found this perfect blue door while wandering the Left Bank.
The Best Things to Do In…
Type the name of any destination into Google or Pinterest, and you’re practically guaranteed to see the suggested phrases “things to do”, “on a budget”, and “photography.” Of course we all want to know what to do in a new place, without spending allllll the money, and getting some good photos (and memories!) along the way.
Traveling well doesn’t mean you need to overspend and fill your schedule with activities. Instead of checking every item off someone else’s must-do list, I make my own – saving my splurges for meals or experiences that feel important for me, and spending the rest of my time soaking up a place the best ways I know how.
Over the past several years, I’ve found three things in particular that work just about anywhere, and they each add a lot of memory (and photo-op) value to the trip with little-to-no extra cost. Wherever you find yourself next – in Paris or just exploring where you live – consider this your list of “best, most beautiful things to do in [just about anywhere] on a budget.”
a hidden park in New York, found while wandering.
1. Walk As Much As You Can
Somehow, an old-fashioned wandering or simply commuting by foot is still incredibly underrated. It’s my favorite way to get to know a place, and to find the kind of hidden gems and beautiful scenes you just can’t plan in advance. It’s also always free, and works anywhere that walking is safe (sooo, most places that aren’t (a) the natural habitat of lions, (b) currently experiencing dangerous weather, or (c) famously dodgy).
You don’t need to forego modern transportation entirely, but plan some walking time in your schedule. Try starting or ending the day with a half-hour of wandering – along the water, through a park or neighborhood – your maps app will still be there to find you when you’re done. If you want a little more structure, choose a street to follow, then turn off and wind back as you like. Or, if the weather’s nice, just walk somewhere instead of taking a car or train.
If you’re following directions on your phone while walking, pop in an earbud after you’ve started the route. This way you won’t miss any turns or any sights along the way.
view from San Gimignano in Tuscany.
2. Find A View
Finding a view is always one of my favorite things to do in a new destination – there’s just something about looking out over where you are, what’s around you, seeing the map come to life like it’s the beginning credits of You’ve Got Mail.
Sure, you could get a crazy-amazing view from a hot air balloon in the Loire Valley, or from Top of the Rock in New York, but I find that most places have a pretty great spot for a view that’s free – or almost. There are usually stairs involved, like climbing up to Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence or to Sacré-Coeur in Paris, but often you could take a taxi instead.
Sometimes these spots are well-known and easy to discover, but searching for “best views in…” is always a good idea. When in doubt, just head for higher ground.
fritto misto in Cinque Terre is a picnic waiting to happen.
3. Have A Picnic
No, it doesn’t need to be the kind of picnic you’d see in a magazine. While I have wrapped sandwiches in parchment paper and tied them with striped twine (it was one time!), 98% of my picnics are pretty spontaneous and definitely casual. Eating outside + easy food + good company = a pretty flawless combination, and some of my favorite travel memories.
If you want an editorial-worthy picnic, by all means pack up your wicker basket and cute blanket and real glasses and have a wonderful time! But if the mood (or weather) strikes, you can have just as much fun picking up some snacks and sparkling water or cheese and crackers with wine. (Don’t forget a knife for the cheese and a corkscrew for the wine!) Or – my personal New York favorite – bring coffee and a breakfast sandwich out to the park.
But where exactly to picnic? Try along the water, in a park or garden, or one of those free public places with a view.
Île Saint-Louis, one of the best places to picnic or wander in Paris.
Traveling Well Wherever You Are
It might feel silly to plan things like when you’ll wander aimlessly, or where you’ll eat the ice cream that you bought for dinner (still counts as a picnic!), but I promise it will start to feel second nature. Remember that activites don’t need to be ticketed to earn a place in your itinerary, and that the most important things to do and see are the things that you most want to.
Practice makes perfect, and before you know it you’ll take a wandering stroll through Brooklyn Heights, pick up a burger from Shake Shack, and settle in for a picnic dinner on the DUMBO waterfront with a Manhattan skyline view. Just don’t be surprised if I’m there doing the same thing!
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