When visiting a new city, it almost goes without saying that the locals know the city better than you do as a visitor. This extra knowledge locals have comes from years of living in the same location, but that learning curve can be shortened with a few simple tips. These suggestions may not work for short vacations, but they can definitely help you reach ‘local’ status quickly after you move into your new home here in lovely Austin Texas.
Start With A Map
Any map will do, but specifically try to find information such as shopping centers, public transit, movie theaters, doctors and dentists, etc. The goal is not to memorize the city, but rather to have a basic understanding of the layout and where different neighborhoods and commercial zones are concentrated.
The one exception to memorization is roads. You should quickly become familiar with the street names in your own neighborhood. Also, find the two or three major roads that seem to cover a large area of the city. Here in Austin you will want to know I-35, Mopac (Also called loop 1), HWY 290, HWY 183, and the main drags - Congress Ave, Guadalupe St. 6th St, Lamar, Burnet Rd and 2222/Koenig. You want to memorize a route from each of these roads to your house, which will help you if you get lost anywhere in the city by allowing you to simply head towards a major road.
Find Your Neighborhood Bar (Or Coffee Shop)
In general, try to make a habit of visiting locally owned businesses rather than chain stores. This works particularly well in bars and coffee shops because there is plenty of time to sit and chat while enjoying your beverage, but it works just as well in other stores. Take some time to strike up conversation with the owners/bartenders/baristas. Living in a city will help you gain a certain perspective, but actually running a business in that city will open up a whole new world. These individuals not only pay attention to their customers, but they will understand the local economy as well.
Here are some of our spots from around town....
East Side - Cenote 1010 E Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78702
South Austin - Radio Coffee & Beer 4208 Manchaca Rd, Austin, TX 78704
At least once, and preferably a few times more, you should have a goal of getting lost. Pick a destination that you’d like to reach, but do not plan a route to get there. If possible, use public transit or ride your bike rather than drive. The goal isn’t to reach your destination, it’s to blend in with the city itself. You should pay attention to how the people around you are behaving. Is the bus crowded? Is one particular street crowded with pedestrians, but the next street over is empty? What types of businesses are located in the area? This information will give you incredible insight into what a city is truly like.
A similar tactic to getting lost is to try taking different routes to familiar places. Once you’ve learned the fastest way to get the the grocery store for your weekly trip, stop taking that route and explore some side roads. Avoid highway traffic by driving through neighborhoods. You’ll discover great new restaurants and stores this way, and at a minimum you’ll get some new scenery.
Of course the best way to learn about places you may enjoy is from people you already know and trust. Coworkers are great for this, as are friends and family in other cities that have lived in or spent significant time in your city. You can also find local groups to join, such as a book club or volleyball team, to meet people with similar interests. If you haven’t already, check out Meetup.com for help with filling up all of your spare time.
Have a ‘Must See’ List
Keep a running list of things you’d like to do and places you want to visit. Start with all of the major tourist attractions, and when possible, take the tours offered. The tour guides will give insight into the various nuances of the place, and are likely great people to talk to about the city and its hidden gems.
After the major tourist attractions, start using google to find new places based on your interests. If you enjoy gardening and nature, don’t just visit local parks and gardens, visit nurseries as well. To find good food don’t just look for restaurants, look for cooking classes offered at the local health food store or community college. These smaller destinations may not be drawing in tourists, but they’ll offer to up-close view that you’re looking for.