Now that lazy summer days are winding to an end, you may be looking at your calendar and wondering if there’s still time to up your vacation Insta game. Travel isn’t really in my budget (hello, perks of a startup salary), but I’m a big believer in finding magic right under your feet. Whether you’ve lived in your city for two months or ten years, there’s always something new to see—you just have to know where to look!
Taking a day to explore is right at the top of my self-care ideas list. Going for a long, aimless walk is actually really good for you, and there are few activities that are better for creativity. Sometimes letting your subconscious simmer is the key to getting good ideas out the door.
Important disclaimer before you get started
There are a few important details to keep in mind for your day out to be beneficial. The most important is that this should be done alone. Of course, it’s fun to hang with your friends, but this is a different kind of exercise. It’s strictly for you. Moving, thinking, observing… it’s a mobile meditation. You’re exploring to engage the senses and renew the spirit, and that takes a degree of silence and reflection.
The best way to really focus on seeing and tuning out the hum of your everyday life is to turn off your everyday life. Meaning: while on this walk, have your phone on silent; no emails, no calls, no texts. Imagine yourself in a foreign country, romantically wandering in the streets. Are you worried about a meeting with your boss? No, you’re just obsessed with the fact that you’re somewhere magical. Let yourself have a few hours for a vacation: Your phone stays off. If you’re like me, this might feel a little awkward at first. Embrace it. When you instantly rush to post your location to Facebook or feel an itch to snap or Insta the whole thing, just remember: This is a retreat. So retreat! Get away from it all and be intentional with your time.
Here’s my formula for a successful day out exploring:
Pack your bag
If you were trotting around Paris, you’d bring some essentials, right? That’s the goal here. Whenever I’m out for the day, I pack a tote with a notebook, pens, my wallet, granola bar, camera, my phone, headphones, and some water (it’s 90 degrees in Texas nearly always, so this is optional for everyone else). Imagine yourself as an explorer. You’ll want to have materials to document what you see and observe in your surroundings. Plus, it never hurts to have rations.
Decide where you’re going to begin your adventure
This is where things really start to get exciting. You’ll want to choose a part of town, whether that be a neighborhood or a landmark, to establish as your starting point. From there, you can fan out in any direction, exploring at your leisure. I’ve had the most success with sticking to a loose plan—I’ll pick two or three landmarks in an area of town and wander between them. Getting to your starting point is often part of the adventure. If you’re going pretty far and you usually drive around town, take the bus! Public transportation is a goldmine for people-watching. Otherwise, I’d suggest going on foot. There’s something about walking that really allows you to engage with your surroundings.
Ready, set, wander
If it’s somewhere really new, make a point to bookmark your parking spot or bus stop. Before you set out, give yourself a little perspective: approach everything with a touch of wonder. Street art, ivy, handprints in the cement, window displays—they can all be so rich to the eye. Really see them.
The rest is easy: Put on some music and let your feet guide you. I’ve always been a bit of a Harriet the Spy type, but exploring is so much more rewarding when you take notes. Take pictures of the smallest things—a crumbling brick wall, a gargoyle perched above a drugstore, daisies pushing up between sidewalk cracks.
Don’t be afraid to whip out your notebook, too; keeping a written report of your walk is a fantastic creative exercise. Try not to think about the whole thing too much, just be curious.
What catches your eye? What is charming and too small to be noticed by most people? Observe your surroundings on all levels: What’s above you? Does the ground change beneath you? What do you hear, or smell? What kind of people are around you? When you’re traveling in a foreign country, everything is interesting. Give the mundane a chance to impress you.
Make friends and ask for suggestions
When I studied abroad in Italy, I had a formula for finding the best gelato in any neighborhood: Ask a policeman. Usually they were so charmed by my use of Italian and the fact that I’d asked that they would also offer to walk me there and recommend a few other places in town to visit.
In this case, you’re the local—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make friends. If you see a coffee shop or restaurant, stop in for something small (or big, who’s judging?) to ask the wait staff what’s good around the area. Learn the history of the business. Ask what’s good on their menu, too.
Take a little piece with you
By now, you probably have a notepad full of scribbles, a camera full of photos and a mind teeming with ideas. Get yourself a souvenir to commemorate your afternoon. It should be something from the area you’ve explored. Don’t be afraid of being a little ridiculous; if you ended up stopping by a comic book shop, but you would never buy a comic book, get one! Seeing new things is good for your brain. Investing in a trinket with a backstory is much better than indulging in a mindless habit. If nothing else, it serves as a good reminder that you deserve to treat yourself to more days of being curious and excited about your surroundings.
With this guide, you should be ready to tackle your own corner of the world. If you really want to do your body and mind some good, you can make this a weekend ritual. Try exploring your city, then expand to little spheres outside your typical stomping grounds. It’s not like affording plane tickets is holding you back, right? The whole world is waiting outside your front door, but there’s no shame in checking out your neighborhood first.