How to Experience a City in a Weekend

Exploring a city can be an adventure, and with a little preparation you can avoid lots of frustration. See pictures of city skylines.
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Visiting a new city can be a fun and thrilling experience. But on a limited timetable, it can also be stressful. Which neighborhoods do you visit? What's the best place to eat and shop? Should you go for the tourist-friendly side of town or dive deep into the city that the locals are used to?

It's a good idea to get the answers to these questions before you actually travel to the city. You don't want to spend the first part of your trip sorting through all the options available to you. And it's just as important to realize that no matter how efficient you are, you're probably not going to see everything. If you can resolve yourself to the idea that you might just miss out on a few things, you'll be able to enjoy your visit with less frustration.

First, you'll need to define for yourself what experiencing a city entails. It might involve visiting historic sites or famous landmarks. Or maybe you want to go to museums or theatres. Even a plan as simple as enjoying the local cuisine could give you a head start on planning your trip.

Every city has its own personality. Some, like New York City, are enormous, crowded and hectic. The pace in New York is much different from that of a city like Asheville, North Carolina, for instance. Depending upon the size and population density of a city, you may need to focus your trip on a very specific section of town. A trip to New York City to visit all five boroughs would require you to stay on the move for nearly the entire duration of your stay!

Now that the basics are out of the way, let's take a look at ways to research your weekend trip.

Researching Travel Destinations

There's no shortage of resources available for the modern traveler. Pop into any bookstore and you'll likely find a section dedicated to travel guides. There are big names like Frommer's and Fodor's, along with smaller brands for practically any city you can think of. You'll find maps, reviews and, in some cases, even schedule recommendations to help you plan your own self-guided tour.

But the bookstore is just the beginning. The Internet has revolutionized the travel industry. Not only can you use the Web to book discount travel fares and hotel rates, but also research your destination more thoroughly than ever before.

A good place to start is the official Web page for the city you'll be visiting. Many cities maintain a Web page with links to points of interest, historical records and a calendar of events. The Web site might give you a better idea of the geography of the city and what each neighborhood is like. If you're visiting a large city, you may even find Web sites for particular neighborhoods.

In addition, sites like Citysearch and Yelp will help you find businesses and restaurants you might want to visit during your trip. These sites contain reviews from both seasoned critics and the average traveler. A few quick searches will help you find destinations that suit your interests, whether it's fine dining or a hidden hole in the wall.

Regional blogs and weekly papers can also be great resources. They can give you an idea of the local character of the city. They're also good for finding out about local events and businesses. For example, you may even learn about a new restaurant that hasn't been around long enough to be in a travel guide or on a review site.

Once you've conducted your research, you can start sorting the information into a plan. Plans should be realistic and flexible -- remember, there's always the chance something unexpected will happen that will set you off schedule. Try to create a plan that has enough structure so you make good use of your time, but with enough options to switch gears if you encounter an obstacle. The most well-researched plan in the world could become useless in the event of a traffic snarl or stormy weather.

City Guides and Tours

Can you spot the tourists on this bus? Taking a bus tour can help you see a lot of the city in a short time.
Can you spot the tourists on this bus? Taking a bus tour can help you see a lot of the city in a short time.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

One way to experience a city is to take an official tour. Many cities offer tours ranging from historic routes that will teach you all about the origins of the city to ghost tours filled with spooky stories and over-the-top theatrics. Some cities have themed tours at different times of the year. Time your visit correctly and you might get the chance to tour historic homes in an old neighborhood or hear tell of famous events in the city's past.

If you want to see a lot of the city in a compressed time, a tour is a good option. On the positive side, you'll have a chance to see the sights in an orderly way without having to be in charge. However, there are some drawbacks, too -- you won't be able to spend all afternoon at any particular stop on the tour due to the tour's schedule.

Some cities have tours that let you hop on and off on your own schedule. This might be a great choice for tourists who want the freedom to explore a particular part of town without worrying about a bus leaving them behind. Be sure to look into the tour details to see if the city you're visiting has a tour with this option.

If the city is next to a lake, ocean or river, you may want to look into boat tours. A boat tour gives you a relaxed and romantic view of the city. Whether you're sailing down the Thames through London or taking a tour of the bay in San Francisco, boat tours are a fun way to see the town. You might even find a tour that will serve dinner on the boat as you float by the sights. Keep in mind you're only going to see a small part of the city -- anything not adjacent to water is usually off limits.

If you would rather have a little more freedom during your travels, you can purchase a city guide and plan out your trip based upon the recommendations inside. Some guides will contain suggested touring schedules that can help you experience as much of the city as you can in the time you have.

You can always create your own tour based upon the information you've gathered. Just remember to build in extra time in case you hit traffic along the way. It's also a good idea to look online to make sure the sites you plan to visit will be open on the days you'll be in the city. It's better to find out a particular location will be closed for renovation while you still have the option to make alternate plans rather than when you show up at the front door.

Tips for Experiencing a City in a Weekend

Taking a trip to a new city can end up being a magical experience.
Taking a trip to a new city can end up being a magical experience.
Jeremy Maude/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

We've covered a lot of ground so far. Here are some tips to keep you on track:

  • Do your research. The more you know before you go the better prepared you'll be. You'll want to know how far apart the sites you plan to visit are from one another and how to travel between them.
  • Keep your plans manageable. Focus on a particular section of the city you want to see. You can visit other parts of the city on subsequent visits.
  • Pack a light travel bag to carry with you. You may want to carry a camera and other items. It's also handy to have a comfortable bag to carry any purchases you might make while sightseeing.
  • Don't be afraid to go off schedule. Your plans and timetables should only be used as a guide. Feel free to explore on your own if you see something that wasn't in your plans. You can make adjustments and get back on schedule later.
  • When traveling in groups, establish a meeting place. Groups can get separated. It's better to establish a meeting place at an easily-recognizable location before you begin exploring.
  • Want ideas on local restaurants or entertainment? Stop in a hotel and ask the concierge for advice. You can do this even if you're not staying in the hotel. But do be sure to tip!
  • Submit user reviews for tours, restaurants, shops, hotels and other experiences on your trip. Your input can help future travelers find the best spots in the city.

With these tips in mind as general guidelines, you can choose just about any city in the world and have a great time. Just do your homework. Happy travels!

Learn more about traveling by following the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Fodor's. (April 20, 2010) http://www.fodors.com/
  • Frommer's. (April 20, 2010) http://www.frommers.com/
  • Orbitz. (April 21, 2010) http://www.orbitz.com/
  • Perrin, Wendy. "The Wendy Perrin Report." Condé Nast Traveler. September 2007. (April 21, 2010) http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/traveltips/11316
  • Rick Steves' Europe. (April 21, 2010) http://www.ricksteves.com/home.htm
  • TripAdvisor. (April 21, 2010) http://www.tripadvisor.com/