Avoid museums. This might seem to be absurd advice, but let’s just think about it a little. If you are in a foreign city, isn’t it far more interesting to go in search of the present than the past? It’s just that people feel obliged to go to museums because they learned as children that travelling was about seeking out that kind of culture. Obviously, museums are important, but they require time and objectivity – you need to know what you want to see there, otherwise you will leave with a sense of having seen a few really fundamental things, but can’t remember what they were.
Hang out in bars. Bars are the places where life in the city reveals itself, not in museums. By bars I don’t mean discotheques, but the places where ordinary people go, have a drink, ponder the weather, and are always ready for a chat. Buy a newspaper and enjoy the ebb and flow of people. If someone strikes up a conversation, however silly, join in: you cannot judge the beauty of a particular path just by looking at the gate.
Be open. The best tour guide is someone who lives in the place, knows everything about it, is proud of his or her city, but does not work for any agency. Go out into the street, choose the person you want to talk to, and ask them something (Where is the cathedral? Where is the post office?). If nothing comes of it, try someone else – I guarantee by the end of the day you will have found yourself an excellent companion.
Try to travel alone or – if you are married – with your spouse. It will be harder work, no one will be there taking care of you, but only in this way can you truly leave your own country behind. Travelling with a group is a way of being in a foreign country while speaking your mother tongue, doing whatever the leader of the flock tells you to do, and taking more interest in group gossip than in the place you are visiting.
Don’t compare. Don’t compare anything – prices, standards of hygiene, quality of life, means of transport, nothing! You are not travelling in order to prove that you have a better life than other people. Your aim is to find out how other people live, what they can teach you, how they deal with reality and with the extraordinary.
Understand that everyone understands you. Even if you don’t speak the language, don’t be afraid. I’ve been in lots of places where I could not communicate with words at all, and I always found support, guidance, useful advice, and even girlfriends. Some people think that if they travel alone, they will set off down the street and be lost forever. Just make sure you have the hotel card in your pocket and – if worst comes to the worst- flag down a taxi and show the card to the driver.
Don’t buy too much. Spend your money on things you won’t need to carry: tickets to a good play, restaurants, trips.
Don’t try to see the world in a month. It is far better to stay in a city for four or five days than to visit five cities in a week. A city is like a capricious woman: she takes time to be seduced and to reveal herself completely.
A journey is an adventure. Henry Miller used to say that it is far more important to discover a church that no one else has ever heard of than to go to Rome and feel obliged to visit the Sistine Chapel with two hundred thousand other tourists bellowing in your ear. By all means go to the Sistine Chapel, but wander the streets too, explore the alleyways, experience the freedom of looking for something – quite what you don’t know, but which, if you find it, will you can be sure, change your life.