Despite having lived in Paris for nearly 15 years, Vanessa Grall gets a thrill when she encounters a new street. The city, Grall says, is like an “open-air museum,” full of unique buildings and historical markers that send her down Google rabbit holes, leading her from one location to the next. The author of the travel books Don’t Be a Tourist in Paris and Don’t Be a Tourist in New York, Grall is practiced in the art of discovering the undiscovered in popular destinations, including her own city. For Grall, the key is remaining curious about her surroundings, even as the sheen of a new location fades. “It’s a combination of keeping yourself motivated,” she says, “and keeping yourself curious.”
Tourists often get a bad rap, but, in a broad sense, they have the right idea when it comes to venturing into new places. Given the limited nature of vacations, tourists often are urgent in their exploration. Armed with lists and tagged locations on Google Maps, travelers usually have some semblance of a plan. When it comes to our own cities and towns, we have our preferences and go-tos; we’re always on the go without room for spontaneity. Moving through our hometowns with a renewed sense of wonder and curiosity can be just as restorative as traveling to another destination — that is, if we’re able to detach for a moment from our routines.
With a shift in perspective, you can take a visitor’s approach to the place you live, embracing both new-to-you locales and, yes, even tourist destinations.
Think of your weekends as mini vacations
Recontextualizing limited free time can help you maximize your days off. A 2020 study found that when people treated their weekends like a vacation — prioritizing things like enjoying good food and staying present in the moment instead of spending the entire weekend doing housework — they were happier.
This shift in mindset requires intentionality: purposefully seeking out unique and novel experiences means straying from routine. “So much of appreciating the city you’re in,” says freelance writer Christine Speer Lejeune, “is literally remembering to open your eyes to it.” In her quest to explore like a tourist in Philadelphia, where she lives, Lejeune reminds herself to look around at the architecture and historical locations she passes on her commute. “You’re walking past the building where Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft of the Declaration of Independence, and you grow very numb to it because you see it every day,” she says. “Looking at these places that you see every day can spark that reminder to appreciate what’s before us.”
Re-create travel experiences in your hometown
An easy way to take a vacationer’s approach to the area where you live is to think about what you like to do while traveling and to seek out those experiences at home, says Princess Francois Estevez, an executive director of a nonprofit and travel blogger. If your past trips have included wine tastings, dinner reservations at top-tier restaurants, or excursions to national parks, see if any of these adventures are replicable nearby. Are there local wineries or tasting rooms you’ve never been to? What restaurants are on your bucket list? Is there a species of bird only found in a wilderness area near you?
To help you home in on the type of adventure to prioritize, Grall suggests mining your psyche to curate an experience based on your mood. Feeling like a character in a movie? Try a DIY tour of locations in your city that have been featured in TV and film. (Websites like Movie-Locations.com and FindThatLocation.com list popular locations by state and city.) Mending a broken heart? Maybe seek out a comedy show or an extremely decadent restaurant.
Just like for other travel experiences, make a budget for your tourist excursions. If a blowout meal isn’t in the cards, opt for a park picnic with snacks that are unique to your city. Or you could create a staycation fund to cover future minor extravagances. In the 2020 study on treating weekends like vacations, people did not spend more money on their staycation days. Being a tourist in your own town is more about the mindset rather than what you choose to do.
Make a plan — but stay open to impromptu fun
Rather than roaming aimlessly, experts suggest having a loose itinerary with at least one location or activity you’d like to pursue, then leaving the rest up to chance. Start with identifying a neighborhood you’d like to explore — rather than the town as a whole — that you’re relatively unfamiliar with. Do a quick Google search for the area based on the type of activity or mood you’re looking to achieve — a day of shopping, a children’s museum — to create a short list of potential sites. Then see where the wind takes you. Maybe there’s a public garden on the other side of the city you’ve always wanted to check out; prioritize a visit there, then stroll around the surrounding neighborhood, popping into boutiques or cafes that interest you. “The perfect balance is a mix of one thing locked in with a little bit of cushion around it to explore,” Lejeune says.
Culturally rife areas for exploring include historic districts, says Carolina Florez, a freelancer and professional tour guide in Miami. That’s where you’ll find many museums and historical markers.
If you can, try to walk, since you’ll be better able to observe and discover businesses in your travels, Francois Estevez says. “I sometimes pick an avenue and just walk down 20 blocks,” she says.
If you live in a less walkable area, try biking to a new neighborhood (see if your town has a bike share program if you don’t have a set of wheels), or take public transportation or drive to your preferred part of town. Again, choosing a specific destination for your explorations gives you a purpose for traveling to the neighborhood and a starting point.
Don’t discount tried-and-true tourist activities
Some locals may be averse to the typical tourist destinations in their areas, but, according to Florez, “there’s a reason that they are so popular and that they’re so busy and that tourists want to go there.” Florez hosts monthly locals-only tours specifically for Miami residents. Although the locations she highlights are the same as tours geared toward visitors, guests are often surprised by how much they didn’t know about the city where they live.
Your local tourism board will have online guides to popular tourist destinations, like major museums, historic sites, and landmarks. Local organizations, such as the Miami Center for Architecture & Design and the Los Angeles Conservancy, host low-cost or free walking tours. Florez also recommends hopping on a tour so you can learn the history behind the locations, too. You could even book a local tour guide for a small-group tour that can be personalized to your interests.
Florez suggests following your favorite museums or cultural institutions on social media or subscribing to their newsletters so you can stay up to date on events they’re hosting that might allow you to see one of your go-to locations in a new light.
Put in a little leg work to discover unique experiences
Even the most experienced locals can find off-the-beaten-path adventures. Grall likes to scour bookstores for vintage guidebooks to see what locations still exist or what replaced certain businesses. “Go on a treasure hunt to find what’s still open,” she says. She also finds cemeteries exciting and untraditional tourist locations. Between the architecture and the names on the headstones, cemeteries can inspire curiosity. “If you take a name on a gravestone, it could really take you down the rabbit hole and you can play detective,” Grall says.
While geared toward travelers, Francois Estevez suggests Airbnb Experiences, which can include boat tours and even photo shoots. “Booking a fun professional photo shoot is a cute way to explore from a unique angle and also walk out with amazing photos that you can have of your hometown,” she says.
Don’t forget to strike up a conversation with other locals — a barista, a museum employee, the person next to you on the bus. When traveling, it’s common to seek out recommendations from locals. At home, however, we’re less inclined. Whether for reasons having to do with routine, time, or lack of curiosity about where we live, it’s worth engaging with the people who populate our cities. You never know what you might learn.
“Always stay curious,” Florez says. “You don’t know it all.”