Whether you’re visiting the Big Apple, Beantown or the City by the Bay: it’s tempting to try to cram in as many adventures as possible during your city vacation. Here’s how to streamline your plans so you can make the most of your time, build in some downtime and head home feeling refreshed, inspired and ready to start planning your next city getaway.
One of the first things I do when planning a trip to an unfamiliar city is make a list of everything I want to see and do during my vacation. My first draft is usually pretty ambitious, filled with a ton of restaurants I’m eager to check out, sites I’m curious to see and shows I’d like to catch. The only problem? There’s not much time left to relax.
After too many overscheduled vacations, I’ve discovered ways to make my city trips as thrilling, rejuvenating and stress-free as possible. Here are my four favorite tips:
1. Slash the to-do list.
Sure, you want to experience a city’s world-famous art museums, its historic architecture, that epic show everyone’s talking about, the must-eat local foods and that new, buzzworthy bar. But ask yourself one question first: How many days will you be there?
After brainstorming, I trim my to-do list by keeping only the stuff I’m really excited to see and do. I prioritize the places and events I’d regret missing — and skip the things I’ve been told to do, but don’t feel as genuinely enthusiastic about.
As a general rule, I like to plan one daytime adventure per day — a visit to a museum, a historic site or a park — and then figure out where to eat nearby. Evening plans might involve a show or an event, or just dinner or drinks.
Keeping my daily to-do list short and sweet gives me time to stroll, take breaks, reflect or debrief with my travel companions. It also leaves space for the unexpected opportunities I’m bound to stumble upon as I roam around the city.
Have a satisfying breakfast before you head out for the day. That way, you’re not spending a chunk of your morning searching for a place to eat. Save that energy for other adventures.
2. Build in time to sit and watch street life.
Taking in street life is one of the most direct ways to experience a city. And lounging over a drink or a meal at a place that locals love, off the tourist path, is a fantastic strategy for getting a feel for its rhythms.
My favorite parts of a trip are often the times I spend sitting at a restaurant or a cafe, people-watching and absorbing the sounds and sights. During a recent Paris venture, I loved relaxing at an outdoor table at a café in Belleville, grateful for the server who didn’t rush me to pay and move on. I didn’t feel the need to uproot from my blissful spot just so I could keep crossing items off a to-do list.
3. Bring only the essentials with you.
I try to pack light when I travel, and that also goes for what I carry around with me on days when I’m out and about exploring. Depending on the weather, it might make sense to stash an extra layer in your handbag or backpack. But don’t try to cram in 10 pounds’ worth of just-in-case accessories. It will just weigh you down and cramp your style.
Go through your bag before you leave your room for the day and clear out the clutter. Make sure you’ve got essentials like your wallet, phone, keys, maybe a small notebook and pen, and any other necessities. Then, toss out the rest. (I can’t remember a time when I thought, darn, if only I’d brought that extra lipstick and ton of coins and guidebooks and snacks). If you have your smartphone with you — and if the city you’re visiting has convenience stores for emergency items — you’re probably good to go.
I always bring along a hard-copy map of a city, or just the neighborhoods I’m planning to explore that day. I usually end up using my favorite apps and maps on my phone, but a compact paper map comes in handy just in case I can’t get a signal or I forget my charger.
4. Embrace dining at the bar.
You’re dying to eat at that chic new restaurant. Turns out everyone else wants a table too (big surprise). But there is no need to give up on your dreams just because you can’t get a reservation. In lots of restaurants in New York City and around the world, you can just show up and let the host know you’re willing to dine at the bar — or wait for a cancellation. This works best if you’re solo or in a small group of two or three.
If you do nab a spot at the bar, you’ll get a unique view of the dining room and the crowd. You might even end up in a conversation that gives you a new perspective on the city — as a friend and I discovered during our long weekend in Barcelona. It’s harder to interact with locals when you’re tucked away at a table in the back. Plus, you often get better service when you’re sitting face-to-face with a server. If you do, make sure to tip well, have fun and pat yourself on the back for your flexibility and sense of adventure — two of the most important things to pack with you on any city vacation.
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