Counterintuitive Travel Tip #1: The Bad Part of Town

Guidebook writing has been my bread and butter for a decade, but a lot of what I’ve learned about how to travel–how to ensure a good trip, or salvage a seemingly bad one–has no place in a guide.

This is my collected wisdom (or at least the contrarian part of it). It’s looking like I’ve got about eight of these bad boys for you. Enjoy–and travel well!

Go to the bad part of town.

Right, you don’t want to get pistol-whipped in some ghetto in Caracas. But in most parts of the world, the neighborhood your guidebook warns you against is actually not terribly crime-ridden, and it’s the most interesting part.

Rich parts of cities all look the same—Gucci and Vuitton and ladies-who-lunch. Hipsterized areas, with their Edison bulbs and wood paneling and handmade this-and-that, are a little better, but still suffer a bit of sameness.

Bad parts are where the variations really come in. Who are the immigrants to this city? Do people drink in the middle of the day? What’s that song blaring from all the corner stores? Are the nice things a culture says about itself still true?

The mean streets of the Bijlmer, southern fringes of Amsterdam.

“Bad” is relative, of course. Amsterdam’s “bad” part—the Bijlmer—is absurdly nice, a ghastly Le Corbusier-inspired mini-city that’s been rehabbed. Its history reveals some inconsistencies with the Dutch regard for tolerance, but it also shows the practical, problem-solving side of the culture.

Cairo’s “bad” neighborhood of Shubra is just very shabby—but not terribly dangerous. The threatening-sounding City of the Dead is really a surprisingly mellow place, with un-dead stuff like a post office and power lines.

If you’re worried about crime, take the relative view. If you’re an American reading this, you probably already deal with crime rates the rest of the world thinks are intolerable. And you’re less likely to be a victim of touristy crime (pickpocketing, scams, etc) if you go where the tourists aren’t.

“Not to get into salt-of-the-earth cliches,” Peter chimes in, “but you meet nicer people in middle-class and poor areas.” And the point of travel is to meet people, right?