Walking around town is the main way that I fill my days while traveling. I usually average over 10km (6mi) each day, but when the city is big or I'm energized I'll easily walk 20 or even 30km! Walking is the best way to see and understand a place as you get glimpses of everyday life and start to grasp the structure of a place.
It's not just that you learn the town map but, that you start to understand society. You see the small things being sold on the streets, the type of stores and restaurants that there are, you learn what public transport options exist, and you see all types of homes. All of these things teach you about everyday life. You'll also see what is advertised on billboards and signposts, what type of cars pass by you, whether there are sidewalks and sewers or just dirt paths and open gulleys, and how many banks and phone providers there are, all of which tell you what the economy is like. As you walk you become aware of the level of presence of military and police, you read the slogans of various political parties (or not), and you run into foreigners and expats of different kinds, all telling you what power structures are at play.
Walking around a city is the best first-hand knowledge of a place. Of course, it complements some basic research and discussing with locals but, there's nothing like seeing it all with your own eyes as your feet push forward one step at a time.
But being a pedestrian adventurer may not always be safe. So how do you traverse around town keeping safety in mind?
Here are my tips:
Before you go out:
Know where you're going and tell people
When I go walking around town I don't have a set route. I actually like to get a bit lost and try to find my way back (always making sure I have enough money to take a taxi home if I'm really unsure of the way). But I always ask people, not just one person but multiple, about where is safe to wander.
Generally, there are four ways to consider a place in terms of safety for walking:
a. Do not go here at all. These are usually poorer, crime ridden neighborhoods where there are essentially never any tourists and no crowds or police protection.
b. Not to go to alone. Anywhere outside of town, in small neighborhoods, or anywhere else that strangers would not be seen should be visited only with extra caution. Go with someone from there, who knows the community and their way around.
c. Be extra aware. Most places outside of traditional tourist sites fall under this category. You just need to be conscious of who is around you and how safe your things are.
d. Generally safe. Nowhere is absolutely safe, but many places have no location-specific added dangers.
Don't carry anything important on you
Do not bring anything on a long walk that you would be absolutely put out to lose. Of course, this is easier said than done. But some main tips:
a. Only bring as much money as you need. I prefer to walk around with cash so that if I lose it, there's no further risk. But don't bring ALL your money. Always have extra at the hotel. Also know the important details of your credit cards so that if you do lose them, you can call and easily cancel / renew.
b. Leave your passport somewhere safe, and instead take a copy or another ID (though ask if in this specific country or the places you'll be visiting if you'll need the original).
c. Have the data and information on your phone and camera backed up. Obviously you'll want to bring your camera but, make sure your previous photos are copied somewhere else.
Don't call attention to yourself
Wearing shiny jewelry or holding your flashy phone will be noticed by people. It doesn't mean you're more likely to get in a sticky situation, but be aware that in many places without wealth, even the simplest silver or gold can be a huge sign of it. I always wear the same three things on my wrists – an industrial rubber bracelet, plastic prayer beads, and a silver chain. If I'm going on a long walk, I almost always remove the silver chain.
While you're out:
As you walk around you should focus primarily on enjoying what you see and encounter. That said, it's always important to keep your safety in mind. These few tips will quickly become second nature to you:
Protect your items
The best thing is zippered pockets on your clothing. They can't be taken off of you and you notice if they're being opened. Usually though, we carry bags. Whatever it is, keep your things close to you. With a bag, it's best to wrap it over yourself (around your neck or both shoulders) rather than just letting it hang off of one shoulder. This makes it more difficult for someone to snatch and run. Sometimes if it is wrapped around you they will try to yank it and break the strap. This can hurt quite a bit as well and likely pull you to the ground. The bag has rope straps and a cloth bag meaning that if it was yanked, the bag would rip before the straps. You can also use those clutches you wear under your shirt, but I find those annoying and incredibly unfashionable.
Stay near people, but not in crowds
There is a delicate balance between how many people make a place safe because of protection in numbers vs too many people for you to notice someone approaching vs so many people that it’s a riot situation. Always stay on the side of the street with more people, usually older women = safety, and don't go down small alleys or other streets where you don't see anyone. It might just mean it's an inconvenient route, or it could be unsafe.
Be aware of how close people are
Don't be paranoid, but do keep aware if you're being followed or watched or if someone is getting too close. Once, stopped at a crossing, I felt a man being too close to me, I moved out of the way just as his arm was reaching for my (empty, unbeknownst to him) pocket. Then we had a bit of a staring match before he quietly apologized. If you're becoming uncomfortable by a person's closeness just stop in a shop or on a corner and let them pass.
God-forbid, after something happens
If you get robbed or attacked, let someone know. If it is a pickpocket or a bag snatch, then you can even yell for people to stop them as they run off. If it's violent just give them what they want and let them leave and then go to the nearest safe place.
Know your information
If something happens in a foreign country, contact BOTH the local authorities and your nearest embassy immediately. Depending on the location and your own nationality, one or the other may be most helpful, but always talk to both. Next, contact your insurance and (if they're taken) your credit card or phone company. Make sure you're aware of where your hotel or lodging is and contact your loved ones.
Don't generalize or become forever fearful
These things happen. They suck, but they can be dealt with. Do whatever feels comfortable to you in terms of continuing or calling off your trip and take time to feel 100% at ease and calm. Do not assume that because you were robbed somewhere that that place is dangerous and lawless, these things happen everywhere. Do not blame yourself even if you're walking around at night in the "worst" part of any city in your Louboutins, with five Rolex's, and your huge Prada bag. It does not mean it's okay to be bothered. That said, understand that we do not live in the most perfect world and think again about the things above and how to best take precautions for yourself.
Safe travels out there to everyone! Please wish me the best as well as I continue exploring the world! Do you have any other tips for people walking around new cities? Let me know in the comments or by contacting me.