You’ve arrived! Whether it’s Boston, Berlin, or Bogota, you’ve checked in, unpacked your bag, had a shower. Now what?
Whether you’ll be there for a morning or a month, you’ll deepen your travel experience by spending an hour becoming familiar with your new surroundings, identifying spots you want to go back to, and anchoring yourself with a sense of place.
While I love to travel, my first day in a new environment was once a huge challenge for me. Because I don’t have a good sense of direction or the ability to create a visual map of where I am, an unfamiliar place can feel chaotic and overwhelming. Many times, I’ve found myself feeling emotional after a few hours, longing for the familiar comforts of home and wondering, “Oh, why did we bother to come? This is just too hard.” It doesn’t help that my husband, Barry, who calls himself a “recovering civil engineer,” has excellent spatial intelligence and develops a clear sense of orientation within five minutes.
But after 40 years of travel, I’ve developed strategies that not only help me get past my initial overwhelm, they nurture me throughout my stay. If you also feel disoriented on your first day, here’s my proven, evidence-based methodology designed for you!
Shortly after arriving, head out on a scavenger hunt to find one or more of these 12 urban features that will awaken your curiosity, yet relax and calm you, too.
1. Locate Yourself In Space
As in, north, south, east, west. Use the compass on your phone if you need to. If it's overcast, or if you’re like me -- not great at orienting yourself by the sun -- find a landmark to use as your pole star. Do you see a nearby hill, high-rise, unusual tree, colorful awning, or other distinctive feature that stands out?
The morning after Barry and I arrived in Verona, Italy for instance, I was thrilled to discover that Lidl, the European economy supermarket, was located directly across the street from the apartment building where we had rented an Airbnb. That saved me throughout my first day of confusion: Wherever I happened to be, I would ask someone (in flawless Italian), "Lidl?" and they would point the way.
2. Stroll Around The Block From Your Hotel Or Apartment
Turn right at each corner so you ultimately end up where you started. Our first day in Verona, I discovered a school, a neighborhood park, a South Asian food shop, two cafes, a laundromat, and a hidden canal. After I mastered the square block going right, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and walked two square blocks to my left. Another success!
Bear in mind that outside North America, a “block” may not be square, because some urban areas in Europe, Asia, and South America were planned with a less linear sense of design … or were not planned at all, but rather, grew organically!
3. While Walking, Look (And Sniff) For Food
Knowing where to find the closest restaurants, cafes, markets, food stalls, and street vendors is primal. As soon as I spotted Lidl, you can bet I sped over there to buy staples. I needed my morning coffee!
4. Look Up
You might see towers, steeples, skyscrapers, balconies, staircases, fire escapes, cranes, hills, or trees. In old European cities, you might possibly see the ancient city walls or the cathedral. Barry loves to go somewhere high the first day we’ve arrived to get a big-picture perspective from above. If you like that idea, note nearby hills or rooftop restaurants as places to visit later.
5. Look Down
Pavements can be sources of beauty. Edwin Heathcote, architecture and design critic from Financial Times, calls pavement “the skin of the city, a membrane that separates the veneer of civilization from the darkness of the earth … for a thin surface can have a hugely powerful effect on how the city feels, looks, and behaves.” Does the town or city you’re in appear to have a signature style of pavement? Check out the various intricately patterned pavements made of marble, tile, mosaic, brick, wood, and paving stones -- and the stubborn sprouts of grass leaping up relentlessly between the cracks. If you pass atriums and building lobbies, take a look at their floors, rugs, and carpets.
6. Look For Curves
Think winding streets, bridges, and harbors. If you take pleasure in the beauty of a curve, you aren’t alone. In one study, neuroscientists found that humans are intrinsically attracted more to curves than to angles and straight lines. Chances are, these will be places you’ll want to explore in more depth later.
I have never met a bridge I didn’t like. A graceful arc appeals to me both visually and metaphorically. Some bridges are particularly memorable -- like the four footbridges that connect the old and new towns of Girona, a city in Catalonia, Spain, where I spent an hour playfully crisscrossing them like a six-year-old.
7. Look For Portals
These include doorways, arches, entrances, and gates. Doorways can be enchanting. Closed, they invite a sense of mystery and intrigue, and open, a sense of curiosity. We can’t help but ponder what’s behind them. Doors are also a symbol of transition, a liminal space (from Latin limen, translating to “threshold”). In the Celtic tradition, a liminal space refers to an in-between space -- a bridge from one state to another.
According to a New York Times article, people from all over the world take pictures of doorways and post their “doortraits” on Instagram.
Another example of a portal is an archway, which can be either natural or constructed. Often an archway marks an entrance to a garden, park, or house of worship. When Barry and I lived in Bellingham, Washington, I used to go out of my way to stroll down a street where two trees on either side met and appeared to kiss. I felt a simple pleasure beneath their embrace, somehow sheltered and nurtured by their entwined branches.
8. Look For Narrow
Think of lanes, alleys, and passageways. One reason Americans like traveling abroad is because foreign streets tend to be smaller, so they feel cozy and intimate. Multiple studies show that humans feel more comfortable and engaged in human-scale, car-free spaces lined with trees.
9. Look For Enclosures
These are the places where otherwise large empty spaces are demarcated by buildings, low walls, railings, kiosks, columns, trees, landscaping, and other partitions that invite a room-like quality. Just as a painting looks better mounted with a frame, an urban space is enhanced when a structure encloses and defines it. Enclosures could be pocket parks, small squares, courtyards, groves of trees, gazebos, or pedestrian paths framed by flowers and landscaping.
In Guanajuato, Mexico, where Barry and I live part of the year, I love to wander the serpentine alleys (callejones) that fill the city. I’m always finding an unexpected mini-enclosure, corner, or nook (rincon) -- a bench in a small square, an altar carved into a recessed wall, a hidden garden, or a half-crumbling wall.
10. Look For Nature
Nature comes in both green (trees, plants, shrubs, hedges, hanging flower baskets) and blue (fountains, public sprinklers with kids, a koi pond, canals, waterways, fish hatcheries, rivers, bays, beaches). Because humans evolved in nature, we are wired to feel nurtured by green and blue spaces.
11. Look For Places To Sit
Window seats, benches, chairs, ledges, stoops, steps ... in well-designed public spaces, you’ll see people reading, strolling, playing music, chatting, flirting, and feeding the birds -- what the pioneering urban visionary Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet.” Even if you don’t know anyone, sitting near others in an inviting outdoor space can offer a sense of comfort and belonging.
In another article with Financial Times, Heathcote calls the public bench “the seat of civilization” because it is a democratic space, available for anyone to use.
“A bench is a small space in the melee of the metropolis where it is acceptable to do nothing, to consume nothing, to just be,” he wrote.
12. Reflect On The Psychogeography Of The Area You’re Exploring
Collectively, these aspects of the natural and built environment, which are universal but expressed distinctly in each community, make up what’s been called the psychogeography of an area -- how we feel when in that environment, and whether we want to linger there or not.
As I wander around, I’m often surprised to discover not just one, but two or three of these urban features in less than half an hour. I might glance up at a woman drinking coffee on her wrought-iron balcony, or down at the paving stones I’m walking on, and suddenly realize that the anxiety I felt earlier has mysteriously disappeared. Now I feel eager, energized, and curious.
Is that an arch over there, with honeysuckle, maybe? Oh, I love the smell of honeysuckle. I’ve got to check it out, see where it leads. And I’m off.