Last week I gave a talk to folks at my university based on my recent visit to Barcelona. The intention was to highlight some of the aspects of this city and its culture, as well as Catalonian and Spanish culture, which I found especially compelling and fascinating (see my previous two blogs for more details). While structuring the talk, I came up with these seven travel tips, which I used as a framework for my talk. These tips could apply to traveling to any big city. For seasoned travelers, they are probably a no-brainer, but since my target audience was students, I thought these points might be of value to emphasize during the talk. So here are my seven travel tips:
Visit the museums
The city is a living museum
Walk whenever and wherever you can
Find good local guides
Get out of the big cities and visit the countryside
Try the local food and drink and visit the local food markets
Don’t forget to bring home some souvenirs
Visit the Museums
Needless to say, there is much that one can learn about the culture and history of a city, a country, a town, or any place or institution from visiting its museums. Let’s take cities as our reference point, since that’s what I’m focusing on with these tips. A museum is an articulation of how the city identifies itself to the world, what it finds most important about its history and values. Museums also offer important clues about the country or region in which the city is located. Taking Barcelona as my example, while staying in the city for around a week, I made a point to visit several museums, including the Fundacio Joan Miro, Museu Picasso, CaixaForum, MACBA, and the Barcelona City History Museum. Each museum tells a different story from a different perspective. When taken together, these perspectives reveal many important facets and features of the city’s overall identity and also leave you asking many questions, which may take you a lifetime to answer.
The City is a Living Museum
As an urban historian of modern China, I have spent much of my professional life reading and writing about the history of Shanghai. Over the past decade, while living in Shanghai, I have also developed a series of walking tours and led countless groups of people—students, educators, tourists and travelers, and local residents—on walking tours of the city. I call these my “walking, talking books.” While Shanghai has some excellent museums, including the recently opened new Shanghai History Museum, the city itself is the best museum of all. While in Barcelona the other week, I was able to apply some of the techniques I’ve developed over the years to study the history of Shanghai and other cities to this Catalonian city. Of course, the architecture of the city is one of main features that you will want to examine, and no architect is more important in Barcelona than Antoni Gaudi in giving that city a very unique modern identity. Moreover, in the case of Barcelona, the streets are filled with artworks of the people, in the form of graffiti, some of which is quite spectacular.
Walk Whenever and Wherever You Can
Building on point 2 above, when I am in a city that lends itself well to walking (and most do), I will walk for hours on end and prefer to use my feet to get me places rather than taxis or buses or subways. Of course, walking for a long time can be tiring, and you need to pace yourself. While in Barcelona, I must have averaged around 10 or 12 kilometers per day of walking. When I got tired, I could easily find an outdoor or indoor café and rest for a while, sampling the fine cuisine and beverages of that fair city. I only take taxis when I am in a hurry to get somewhere. Otherwise, my choice of conveyance is the public bus, since you get a window onto the city that way, and you get to see all the other folks who inhabit it. I prefer to avoid the subway, since you don’t see anything other than people (which you get to see on a bus.) Still, walking is the best way to get around, since you really get to know the layout of the city that way, and you learn how all the different neighborhoods and landmarks relate to each other spatially. You get a good sense of the street life—for Eixample, in Barcelona you learn quickly how the intersections in most of the city have chamfered corners owing to a great 19th century urban planner named Ildefons Cerda. You can also get lost in a neighborhood, which is easy to do when walking through Barcelona’s gothic district with its narrow, twisty streets, and make all sorts of interesting discoveries.
Find Good Local Guides
As a tour guide in Shanghai, I appreciate the value of guides and the unique experiences, perspectives, and knowledge that a good local guide can give you. I also understand how hard they work to do their job. Guides cost money, some more than others, but they are totally worth the extra price. While in Barcelona, I was fortunate to have a guided tour of the Casa Batllo by a CIEE professor named Tony, who shared with us many insights into the architect Gaudi and his unique style, and Barcelona culture in general, which we wouldn’t have been able to obtain through a guidebook or headphones. I also ordered a guided tour online of the Sagrada Familia and was lucky to be set up on a tour with a local guide named Maria, who again shared with us a wealth of knowledge about this unique building and its history. My advice to those who travel is to look up what options are available for guided tours and take full advantage of them!
Get Out of the Cities and Visit the Countryside
We are often entranced and enchanted by cities, and usually cities are relatively easy to navigate, even without knowing the local languages (particularly if you can speak English). They have all sorts of amenities and comforts and interesting places that we desire to see. So it is fairly easy to visit a country and only see the big cities, and perhaps also a tourist site or two outside of them. This is a shame, since so much is missed by only spending time in cities. Fortunately, while I was in Barcelona, I had a chance to visit the surrounding countryside when I was invited to a smaller town called Vic located in the mountains north of the city. It took about an hour by bus to get there, and the bus ride itself was well worth the trip, as the countryside leading into the mountains, dotted with villages and strange escarpments, was beautiful. The town of Vic is quite old, going back to medieval times, and my connection at Vic gave me a nice tour of the town center, where we saw a local market in action. I feel that I was given a much deeper window into Catalonia and Spain through this experience than if I had stayed in Barcelona the whole time.
Try the Local Food and Drink and Visit the Local Food Markets
I must admit that I am no Anthony Bourdain when it comes to eating (prior to my Barcelona trip, I did watch the episode of his show where he visits Barcelona and tries out all sorts of foods). I am not an adventurous eater and rarely go out of my comfort zone, but when traveling I do try to sample a few things now and then that I normally wouldn’t have a chance to eat. Barcelona makes that very easy to do, since there are so many restaurants and cafes nestled in just about every neighborhood and street corner. I was also fortunate to be able to join a guided tour of a famous winery or cavas outside the city, which was a fabulous experience. While I don’t always go out of my way to eat new things, I do love to visit local markets, where you can get many insights into the culture of a place. La Bouqueria is the famous one in Barcelona. The advice I gave my audience at DKU is this: If you wish to take photos in such a photogenic market as this one, it’s best to first strike up a conversation with the sellers, then buy something from them, and then ask their permission to take a photo!
Don’t Forget to Bring Home Souvenirs
When I travel abroad, or even here in China, I always bring a little something back to my family, which is the Chinese tradition. Usually, you will find samples of local delicacies and bring those back. This is made even easier by the fact that every airport and train station in China has such samples nicely packed and arranged for you to choose. This is increasingly true in other countries as well, but I prefer to get something while I’m in the city itself. I also like to bring a few things now and then for colleagues, and for myself. Lately, with all my travels to different countries, I’ve tried to bring one or two decorative items back for my office or apartment, just to remind me of where I’ve been. These can be cloths, posters, paintings, or even fridge magnets—I’ve been collecting those for a while now. The process of searching for items to bring back home can be fun and fascinating, especially when you try to find something relatively unique and interesting in the streets and winding alleys and marketplaces of an old city like Hanoi or Barcelona. You can even make it a challenge or a game to find something really unique, which can be tough.
Well, that’s all I have for travel tips for now. I know: if you’ve gotten this far and you are a seasoned traveler yourself, you are probably thinking “How obvious!” but hopefully these are useful reminders regardless. Safe travels!