When I started teaching English abroad in 2001 my first posting was in South Korea. During the next two years I probably did the twelve hour London to Seoul flight more than five times and for some reason it never occurred to me to break up the journey with a stopover. We might have touched down in Bangkok for an hour and a half to refuel but then we’d be off again and I never considered having a night or two in Thailand to see what excitement its capital offered and give my stiff back and swollen ankles a break.
Nowadays I won’t even consider a long flight without with a night or two in an interesting city on the way to my destination. This is partly because I’ve lost patience with sharing elbow space and being restricted to sitting in an upright position and partly because I want to see as much of this wonderful world as possible. Stopovers give you the opportunity to dip your toes into somewhere new. I see them as a kind of mini-break on the way to my final destination; a starter before the main course.
Because your time is limited, it’s important to have a plan. Here are a few things I swear by to get the most out of city stopovers.
1. Take the tourist bus.
Most cities now have the obligatory red tourist buses which run on a kind of circuit and once you’ve got your ticket you can get on and off again as many times as you like with a 24 hour period. I tend to do this on the first day, completing the whole circuit to get my bearings, and then get off at the places that might be difficult to get to on public transport. Cities I’ve done this in recently include Kuala Lumpur, Barcelona, Istanbul and Singapore and on every trip I discovered something interesting about the place which I couldn’t have found in a guide book.
2. Get up high.
Most world cities have at least one tall building with a lookout point where you can see the place stretched out below you and try to work out where your hotel is. It’s another great way of getting your bearings and of seeing the city from a different perspective. Hong Kong has the viewing platform at The Peak, Singapore has the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its amazing rooftop swimming pool, and Istanbul has several cafés in the Taksim area where you can enjoy a Turkish coffee on the rooftop and look out over the Bosphorus at night.
3. Decide what you want to see before you arrive.
Prioritise the places you think you’re going to love and visit them on the first day. It often works out that the things they rave about in the guide books are entertaining for a few minutes but the really memorable stuff is hidden from view and stumbled upon accidentally. I was disappointed by the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur (the building is basically a large, prohibitively expensive shopping centre) but enchanted by a small temple hiding down an alleyway near my hotel. I don’t think I would have found it if I hadn’t spotted the intricately carved roof out of my bedroom window. It was then a kind of mission to work out how to get to it, which was a lot more fun than fighting off other tourists in the Central Market.
4. Stay central.
You don’t have a lot of time to explore so it makes sense to book a hotel in the city centre. This means that restaurants and cafes are easily accessible and you’re much more likely to stumble across cool places on your way back to your hotel, which you can make a note of for the next day. I recently stayed quite central in Singapore and found the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted in a street side café just around the corner.
5. Ask for directions.
Getting lost in unfamiliar cities is all part of the fun and games of travelling. Unfortunately, once you realise you have no idea where you are, the temptation is to get out the guide book or whip out your phone and squint at Google Maps to work out where you went wrong. The more interesting alternative is to ask a local, which often results in striking up some kind of conversation or, depending on where you are, them trying to sell you something. I once stopped to ask for directions in San Francisco and ended up having a 45 minute conversation with an old hippy who recommended all kinds of places to visit in the local area that I had never heard of and didn’t even know existed!
6. Your holiday starts now!
It’s easy to view a stopover as a ‘necessary evil’, something which has to be done to make the journey more bearable, but not really something to be enjoyed. It just takes a slight change of attitude to make the two or three day city break just as fun as the rest of your trip, indeed it could even be one of the highlights. During my recent trip to Tanzania, I had a three night stopover in Istanbul and packed in so much that it felt like I’d had an extra week of holiday somewhere completely different before my ‘real’ holiday had even begun! It also gave me a little ‘taster’ of what a future visit to Turkey could include. There was so much to see that I made the decision there and then to return and stay longer next time.