I had about a week and a half and all of Wales to get through.
This was my first international trip as a college grad, and it was probably going to be my one major vacation for the year. I wanted to make the absolute most of it. But outside of Cardiff, neither I nor any of my friends had ever been to Wales. Once there, how would I know where to go?
Since I didn’t want to waste any time without a plan once I got there, I researched a lot ahead of time. I had an itinerary all set by the time I got on the plane to the UK. I suggest looking into destinations before you go so you have an idea of what you’ll spend your time doing when you get there (when I don’t do this, I usually just end up shopping a lot, which is a terrible habit for my budget).
Here are my recommendations, based on personal experience, for ways to research and plan a trip to somewhere you’ve never been and don’t really know that much about.
This is always a good place to start.
I usually just type “best things to do in ___.” You’ve probably done this plenty of times too. This will bring up a list—usually from TripAdvisor—of the most basic tourist things that people do in a city or region. When I was in Wales, I did a couple things at the top of TripAdvisor’s list, like climbing Mount Snowdon and visiting Conway and Caerphilly castles. If a destination is really popular for tourists, there’s usually a reason why.
But I don’t always like to stick to these really touristy destinations. The crush of people in the background of every photo and the gift shops all with the same poorly made souvenirs get old. I like to be out in the countryside. I like local restaurants and off-the-beaten path attractions. Finding those things requires a little more digging.
Sometimes, I Google “unusual things to do in ___.” This is usually best when you are looking in a big city or area. It might get you a blog post from a local with some ideas of fun things that tourists usually skip. It might also get you a lot of boring or unappealing suggestions. But it’s somewhere to start.
2) Online message boards
I also scour online forums to get honest feedback from real people who have traveled to a place before. That’s where I found most of the towns that I stayed in Wales. Online forums are especially helpful when trying to choose between going to Town A or Town B, or Attraction A or Attraction B. Likely, someone has asked the questions before you, and travelers have weighed in with their thoughts.
Next, I look at Google Maps. This is my most trusty tool. Before I go to a town, I want to make sure there are things to do there. I look for landmarks, attractions, and hiking trails. If there are a whole bunch of things centered in one walkable area, I know that’s a good candidate for a place to visit.
I’ve also narrowed down some of the things I particularly like to do when visiting a town. If it has a nice market, I like to go there. I like climbing hills and seeing a good view. So I search specifically for those things, looking up phrases like “best markets in ___” and “best hiking near ___.” If you love learning about the history of a place, look for towns with large or specialized museums. If you love trying local cuisine, look for cities that are known for a vibrant culinary scene or a unique kind of food.
I would always encourage travelers to visit new places, because you never know what you might find there that interests you. But if you are looking into a place and it really doesn’t seem to have appealing attractions, maybe your time would be better spent somewhere else. When I was traveling in southern Wales, I spent a day in Swansea and one at Tintern Abbey. I did not find much to do in either place, and I wished I had gone to towns with attractions that aligned more closely with my interests instead.
4) Look for tours
There are free tours in a lot of cities, and tours you can pay for in even more. They can be a great way to learn about the background of the place you’re visiting. But if you don’t want to invest the time or money during your stay, you can still often look up tour itineraries online. Tour routes and stops may give you an idea of the attractions in the area and where you would like to go yourself.
5) Talk to locals
Once you’re at your destination, you can fill spare time by asking locals what they would recommend doing. They might know of events or activities that weren’t on your radar. When I was in Cork, Ireland, the guy at reception at my hostel mentioned that some other visitors were doing a singing performance at a church in town that evening. I went, and it was absolutely wonderful. I would have known nothing about it if I hadn’t stopped to chat at the front desk. When I was in north Wales on Christmas Eve, I met a hiker from Liverpool who told me about a Christmas event going on in Conwy, the city right next to where I was staying. That, too, was an amazing experience—beautiful caroling, food trucks, fireworks. I was so happy that I ran into someone who knew it was going on.
Have you had success with any of these strategies?
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