Because I travel so much, I need to find consistent things that make me feel like a normal person, or feel connected to a city right away. I love to compare these four things in cities and towns around the world:
Botanical Gardens - Peaceful and relaxed - that's how I feel in beautiful gardens. I know very little about plants and flowers but I know a lot about how beauty can make a person feel really good. Some of the most beautiful gardens I've been to have been in Chiang Mai (Royal Park Rajapruek), Melbourne (Royal Botanic Gardens), Cape Town (Kirstenbosch), and the Isles of Scilly in England (Tresco Abbey Garden).
Local grocery stores - I love gourmet grocery stores (Eli's Manhattan on the Upper East Side is my all-time favorite) but finding any local grocery store is always worth it. On Phillip Island in Victoria, I visited the two big competing ones (String cheese is called stringers! There are kangaroo dog treats!) and then was able to chat with locals about the pros and cons of Coles vs. Woolworths. In Puerto Varas, Chile, I spent way too much time wandering the aisles of Jumbo and marveling at yogurt sold in giant bags.
The highest view - I always climb to a high viewpoint in a city or town. I wrote once that it makes the chaos of a city below seem like a perfect puzzle from above. In Bern, I love the panoramic view of red roofs and the river from the top of the Cathedral. In London, I love St. Paul's Cathedral. In Mexico City, it's the Torre Latino that has the most fantastic view.
The local library - This usually works best in an American destination. But there's something so nostalgic about a public library and the community built there. There are always event listings that make me smile - "Don't Get Ripped Off! Learn How to Protect Your Wallet" or "Come Learn About eBooks!" I grew up going to Scottsdale's Mustang Library and I love going back because it smells the same and you can buy magazines for fifty cents. Some of my favorite local libraries in America have been in Mill Valley, on Coronado Island, and in East Hampton.
Do you visit any of these places or others? I also try to visit dog parks, especially if I have my dog Rocco with me.