A funny thing happens when friends visit you from out of town. They want to see the sights, right? So suddenly you’re a tour guide, recommending restaurants and seeking out spots with a view of the skyline. In fact, you see and do things you may never have seen or done on your own despite having lived there for years.
It takes a tourist to really get to know a city.
Or rather, it takes a tourist’s mentality.
Forget the stereotype of out-of-towners descending like locusts on a few hyped sites, gawking at landmarks with their faces obscured by clicking cameras. Sure, that’s a kind of tourism. But I’m not talking about the frantic crowds who over-pay for cheap thrills.
No, what interests me is the sort of tourism where you really immerse yourself in a place and marinate in its local flavors. Fanny packs and cartoon maps aren’t required—all you need is a pinch of curiosity and some time to soak it all in.
When I moved to Seattle last June, I had no idea how to navigate my new hometown, but I was ready to get out and learn the lay of the land. Within the first week, a habit formed: each evening when I got off work I went for a walk.
On day one I headed south. About a mile from home the sidewalk led me into a great, grassy park that swelled up and then rolled down into the depths of Lake Union. Across the water I could see the skyscrapers of downtown glowing orange as fire in the sunset, their reflections glimmering upside-down in the lake. As evening advanced, their light dulled like embers and streetlights sparkled on in the darkness. I had accidentally discovered the famous Gasworks Park. I sat in the grass long enough to watch the shadows change before walking back home.
The next day I headed east instead. The apartment buildings of my neighborhood grew denser and taller as things turned urban in what I learned was the University District. The grid of gray streets came alive with traffic. Drivers honked at jaywalkers. Corners collected up college students and released them into crosswalks to the rhythm of the streetlights. Along with car exhaust, I inhaled the warm fumes of the various eateries I passed: falafel, teriyaki, pizza, gyros. This was a short walk but a world away from the previous night.
By the end of the week I knew that going northward took me to Green Lake’s wider boulevards and higher-end restaurants, whereas to the west was Fremont, home of indie boutiques, barefoot hippies, and outdoor art. A mental map was forming. When I’d covered my walkable radius, I wondered, what next? I got a bus pass and learned to navigate the routes further and further from home.
I got to know Seattle from the inside out and from the ground up. Over the course of the summer I found my way to cafés in Queen Anne and bars in Belltown. I window-shopped at the consignment stores in Capitol Hill before strolling down to Southlake Union for more waterfront views. It’s worth noting that most of my favorite memories here have been free and easy: reading library books in lake-facing parks, browsing outdoor craft markets. I swam in Lake Washington, crossed the Chittenden Locks in Ballard, and watched the waves of Puget Sound from Discovery Park, all before the weather cooled come September, a year ago today.
In other words, I was a constant tourist.
Not surprisingly, that summer was fun—full and inspiring and tiring. By the time the winter drizzle set in, I’d seen and done more than some native Seattleites I’d met.
Which is tragic, because there’s no reason those Seattleites couldn’t have done as much and more in their lifetimes here. So why haven’t they?
Well, most people associate the tourist mentality with short stays in exotic locales. It makes sense: when we travel someplace new, we’re motivated to pack our days with activity because we know our time there is short. Thus we pour our effort into planning the occasional vacation in far-flung destinations… and end up neglecting our own backyards.
I guess once we’re back home, we lose that traveler’s incentive to fill our time with experiences. We fall into a few familiar routines, frequent the small range of restaurants where we’re regulars, and forget the rest. The “touristy” activities—the local museums, the scenic overlooks, the parks laced with hiking trails—they’ll be there next weekend too. Tonight we’re tired; we might as well just run a few errands and kick back with Netflix.
But the truth is we never know how long we’ve got, wherever we are.
Tourists soak up as much as they can in a brief crunch of time because that’s all they have. But the same is true for everyone, everywhere; none of us have infinite time in this life, no matter where we live. We’re only here for so long. Better get out there and take advantage of the time we’ve got.
Season after season, I try to think like a constant tourist, treating my life on earth like a brief visit with fleeting opportunities. And it works. It gets me out of the apartment and into unexpected adventures. I can look back over the year and smile, knowing that I didn’t let a weekend go to waste. Whether or not friends were visiting, I took on the role of tour guide and got to see the sites for myself.
You've always been a tourist here. You just didn't know it.
The Kite Runner