We all have different travel styles. Some people enjoy meticulously planning their whole trip and crafting a detailed itinerary. Others, like me, like to plan as little as possible. I’m a huge fan of “winging it” and seeing where life leads me.
For most of my long solo trips, all I booked in advance were a flight and accommodation for the first couple of nights. For short trips, I would sort out accommodation and transportation for the whole trip, but nothing else. I like to keep my itinerary as open as possible to allow for maximum spontaneity. Because in my experience, the best adventures happen unplanned.
I don’t believe in running down a check list of “must sees”, but would rather let the advice of locals and plain chance lead me. There is nothing like getting lost in a foreign city and stumbling upon hidden gems. This doesn’t mean I don’t do any research or don’t plan anything. I always look up a few can’t miss highlights, save them in my phone, and read up on local customs and culture. And there are a few things I like to do in every place that I visit. Even if I miss out on most of the main tourist attractions, by doing these things I know I’ll have an amazing solo trip:
Ask the locals for advice
Imagine you’re in a new place and you have no idea what’s good. Sure, you can ask Siri for “fun things to do near me” and rely on TripAdvisor top 10 but that will only get you so far.
For me, travel is about experiencing local cultures. So instead of relying on the recommendations of other tourists, I ask the locals what to do and where to go. A great place to start is the tourist information desk of the reception of your accommodation. I usually stay in hostels and the staff there is always full of tips and recommendations. And they often organize their own fun activities! Not to mention other travelers who have the inside scoop on what’s worth seeing.
Of course, hostels aren’t the only place to meet people and get good advice. There are several ways to get in touch with locals beyond approaching random people on the street. Social media can be a great tool, I’m in several women’s travel groups on Facebook where you can ask for advice and recommendations or arrange to meet up with locals. Instagram could also work, I’ve never used it myself to talk to locals but have been approached by others before. Another good network specifically for women is She’s Wanderful. It’s a community of female travelers, aimed at content creators and travel bloggers.
My favorite way of meeting locals, however, is Couchsurfing. The Couchsurfing community is made up of travel lovers (and admittedly, a few creeps) that invite you stay with them on your trip. Aside from accommodation, Couchsurfing also has a “hangout” option to meet up with locals and there are lots of events you can attend. I’ve met so many amazing people through Couchsurfing and had really cool adventures. Including being invited to birthday parties, pubcrawls and roadtrips. It’s definitely the best way to get off the beaten track and have a truly local experience.
Join a Free Walking Tour
Of course, you want to go out and explore this new city you’re in. Although I’m a huge fan of getting lost and aimless wandering, I also see the added value of a tour. That way you can get your bearings and a quick overview of the city with the main highlights. It also provides some much-needed context to the things you’re seeing. Looking at important landmarks is a lot more fun when you know the history behind them. Tours are a great, interactive way to learn about the history and culture of the place you are visiting.
Now, I’m not a hop-on hop-off bus person (it’s fine if you are). No, I like to stretch my legs and my tour of choice is a Free Walking Tour. These type of tours started a few years ago and you can now find them in almost every big city. The way they work is this: instead of booking a tour and paying in advance, you tip the guide at the end of the tour. The amount is up to you, basically what you thought the tour was worth. I usually tip somewhere around 5-10 euro, depending on how long and good the tour was. So although Free Walking Tours aren’t completely free (unless you’re a jerk who doesn’t tip at all), but they are accessible to people on a budget.
But the main reason I love Free Walking Tours is because of the quality. The guides know that the better they are, the more they earn. So they are super motivated to make it the most fun and informative tour you’ve ever been on. And pretty much every one of these tours that I’ve been on were amazing. The tour guides are always licensed and can also give great recommendations, especially for places to eat!
Free Walking Tours are also especially great for solo travelers. They often draw a younger crowd than paid tours, making it a great way to meet other travelers. Feeling a bit shy? Just ask them what they think of the tour or the city, how long they’ve been there, if they want to grab lunch after and you’re set 😉
I always google “Free Walking Tour in X” to see what’s available and what tour fits my schedule and interest. That being said, Sandeman’s New Europe is always a good pick.
Visit a museum
I used to hate museums as a kid. I found them so tedious and boring. But just like hiking, I now love them! I’m an especially big fan of national history museums, quirky little niche museums and art museums.
A museum is probably the least awkward place to go as a solo traveler, other than a library. And there is really nothing better than strolling through at your own pace, without having to wait for someone else to catch up. Museum hopping is the perfect activity for a rainy afternoon, or before catching a flight or waiting for check-in as they often have luggage storage (score!).
Museums can be a bit pricey, but it really depends. Smaller, more niche museums are usually cheaper, some are free on the first Sunday of the month (or always, like in Washington D.C.) and sometimes it’s worth investing in a City Pass that gives you discounts on museums and tourist attractions.
Is a regular museum to stuffy for you? There’s plenty of art outside as well! Take in the beautiful architecture and the street art that adorns it. Many cities have gorgeous, colorful murals hidden in plain sight, all you have to do is keep your eyes open as you walk around.
Try the local cuisine
The best way to learn about a culture is by learning about their cuisine. The food of a country says so much about their history, geography and lifestyle. Dishes speak of common ingredients, trading routes, social structures and foreign occupations. But also of cooking methods, available tools and preferences for the preservation and preparation of food. Most of all, food is emotional and nostalgic. What we eat is deeply linked with our culture and a vital part of life.
And it’s delicious!
Food has always been one of the great loves of my life. It’s in a three-way tie for first place with travel and music. So, of course, I always try as many local dishes as I can while I travel. I’ve had some incredible meals while traveling that I still dream off now 😉
The best thing about trying delicious local dishes is recreating them at home. That’s why I always try to take cooking classes on my trips. I love to cook and it is so interesting to learn to cook with new produce and cooking techniques. It’s a great and interactive way to learn more about a countries’ cuisine.
Although I usually follow a plant-based diet, I’m not strictly vegan and I occasionally make an exception to try typical local dishes. For me, it’s just such a significant part of the cultural experience. I never want to miss out on an icnonic or interesting dish, simply because it contains animal products. After all, it’s a choice, I don’t have any allergies. I also love trying “weird” foods, like bugs, strange fruits and organ meat. You never know, it might taste delicious! Don’t be afraid to try something new, because if it’s bad, you never have to eat it again.
But luckily, it’s getting easier and easier to find vegetarian and vegan food everywhere I go. And I make a conscious effort to find traditional dishes or versions of traditional dishes without animal products.
I’m not one for fancy restaurants and prefer hole in the wall eateries and street food. I want to eat what the locals eat and have been eating for centuries. In my experience, the shabbier the restaurant, the better the food!
Sure, you can use Tripadvisor and Google to find nice places to eat, but they will likely direct you to the main tourist spots, rather than hidden gems (although some can be found online!). But again, it is better to rely on the recommendations of locals. After all, they know the cuisine and the city best. So ask your tour guide, the hostel staff, your Couchsurfing host or anyone else you meet. Once you’re at a bar or restaurant, always ask the staff for recommendations, they know what’s good 😉
Don’t worry if you have no one to eat out with. There is absolutely no reason to let flying solo keep you from enjoying good food and a night out. If anything, you won’t have to consult anyone about which restaurant to choose or what to order: you’re free to do as you please. Craving gelato at 10 am, go get gelato! A third slice of pizza al taglio, why not?
Here’s a little secret to take away the unnecessary shame of eating alone: no one is going to judge you or stare, because people truly don’t care that much about what you do.
And if you still feel awkward about eating by yourself, bring a book! Books are the perfect way to pass the time while traveling (there’s a lot of waiting around involved) and it immediately makes you feel less self-conscious about being solo. I always bring a book (or e-reader) with me on solo trips and read on transportation, in parks, on beaches, in restaurants, in museums etc. Pretty much anytime I want some down time, I take out a book.
Shop at a local market
I often cook several of my own meals while traveling, to save money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t taste local food! Farmer markets and even supermarkets abroad are a treasure trove of delicious food. From crazy snacks to interesting fresh produce, this is the place to discover it all.
I’ll go to a local supermarket and just buy anything that looks interesting, picking stuff that’s advertised as a regional or national specialty. So even if you’re making your own sandwiches for lunch, you’re doing it with typical bread and cheese from the area.
Farmers markets are even more fun as everything sold there is even more local and seasonal. It’s also a great place to go for free samples and many markets have street food stalls as well.
And local markets are not just great for buying lunch, but also souvenirs. I tend to bring food related souvenirs for myself and my family, rather than ornaments. Stuff like spices, sauces, liquor and other typical local products. That way you can recreate some of the magic of your trip at home.
If you don’t want to bring food items as souvenirs, consider buying typical arts and crafts from small vendors instead of big souvenir stores. The quality is usually a lot higher, the items more unique and you’re supporting local small businesses. Supporting the local economy is an easy and powerful way to travel more sustainably and make a positive impact as a tourist.
So, there you have it: my basic guide to building an itinerary for a solo trip. As you can see, traveling solo is in no way boring or hard. The key to a great solo trip is to rely on the advice of locals and go with the flow.
What activities are a staple on your trips? Anything to add? Drop a comment below.
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