Why I Don’t Like Visiting Cities

When I told people I was going to China for 2 months, their faces lit up as they gushed about all those places they had always dreamed about seeing: Beijing, The Great Wall, and Xian’s Army of Terracotta Warriors. So imagine the looks on their faces when I told them that my travels did not include stops at any of them! “Well what did you see?” they would ask. Quite a bit, though most stops on my itinerary were places that nobody in the west has heard of (at least outside the backpacking circuit). And that was totally by design.

It’s not that I don’t ever want to see any of those sites, but I know that someday I will get there so why spend time there now? Sounds crazy, right? You see, when I travel, I prefer to put a large emphasis on experiencing local culture, and sadly most tourist sites distinctly lack that. But it’s not just tourist sites that fall into this category…it’s cities and, for that reason, they are not usually the focus of my travels.

Pudong
Pudong, as seen from Shanghai’s famous Bund

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely adore big cities, especially as a place of residence, but let’s face it: big cities, while magnets for their own culture (especially of the artistic variety), are not terribly representative of local culture. For example, if you only visited New York, I would tell you that you hadn’t seen anything of what the United States is really like because life here is so incredibly different! Similarly, while I absolutely adore Bangkok with its uniquely Thai feel, it’s a world away from the rural parts of Thailand and that Isan native who chatted with me about Thailand’s current political crisis, seen by many as a clash between the Bangkok elite and the rural poor.

That’s not to say that cities don’t have their redeeming qualities. They are absolutely wonderful to transit through and spend a few days exploring. But even in those explorations, I aim to get off the “tourist trail” by wandering down any alley that looks interesting. This is where you find real, genuine life; down streets where few foreigners ever venture, making the locals all the more interested in showing you how they live!

Guangzhou Alley
An alley in Guangzhou, China

It’s these glimpses of life, like the ones I viewed in Guangzhou, Dali, Vientiane, and many others, that wet my appetite to get out into the countryside and see more!

So next time you take a trip, ask yourself this: Why are you going? Just to see the sites or to get to know the culture? All of the above is an acceptable answer. Just remember that you have to work a little harder to find that genuine look at local life!

When you travel, do you focus on cities? If so, do you feel that you get an insight into the local culture?

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20 Responses to Why I Don’t Like Visiting Cities

  1. Erin De Santiago December 7, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Great post and valid points. Ironically, I have still not been to “mainland” China yet because of Visa issues from Taiwan as an American (don’t get me started lol) and the fact they only recently started direct flights between the two countries! However, when I do go, the only tourist site that is really on my list is Xi’an. Instead, I am looking to take in all the local stuff to compare to Taiwan (food is my number one emphasis) and you can’t always find the best stuff in tourist areas. I eat local here so why not there? We have a unique advantage living so close that when we do start visiting the mainland, there are flights that go all over China to places I’ve never heard of and can find very little info about online. That is the China I want to see!

    • Aaron December 7, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

      That’s precisely what I did! The absolute best food I ate in China was at a hotel (that was someone’s house) in the middle of nowhere! We had to order our meals 2 hours early so that they could go find the ingridents! It was absolutely incredible! And I hear Hong Kong is an easy place to get a Chinese visa, even as an American (though, as always, you’ll pay through the nose for it thanks to your citizenship). Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lisa E @chickybus December 8, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    I totally hear what you’re saying…I prefer medium-sized cities and definitely towns and places where you can really get to know the locals. Recently, I was in Beirut and felt completely overwhelmed. When I left and went to a town in the mountains a couple hours away, I had a completely different experience–a wonderful one. The reason? It felt more real and I met locals. Loved it!

    • Aaron December 8, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your experience (and thanks for the RT)! Aside from Beirut, how did you like Lebanon? I’d love to make it there some day!

      • Lisa E @chickybus December 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

        You’re welcome! Once I left Beirut and moved on to Bcharre, I thought Lebanon was wonderful! The people were friendly and I had some amazing experiences in just a couple of days, including…meeting a hermit, believe it or not.

        I’d go back to Lebanon in a New York minute….but would like to give it 2 weeks next time. I think there’s something very special there that requires a lot more time than I was able to give it.

        • Aaron December 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

          Wow I’ve never met a hermit before! Thanks for sharing your experience!

          It’s those kind of experiences that I think are harder to achieve in big cities. Yes, you can find them, but you have to look a bit harder…

  3. Gwan December 10, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    I love visiting cities, generally in preference to the countryside, but I agree that you shouldn’t see visiting one big city as having “experienced” the country as a whole, especially if you’re just hitting the tourist spots. I’ve lived in 4 different parts of France (but not Paris), and it always annoys me when I say “France” and people reply with “Paris this, Paris that”.

    • Aaron December 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

      I have a funny relationship with cities. I think it has more to do with different cultures, as in the U.S. I absolutely love visiting cities (then again, I’m very familiar with this cutlure).

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Is Paris anything like the various other parts of France you lived in?

  4. Pola August 3, 2011 at 1:08 am #

    Hi Aaron,

    Interesting post. I don’t necessarily agree but hey, it got my attention for that exact reason! 🙂

    Considering how many people live in cities, I believe you can in fact get a glimpse into local ways in cities.

    I’m a devout city traveler and yes – I will see the landmarks (can you imagine visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower?), but I always venture out to various neighborhoods where people hang out and where the real life goes on.

    When given a chance, I do like seeing smaller towns, sometimes villages – to get a broader view of a country or region. But I would hesitate to say that if you only visit cities, you don’t really get to know the culture. You get to know a part of it, just like you would by omitting cities.

    I think at the end of the day personal preference plays a role in how we view our experience. If you like big cities, you’ll gravitate towards them if you like countryside, you’ll look for that.

    🙂

    • Aaron August 3, 2011 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Pola,

      The point I’m trying to make is that cities have cultures all their own. They just don’t tend to be very representative of what a country as a whole is like. Most people come to the U.S. and just see Boston, NYC and Washington DC, all of which are worlds apart from small town America, particularly when it comes to ways of life.

      I do agree wholeheartedly about what you said about getting to know part of a culture by visiting cities.

      Glad you liked the post!

      Oddly enough, I love big cities. I live in big cities. Maybe that’s why I prefer smaller towns. But even so, when someone comes to visit me in NYC, I will flat out tell them not to go to the Statue of Liberty or Times Square (mainly because I think they’re huge rip offs).

      • Pola August 3, 2011 at 11:23 am #

        I’m afraid that if people where to see how Americans live, they’d have to go to the ‘burbs… 😉

        I agree with you about the “big stuff” in NYC. When I moved to Chicago, it took me years before I got near Navy Pier and it’s one of the biggest attractions for visitors. I can’t understand why…

        • Aaron August 3, 2011 at 11:57 am #

          Hahahahahah you’ve DEFINITELY got a point there! I think often times some so-called “must see” tourist attractions in city, like Navy Pier or NYC’s South Street Seaport have sadly turned into huge tourist traps that don’t warrant a visit by anyone!

          • Chris August 5, 2011 at 2:12 am #

            I don’t disagree with you saying that cities have a different culture, however, in many cases, most people in a country will live in and around these cities. So the culture cultivated by these cities is the culture experienced by most of the citizens.

            I guess what I’m getting at is that saying city culture isn’t indicative of the culture of a nation or a province as a whole may be incorrect.

            Not to take away from visiting small towns though. Both have their ups and downs.

          • Aaron August 5, 2011 at 11:33 am #

            I don’t think MOST people in most countries live in cities. I think it’s slightly more skewed to small towns.

            I think you get a clearer picture of what cultures are traditionally like in small towns. Cities are wonderful. I adore them. But they really aren’t that different from one another in the grand scheme of things. If you really want to spot how cultures are different, your best bet is to visit small towns.

  5. Jenny August 3, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    See, *MY* problem is that I want to get away from cities and into the nitty gritty of a country…but I have no idea how to go about doing that! There has to be more to closing your eyes and pointing to a small town on a map, but I don’t quite know where to start. What if you get there and it’s dangerous or there’s nothing to see or…etc.

    Maybe I worry too much.

    • Aaron August 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      Well, a guidebook is a good place to start as those tend to list transportation connections to nitty gritty small towns. Every country in the world has bus companies that travel between big cities and even the smallest towns and in many developing countries, buses are the only option for getting around!

      And isn’t interesting just a matter of perception? Many small towns lack tourist attractions per say, but aren’t most tourist attractions kind of a waste anyways? I go to small towns to soak in the culture. Wander the streets. Meet people. The concept that there is nothing to see is entirely in your head.

      Finally, I think you’ll find that the world is FAR, FAR safer than the media would like you to believe. 99.9% of people are very nice and very kind, even in nations that the U.S. government would like you to think are hostile. And if you don’t feel comfortable just pointing at a map and then going there, point at a map, then look up some info on the place and then go there!

  6. Amanda August 3, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Ah! A debate I sometimes revive with my friends during city debates: Is NYC the LEAST American place or the MOST American? I feel like there are separate, equal, compelling arguments for both.
    What makes a country a country? Is it the city or the country?
    What makes a body a body? Is it the brain or the heart?

    • Aaron August 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

      Interesting indeed! I think some political candidates would try to argue that NYC is LEAST American place in the country. And in some ways, it really is essentially it’s own separate universe. But then again, what would the U.S. be without NYC and other big cities?

      And realistically, what makes a country a country are the people. There’s no doubt that people in cities have different life styles than those in the country do. But they all share a common thread. Cities are certainly included in that thread. But much like your nifty analogies, if you just see one, like cities, are you getting the full picture? No.

    • Pola August 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

      We’d have to start by defining “American”… But that’s a topic for a book, or at least a thesis!

      • Aaron August 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

        I think that’s a topic could fill the next “War & Peace” and then some!

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