Where to people watch and know a place

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of United States  , New York
Friday, June 12, 2009

There's a nice piece by Bruce Thurlow called Social Spaces To Help You Really Appreciate A Cityalong with some additional idea from   Eva Holland  at World Hum about social spaces in a city where you can people watch and also feel the city.

The best way to see a city doesn’t necessarily involve your
traditional idea of sightseeing. Have you ever been somewhere, but not
seen it? You might have visited but you did not understand. Forget the
Museum and Art Gallery, maximise your time in a city’s social spaces.
Let me explain how and why this is the best way of really seeing a city.

For a backpacker with limited time, it’s hard to go to Sydney and
not go and take an obligatory photo of the Sydney Opera House. Is that
really what Sydney is all about though? I’d argue you’d be better off
spending your time in the social spaces within the city you are
visiting. These are the places where local people gather, converse and
rub together creating the intangible vibe and attitude of the city
which you’ll long remember.
Travel is a social activity. How ought we to live? is a very
ancient, philosophical question. The earliest travellers were trying to
find out how others lived and how they could benefit from the new ideas
they experienced. Many of the answers are revealed in the social
interactions people have - in the moments people share together, not
necessarily in the physical things they build or create. This is
important because you can’t easily capture these moments; they are
essential to a time and place. They can’t be shared even though you’ve
experienced them - they will be yours alone.
Monuments, Art Galleries, Attractions, and Architecture are classic
examples ticked off by most travellers without thought. Many of these 
commonly visited landmarks in a city might not be really about the
place; nor are they social or interactive. You could go to them and
never meet a local.  If you are asking, looking and understanding how
the local people interact with the built and natural environment around
them, you’ll (hopefully) start to gain a richer insight - something
more than a tourist’s appreciation, at least.

For sure go to the places your Mum told you to, however, look for,
allocate and spend time in these social spaces you can usually find in
all cities for a richer travel experience:
1. Beaches. In the case of Sydney, get down to
Bondi Beach. Here you will see the city let it all hang out
(literally). Everyone sheds their 20th century skin, and plays a part
in recreating themselves and their city as something else for a few
2. Parks. If the city you are visiting doesn’t have
a beach then head to the park, they have many similarities. Anyone
who’s been to the Tiergarten in Berlin or Hyde Park in London on a
summers day knows it’s a showcase of all people coming together. It’s
literally ‘common’ ground, from the banker eating his lunch to the
Turkish family with their bbqs, to the nature lovers stripping to
underwear to get a midday tan.
3. Public Transport - embrace it. Go to NYC and the
trains will be a highlight - like riding through a movie. It’s iconic,
and in your face. It is what it is, exactly what you’re looking for.
Love it or loathe it, but what would London be without ‘The Tube’?
4. Sporting Fixtures. You could go to the San Siro
in Milan for a football game, though so might be better off going
local. Find out where a lower grade game is on. It may well be free,
but more importantly you’ll see a revered part of most modern cultures
- aspiring future sporting stars and the community involvement
supporting them.
5. Local Pubs. Get out of your hostel and away from
the backpacker bars where you’ll meet more people like yourself. You
may feel comfortable there, but you’ll learn nothing. Go to a place
where you might well talk to the bar man or a local who wants a chat.
Pubs are the orginal internet cafe - where ideas, thoughts and news are
passed on.
6. City Squares. Sit and watch. Then sit and watch
some more. Sooner or later chaos or an epiphany will occur. Get there
for dusk, street performance, or when the place is at its busiest.
Forget going to the theatre, this is the theatre. Witness: Las Ramblas
Barcelona. Yes, it’s touristy but it’s also quintessentially Barca.

7. Concerts. It’s not a question of going to the
Opera in Prague just because it’s cheap and is what people think they
should do when there. Go to a local rock venue and see a band you’ve
never heard of, singing in a language you don’t understand. You’ll mix
with a young local crowd passionate about something important to them
and their lives. The beer will in turn taste better.
8. Markets. Don’t buy food from a super market.
Make the effort to converse with a street fruit or vegetable seller.
It’s the best way to practice your language skills. Watching the
ordinary, everyday, of someone buying their dinner illuminates and
contrasts with how you might go about a similar basic necessity in your
home town.
9. Festivals. Plan your trip to be where the
age-old festivals are reinvigorated by new generations. Here you’ll
meet locals who share something in common with you, and are celebrating
the fact, and will no doubt will embrace your enthusiasm and respect
for their traditions too.
Here's Eva's contribution:

I’m going to disagree with Thurlow—who recommends that travelers steer
clear of the store in favor of fresh produce markets—on this one.
Markets can be wonderful, but I love foreign grocery stores—and
besides, produce markets don’t usually have everything you’ll need, so
a visit to the supermarket is probably a necessity anyway. You might as
well enjoy it: cruise the aisles, and keep an eye out for the tiny
variations that separate the exotic from the familiar. Supermarkets are
full of them.

Public Libraries

Okay, so clearly the library (shh!) isn’t the best spot to chat up the locals. But it is
a great place to catch up on any regional publications, and some
branches will even have a local interest section set up with histories,
maps and literature written by area authors. A friendly reference
librarian can also be an invaluable source of information.

Train Stations

Or bus stations, ferry terminals and so on. Sure, most folks realize
the bus or the train itself can be a great spot for some quiet
observation of that strange species, the local—but have you ever sat
for awhile in the station itself, watching several waves of commuters
or travelers coming and going, without joining in the rush yourself? 
It’s a people-watcher’s paradise. Plus, these are often interesting
spaces beyond the human component—think of New York’s Grand Central, or
the art in the Moscow Metro.


Getting laundry done overseas, ironing out (har) the differences in the
process, can be another one of those practical tasks that leads to
unexpected insights or experiences. Call me an introverted traveler,
but I always enjoy a quiet hour or two spent watching the locals go
about their normal lives. If I can get my fix while also getting my
jeans washed, so much the better.
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