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Ditch the guidebook: here's how to really unlock a city’s secrets

A Palestinian man walks with his children in an alley in Jerusalem’s Old City.


Need a little spontaneity in your life? Exploring a destination on the fly does not need to mean making do with a superficial understanding of the place. It can be a great opportunity to whet one's appetite for a return visit, or to discover a place from a perspective most visitors don't see.

Here are a few ways to see a city without having carefully planned your every move.

Ditch the map

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Instead of walking around with your eyes glued to a digital or paper map, try looking at it once quickly and then letting your instinct guide you. That's the easiest way to find great things that you weren't looking for and see a place from another angle than most visitors.

Ask everyone questions

Without a guide or a plan, you're forced to interact with strangers to find out what you should be doing. This is a good thing. Quiz both locals and other travellers at every turn about the best spots to eat, drink and visit. Ask enough people and patterns begin to emerge about what places are worth exploring.

Walk or bike everywhere

It may be tempting to take taxis or public transportation, but walking is typically the best way to explore a city. It is also a great way to have chance encounters with locals and find hidden treasures. Walking opens up an unknown neighbourhood and quickly makes it more familiar. The core of most cities can be explored by foot in a matter of a day or two.


Travellers who have planned meticulously tend to run from one tourist site to another. Instead of rushing around, sit down a few times a day at a café and read a newspaper or local history book. A quick read about the place helps to unlock a city and makes you appreciate its complexity. And no planning can go a long way in helping you to relax.

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Get a haircut

There's something about a barber shop or salon that can tell you a great deal about a place. It's where gossip is exchanged, and is guaranteed to be frequented only by locals. Sitting in a chair talking with a barber or stylist (or at least trying to communicate with one) gives you insight into a new land. If you don't need a cut get a facial or manicure.

Share some space

Hotels and private home rentals will guarantee you stay isolated. If you're visiting a new place with no prior planning, staying with a local in close proximity gives you the possibility of someone to hang out with. An easy way to do this is by renting a shared or private room in someone's home, rather than a hotel room or private apartment, on Airbnb. Your host will often be able to guide you to the right spots.

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