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One Day In… How to Visit Any City if You Only Have a Day

Has this ever happened to you? A long stopover, or the opportunity to spend a day in a new city on the way to somewhere else?

It’s almost tempting to forget about it because it's too much trouble and, after all, what can you see in a day?

Plenty. You just have to think a bit out of the box, that’s all.

Lyon frescoYou could walk around and see Lyon's famous murals and frescoes in a day

Planning the basics

A 24-hour stopover means planning certain specifics. If you have days or weeks, you can take your time and sort things out as you go. If you've only got a day, you may want to plan it right so you can make the most of your time.

I usually find that the amount of research I do is inversely proportional to the amount of time I stay...

Find out as much as you can about your destination's background

The first thing I do is research the destination. You can always get a quick overview from Wikipedia or Lonely Planet but for anything slightly more offbeat or original, head for one of the following:

copper pots in Fez marketIf you have little time, you'll get a great sense of place from a local market, like this one in Fez, Morocco

Figure out your public transportation

My main concern in a city is transportation, because everything hinges on it. If I can get around quickly I can cover more ground (even though sometimes I’d rather stay put). Either way I try to plot and plan and make this decision beforehand. 

  • Many cities have bicycles to rent for the day, if you dare (some cities have strict traffic rules so you’d better be good on those two wheels before you tackle such expert cycle venues as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where they take their cycling seriously!)
  • Some cities offer a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus. It’s expensive but short of an organized tour it's the best way to see highlights quickly. I've tried them in Barcelona, Lisbon and London when I had little time and was glad I did.
  • I love jumping on a city bus to see where it goes, although it’s best to check first about the neighborhood - you don't want to end up on Murder Row. I was in Lyon last week and I bought a one-day transit pass, great for spur-of-the-moment bus-hopping. Some passes even provide entrances to museums and other venues, which brings me to…

Seeing the highlights - quickly

There are a zillion sites that list tourist attractions in every city in the world, from official tourism office websites to Tripadvisor to travel blogs for every place imaginable. I'm sure you do that already. But there's more...

  • Look up Atlas Obscura, a site that specializes in the offbeat and never fails to serve up a surprise.
  • I’m a museum fanatic so I’ll be sure to consult Artcyclopedia
  • To find time-limited special events or exhibitions, I head to Time Out.
  • A wonderful way to spend a few hours getting to know a place is by booking a walking tour. Context Travel uses experts and their groups are cozy and smart. I have yet to be disappointed by one of their tours. 
  • And a few words about apps... Gogobot helps you find places to see and things to do – you can use it for research before you go or once you’re there. Viator is a great app (and website) with short tours and activities – a few hours, half a day or an entire day, ideal if you’re short on time. Maps.Me is a map app but you can download it so it’s available even where you don’t have a signal – and it covers places most other map apps don’t. Triposo is another map app you can use offline. Finally, you can use Google Maps to build a city itinerary and keep an eye on where you're going.
Istanbul Basilica CisternIstanbul's Basilica Cistern - one of my favorite sights in this city

Getting to know the culture

For me even the quickest trip means getting to know as much about local culture as I possibly can. Here are some ways you can get a superficial understanding of local culture even if you only have a day: 

  • Take a tour organized by locals, guides who have an intimate knowledge of the city and show you what you really want to see. Or find a volunteer with Global Greeters Network and spend an hour or two talking and walking about town. Or take a small group tour.
  • Look around for outdoor art, a great way to visualize a city as you walk through. During a six-hour stay in Florence I spent most of my time on the Piazza della Signoria, looking at sculpture. Or I'll hunt around for street art. Or visit arty subway stations.
  • Find out if there’s a market in town: always great for local foods and handicrafts. Or spend a few hours in a specialized food market, like these two in Madrid.
  • Most cities have food tours (like this one I took in Istanbul or this one in New York), a perfect way to spend a few hours understanding a culinary tradition. 
  • For local restaurant recommendations I check Yelp (I use their iPhone app  but they have it for Android too, don’t despair) or yes, TripAdvisor, where I - and thousands of others - religiously leave detailed reviews after eating out.
  • Eating in someone’s home is a tempting alternative and many services are delighted to match you up with a local host or hostess. Here are some of those I’d like to try out: Meal Sharing, EatWith, and Eat With a Local - and new ones are born each week it seems.
  • If you’re staying a full 24 hours you’ll need to spend the night somewhere: rather than stay in a hotel, see if you can find a homestay, Airbnb or couchsurfing host: you'll get a better sense of the city in the little time you have. (Make sure you look closely at the dates because many have a two- or three-night minimum.)

A few more tips for a quick city trip

Choose a neighborhood rather than a full city. Explore Old Madrid, not all Madrid. See the Grand Bazaar, not Istanbul. I prefer getting to know a neighborhood well (as well as you can in a day) than a city poorly.

Be specific and choose a theme. If you’re a foodie, why not a cooking class - I took a full-day class with BCNkitchen in Barcelona but you can find one- and two-hour classes in many cities. Or focus on art. Or follow in a literary author's footsteps. Picking a theme will help you map your itinerary more easily.

Connect with special interest groups. Dyanne Kruger of TravelnLass is a geocacher and connects with other geocachers when she travels. If you speak Esperanto, you’ll find an Esperanto club in the world’s farthest reaches. If you have any hobby, interest or passion – get online before you go. You're bound to find someone you can connect with at the other end.

Other good places to find special interest groups are expat websites such as Expat Blog, AngloInfo, Allo Expat and my all-time favorite, Transitions Abroad. Many have forums where you can post questions or read what’s already been posted.

Finally, if you’re on a stopover – connecting between flights – check the airline’s website. Many offer city tours if you’ve got a number of hours between flights and some even offer free hotels.

Spend a day in...

You’d be amazed at what you can see in a day if you take the time to plan.

Here's what I could do in a single day: go somewhere high and watch the sunrise; have a local breakfast in a cool café; walk around the streets looking for some sort of art or go to a museum; buy local staples and bread and have a picnic lunch in the city's most scenic venue (like along the Seine or in full sight of the Acropolis); choose a neighborhood to walk around after lunch; in mid-afternoon take a class, get together with like-minded people, or take a local tour; for dinner go where you can try a local specialty; and spend the evening watching a national play or foreign film with subtitles, or listening to local music...

Travelers have different ways of spending their time... here's a peek at what others might do in a day in some of the world's leading cities:

OR… you can throw all this information out the window, stay open-minded and grab whatever opportunity comes your way. You might end up dining in the royal palace like I recently did in Abu Dhabi.


a city in one day

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