If you really want to get to know a place, walk it. Sure, you could drive around with a guidebook and a map. Or you could hop on a tour bus where the driver doubles as the tour guide. Maybe even a big red double-decker bus with a fresh air observation deck. Or you could fly over in a commercial jetliner at 33,000 ft. You just don't get that much out of it.
Trevi Fountain, 2010
My most memorable experience visiting an unfamiliar city was Rome, 1976. I was attending a junior year abroad program in Florence. Art History Professor Gunther Stamm announced a field trip to Rome, and directed us to meet at the train station at 6 a.m. When 6 a.m. arrived, I was the only one there...well, besides Gunther. So Gunther and I went to Rome, just for the day. We walked the entire city, from the train station to St. Peter's, to the Colesseum and Roman forum, and the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, Piazza Veneto and the Spanish Steps. It was my first time to see the Sistine Chapel, and it was before the ceiling was cleaned. We descended into the Forum, and stood on the spot that Brutus stabbed Caesar, checked out the poured concrete at the Pantheon, and ascended the Spanish Steps. All the while my tour guide/professor Gunther gave me a semester's worth of education in one very long day. I didn't go back to Rome until 2010. But it all felt familiar. Because of that one very long day back in 1976. By the end, yeah, my dogs were barking. But there was plenty of time to rest on the train ride back to Florence.You gotta walk.