places that define the city and truly capture its overall spirit.

Rent a Scooter

Scooters are a fantastic transport method, which allow you to see the sights between the sights. I’ve tried taking public transportation or a taxi from one attraction to the next, and while these are both quick and convenient options, I end up feeling like I’m seeing each sight out of the context with the rest of the city. By scooting from place to place, you begin to understand the layout of the area and get to know the neighbourhoods. It’s easy to meander around and explore on a scooter, yet you can cover much more ground than you ever would if you were walking. Plus, riding a scooter is just plain fun. It goes without saying that if you’re going to rent a scooter, be certain to wear a helmet, drive slowly, and be cautious, particularly if it’s you’re first time riding. Alternatively, pushbikes are a good option for those who don’t feel comfortable on a scooter, and offer the same advantages.

Enjoy Some People-Watching

Nothing helps me get a sense of a city’s atmosphere like sitting out on a patio overlooking a busy street. We often take a break from active touring to relax on the patio of a bar, restaurant or café, and then just spend some time watching the flow of street traffic. I really enjoy seeing the mixture of locals and tourists pass by, and catching bits of conversation in dozens of different languages. This activity is particularly interesting at sunset, because you can observe how the composition of the crowd changes as day turns to night.  You could hardly call it sight-seeing, but I always feel like I know a city a little better afterwards.

Leave Time to Be Spontaneous

Hitting the swings in Barcelona

My first attempt to take on a city in a short period of time was in Paris. I made the mistake that I think a lot of newbie travelers fall prey to: I tried to squash an itinerary that should have a filled a week into a mere 48hrs. As you might expect, it ended up being a stressful and largely unsatisfying trip. I spent the 2 days fretting about long lines that were setting back my schedule, regretting the places that I still couldn’t manage to schedule in, and practically swallowing my food whole because there was no time to linger over a meal. What I learned from this misadventure is that if you try to see everything, you’ll end up not appreciating any of it. Allow yourself some free time with no fixed schedule, and let your instincts take you in certain directions or go explore an obscure place that catches your eye. My most beloved travel memories are usually created in places that I just happened across, rather than the places that I rigorously planned to see.

In many ways, having limited time in a city is a reason to slow down rather than to speed up. The worst mistake you can make is trying to see “everything”. Instead, take a breath, relax your pace, and open yourself up to recognizing the subtle things that make this city special.

About the Author: Jessica Dawdy has been working/volunteering her way through Europe and Asia with her partner, Brent, since September 2011. The projects are varied: from gardening at a retreat center in Germany to teaching ESL in Thailand. You can follow their adventures at Ways of Wanderers.
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