Want to get the most out of the world’s big cities, without being overwhelmed? Think like a sushi chef.
You know the great cities of the world. Places like New York, London and Paris. Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. Tokyo and Hong Kong. Cairo, Lagos and Nairobi.
Different continents, different cultures, different vibes, but all of them equally, mind-numbingly enormous. Within five minutes of arriving in this massive jumble of unfamiliar buildings, street and teeming crowds, you feel engulfed, overwhelmed.
Jet lag only makes it all worse.
Some of these cities boast an urban footprint so wide that it could take you an hour to fly across it. Some have neighborhoods whose populations exceed a million people.
It’s easy for mega-cities to intimidate a first-time visitor, especially when you don’t speak the language. But even a native-born American hitting Manhattan for the first time can feel lost amid the sheer density, intensity and enormity of the place.
Still, there are too many attractions in the world’s great cities — not the least of which are the cities themselves and the creative energy of their people — to kick them off your bucket list.
So how do you get the best out of a big city, without returning home physically drained and mentally steamrolled?
Start by letting go of unrealistic expectations. Fully getting to know one of these cities could take years, maybe a lifetime. You’ve got what, a week, ten days? It’s not going to happen, so don’t worry about it.
How, then, do you approach one of these mega-cities?
Think tapas, sushi, Szechuan. Tasty meals served up in small bites. You can handle the big cities the same way. Break them up into smaller, manageable chunks. Slice and dice your visit.
The reality is that every city, no matter how big, is still a cluster of communities, a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character, its own personality.
So just go mentally Benihana on the place.
Most cities are already split into sections and districts — New York and its boroughs, Paris and its arrondissements for instance. Such divisions all serve to subdivide the world’s gigantic cities into smaller bits that a resident — or a traveler — can cope with.
Within each of these urban sub-units, you’ll find neighborhoods. Look for one that holds major interest for you. It could be anything — food, music, fashion, art, architecture, shopping, night life, whatever.
When you find the one that hooks your interest, find a hotel there and make that your base. Even better, find a vacation rental or short-stay apartment and become a temporary “local” yourself.
Turn a block or two off even the largest, most crowded, pulsating boulevards of the world’s biggest cities and you can suddenly find yourself in a small residential neighborhood, an island of calm and quiet, where you can encounter people as individuals and not a churning river of faces.
Walk around. Visit the local shops, eateries. Take advantage of public transportation. Look for excuses to strike up conversations with others locals.
Even if your visit takes you to other parts of the city, make sure you spend a part of each day making yourself familiar with some fresh aspect of “your” neighborhood.
When you return home, you’ll be telling people about your visit to Rome or Rio or Shanghai, but you’ll feel more like you lived there, if only for a short time. You will have mastered a little of one of the world’s great cities, instead of it mastering you.
And believe me, that’s a great feeling.