Small-town girl’s guide to big city travel

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel
A boat tour in Chicago.

Big City Travel guide for the small-town girl

If you grew up in a small town and are traveling to a large city, you might experience some culture shock. But big city travel doesn’t have to be scary. It’s not that people in large cities are different from small-town folks, but it’s that the higher the population density, the less likely people are to say “hi” to everyone on the street.

I am from Hot Springs, Ark., a southern town with a metropolitan area of nearly a whopping 100,000 people. I am about 20 minutes from anything in town and have no problem walking up to and starting conversations with complete strangers.

My sister, Leah, my nephew, Noah, and I just got back from spending few days in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, and we learned a few things. I also spend some time in Seattle last summer with Lagena, which also taught us about big city travel.

1. Study public transit before you go

This was a lesson Lagena and I learned last summer as we attempted to figure out Seattle’s public transportation. Our hotel was in the suburb town of Kent, Wash. We dropped off our rental car at the airport and took the train into downtown. That part was easy. But we need to take an Amtrak train or bus back out to our hotel at Kent. We took the Link Light Rail to the station where we thought we would connect with the Amtrak or bus.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel

Unfortunately we found out after the fact that we should have walked to a nearby station to connect to the transit that goes to suburbs. We ended up jumping on a bus that did in fact go to Kent, but did not stop near our hotel. Lagena and I watched our phones’ GPS until we thought we were close enough to walk. We got off the bus, and then walked more than mile the rest of the way.

2. Give yourself ample time to walk, wait for the bus, and get lost

Like I said, in my town I am 20 minutes from anywhere. As Leah, Noah, and I were wandering around Chicago, I was a little surprised at how much time was spent getting around. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the journey is just as important as the destination, especially in big city travel when you are there to see the city. But if you are trying to get to an 11 o’clock boat tour, this is important to know. It also helps you when you plan your day’s activities. You may not have as much time as you think if you are walking far or waiting on the bus often. Comfy shoes are also need, because of the amount of walking you do.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel

The Ogilvie Transportation Center, in downtown Chicago, is a large building. While we were trying to find the boat tour company, we walked around two city blocks because it was on a lower level than the street and we could not see it. Also, there was roadwork, and one of the sidewalks was closed so we had to walk around. After we finally found where our GPS was telling us to go, it ended up being a water taxi to the boat tour. When we arrived, we had five minutes to buy tickets and get on the boat for the tour.

3. But getting lost can lead you somewhere cool

Big city travel is something countless people do. And although there are many places that cater to the tourist, but you can experience the city more like a local if you get off the beaten path. When Lagena and I were in Seattle, we aimless walked around the city. We ended up in residential areas and found a charming coffee shop that wasn’t Starbucks. We made our way to the waterfront, and Lagena loved that they had ping pong tables. So we played a round of ping pong as we overlooked Puget Sound.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel

In Chicago we got lost coming out of Ogilvie Transportation Center on our second day. We walked south instead of east where we needed to go. Although we were on our way to a sketchy neighborhood, we got some unique views of the city. Later in the day we walked toward Lake Michigan (going the right way this time!), and our path took us through a charming city neighborhood.

4. GPS can be tricky

I seem to be able to navigate through mountains and forest better than I can though tall buildings in a downtown area.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel

Big city travel can be confusing when you are not familiar with the city. Leah and I relied on our GPS, which for the most part directed us in the right direction. However there were a few times it had us in the wrong location. I assume it had a hard time locating us mixed in with the tall buildings. Also on an iPhone north is always on the top, so if you’re facing south and are looking at the map which has your path going to the left, you need to go to the right. Even though I know I need to account for this, I can forget and go the wrong direction. If someone knows how to correct this, please leave a comment because it drives me crazy!

When driving you intersect streets on your map quicker than you do walking. So if you are heading the wrong way, it’s easier to realize. When I walked around Seattle and Chicago, I found it hard to find the street signs to help figure out where we were, so it helps to have landmarks. Just don’t use Starbucks as a landmark. They really are on every corner.

5. Be aware of your surroundings

It is always good to be aware of your surroundings, but in a small town you don’t have to worry as much about questionable people with questionable intentions. Larger cities have more people and therefore have more bad people. I’m not saying that big city travel is dangerous, but you just need to be more aware of what is going on around you.

When Leah, Noah, and I got lost and headed toward the wrong part of Chicago, Noah, who is 14, was engrossed in his phone. He did not notice that a man was eying him. It would have been easy for the man to grab Noah’s phone and run off with it. When Leah realized what was going on, she stopped walking to let the man get ahead of us. But we just got cursed out instead and accused of thinking he was sketchy. But he was!

6. Don’t make eye contact with people asking for money

In my small town, not many people panhandle. Even though I know there are places these people can go for help, if I have some cash on me, I will still give it to them. Or I smile and say “I’m sorry. I don’t have any cash.” But in Chicago many people were panhandling. It was impossible to give to them all. Some of them were persistent if they made eye contact with us.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel

In Seattle a woman who looked to be in her 50s, sat down next to Lagena and me and said she was trying to get home to see here newborn baby. I might have believed grandchild. I gave her a little money anyway. And as I pulled out my wallet, I thought “This was stupid. I just showed her how much money I had on me.”

7. Not everyone wants to say “hi” or smile. In fact most don’t

Noah who lives in a town even smaller than mine with a population of 4,000, smiled at people as we walked down the street. One lady stopped and commented on how cheerful and pleasant he was. However she was the only one who found him charming. Other people gave him strange looks.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel
A city scene in Seattle

In small towns, it’s rude to not smile at people, but in larger areas where people are surrounded by crowds, it is just not feasible to smile or say hello to everyone. Also those who live in large cities do not have as much space. They want to be alone with their thoughts and make their commuter time to be downtown.

Small-town versus big city travel

Big city travel is exciting, but I like coming home. The hustle and bustle can tire me out and leave me craving the peacefulness of nature. This is why I live in a small town, but I do like to visit the city. There is a plethora of museums, concerts, and shopping. It is also nice to see how other people live.

Small-town girl's guide to big city travel

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9 comments

  1. Wow! very practical. You could definitely apply these basic rules during international travel, also. I really like the ping-pong table photo 😀

  2. The tips you gave here are handy to anyone travelling to any metropolitan city in this world. Even in India I can say that knowing these things can only make travelling much safer!!!

  3. Nice post! I love getting lost – maybe because I have no choice. I’m so terrible with directions that I’m able to pick a wrong way even with google maps on. But you’re right, it may lead you to some cool places not even mentioned in your guidebook. It happens to me on regular basis. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Really practical advice! I definitely agree about learning how public transportation works. If there are any city-specific apps, that’s useful too! And for international travel, knowing how to get a taxi is pretty important (especially as many cities adopt taxi apps). Thanks for sharing!

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