Explore Local: How to be a Tourist in Your Own City

by Madam ZoZo

It’s not very often we take the time to play tourist in our own city—to unearth and explore locally. Maybe when guests come to town, we may show them the usual highlights and a few of our favourite haunts. Even then, we can tend to have a few go-to sights on repeat, instead of exploring somewhere new. With the current global crisis halting broader travel, there is no better time to break out of the everyday mold and rediscover your home town.

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Coronavirus recently grounded me in the city I grew up in and haven’t lived for 10-years. Lots has changed in Brisbane, Australia since I left and there are parts of town I never explored when I was living there. This was the perfect opportunity to test some of the below tactics for how to be a tourist in your own city.

Even though lockdown meant I could only walk around the empty streets and parks for exercise, I found and learnt a tonne of interesting things about a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand. Before long, some of my friends and Insta followers who live in Brisbane were exclaiming “I’ve never even been there” or “I didn’t know that!”

Constant travel has helped me build a solid approach for getting the most out of a new destination. The trick is to apply that same curiosity (and motivation) to a place you know well. So without further ado, here’s how to be a tourist in your own city.

Brisbane Lookout, Mt Coot-tha views
Brisbane, Australia, viewed from Kangaroo Point
Popular Brisbane viewpoint, Kangaroo Point cliffs

Treat it like a new town

Google “10 best things to do in {insert city name}” or “best things to do in “{insert location}” and read a selection of the results. There will be lots mentions of the same things over and over, then bam! Something a little left of the middle, hidden or less known that you can add to your list of places to discover.

Tip: Look at a mix of big, reputable sites such as Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Tripadvisor and official tourism offices, alongside smaller specialized sites and blogs.

Bloggers from far and away

Find out what travel bloggers are saying about your home town for a fresh perspective on what you know and love/hate. If you live in a smaller, less touristed town, find a blogger that specializes in your home city, region or State. They will have their ear to the ground and know all the best places and events.

# it!

Instagram is a great place to research places, especially those that are visually pleasing. Follow your home town tourism office’s hashtag/account, or that of a local photography group and see what awesomeness comes up.

Tip: Skip the obvious #{insert name of city}, its’s usually full of selfies. Try tourism and photography focused ones like the commonly used: #visit{insert name of city}, #see{insert name of city} and #{insert name of city}gram

City Botanic Gardens
Native wattle flowers in bloom
Grevillea 'Bush Lemon'
Grevillea 'Bush Lemon'

Raid the tourism office

Your local tour office or information centre is a great place to find out about points of interest, get self-guided tour maps, free tours and a local event calendar.

Tip: Pick up some brochures and study the postcard rack to get ideas on great vantage points to capture the city’s best angles.

Document your place in pictures

Speaking of photography, why not go for a walk with your camera and document your home town from your unique perspective. You might take in all your favourite spots or go looking for new ones. You will probably pay more attention to details, architecture, public art and other things you haven’t taken the time to notice before, as you rush around in your usual routine.

Tip: Local photos make great, personalised wall art and gifts for friends.

What’s my motivation? Tour guide

Think about where you would take an out of town visitor. What would you showcase about your city? What would you tell them to go/see/experience? Is there a particular food your city is known for, or an aspect of your local culture that is unique? Seek it out. Are you familiar with the native flora and fauna? You might be surprised what’s native or introduced. Maybe you need to head down to the local zoo, conservatory or botanic garden to find out.

Watermark by Richard Tipping, 2000
Old Government House
Brisbane's Shrine of Remembrance is a major landmark of cultural, architectural and historic importance

Take a tour

If you don’t feel like playing tour guide, sign up for a small group tour. I find walking tours are the best—there are lots of pay-as-you-wish style ones available in major cities. If they aren’t running during COVID-19 shutdowns, ask if they can point you in the direction of a self-guided version.

Focus on museums and galleries

Visit your city museums and focus on local history or art. We’re often tempted to go straight for the world-renowned and exotic stuff first, then breeze over the local exhibits. Go with the intention of doing a deep dive into what is relevant to your town or region.

Tip: Find a historic photo or painting of your town and go take a picture from that same viewpoint for comparison.

Phone a friend

Got friends that live in a different part of town? Ask them to show you around their neighbourhood or make recommendations. They might be inspired to go exploring with you.

J.A. Clarke's Panorama of Brisbane, 1880
Historic painting of Brisbane from 1880 depicting the view from Wilson Outlook
Wilson Outlook, Brisbane
The same view today from Wilson Outlook

Observe the obscure

Consider yourself a home town oracle? Maybe you think you’ve seen everything there is to see around your home city? Atlas Obscura is just one really cool resource for finding the quirky, unusual and hidden sights around you. It’s a crowd-sourced guide to interesting places that don’t usually get a pin on the tourist map.

Always read the plaque

Borrowing from Roman Mars and my favourite 99% Invisible podcast, “always read the plaque”. It might take one extra minute to stop along your way to read the sign next to that building, monument or public artwork you always gloss over in your daily routine. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn by reading a couple of short paragraphs on a historical marker or under a mural. You’ll also get ideas for other places to see and explore—so much is interconnected, especially historically when cities/populations were a lot smaller.

Book a staycation

If you live out in the burbs, the inner city where lots of the historic sights and museums are usually located, might feel too out of the way. This is especially so if you want to get around on foot. Book a staycation in an area central to the places you want to see.

Tip: I found it was more motivating to get out and explore inner-city areas when everything was right on my doorstep and I didn’t have to commute from the outer suburbs. Proximity also gives you the edge when it comes to getting out early before crowds or staying late, and making use of golden hour light for photos.

But I’m busy

Ok, so you don’t have time to be a tourist in your home town for a day–change your routine. Shop at a different supermarket or seek out a farmers’ market. Take a different route or mode of transportation to work. Mix up your regular walk/run/cycle and do it in a different part of town.

Tip: Make a playlist of local bands and artists, or songs written about your town/region/state and play it in the car or walk/run. You’re sure to discover some new musician or tunes to add to your permanent playlist. I’ve created a bunch of playlists for different destinations on my Spotify account, you might find your home on the list.

Things to do in Brisbane - Walk South Bank's Arbour
The Arbour, South Bank
Seeking street art
Pink door on a renovated Old Queenslander style home

How do you play tourist in your city? Did you use some of these ideas? Let us know what cool things you found in the comments below.

Peace, love and inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

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