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At least once a month, we pack up everything we own and move to a new city, and often a new country. Such is the life of nomads. While we love the excitement and fascination of exploring new places, figuring out a new city or town can also be frustrating. But, over a year of full-time travel, we figured out a few ways to make the transition a little smoother.
These our our steps to get to know a new city — Digital Nomad Style.
When you first arrive in a new city, have a plan. There’s nothing worse than being tired and jet-lagged, lugging all your stuff, and having to figure out how you’re getting to your new place. This is especially true if you stay in Airbnb apartments or smaller hotels (like us), where there isn’t any airport shuttle. And we’ve found that unless you know where you are going and how much it should cost you to take a cab, you will pay a whole lot more than you should. When possible, take an official cab with a meter — taxis at airports and and train stations always seem to have “broken” meters, and these should be avoided. Always make sure you write out the address of the place you are going – it’s a lot easier explaining it to the cab driver when you don’t speak the language.
Take a tour of the area (on the internet)
Most places are mapped out on Google. We often do a digital drive by before we choose a new location. It’s key to us that there is a market very close by (since we’ll be walking and carrying everything ourselves most of the time). We’ve also learned that staying in a place that advertises a sweeping view of the city can be a mistake – they’re often high up on the outskirts of town, and require a cab or bus ride to get to the store. We’ve arrived in a new “well stocked” place and found that there wasn’t even any toilet paper in the apartment. Being tired, hungry and needing to find out how to take the bus to get to the market would not have been fun. Note: you never have so much stuff that you can’t fit some tissues in your luggage (just in case).
Go to the local market
Not the western style supermarket (although even those can be fun to explore too), but the local market where you can find fresh local produce and food items that are specialties to the area. You would be amazed at how many types of rice you can buy in Thailand, or how many potatoes there are to choose from in Ecuadorian markets. And on the plus side you’ll save money eating like a local. Be ready to haggle, too.
Hop on / Hop Off Bus
I know most of you are probably shaking your head sadly right now. I get it. Generally, I find that the recorded audio tours on these buses to be mediocre at best and they mainly bring you to the most touristy areas. If you’re visiting a big city, though, it’s a great way to get a sense of where things are, and how much distance there is between where you are staying and the things that you’d like to see. We walk a lot and it’s nice to have an idea of what the nearby neighborhoods are like before setting off on foot. We’ve also had some “not so fun” experiences trying to find our way off the beaten track when we didn’t know a new city – not a great introduction.
Take Public Transportation
Riding around town in the bus or the metro is a great way to see how the locals really live. It was fun riding up a cable car up the mountain in Colombia along with grade school kids coming back home after school. And if you take time to learn the metro or bus system you can save a lot of money. You’ll often see parts of the city that won’t be in the guide books, but can be the best places to explore and really understand a new culture.
Take a walking tour
We love walking tours. We’ve done various types everywhere from Latin American countries like Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica, to European capitals in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, to specialty historical zones in the Caribbean. Most often these tours are given by locals who are very passionate about their city. We found guides in Spain and Portugal who started doing walking tours when the economy tanked, and decided that even if they could take their old jobs back, they wouldn’t. You’ll get lots of inside information that you wouldn’t from a guide book. Many of these tours are “free” but a tip is expected (and we have found that they’re typically fantastic, and deserving of the tip). It’s also a good way to get information about what off the beaten track areas we should see, and how to safely get there. If paying for a walking tour rubs you the wrong way you can download an MP3 file and do your own self guided tour. Or, many walks will describe on the internet where they plan to take you, which will give you a good idea of what to see if you’re determined to do the tour by yourself.
Take a cooking class
We do this all the time. We’ve taken classes in San Diego, New Orleans, Madrid, Lisbon, Chiang Mai, and Playa Del Carmen, to name a few. Even if you are not a big fan of cooking, it’s a great way to learn about the history and evolution of the cuisine of a place. The REAL reason though, is that for a relatively small investment, you have a couple of hours of one-on-one time with a local chef (who’s teaching the class). And, who knows where the best local food is, especially the cool little places that aren’t in the guidebooks? Chefs! We grill them (sorry, bad pun) about their favorite restaurants, find out about the strange and different local dishes that only the locals eat, plus we often get to meet fellow travelers who give us their recommendations about thing to see and do.
Admittedly some of these tips won’t work for smaller less urban destinations. But following these steps has made a difference for us and helped us feel at home during our travels. And, when you live the life of a full-time nomad, that feeling is worth a lot.
What are your tips about what to do to get to know a new city?