Photo: mt 23

Sometimes people confuse their travel bucket lists with their grocery lists, talking about cities as if they were check marks. Unlike remembering to pick up milk, you cannot say you’ve ‘done’ a city simply because you spent a weekend there. What you actually mean is you’ve already been there, and that given a limited window for travel time, you would prefer to go to a city you haven’t seen before.

But when we say we’ve ‘done’ a city, it sounds like we have depleted the place of its experiences; it’s as if nothing of excitement remains. Certainly we could return and hike the nearby mountain we didn’t have time for, or rendezvous with the barfly we befriended last time, but if we’re already on the road, the logical tendency is to eschew this strategy in favor of new horizons.

They may have managed to complete the skeleton of the picture.

But can you ever truly ‘do’ a city? You can ‘do’ all the tourist attractions, but that’s not the actual place. Experiencing the local culture, meeting the inhabitants, and finding fun new corners of the city aren’t like loading bars; at no point have you completed 42% of the city, like some quest in a video game. Cities are living, breathing entities, and the exact same place is an entirely different creature at different times of the year, with different people, at different points within the national timeline.

For example, Berlin in the winter is a completely distinct place from Berlin in the summer — its abundant green spaces change considerably when coated in snow, and the city’s music scene retreats into dark basements to hide from the cold. It’s enough to make you question whether it’s even the same place.

Beyond the weather, there is also the provincial component. Different neighborhoods of the same city will yield wildly different impressions among travelers. The hippy bastion of Christiania in Copenhagen is a vital part of the city, but it’s certainly not representative of the Copenhagen at large. The downtown section of any metropolis is a busy hubbub of financial employees, tourists, and iconic buildings, but it isn’t as ‘authentic’ as the outskirts, where the majority of the actual citizenry make their homes and their livings. Immigrant populations, fluctuating housing prices, and proximity to nature or water all color neighborhoods in their own way.

The city that many travelers claim to have ‘done’ is often nothing like the miniscule ‘recommended’ or ‘historical’ section they never ventured out of. Pardon my metaphor, but if the city was a Connect the Dots picture and their path was the pencil, they may have managed to complete the skeleton of the picture, yet there remain many dots still unconnected that would flesh out a fuller and even more beautiful design.

Perhaps the factor that influences how you see a city the most is your travel partners or hosts. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” He’s right. Big cities like that are able to offer up whatever you’re looking for, and so it follows that you’ll see a different city depending on what you’re looking for. Traveling to London with a foodie will result in an entirely different weekend than one with a fashionista, history buff, or clubgoer.

I spent my week there with visiting family, which meant we spent far more time sitting at restaurants and on the red tourist bus than I would have liked. Yet that’s the side of London that best fit the company, given that shepherding four boys of varying ages and temperament through back alleys in search of something new is not an appetizing task for any troupe leader.

And these are just in reference to traveling through the city. One could argue that living in a city is the only way to truly understand the place, as then you’re tied into its livelihood through consciousness of the specific laws, civil unrest, gossip. Even then, there’s no way to know when you’ve ‘done’ the city — depending on the person and their preferences, it could take months, years, or a lifetime to see all they want to see. I’m certain that even if I ate out at a different cafe in Barcelona every day for every single meal, it would take years to taste them all. Once again, this process isn’t one that’s well represented by a loading bar.

I’ve been consistently amazed at the breadth of opportunity the same city can provide to different people. The same neighborhood might be considered the premium place for street food to one person, the sketchy part of town that’s best avoided to another, the best place to grow up to a third, or simply overrated to the general public. It all depends on who you ask, and what they say depends on what they’ve seen for themselves. Nobody is wrong, necessarily; but it’s only once you put all of them together that a complete picture begins to form.

Think about your hometown. Would you say you have ‘done’ it? How many new, hidden aspects of your city have you happened on by chance, months or years into your stay there? I’m all for pushing on to new horizons, but keep this in mind the next time you dismiss a travel destination you spent a few days in way back when. Chances are you aren’t going to see the same parts, with the same people, at the same time of year…chances are you won’t be returning to the same place.