As a freelance travel writer for newspapers and magazines, I visit three to four cities a year specifically to experience and write about them. While the occasional trip is scheduled for me, I plan most of my trips myself.
Once I’ve decided what city or region I’d like to visit, I start researching possible activities I’d like to do, where I’d like to stay, what restaurants I should visit, etc. My trips end up being incredibly busy and wildly fun, and I always find the best things a city has to offer, even if I have to go way off the beaten path to do so. Here are a few of my secrets.
Pick a theme
I’m always looking for a great angle for a story, and build itineraries around specific themes. For instance, when I went to New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed, I immersed myself in Tolkien experience by touring sets and filming locations by foot, 4×4 and Zodiac boat. In Vegas, I skipped the shows and went for the adrenaline experience ziplining, helicoptering and shooting machine guns at a gun range. If you love a certain sport, you could take in a pro game, find a local pickup game to participate in, eat at a sports bar owned by a famous former athlete.
Ask for advice
I always spread the word to friends, family and coworkers for suggestions on what to do while in a city. I also ask them to ask their friends local to that city for their “best of” recommendations to find a city’s hidden gems, like the Seward Street Slides in San Francisco, Tam Tam in Montreal, or Parade of the Lost Souls in Vancouver. I scour review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, check out tourism board websites and travel blogs, and spend hours on Google to look up temporary events like festivals, art exhibitions or concerts.
Take copious notes – the right way
I create one document of all my notes. Each activity, restaurant, etc. is listed with their phone number, street address and business hours if applicable, then a short note about why they’re worth checking out. I sort my notes by neighbourhood, critical if you’re in a big city. Each neighbourhood category might have a few stores, restaurants, activities and nightclubs or shows I’d like to see. Each morning I choose where I want to go based on the weather or my exhaustion level. For instance, when in New York City walking the High Line, I had noted that no restaurants were stand outs in the area, and it was worth planning a later lunch in order to get to a restaurant with the best ranked cheesecake in the city.
Without sorting by neighbourhood, I end up going over data charges on my smartphone trying to find a decent restaurant at the last minute when we’re halfway across the city from the restaurants we wanted to visit.
One last piece of advice – leave something for next time, and give yourself a reason to go back. I’m never afraid to leave a few sights for the next visit. I didn’t make it to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, it took a few visits to San Francisco before I saw the Golden Gate Bridge and I never seem to make it up the CN Tower in Toronto. Don’t allow the pressure of trying to race from one thing to the next kill the pleasure you might find in taking time to people watch or really enjoy the activity you’re already engaged in, or the meal you’re leisurely enjoying.