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One Day Trip To… How to Visit Any City if You Only Have One Day

Women on the Road
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Has this ever happened to you?

A long stopover, or the opportunity for a one day trip in a new city on the way to somewhere else? (Just for fun, here's what you could see in Madrid in one day.)

UPDATE DURING COVID: Many of us have had to shelve international travel for the time being. But depending on where we are, local travel may be fine — with appropriate safety measures and distancing — and we may be itching, if we're coming out of a lockdown, to see something a little different. A day trip to a nearby city could do the trick.

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

Plenty, actually. 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 long stopover or simply leaving home for a day means planning certain specifics. If you have days or weeks to travel, you can take your time and sort things out as you go. If you've only got a day, you need 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... the shorter the time the greater the research - I have to make every minute count, right?

Perhaps you've already got a destination sorted. But if you don't, deciding where to go should be at the top of your list.

Things to consider

Even before you start pulling out your maps, there are a few things to consider and to keep front of mind as you start doing your research about where to go for a day. Here goes:

  • Budget, of course. If you want to go to a nearby city that is known for its designer shops and high-end eateries, you'll have to be ready to pay for that.
  • Safety: you've only got a day, and you don't want to spend it worried about how safe things will be. There's the street safety aspect, of course, but there is also the safety as a result of the epidemic. You don't want to choose a city where you know no one socially distances or where masks are anathema. 
  • The weather, that loveliest of variables. While you can't guarantee what weather you'll have, you can at least plan your trip at a time the weather is usually good, and have a fallback position if it's not - a relatively uncrowded mall you can repair to, or a museum that has made it clear sanitation and public health are a priority. Just keep it in mind and make sure your destination doesn't have a reputation for sheets of rain that month.
  • What kind of experience do you want? Is this a shopping trip? A cultural trip? Is there something you'd like to try at your destination you've never tried before? Or a hobby you'd like to test, in a small way?
  • Your destination's location is an important factor. How far is it? And how will you get there? Will you take public transportation or drive? You don't really want to spend five hours driving somewhere - you'll barely be able to have lunch before you come back!

All these factors will probably, in some way, influence your choice of a destination but... at some point... you will have to choose.

once you've chosen your day trip destination...

1. What will you need to organize before you go?

Now that you know where you're going, there's a bit of prepping time involved.

Depending on the type of day trip you've chosen, you may decide to take any of the following: an umbrella, strong walking shoes, a guidebook or map, a charger for your phone, food for the drive, a book to read, prebought entry tickets, medication if you're on it... and don't forget to leave your itinerary and destination with someone you trust. You may not be traveling halfway around the world, but you still need someone to be on the alert if for some reason you don't make it home when you're supposed to.

The other thing you need to do is to map out your day before you go - unless you've chosen to wander at your leisure, in which case, just go for it! But if not, a list of things to do or a planned itinerary (I've listed some apps that can help below) will help save you time. You can always decide to ditch it if something better comes up, but if not, at least you'll have a plan that will make the most of your available time.

2. Find out as much as you can about your destination

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

  • The better travel forums, to see what others are saying about your destination
  • YouTube, one of my go-to sources for a peek at where I'm going
  • Google Maps Street View
  • a guidebook to your destination - the kind a foreign visitor might buy! Head for your favorite bookstore, or for Amazon.com

If you're traveling internationally or to a different culture, try some of these resources:

  • To see what other travelers like about a place, try Afar  
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

3. Figure out how you'll get around

My main concern in a city is transportation, because everything hinges on it. If I can get around quickly, I can cover more ground. 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. The ones with an open rooftop can help enhance the safety factor during an epidemic.
  • 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 recently 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. But, life being what it is these days, I tend to avoid public transportation where possible and when I can, I drive instead.
  • If you're driving, find out where to park. You should identify a central parking lot and if you can, just leave your car there all day and walk or, if buses seem uncrowded and you're protected, climb on a bus or tram.

4. See 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. Or choose a free walking tour - many cities have them, and walking outdoors is a great way to see the sights while socially distancing.

5. Use apps to help you travel faster

  • 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

6. Have a peek at local culture (a peek is all you'll have time for...)

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 hint of an understanding of local culture even if you only have a day. Remember though, safety is paramount so check with organizers that they are fully on board with Covid-related safety measures and that precautions are being taken, such as keeping groups small and properly distanced.

  • 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. 
  • 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 Signoría, 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 gastronomic food market.
  • Most cities have food tours , 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. These days, I only eat in establishments that either have six feet between their tables or outside, café style.
  • Eating in someone’s home - or social dining - was a tempting alternative before the epidemic and many services are delighted to match you up with a local host or hostess. You might want to check and see whether they're still receiving and if they are, what safety rules they're applying.
  • If you’re staying a full 24 hours you’ll need to spend the night somewhere. Normally I'd say rather than stay in a hotel, find a homestay, Airbnb or couchsurfing host: you'll get a better sense of the city in the little time you have. But for the time being, I'd probably avoid staying away for the night and if I must, I'd choose a hotel chain that has made a clear commitment to disinfecting between guests and spacing occupancy so the establishment is less crowded.

A few more tips for a quick city trip

Choose a neighborhood, not the entire city. Set your boundaries or you'll just spend your traveling from A to B. Explore Old Madrid, not all Madrid. See the Grand Bazaar, not all of Istanbul. I prefer getting to know a neighborhood well (as well as you can in a day) rather than see an entire city poorly.

Be specific and choose a theme. If you’re a foodie, why not a cooking class — I've taken full-day or multi-day cooking classes in Barcelona, Tuscany and Bangkok but you can find one- and two-hour classes in many cities. Or focus on art. Or follow in literary footsteps (a day in Edinburgh for book lovers?) 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. A great source of pretty much anything travel is Transitions Abroad.

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 are some examples of what you 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
  • take a creative walk — based on artists' homes or literary landmarks
  • bring along your paints or your sketch pad
  • go horseback riding or try something you've been wanting to try forever
  • visit outdoor gardens or make a pilgrimage to a special spiritual place
  • 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) or if you're closer to home, why not a vintage picnic, wicker basket and all? If you're on your own, at least you won't have to socialize
  • choose a neighborhood to walk around after lunch: look up every street name so you'll know a bit about the local history
  • in mid-afternoon take a class, find a local greeter, get together with like-minded people, or take a local tour — it's about meeting local people (keeping safety in mind, of course)
  • for dinner, try a specialty you won't find anywhere else
  • treat yourself to something special: paragliding, rent a classic car, have an EXPERIENCE
  • 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 in a city they only visit briefly... here's a peek at what others might do with a day in a city when they're traveling:

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.

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