How Do Travel Writers Find the Best of a New City or Country?

Aug 10, 2017    /    get off the beaten track, travel how-tos

Ever wondered how travel writers find the hidden gems they recommend? How much of their trips are planned vs. spontaneous? And how the rest of us can find those hidden gems ourselves?

If so, good news: I just interviewed a bunch of them to find out.

Read on for my process + five others.


Gigi Griffis

www.gigigriffis.com

I’ll kick off this discussion, myself. As you probably already know, I’m a career writer who has been traveling the world full-time with my freelance writing business and my small dog for five years. I don’t do a ton of travel writing anymore, but I have published 11 travel guides, do keep the blog rolling, and do have a few tricks up my sleeves.

Focus area: Europe

Publications include: International Living, Huffington Post, Get Lost Magazine, etc.

How do you research and prepare for a travel writing trip?
Well, the whole premise of my travel guide series is that locals have the best insider info, so it will probably come as no surprise when I say that locals are the first place I turn. I go to forums. I join local Facebook groups and ask questions. I frequent the blogs of people who live in the area I want to visit. And I reach out to people to ask them specific questions about the kinds of things I like to do.

I also usually ask my social media networks (where I find a lot of locals and travelers who know the areas) for suggestions.

I keep a little notebook full of suggestions and notes about who made the suggestion and why, keeping separate pages for activities (hikes, cycle rides, things to see or do) and restaurants.

And in the rare case that I’m going somewhere so off-the-beaten-track that I have trouble finding locals, I do a couple things: one is just to wing it and ask locals once I get there and another is to use online review sites to find hidden gems.

For instance, I didn’t have a lot of local insight into Mostar restaurants when we were there in May, so I searched on Trip Advisor for the top restaurants–and then I took it a step farther. Because I didn’t just want the top restaurants tourists frequented (and tourists are doing most of the reviewing on sites like Trip Advisor). So I used the map view to look at restaurants outside the city center and find the ones with good rankings (though a lot less reviews) and with reviews that said things like “full of locals” or “recommended to me by a local.”

Do you plan ahead or fly by the seat of your pants on writing trips?
For big things–accommodations, transit tickets, and anything likely to be fully booked (for instance: a restaurant that requires reservations months in advance)–I book ahead. Other than that, I like to leave room for serendipity. I have lists of recommended restaurants, activities, hiking trails, beautiful viewpoints–all the things I love–but I tend to decide on a day-to-day basis which of those things is calling to me or which fits into the story I’ve already started forming in my head.

A lot of my travel writing has been interview-based, so on most of my writing trips, I also left room for serendipity because if I met someone fascinating, I wanted to have some time to spend with them.

How do you find the best restaurants, bars, and foodie experiences in a new place?
Locals! And not just locals, but locals who love food.

Chefs, food tour guides, food writers, food bloggers, and just enthusiastic food people all make great resources when it comes to finding great culinary experiences. And most people are happy to share their opinions. So if you go to a great restaurant, don’t be shy: ask what other restaurants in the area the chef recommends you try during your stay. Great chefs tend to know other great chefs. Same thing with food writers, bloggers, tour guides, etc.

How do you find the best hidden gems and local hideouts in a new place?
Obviously, this is another great question to ask locals. But make sure to ask the right locals. If you are looking for great art, you’ll want to ask someone who is into the art scene. If you’re looking for hiking trails, ask hikers. If you’re looking for historic gems, ask a history buff.

Another good option is simply to wander. I find out what neighborhoods the locals tend to hang out in (that info is easy to come by online) and go give myself a walking tour. If I find a craftsman’s shop, I stop in. If there’s a cool garden, I take a look. If there’s an interesting staircase up the mountain, I follow it. You’ll find a lot of interesting things just by tackling a city, town, or region on foot.

Any final trips for planning a truly epic trip?
Give yourself a quest! Go on a quest for the best pizza in Rome (our conclusion: Da Remo wins, hands down) or to try every flavor of gelato at the artisanal gelateria, or to hike every trail that starts in Interlaken, Switzerland, or to visit every museum in a certain quarter of Paris.

I think this can be especially good if you’re an introvert and you need something to force you out of the hotel room from time to time or if you’ve got a group or a family and want to give the trip an extra element of purpose, surprise, and conversation starters.


Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawitgirma.com

I’m an Ethiopian-American travel writer and photographer. I’ve been living long term in the Caribbean region for at least six months a year since 2009. I’m currently based in the Dominican Republic and hop to the US to visit family a few times a year, when I’m not elsewhere in the islands for work. Aside from consumer articles, I also do content strategy, writing, and editing for various tourism or destination management entities. I call myself a culture-holic, and I believe it shows in my articles, in my travel guidebooks – I write three main titles for Moon Travel Guides – and on my main blog, Sunshine & Stilettos, which I’ve kept going since 2008.

Focus area: The Caribbean region as a whole, which I’ve explored for over 10 years now. And I’m an expert in Belize, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Lucia, and Curacao. I’ve visited many more islands, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti.

Publications include: CNN Travel, AFAR, Delta Sky, ShermansTravel, BBC Travel, Moon Travel Guides, etc.

How do you research and prepare for a travel writing trip?
I usually start out with a country map to see the regions I want to cover and determine the route I might take. I check out what might interest me about the destination that fits in my field of expertise (culture, nature, outdoor adventure) and make a rough list of neighborhoods/areas as well as topics. I read a lot about the destination’s history and current climate. I check out local news on everything from tourism to the economy.
I also see if there are valuable Facebook groups with local insight on upcoming events. I prep but I also don’t obsess – you have to let the story ideas form by themselves on the ground as well.

Do you plan ahead or fly by the seat of your pants on writing trips?
I plan most of my overnight accommodation stays and flights ahead of time. I also allow for free time in my schedule. It really depends on the assignment and location. Some gigs don’t allow for much time at all. Others can stretch out (for my guidebooks, I give myself ample time to allow for unscheduled activities or schedule changes, which often happens, and to allow for spontaneity which leads to the best discoveries).

How do you find the best restaurants, bars, and foodie experiences in a new place?
Ask locals. Research online ahead of time for a general idea of experiences available, but then once in your destination, be on the lookout for word-of-mouth suggestions. They could come from a local guide, a taxi, a store sales rep, or locals you meet while you’re out dining. People love to share food experiences. You can also find great tips in the tourist newspapers or magazines that fill the airport/hotels or any free city guides. Ask if there’s an events publication. In the Caribbean islands, there’s always at least one or two, often translated in English if you’re in a Spanish speaking country or a Dutch or French territory.

How do you find the best hidden gems and local hideouts in a new place?
My tips here are similar to my tips for finding authentic food experiences. But I’d also add one trick I use all the time: look for an active community tourism group in the destination.

They usually take you on experiences in the specific region where they grew up that you can’t have anywhere else – for example, hiking to secluded sinkholes, chocolate-making workshops, or music and dance lessons that aren’t widely publicized but are amazing.

And a good portion of your money will go directly to support the community–win win!

Another tip is to stay at a locally-owned guesthouse or one that encourages local activities and hires locals to conduct those activities (as opposed to big tour companies).

Any final trips for planning a truly epic trip?
Make sure you allow for free time in your trip. Whether it’s to sit at a cafe and just people watch and write in your notebook or to wander freely and be 100% present, away from any distractions and your smartphone. Free time and presence allow serendipity to take place, and that’s usually when the best memories and stories happen.


Kristin Luna

Camelsandchocolate.com

I’m a Nashville-based journalist (with a travel blog) who has visited all 50 states and upward of 100 countries, penned more than a dozen guidebooks, and written for myriad publications from Travel + Leisure to Newsweek. I’ve never been a full-time traveler—my husband and I are (slowly) restoring a Victorian house in rural Tennessee—but for the past 10 years, I’ve been on the road a minimum of six months a year.

Focus area: Europe and the Southern U.S. I lived in Europe (Scotland, Holland, Denmark) for a handful of years and returned to my roots in Tennessee six years ago, so my travels primarily span the American Southeast and Europe.

Publications include: Travel + Leisure, AFAR, Southern Living, Food + Wine, Parade, etc.

How do you research and prepare for a travel writing trip?
I book my accommodation, whether hotel, resort or Airbnb, pretty far out — basically as soon as I have booked the flight itself. I start a Pinterest board of blog posts pertaining to the destination prior to going. I get a general sense of any meals I want that might require reservations or activities for which I need to set aside a full or half day. I do a rough sketch around those and then factor in plenty of free time for exploration (and naps).

Do you plan ahead or fly by the seat of your pants on writing trips?
Half and half. I don’t like arriving anywhere without a rough (but flexible) itinerary, but I don’t want to be over-scheduled either. It’s a fine balance.

How do you find the best restaurants, bars, and foodie experiences in a new place?
Yelp! I love the Yelp app’s Nearby function. I scour the restaurants, bars, and other attractions in the immediate vicinity of where I’m staying any time I travel, and nine times out of 10 those wind up being the best spots.

How do you find the best hidden gems and local hideouts in a new place?
Crowd-sourcing via social media. I’m lucky that I’ve cultivated a social media base of travel-loving followers, but even those who don’t have thousands of Twitter or Instagram “friends” can seek out the influencers in the destination they’re visiting and approach them for their top tips. As someone who frequently shouts Nashville’s praises from my social media megaphone, I love getting Tweets like, “Hey @LunaticAtLarge, what are three meals I can’t miss when coming to Nashville?” Use social media as a way to connect with locals who know the landscape better than anyone.

Any final trips for planning a truly epic trip?
Make some plans, but factor in time for spontaneity. My best trips are usually the ones I just let happen—you never know who you’re going to meet or what gem you might stumble upon because you let fate be your guide.


Valentina Valentini

Valentinavalentini.com

I am a freelance journalist who was based in Los Angeles for eight years writing about the entertainment industry for the likes of Vanity Fair, Variety, Mashable, and other publications of that ilk. Nearly 18 months ago, I put belongings in storage and began the life of a digital nomad, writing personal essays, travel pieces, cultural and human interest stories, and adventurous tales.

Focus area: Anywhere!

Publications include: Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, BBC Travel, Departures, etc.

Do you plan ahead or fly by the seat of your pants on writing trips?
I try to have a healthy dose of both. I always have a place to sleep when I arrive somewhere, but I rarely pick up a guidebook. I don’t recommend this for the casual traveler, but it’s how I’ve been able to find the most interesting stories organically for myself.

As a professional travel writer, I can’t emphasize enough the relationships with publicists. I think this can be a fraught situation for some and not all other travel writers like to utilize them as I do, but I’ve found some great stories through them if you ask/tell them what you want/need.

E.g. “Hey publicist I’ve been getting standard/boring press releases from, I’m wondering if you have any stories stemming out from X resort/place/vacation that focus more on A, B, or C” — perhaps it’s sustainable travel, perhaps it’s profiles of unique individuals, perhaps it’s women or children or just something specific that you’re into. Regardless, if you help them help you, they’ll probably help you. I’ve also leveraged my publicist relationships in the film/tv world to bring me travel/adventure related stories that might surround a movie or a piece of technology. It’s worked, several times.

How do you find the best restaurants, bars, and foodie experiences in a new place?
I’m a tried-and-true Yelp user. Otherwise, I sit at any random bar and ask the bartender. I’ve also been known to ask a perfect stranger I may be sharing an elevator with or waiting for a bus with. They might lead me astray, but it’s usually worth the risk for when you DO find that gem.

How do you find the best hidden gems and local hideouts in a new place?
As above, I am very comfortable talking to strangers and will try to do that about a third of the time. But my go-to is to get lost.

I don’t use a map and I don’t use GPS…I just start walking. Obviously, you need to be smart about doing this – trust your gut or actual warnings when it comes to walking into unsafe places – but mostly you’ll be fine. The one time I was followed by a car, late-night in Florence, Italy, I hid behind bushes to lose him. It worked, but thinking back on it now, I shouldn’t have been walking late at night by myself with no one expecting me on the other end of my travels. But in that same city, I found the best cappuccino I’ve ever had in my life in a small suburb on a hill overlooking the Duomo and the city.

The other thing I do out of sheer habit is sort of “work” all the time. Even if I’m not working and I’m out with a group of friends having drinks in LA or taking a flight home for a family function, I ask questions and listen to answers as if I’m working. This last scenario – being on a plane while not “working” – I talked to a man next to me who ended up telling me about his 80-something-year-old mother who runs a Bed and Breakfast out of an 18th-century mansion in southern Portugal. I ended up getting his email and connecting with his mother and then chasing this maybe-story all the way to Portugal about six months later. While I’ve struggled to place the story for the better part of a year, I met my partner during that trip and now we’re moving in together in London.


Jacqueline Louise

Jqlouise.com

I’m a food and traveler writer from Boston. I love exploring different corners of the globe, always in search of the next greatest meal of my life! Oh and I am obsessed with that thing called Instagram.

Focus Areas: New England and Europe

Publications Include: Food Network SnapChat, Paste Magazine, Civil Eats, Together Magazine, JQLouise.com, etc.

How do you research and prep before a trip?
Ever since I caught the travel bug while studying abroad in college, I always start my research with the New York Times Travel Section. I especially love the “36 Hours in_____” series. I like to think that those pieces were written by writers like me trying to find that perfect balance of “seeing the sights” and actually “experiencing the city like a local.”

Then, as a certified “millennial” I head to Instagram; I try to find the cool kids and see where they like to hang out. I find Instagram especially helpful when researching restaurants. The taste makers in a city are often the first ones to start posting about a new restaurant and that’s where I like to go when I visit a new place.

How much do you plan ahead vs. fly by the seat of your pants?
I will confess, I am an over planner when it comes to certain IMPORTANT things, i.e. meals. I try to plan out where I am going to have each meal before I travel. As an obsessive foodie, I do not like to leave that up to chance. I want to make sure that I am maximizing both my budget and my taste buds. Therefore, I make a spreadsheet before every trip (big or small) with my meal plan. I even include backups if I am not able to get a table at my top choice. That being said, I am also someone that likes to just stroll through those tiny, twisty European streets, so for activities, I mostly leave that up to fate and go where the cobblestone takes me.

What are your tips for finding the best restaurants or foodie experiences?
Instagram. I cannot stress this enough. There are so many “food bloggers” out there now, like it or not, you can really see what your meal is going to look like before you get there, no matter “where” that actually is. So I suggest starting with a traditional guide, NYTimes, Michelin, etc., to narrow down your options and then head to Instagram to make your final decision.

What are your tips for finding hidden gems or local-loved places?
For this, I try to talk to someone who is either from the general area that I am traveling to or who has travelled there recently. Even in the age of Instagram, you’d be surprised how powerful word-of-mouth recommendations can be. And don’t shun your hotel concierge either. I think we all think that we “know better” these days, but really, at least ask them what they think are the local hotspots.

Any final tips or ideas for planning a truly epic trip?
For each trip, you need to pick a theme and stick to it. Is this going to be a hiking and kayaking filled adventure or a cafe and wine type of holiday? Knowing what the overall tone of the trip is going to be before you depart will keep everyone you are traveling with on the same page and will quite honestly, make it easier to pack for.


Auburn Scallon

Instagram.com/could.i.live.here/

Freelance is the life for me, so I’m usually happier working on multiple projects than with a full-time job. I’m currently the editor of an EFL magazine targeted at making English articles that are fun for Czech students to read. I’ve also been a freelance writer based in New York, New Zealand, Seattle, and the Czech Republic since 2005.

Focus area: Czech Republic, Seattle, New York, etc.

Publications include: Expats.cz, Prague Visitor magazine, the Eating Prague and Eating Europe blogs, OpusOsm.com (classical Czech arts website), and Flydoscope (LuxAir’s in-flight magazine).

How do you research and prep before a trip?
Because I write primarily about the area I live in, I have the luxury of returning to places multiple times. But if I’m going somewhere new, I like to schedule a free walking tour for the first day. They almost always spark my interest with a local legend or place that I want to learn more about.

And sometimes I work in reverse, with books and movies inspiring or informing my destination. For example, I reread The Diary of Anne Frank before visiting her home in Amsterdam. I understood much more about a Prague church that was the site of a standoff in WWII after watching two films about the event: Anthropoid and The Man with the Iron Heart. And I was even more excited to visit a gorgeous Czech library after discovering that it was featured on Outlander.

How much do you plan ahead vs. fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m a partial planner. I tend to divide my list into things I absolutely want to do, things that I’d like to do if I have time, and some open hours for things I don’t know about yet. I also know that I need down time in between activities to process whatever I’ve seen or done, so I like to schedule something either the morning or evening and leave the other half of the day open to my mood.

What are your tips for finding the best restaurants or foodie experiences?
I like to search for local food and coffee bloggers before going to a new city. This has led me to some newly opened or smaller places that wouldn’t make the first page of Trip Advisor reviews. I also use Instagram to search [city name] + coffee or restaurants.

And after working with Eating Europe, I’ve become a big fan of food tours. I’ve done them in Rome, London, and Prague, and in all three cities, I went back to one stop on the tour for a full meal later in the trip. I like to get a small taste of multiple places and have the ear of a local guide to ask for personal recommendations. Plus, you’re usually surrounded by a group of like-minded people happy to talk food and share recommendations.

What are your tips for finding hidden gems or local-loved places?
I’ve read plenty of articles about the Czech Republic boasting “hidden gems” or “places locals love” that actual residents roll their eyes at (and Czech Facebook commenters can be a particularly sassy bunch). Unless quoting someone who actually lives there, I think we as travel writers have to be cautious about the authority to label something “locally loved”.

Plus, I actually think that we make too much of a fuss about that distinction these days. Everyone wants to find that secret hidden place that only the locals go, but I find it fairly presumptuous to think that short-term visitors, especially ones who aren’t pros in the local language and customs, deserve access to locals-only spaces. I think it’s important to remember that, as travelers, we’re in someone else’s home, and we don’t get to be “locals” just because we want to be.

Instead, I’d say just look for something that really suits you. Find a place that offers food/drink/entertainment that you love, fits your budget, and leaves you with a smile on your face. And yes, absolutely read personal blogs, get conversational advice, and venture outside the center of town. But just because you’re not the first person to discover a place and there may be a few other English-speakers in the room, don’t let that keep you from enjoying yourself.

Any final tips or ideas for planning a truly epic trip?
If you’ve got the time and are feeling adventurous, leave your destination up to chance, even close to home. Friends and I wanted to see more of the Czech countryside, but couldn’t decide where to start. So we each packed a bag for a day trip, went to the train station, looked at the clock, and jumped on the next train for that many stops (e.g. at 12:37 we’d go seven stops). This has since become a tradition that has taken us from small Czech towns to the World Hockey Championships, all by accident. It relieves the pressure of doing hours of research to create a must-see itinerary, and lets you just enjoy whatever comes along.


Now, to you: how do you find the best of a city or town?

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2 Comments
  • Lily
    August 10, 2017

    Thanks for the interview! And I enjoyed reading everyone’s tips. Great post. :)

    • gigigriffis
      August 10, 2017

      Thanks for contributing!

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