Everyone has things they love to do when they travel; activities that become almost ritualistic. My dad loves to run in a new city. My favorite thing to do is walk. I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, “um, duh. Everyone does that.” But I mean to walk without a purpose, to take in the city as it is and not as you perceive it or from what you want out of it. I like to see every neighborhood, every major area of activity. I walk without an agenda except to take it all in. I stop if I want to, but mostly just wander and see the parts of the city that someone who lives there would. The sensory life that exists all over the city.
When you walk a city aimlessly, you experience it. Sure, you may have been to New York. You may have seen Times Square. Or gone to the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center memorial, or radio city music hall. But those are places to check off of a list. That is not how I like to travel. I enjoy tourist hotspots, but I enjoy the sensory journey to getting there. With this attitude, you can connect with the city and its life in a way you couldn’t if your itinerary were jammed packed with places to see.
I can still remember the neighborhood changes that led to Times Square. It seemed out of place, as if it did not belong to the people who inhabit its neighborhood. I remember the neighborhood around Colombia University. Situated adjacent to Harlem, the contrast to its surrounding areas is striking. You walk from expensive restaurants, cafes, men with skinny jeans, and women in leather jackets smoking cigarettes to bare and unkept parks, liquor store and fried chicken restaurants that inundate the housing complexes. The smells and sights of affluence versus the smells and sights of those in need.
You also see things the average traveler would not. You feel like an explorer when you’re walking an empty street in a residential neighborhood and happen upon a small work of graffiti art or an unusual park.
One of my favorite things that happens while walking aimlessly is that you see human life as it naturally occurs. When you take the time to slow down and stop traveling with an hourly or daily agenda, you can step back and see the life of the place you are in. You no longer just see tourist spots, but you see people. People in pain, people that are happy, people in love. Your memories from a place are not tied to places on a list, but from the life of the city; the essence of a city.
So, next time you make an itinerary, consider allowing some time to wander aimlessly. I promise that, by getting to know a city, you’ll know it in a deeper and more intimate way than treating it as an experience to conquer.