Traveling in a foreign city? Give yourself a secret mission.

shopping for spices in Jerusalem market
© Shani Sadicario -- Author Martinko shops for spices in a Jerusalem marketplace

Skip the formal sightseeing to pursue something that interests you -- and you'll discover a whole other side to the place you're visiting.

Arriving in a foreign city, eager to explore, is a wonderful feeling, but it can also be overwhelming. There is so much to see, so much to do, and so much to navigate in order to accomplish all of those things. How does one even begin to make sense of a new place?

One suggestion is to give yourself a secret mission. Forget the famous museums and landmarks. Avoid the lineups, the hassle, the admission ticket, and go after something utterly different, something that reflects your own personal interests.

This could be, for example, a shopping mission of some kind. Maybe you love picking up one-of-a-kind vintage pieces at local prices as a souvenir, or perhaps you're like Jenni Avins, who needed a wedding dress and spent an afternoon looking for one in Milan. She wrote for Quartzy that having this goal became a self-guided tour of the city on its own, creating opportunities for interactions with locals and sightseeing along the way.

"I needn’t have worried about skipping the tourist attractions or quintessentially Italian experiences. As I traced lines between the dress shops, I drew a constellation around the city that happened to bring me not only past the Duomo, but also past a flower shop selling ranunculus the size of my fists, and to a checkerboard-floored café where I sipped a transcendent €1 macchiato."

If shopping's not your thing, then what about food? A trip I took to New York City last year revolved entirely around cheesecake and pizza, and sightseeing occurred while walking from one eating place to the next. I returned home fully content, even though I'd missed the Statue of Liberty, the Met, the Empire State Building, and all the other things that most people associate with New York City.

Similarly, Carla Lalli Music wrote in the May issue of Bon Appétit that her weeklong trip to San Francisco focused on croissants (although it sounds like she got a bit more 'culture' in there than I did).

"The two of us decided to compare [Tartine's famous morning bun] with every other ham-and-cheese croissant we encountered over the next five days. Our mission gave our days structure, and we stuck to a steady food-culture-culture-food rhythm, heading out with intention and then converting our high-fat, high-carb diet into spontaneous detours."

Some travellers visit pharmacies instead of souvenir shops, which offer a unique glimpse into what Anna Quito describes as a city's "maladies, neurosis, tics, and tastes." Whether it's face cream, mosquito spray, throat remedies, strange toothpastes, or talcum powder,

"A local pharmacy offers a heady cultural immersion -- not the aspirational, fictionalized version peddled by tourism departments, but the true physical reality its people live in."

As someone who often stays away from big famous museums and galleries because I'd much rather sit on a sidewalk cafe, watch people, and eavesdrop on a foreign language, this idea of a secret mission appeals greatly.

How do you tackle a new city?

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