Who said you can’t be (happily) alone in the city?

Cities are teeming with external stimuli. They are maelstroms of sound and bustle and diversion that make existing in them simultaneously wondrous and overwhelming – especially for an introvert. While many believe it is only social interaction that drains an introvert, in fact there are a myriad of external factors – such as greater degrees of noise or proximate activity – that can sap an introvert’s energy and make urban travel especially tricky. No need to fear, introverted traveler (or any traveler who  needs the occasional break from big city bedlam)! Here are five tips for avoiding a meltdown while visiting the greatest metropolises on Earth.

Bring your headphones

Douglas Adams may think a towel is the most important item for interstellar travel, but I’m all about the headphones. I leave neither home nor hostel without a set strung around my neck – if possible, of the nerdy, over-the-head, noise-canceling variety. Sometimes I wear them when I’m not even listening to anything. Not only can they act as an auditory buffer to the chaos of the  world, but if you’re in a particularly internal mood, they can double as a social buffer to those pesky small-talkers hoping to make oh-so-fascinating conversation about an incoming storm cloud or their morning latte. Other times the escape headphones offer to a good podcast can be exactly the break from external stimuli you need in order to recharge before  diving back into the city’s auditory detritus.

My favorite podcasts: Radiolab, Planet Money, Pop Culture Happy Hour

Know your quiet institutions

London's Victoria and Albert Museum is a nice, quiet place to spend the afternoon.
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is a nice, quiet place to spend the afternoon.

Museums are among my most favorite of urban travel activities. This speaks to my particular interest in history and art, but it also speaks to my struggles as an introverted traveler. When I am feeling particularly overwhelmed by my surroundings, I know a trip to the museum will give me a quiet, ordered space without forgoing cultural interaction. I am especially fond of any and all docent-led free tours that are often on offer at major museums. If you’re not into museums, you can find similarly-structured spaces in most city destinations. Look for: movie theaters, bookstores, and religious buildings (all quiet institutions in their own right).

My favorite museums: Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery

Wake up early

I never considered myself a morning person…until I went backpacking through Southeast Asia. Even though I had no schedule to follow, I often found myself setting my alarm early to wake before the chaos of the day had taken hold. I look back on my morning strolls through the cities of Saigon and Luang Prubang as some of my favorite activities. They don’t only give me the opportunity to see a side of city life to which I would have never otherwise been privy. They also allow me to take in the cities at a more relaxed pace (not to mention the opportunity to troll for the best cup of coffee).

My favorite morning walks: Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Prague’s Charles Bridge, London’s Borough Market

Calm your itinerary

Any city worth its salt is most likely teeming with sites, neighborhoods, and experiences you’re dying to explore. It is tempting to fill your itinerary to its breaking point in an effort to get everything in. Resist! Though there are arguments to be made for this mode of travel,  for introverts who tend to value in-depth explorations over superficial, varied ones,  it can be more frustration than it’s worth. When I am visiting a city, I try to remind myself to limit the number of activities in a day and search for experiences that will allow for deeper engagement. This can be something as simple as taking the afternoon to explore a neighborhood with my camera, using my lens as a way to focus on my surroundings in a more literal and figurative way. Or it can take the form of a guided tour lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Bring a book


Sometimes it’s not always possible to find a quiet, solitary space in the midst of a chaotic travel experience. For me, the next best thing is a good book.  If introverts recharge by going inward, books are the perfect prompt (and, might I add, a socially-acceptable excuse to avoid conversation when the headphones just aren’t cutting it). I never feel guilty for escaping into a narrative universe when traveling. When I come out again, I am refreshed – ready and eager to delve back into my real-life adventures.

Some of my favorite travel companions: Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

What tricks do you have for recharging while visiting a busy city? Share your methods in the comments below!